Chicago parents give school closures a poor report card

A year after nearly 50 schools closed, overcrowding and safety are big concerns

Children play outside one of Chicago's shuttered schools.
Yana Kunichoff

CHICAGO — It’s the end of the first day of school, and Irene Robinson is making the rounds outside Anthony Overton Elementary, in Bronzeville, a historically black neighborhood on the city’s South Side. She shakes hands with other parents and stops a young boy running down the block: “Did you think you was going to walk by without giving me a hug?” she asks.

In the school’s windows is the reflection of children getting off the bus, and the summer air buzzes with breathless young voices. With the hubbub, it’s easy to forget that the building has been empty for the past year.

Now, Overton is just a bus stop on the route that former students travel to get to their new schools.

“I have nine grandchildren who go to the Chicago Public Schools, but six of them was kicked out of their school because they closed Anthony Overton,” says Robinson in a voice that quavers. She was interviewed last year by Al Jazeera America about her opposition to the closures; one year later, Robinson is just as angry.

Irene Robinson in the abandoned playground of Anthony Overton Elementary.
Yana Kunichoff

Despite months of parent and union protests, the CPS board voted to shutter 49 schools in May 2013 — most of which, like Overton, were located in the city’s impoverished South and West Side neighborhoods. Of the 12,000 students who were affected by this decision, 90 percent are African-American.

The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a group appointed by the Illinois state legislature to bring accountability to Chicago’s school closings and consolidations, called it “the largest downsizing of Chicago’s public school system ever undertaken.”

CPS is the third-largest school district in the country, and it has long struggled to equip its schools, which now number 665, down from more than 700 last year. Most were shut down, with students shifted elsewhere, while others were consolidated; according to the district, the decision was made to fix a $1 billion budget deficit and to better redistribute resources among schools in low-income areas. But one year later, the closing costs have overrun their budget and CPS insists it remains in a financial crisis, which has led to more cuts for neighborhood schools.

Parents who were assured that the school closures would provide more resources and a better education for their children say the promised benefits have yet to materialize, and many feel their children are worse off now than they were before.

Meanwhile, the number of charter and selective-enrollment schools has grown: more than 33 charter-school campuses have been opened since 2011, with seats for 23,000 students, according to the task force.

Pauline Lipman, a professor who studies education reform at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says, “The closures have created root shock — the same kind of effect as pulling a plant out of the ground.”

Overcrowded classrooms

Overton Elementary now serves as a bus stop.
Yana Kunichoff

For CPS, whether a school is eligible for closure is a matter of math. The district uses a complicated formula that relies primarily on the number of children per classroom, a calculation that came under fire for not taking into account the different needs of vulnerable groups such as special-education students.

From an initial list of more than 200 schools deemed underutilized, CPS shut 49 elementary schools and merged a handful of others. Students from shuttered schools were directed to nearby receiving ones, though only a little over half chose to attend the designated facilities, for reasons ranging from concern that the path to their new school was dangerous to worries about the quality of the receiving schools.

For the six Robinson children, the receiving school they were directed toward was Irvin C. Mollison Elementary, almost a mile away from Overton.

The most frustrating consequence has been the overcrowding, says Robinson. She speaks of kindergarteners who have class in the gym because there isn’t a room large enough to accommodate them and test prep taking place in the hallway because classrooms are simply too loud. “You are leaving these kids behind academically,” she says.

Though CPS says it provided funding for seven schools to reduce class sizes, almost all parents interviewed said they found their children in classes of 30 or more. The optimal class size, according to CPS, is 28.

In the Austin neighborhood, a viaduct grimy with mildew and broken bottles separates Duke Ellington Elementary School from the two schools its students used to attend: Francis Scott Key Elementary and Robert Emmet Elementary. 

Darryl Owens, who has a daughter in the fourth grade, is concerned that Ellington is now overcrowded. His daughter has classes in a split room with fifth-graders because there isn’t enough space.

He feels she is worse off since she left Key Elementary. “In terms of the violence, it’s just everyday,” says Owens, who refuses to let his daughter walk home from school because of the open drug use and prostitution in parts of the neighborhood. 

More cuts

Irene Robinson and three of her grandchildren, Marlin Garner, Dervail Pickens and Michael Sanders, peer into the window of a classroom at the now-shuttered Overton Elementary.
Yana Kunichoff

Since the closures, CPS has touted the improvements it has made, including air conditioners, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic programs and small increases in attendance and grade-point averages in a March 2014 report.

But parents say these pale besides several additional rounds of budget cuts, causing them to question the school district’s much-touted investments in low-income areas. Only weeks after its final vote on the closures last year, CPS announced that it would be forced to implement $52 million in new cuts. Among the most controversial were janitorial layoffs, which teachers said would force their schools to choose between staff positions and supplying toilet paper.

Though the district says the closures have already saved $42 million, another round of cuts were announced this past July. Fiscal year 2015 will include a budget reduction of $50 million in discretionary and operating costs for Chicago schools, along with an increase of $62 million in charter-school funding. According to the district, because funding follows students, the budgetary changes reflect a shift in enrollment trends.

For Mollison, the latest round of cuts will mean losing a case manager, a classroom teacher and a reading coach and moving a full-time arts teacher to a part-time position.

Irene Robinson holds a protest button denouncing the school closures of the 2013 school year.
Yana Kunichoff

“It’s a Band-Aid that you put on a gun wound,” says Jeanette Taylor, a parent and member of the Mollison Local School Council. Taylor sees her two children, who have been at Mollison throughout, as also being secondary victims of the closures.

Mollison is now one of two schools at the center of a Title VI civil-rights complaint initiated by the Bronzeville-based Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and under investigation by the Department of Education. Title VI, part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in federally funded programs. Nationally, there are 36 Title VI school closure complaints under investigation.

Sharonda Thompson, whose daughter Darnayasia is in fourth grade at Ellington, is also concerned about class size. But what Thompson says she most misses about Darnayasia’s old school, Key Elementary, are the relationships. “It was like a family,” she says. On one occasion she found her children waiting outside in the rain after school at Ellington; at Key, a volunteer or parent would have ushered them inside.

Wendy Katten, director of Raise Your Hand, an advocacy group in favor of public education, says the importance of an involved community is often underestimated: “It … [has] a negative impact on the entire community when it’s missing.”


The most notable fact about the Chicago Public Schools may be their segregation. Mollison Elementary, in Bronzeville, is a typical example. It’s 99.6 percent African-American, 0.2 percent Hispanic and 0 percent white. It’s also 90.8 percent low-income. 

While the district itself is almost evenly split between black and Hispanic students — 39.7 and 45.2 percent, respectively — at most neighborhood schools, more than 80 percent of the students come from one group or the other, according to CPS figures. White students, who account for 9.2 percent of the district, are found primarily in magnet and selective-enrollment schools.

A longtime parent volunteer at Paderewski Elementary, in North Lawndale, Darlene Williams chose to send her children to a charter when their school shut down, in part because the two designated receiving schools, Cardenas and Castellano, were in majority-Latino areas. “They didn’t integrate the community,” says Williams, who is African-American. “We had incidents where children were being harassed by Latino gangs.”

Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says closings are seen as a disinvestment, specifically in communities of color. “The evidence points to CPS, like other city agencies, abandoning these communities,” she says.  

From 2001 to 2012, CPS closed about 100 schools. Lipman found that 88 percent of the affected students were African-American, and all but two of the closures were in low-income communities.

Demetrius Hobson, former principal of the now-closed Henson Elementary School, also in North Lawndale, says the shutdowns made a loud statement about who controls education in Chicago. Despite his professional success, which he credits to graduating from a CPS school, Hobson says the decision to shut down the schools showed “it wasn’t black and brown people in the community … crafting this process.”

Years of education reform have also left their imprint on the demographics of Chicago Public Schools teachers. According to the Chicago Teachers Union, 71 percent of schools closed in 2013 had teaching staffs primarily composed of African-Americans (who currently make up 24.3 percent of the district’s workforce).

Tammie Vinson, an African-American teacher of 14 years, lost her job at Robert Emmett Elementary, on the West Side, when it was closed. Though she found a job at Emmett’s receiving school, Vinson has noticed a slow but steady trickle of teachers out of the profession. “The current education reform has created a level of uncertainty that is not good,” she says.

Chopping block

Advocates worry that shutting down 49 schools in one fell swoop was a blow from which public schools in Chicago may never recover. According to the civil-rights complaint, since 2001, it is majority black Bronzeville that has endured 30 percent of all the city’s school actions, including closures and turnarounds, which replace the entire staff of a school. It “has been basically stripped of its neighborhood public schools,” says Lipman.

Whether school reform in Chicago will continue apace remains to be seen. Several political developments in recent years have had education issues at their core, from the election of a reform caucus to lead the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010 to an ongoing campaign to change the mayor-appointed board to an elected school board that is slowly gaining steam

Whispers about current teachers’ union president Karen Lewis’ intention to run for mayor against incumbent and education-reform proponent Rahm Emanuel could also take the conversation around school reform in another direction.

“I think we’re at a crossroads,” says Lipman. “And we may be able to create an alternative to the neoliberal policies running the education agenda.”

For the future, Lipman and others hope to push CPS to evaluate its school closures or consolidations before taking new ones. The Educational Facilities Task Force, which includes state legislators, former principals and representatives of community groups, echoed the sentiment in its August 2014 report.

“CPS still has no defined system or policies in place to evaluate its actions, or track the student-level impacts and outcomes of school closings,” it says. The report also notes that there has been little anaylsis of the impact on students.

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools lambasted the task force’s report, saying it ignores a March assessment that the district released. CPS did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

Changes in Chicago could have national implications. It’s not the only city using school closures as a quick fix for a plethora of education ills. Philadelphia closed 24 schools last year, while Washington, D.C., closed 13 in its poorest neighborhoods in the same period, and in New Orleans there is nary a public school to be seen. The National Center for Education Statistics has documented 1,929 school closures in 2010-2011, the last year for which figures are available, compared with 1,822 in 2009-2010.

In the Robinson household, emotions still run high about the closures. While running around Overton’s now-empty playground, 9-year-old Marlin Garner, one of Irene Robinson’s grandchildren, finds a half-rusted protest button denouncing the closures, left over from the fight to save the schools.

“Keep that,” says his grandmother, smiling down at him. “It’s a sign that we will get our school back.”

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