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What could go wrong?

Buried in a recent Fox TV report was this tidbit:  multiple City Hall and CPS sources said that Barbara Byrd-Bennett had determined that the district could handle closing 40 schools this year.

But Mayor Emanuel overruled his new schools chief and insisted on upping the number to over 50.  (An official spokesperson denied the report.)

Hotter heads prevailed, you might say.

Those who suggest the whole process of community hearings was a charade aimed at a number predetermined by Emanuel, rather than an exercise in transparency and civic accountability, may be on to something.

Proposed school closings and 2012 homicide heat map (by Radicals Against Discrimination)

Proposed school closings and 2012 homicide heat map (by Radicals Against Discrimination)

It wasn’t the first time warnings about overreaching have been overruled.  In January, someone on Byrd-Bennett’s advisory commission on closings let it be known that they were considering recommending no more than 20 closings — perhaps as few as 15 — in one year.

“They haven’t demonstrated to us that they can close 100 or even 50 schools,” an unnamed commission source told the Sun-Times.  “They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that in such a short timeframe.  When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster.”

Something happened to change their minds by March 6 — perhaps a fiat from the mayor’s office — when the commission’s final report recommended 80 closings, based on its assessment of the district’s capacity to move students safely to better performing schools.

Even then, the commission suggested the option of staging the closings over two years, noting the risks of moving too quickly.  “The quick turnaround may make community members feel that CPS’s engagement with them was inauthentic and undertaking just for show” — and “the compressed timeline may lead to the district making avoidable mistakes” in handling the vast logistics of moving dozens of schools and thousands of students, according to the commission’s final report.


This language echoes that of the Broad Foundation’s School Closing Guide, which recommends taking 18 months — 12 months max — to plan and implement school closings, a timeline which only starts after a decision-making process including evaluating capacity and developing school closing criteria and lists of schools to close with community input.

The Broad Foundation, of course, is the school reform outfit financed by billionaire Eli Broad that trained Byrd-Bennett and J.C. Brizard, and where Byrd-Bennett is still a paid consultant.  The group recently hosted Emanuel on a panel of “education mayors”; Eli Broad gave Emanuel $25,000 when he ran for mayor, according to Gapers Block.

Driven by the exigencies of Emanuel’s reelection schedule and nothing else, CPS has conducted the careful series of stages recommended by the Broad report all at the same time — decision-making, community engagement (in which the need to close schools is carefully sold to residents), planning and implementation.

No wonder what the Broad guide warns are the risks of moving too fast — “confusion, community discord, and otherwise avoidable mistakes ” — seem to be coming to pass.

Unfortunately for Emanuel, responsibility for any problems resulting from the largest and rashest school closure in history will be his and, to a large extent, his alone.


Saying student safety is her number-one priority, Byrd-Bennett accepted the commission’s recommendation and removed high schools from consideration, due to the deadly history of such closings in Chicago.

Reverend Robin Hood, a longtime anti-violence organizer on the West Side, isn’t sure that’s enough.

“Gangs are definitely a factor” in elementary schools, he said. “That’s where a lot of your violence is coming from.”  With the breakup of gang structures, “mostly you see 13, 14, 15-year-olds out there on the street –and  sometimes they’re 11 and 12.”

In twenty conflicts he’s helped mediate in the past year, he says, eighteen involved elementary and young high school students.  In one dispute over a street corner that he helped defuse recently, “of twenty kids out there, seventeen were from elementary schools and three were high school students.”

On WTTW recently, Byrd-Bennett noted that parents feel their children are safe inside their schools; they’re worried about getting there and back.

That’s true until you start combining schools, community activists say.  Reverend Hood notes that it took three years to calm things down when KIPP Charter School co-located with Penn Elementary.  “At the beginning, it was almost a war.”  (As the Chicago Tribune recently put it: “Violence was a constant threat.”)

It took intensive community involvement to smooth things out, including grassroots groups starting a choir and a boxing program to bring students from both schools together.

In Bronzeville, when upper-grade elementary students at Jackie Robinson and Price were thrown together in the same building, “the climate in the school exploded,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.  “Young people began to group up to ensure their personal safety.”

As neighborhood youth explain it, Brown said, it led to the formation of two factions, the SUWUs and 4-6 Terror.  According to police, that conflict is thought to be behind the shooting of Hadiya Pendleton in January.

Brown decries the constant failure of CPS to take “community wisdom” and community planning efforts into account when it makes decisions about schools.

Crossing gang lines

Byrd-Bennett promised that — this time — CPS would take gang boundaries into account.  It seems to have failed at this.  Indeed, for some reason, school closings are concentrated in areas with the highest homicide rates.

From early reports:  Alderman Walter Burnett (27th) warns that CPS’s plan to send Manierre Elementary to Jenner would force kids to cross Division street into Gangster Disciples turf.  As it stands today, “[kids] from Manierre can’t even cross the street,” he told DNAinfo.  “Every time they go over to Seward Park on the Jenner side they get beat up.”

In Englewood, DNAinfo reports, students being moved from Earle Elementary will have to cross the territory of three different gangs to get to Goodlow Magnet School a half mile away.  (Since Goodlow is on probation, the move doesn’t seem to meet the standard of sending kids to higher performing schools, either, the Sun-Times reports.)

Also in Englewood, Banneker Elementary is to be closed, with students sent to Mays — across the gang boundary of Halsted Street.

That’s just a sampling. With street gangs fragmenting and cliques operating on a block-by-block basis, the landscape in many neighborhoods is treacherous — and according to parents, far more complicated that CPS understands.

Byrd-Bennett has promised beefed-up security and Safe Passage patrols, and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has said police have that capacity to safeguard students crossing gang boundaries.

“I don’t know how the superintendent can say he’s going to keep all the kids safe,” County Board president Toni Preckwinkle told the Chicago Reader. “I don’t know what possessed him to say that.”

Reverend Hood points out that police were posted at Fenger and Crane High Schools when Derrion Albert and Ruben Ivey were killed — and many think the police force is already overextended.

“Safe Passage could help, but you have to have the right people,” said Hood, who helped develop the safe passage model CPS uses when he organized West Side Pastors for Safe Passage a few years ago.  “A lot of work needs to be done” including recruitment, background checks, and training. “They’re going to do that by September?  I don’t know about that.”

The Safe Passage program needs to restructure its hiring to include low-level nonviolent ex-offenders who’ve kept out of trouble.  “You have to have the parents and the community of the children that we’re trying to have safe passage for,” he said.  “It needs to be all hands on deck.”


“We’ve seen increased violence every time they close schools,” he said.  “It’s nothing new.  Elementary schools too.”

And that was when school closings involved a few thousand children.  This year’s proposals would impact nearly 50,000.

“It can be a very volatile situation,” Hood said.  “If you think police and Safe Passage can do it, you’re in for a huge problem.”

A retired principal seconds his assessment.

“It’s going to be chaos,” James Patrick told the Tribune.  “There’s going to be violence and students are going to drop out.  They know where they can go and not go.  If they’re sent to an unsafe area, they’re not going to go.”

The retired principal of South Shore High School, now on the Bronzeville Community Action Council, Patrick “said the district’s decision-makers at their downtown headquarters don’t have the experience or knowledge to know how ever-shifting gang boundaries affect life for children in the city,” the Trib reported.

“Don’t destabilize these communities when there’s already blood running in the street,” said Pastor Gregory Livingston of the Mission of Faith Baptist Church in Roseland, as a group of pastors pleaded with Emanuel to rethink the school closings

Community groups and local parents have begun a series of grassroots media events where they walk from a closing school to the receiving school (they’ve called on Emanuel to join them, to “walk the walk,” but it turns out he’s better at talking the talk).

On the first walk, Fox News reporter Darlene Hill was clearly shocked to find needles and other drug paraphernalia in the gutter, among stretches of boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, with groups of young men ignoring a “no loitering sign,” on the ten-block walk from Henson Elementary to Hughes.

She quotes a notably tone-deaf response from the Business Leadership Council: “Sometimes the comfortable path is not the right one.”

“The comfortable path,” by their lights, avoids areas that parents and community members consider dangerous for their children.  “The right path” goes wherever Emanuel’s agenda of school closings and privatization dictates.

Maybe some of these business leaders should venture beyond their own path and join the parent on their walks.


Part one of a three-part series

Part 2: Better Schools?

Part 3: Saving Money?


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Category: CPS, school closings, violence


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