Families & the Community

Chicago School Closures Galvanize Parent Activists

By Michele Molnar — June 04, 2013 6 min read
Parents of students at the Dumas Technology Academy Elementary School in Chicago hug Yolanda Harris after she organized a protest outside the school in March over the proposed closing of the facility by the Chicago Board of Education.
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Parents affected—and in many cases angered—by the Chicago school district’s decision to shutter 49 schools already are making decisions about how to direct their children’s education, even as some who fought the closings vow to harness that momentum going forward.

The reaction to those shutdowns is being watched as a sign of how parents will respond personally and politically in the wake of a largely unpopular decision. The District of Columbia, Newark, N.J., New York City, and Philadelphia also have announced plans to shut down schools at the end of this school year.

Registration Confusion

“Everybody’s eyes are on Chicago now,” said Muhammad Khalifa, an assistant professor of educational administration at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who co-authored a paper for the research journal Urban Education on parents’ responses to school closings. “Parents in the resistance movements and administrators will be watching to see what happens next,” he said.

Windy City parents had a little more than a week after the May 22 shutdown vote by the school board to register affected children in new schools. Of the 11,800 students in grades K-7 currently attending targeted schools, nearly 5,800 had enrolled in their new school as of May 30, according to a district spokeswoman. The parents of 86 percent of that number elected to send their children to the dedicated “welcoming” school—the term used for receiving schools.

Still, the immediacy of the move and the May 31 deadline left many parents feeling confused and under stress, said Wendy Katten, the executive director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, a coalition of parents and residents who advocate a high-quality public education for all children.

“I’m calling people to tell them they have to enroll in person at the receiving school. And, although the [Chicago school system’s] CEO put out a statement that any school with capacity has to take kids, we found out through parents who tried to enroll that any school with a wait list won’t take new registrations,” said Ms. Katten, who said she felt daunted by the prospect of trying to reach the many parents she had worked with over the past five months of protests.

A district communications officer responded to that assertion regarding the schools with waiting lists in an email to Education Week: “After CPS announced the schools proposed for closure in March, parents at welcoming and closing schools were provided information on enrolling in magnet cluster programs and neighborhood/open-enrollment schools, including schools with a wait list. Students had to apply [to the magnet and open-enrollment schools] by April 19. Right now, students affected by closure and relocation can apply to any neighborhood school/open-enrollment and magnet cluster with seats available.”

Registration was continuing at press time on May 31.

Response Not Uniform

Juan Jose Gonzalez, the Chicago director of Stand for Children, an education advocacy group, led a team of 12 people on a door-to-door canvass of 11,600 homes in the affected school boundary areas in April, after the final proposed closure list was announced.

He says his canvassers did not encounter widespread opposition to the closures as they tried to inform families about what school their children would be sent to and explain that school’s performance and what new services would be offered there. The organization also provided applications to magnet or open-enrollment schools.

“A lot of people knew the school they were being sent to because it’s in their neighborhood. Maybe some family member had gone to that school previously. In many cases, it was right around the corner,” said Mr. Gonzalez, whose organization receives support from the Walton Family Foundation. (The foundation underwrites coverage of parent-empowerment issues in Education Week.)

Earlier this year, the district’s communication office confirmed to Catalyst Chicago, an independent local news organization and an Education Week regional news partner, that the Walton Family Foundation agreed to provide the school system with a grant to be used in the process of gathering community input as the district weighed the prospect of school closings.

The publication wrote: “The foundation lists a $478,000 grant to the Children First Foundation, a not-for-profit set up by CPS.” School district spokeswoman Becky Carroll told the publication the district would put the money to such purposes as facilitators at community-meeting breakout sessions, mailings to parents, and “other engagement and communication platforms.”

Education Week reached out to the Walton Family Foundation for comment, but did not receive a response by deadline.

For Frances Newman, who has a 7th grade daughter at soon-to-be-closed Williams Preparatory Academy Middle School, home schooling is under discussion as a practical solution while she and her husband continue to be active in protesting the school board’s move.

They have added their names to two lawsuits. One is a civil rights suit alleging that the closures are discriminatory because they disproportionately affect the African-American community. The other is by the Chicago Teachers Union and parents seeking to bar the school board from closing 10 of the elementary schools, claiming the action is unlawful because it fails to comply with the board’s own published guidelines for selecting schools for closure.

Advocacy Continues

As the leader of a new group called Black Tiger Mamas, an outgrowth of Chicago’s long-standing Black Star Project, an advocacy organization working on education issues in black and Latino communities, Ms. Newman is organizing women to advocate for community issues—including education.

She and her husband, Alphonso Newman, have five children in the Chicago public schools and see themselves as fighting for their children’s future. Ms. Newman attended hearings early in the process and found the experience frustrating.

“I was going at first, but then I realized it’s a formality. They started with a huge list of 300 [schools] for possible closure. These were the 50 schools they intended to close all the time, and they thought the public would take it better because they had started with so many,” she said. Parents who opposed closures presented a litany of arguments having to do with the disruptions to their children’s education and the fabric of their neighborhoods. Safety was one of the most compelling in a city where crossing a street can mean entering a different gang territory.

To dramatize that point, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization attracted protestors for a walk from Overton Elementary, which is closing, to its receiving school 1½ miles away, to highlight the real-world consequences of school closures. Jitu Brown, the education organizer for the group, said at least six “hot spots” were identified along the way, where drug dealers and prostitutes are known to gather and where gang violence is likely to erupt.

“I think where people are now … there are going to be campaigns, legally, and direct action, to make sure we maintain hold of these schools through summer and into the next school year,” said Mr. Brown. “There’s very strong resistance to this. There will be large numbers of people at several schools who have not accepted this decision and are organizing to stop it.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2013 edition of Education Week as Shutdowns Spark Vows of Continued Parental Activism

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