Apartheid in Chicago schools

September 13, 2012

Joel Handley and Rosa Trakhtensky explain why the Chicago Public Schools system has been compared to apartheid, in this article written for the Occupied Chicago Tribune.

DYETT HIGH School students are not allowed to enter the front door of their school. Instead, the more than 170 students at the South Side high school enter through the back. From there, they must spend their day pushing through other students in the one open hallway, after half of the building was placed off limits.

"Just imagine, all these students in one hallway trying to get to where they're going...everyone's just trying to get through each other," says Keshaundra Neal, a junior at Dyett and student organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO).

The phasing out of Dyett, one of 17 schools that the Board of Education voted to close or "turn around" last winter, highlights a process being played out across Chicago--the dismantling of neighborhood public schools, the ushering in of corporate-controlled charters and, in many cases, the gentrification of predominately African American and Latino neighborhoods. Closing schools, like tearing down public housing, has proved an effective way for Chicago's rich and powerful to push out and further segregate people of color.

Image from SocialistWorker.org
(Akemi Hong)

The "global city" that Chicago's elite has been crafting for decades is a racially and economically segregated city--gleaming downtown office towers for the upwardly mobile and blighted neighborhoods of low-wage or would-be laborers, tucked away, out of sight.

A 2012 study of census data by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that Chicago is the most racially segregated city in the United States. And how could it not be? While corporations receive money from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) system, essentially a slush fund for the mayor to funnel public money to his developer pals, and billionaires like the Board of Education's own Penny Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, evade paying their full share of property taxes, the seeds of the city's inequality are re-sown every year in our segregated school system.

A Corporate Renaissance

In Bronzeville alone, where Dyett is located, 19 schools have been closed or turned around since 2001, often replaced by charter and selective-enrollment schools that admit students from anywhere in the city, further displacing neighborhood students.

Renaissance 2010 institutionalized the idea that closing public schools and pushing their students into selective-enrollment or charter schools would solve the problems afflicting urban education. The 2004 project, started by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley and Arne Duncan, then Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO and now Barack Obama's education secretary, planned to close up to 70 of the worst-performing schools in the city and reopen 100 new schools, with two-thirds as charters or contract schools.

Education academic Pauline Lipman called Renaissance 2010 "perhaps the most significant experiment in the U.S. to reinvent an urban public school system on neoliberal lines." Lipman places the education changes in the context of Chicago's push to become a "global city": "Ren2010 is a market-based approach that involves a high-level partnership with the most powerful financial and corporate interests in the city."

Eight years after Renaissance 2010 was launched, Chicago has 96 charter schools, 27 turnaround schools and a record summer of gun violence under its belt.

The numbers show a stratified society. More than two-thirds of all African American students in Chicago and more than 40 percent of Latino students attend schools where more than 90 percent of all students are of the same ethnicity.

These schools are the first to be closed or turned around, and the last in line to receive extra resources. Of the 160 schools in Chicago without a library, 140 are south of North Avenue, the northern border of the biggest concentrations on the West Side. Predominately white and affluent schools on the North Side receive the majority of capital improvements. Often, as with Herzl Elementary School this past year, students at underserved schools see sorely needed construction begin only after CPS has decided to give away the building to a charter network or the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

With Black and Latino communities facing the brunt of the recession, and the poorest residents among them living in a state of permanent depression, students from these communities bear the results of economic segregation. In 188 schools in predominately Black neighborhoods, 95 percent or more of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. One-third of Latino students go to schools where more than 90 percent of students qualify. Only 3 percent of white students can say the same.

The racial inequalities in school funding affect teachers as well as students--school closures and turnarounds, where a targeted school's entire staff is fired, have been forcing African American teachers out of their jobs at a disproportionate rate. In the schools closed this year, 65 percent of the teachers were African American. Since the era of reform accelerated, the number of African American teachers has declined by 10 percent, while that of white teachers has increased 5 percent.

Fighting Back in Rahm's Austerity Fiefdom

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has thrust austerity upon other public services, primarily targeting those used by the poorest Chicagoans. He cut library hours in early 2012 and closed half the city's mental health clinics. The projected savings of the clinic closures was only $3 million--a paltry sum compared to the estimated $55 million spent on the three-day NATO summit.

The fight over education in Chicago contains these same glaring disparities--while 675 schools are forced to share 205 social workers, psychologists and school-based counselors, $29.5 million in TIF money is granted to build a West Loop office building. In total, this year's TIF intake is estimated to be worth $454 million, according to Cook County Clerk David Orr. That's money that, if Emanuel had different priorities, could be spent on education and other social services.

Community groups, activists and organizers have come out strongly against such unequal policies. Students at Dyett High School, after witnessing CPS set up their school to fail, have taken their fight against this broken agenda to Washington D.C.

As Dyett students and KOCO student organizers Pierre Williams, Diamond McCullough, and Keshaundra Neal tell the story of their school, the city has been disinvesting from it for years in preparation for closing it down. After then-CPS CEO Paul Vallas turned it from an elementary school into a high school in 1999, he didn't give the "money or resources necessary for a high school--no library, no AP classes, no honors classes," says Neal. That same year, "King was turned into a selective enrollment school and given $25 million, so they knew how to make good schools," added McCullough.

After CPS closed Englewood High School in 2005, "they sent most of their students to Dyett," says Williams. "So our violence increased, scores dropped, and a lot more things happened that changed the environment at our school. During our sophomore year [last year-ed.], that's when we heard the news that they were trying to phase out our school."

Williams, McCullough and Neal joined other classmates and community members to testify against closing Dyett at this winter's school board hearings, staged a four-day sit-in outside Emanuel's office in City Hall and helped to shut down board meetings in protest. The board didn't listen. But these students didn't let up.

"After all that, other states and cities found out what we were doing," says Neal. "So we hooked up with 16 states, and we filed a civil rights complaint, because we realized our rights were being violated by CPS, and no one cares." Neal met with officials at the Department of Education (Department of Education) along with other education organizers and student leaders from across the country.

They came with a list of demands--including a moratorium on all school closings nationally, a meeting with the president, tours of their schools and a sustainable school model, in which school boards would be required to work more closely with a school's community before taking action against it.

Although the DOE didn't agree to the moratoriums, nor grant a meeting with the president, they did agree to tour the schools and look into the sustainable school model. But most significantly, the DOE's Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali, told the students the department has listened to their original civil rights complaint and has opened an investigation into the racial discrimination of school closings.

In 2008, Dyett had one of the highest rates of college-bound graduates among CPS schools and was recognized nationally for its restorative justice program. Just three years later, the college-bound rate was below CPS average, and the restorative justice program was defunded.

As the teachers' strike loomed, Michael Brunson, recording secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union, told supporters that a socially just school system may be visionary, but it's attainable.

"To imagine that is not to create something new," he said. "It's to take back what was lost."

First published by the Occupied Chicago Tribune.

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