Education Opinion

When an Education Reformer Rebels Against the ‘Reforms’

By Marilyn Rhames — May 22, 2013 5 min read
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*UPDATE: The Chicago Board of Education voted today to close 50 neighborhood schools of the 54 that was on the chopping block.
Over the years, I have proudly self-identified as an “education reformer.” Young, smart, and ready to change the world through self-sacrifice and hard work, I committed myself to the idea of revolutionizing how we do education in America.

I believe that students’ best interest must be protected over political, business, and union ties. Students are not just our clients. They are the future of America, and their success must be guaranteed.

I still believe that charter schools can improve education in this country. I left the district school system to experience the autonomy of a charter school. I have found a good fit, and I am unapologetic about that.

I don’t hate Teach for America. My principal is a TFA alum and an amazing educator. Some of the best educators I know are TFA alums. While I did not use the program to transition from a career in journalism to education, I considered it. To me, TFA is no better or no worse than most of the other teacher-preparation program out there.

I fully supported Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mission to bring a longer school day to Chicago (though his bribing schools to break with the union wasn’t cool). It eventually led to a seven-day teachers’ union strike—which I very publicly did not support.

But as I continue to watch the reform movement take shape in Chicago, it is becoming harder and harder to align myself with it. I am having a hard time figuring out how closing 54 schools at once—the largest school shuttering in American history—will make learning conditions better for low-income, inner-city students.

How will destabilizing up to 30,000 students and making many of them cross into vicious gang territory to attend rival schools make them learn better? How will increasing class size to well over 30 students improve academic results? How does making the African-American community, which will bare 90 percent of the burden, feel bullied and disenfranchised work to enhance parental and civic involvement with the school district?

This is not just another education policy doled down from high-level bureaucrats that irritates teachers but eventually goes away. This is permanent destruction!

What’s really confusing is that under the closure plan, 14 “closing” schools will remain open and so-called “welcoming” schools will be closed. For example, Sexton School is closing but nearby Fiske School is not. But Sexton has a bigger building than Fiske, so Fiske will actually be the school that is shuttered and Sexton will be renamed Fiske. In essence, the students at Fiske will have to relocate to Sexton’s building, though the name of the school will be Fiske and the teachers from Fiske will have priority for the jobs. The former students of Sexton will stay in their physical school building but be told that they are now at a new school called Fiske.

After all, the schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett did promise that students at closing schools will be transferred to higher performing schools. Both Fiskeand Sexton are rated as having “Average” student growth, though both schools are rated “Far Below Average” for student performance.

My question is, will Fiske still be “Fiske” if there are more students from Sexton attending “Fiske” in Sexton’s old building?

I have a friend who lives four blocks east of Fiske School. Sexton is six city blocks west of Fiske. Under the closing plan, her child would be expected to walk 10 blocks—over a mile—to school, crossing a major traffic artery near the University of Chicago Hospitals in the process. Those conditions, especially during a Chicago winter, would not promote good student attendance or safety.

There aren’t enough iPads, air conditioning, new libraries, and start-up IB programs at the new schools to make me go along with this.

I am not saying that no school in Chicago should be closed, but there are definitely schools on the list that don’t deserve to be. If nothing else, an incremental approach to closing schools would have helped the district perfect its implementation plan. Right now the district is asking firefighters to double as glorified security and crossing guards!

There has to be a better way. But Mayor Emanuel has drawn a line in the sand and will not budge.

Today is D-day for parents, students, and teachers in Chicago who await a final verdict on whether their neighborhood school will close. Today, the school board—the one the mayor hand-selected and appointed—will vote on whether to close 54 schools. News reports cite sources who say that reprieves for more than five schools are highly unlikely.

This, despite what The Chicago Tribune reported: “The hearing officers, a group of retired state and federal judges selected by the district, said in their reports that many closing decisions were insensitive to children, particularly special needs students. Some hearing officers complained that officials promised to send students to better-performing schools but instead planned to shift them from one academically failing school to another. Safety concerns also were cited in several reports.”

The hearing officers raised concerns about at least 13 schools, according to the Tribune.

The Chicago Teachers Union has filed two federal lawsuits that argue that the school closings disproportionately impact African-American students and do not comply with laws protecting special education students.

I have analyzed the financial data and revealed that initial investment to close and consolidate schools would eliminate any cost-saving to the district in the first two-and-a-half years. This means that the closures would do nothing to solve the districts’ immediate $1 billion deficit, as the district had once promised.

Parents and teachers have been arrested in various demonstrations and sit-ins against these school closings.

After the school board casts its vote; after the lawsuits have been decided; and after the protests and marches are over, I wonder what term society will have placed on this moment in history.

I believe in parental voice and school choice. I believe in student-centered decision making at the local level. I believe in class size that does not exceed 25 students per adult. Above all, I believe in student safety—and that includes the walk to and from school.

Right now I’m embarrassed to call myself an education “reformer” in Chicago. Closing 54 neighborhood schools against the will of the people it directly affects is not my definition of “reform.”

There must be room for people like me—forward-thinking teachers who are hungry for change—to have different and varied views about the best way to effect that change. There has to be room for nuanced, thoughtful discussion, rather than the all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us approach that is poisoning the education sector right now. I should be able to offer alternatives to the closings that I think would work better, and still call myself “reformer.”

Right now, with 54 schools on the line, I feel more like a protester!

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.