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Are the Chicago School Closings Racist?

Almost all of the 54 schools targeted for closing serve primarily black and Latino students. All are in poor neighborhoods, affecting 30,000 students and 1,000 teachers.

Photo Credit: Bill Healy, Chicago Public Media


On Wednesday, March 27, Chicago police arrested 127 people involved in the protest action -- a sit-in that took place during rush hour in front of City Hall on LaSalle Street -- mentioned in this article. This article has been updated.

Activists and leaders in the Chicago Teachers Union were already in full swing organizing for today’s citywide rally to stop school closings when they got the announcement last Thursday: the district revealed its official list of 54 elementary and middle schools to be shut down before the next school year.

News of the staggering number of closures, the most ever in a single year in Chicago or any other U.S. city, likely bolstered Wednesday's robust turnout for an action that brought out hundreds of protesters. In the immediate days following the closings announcement, smaller, often spontaneous protests have erupted outside schools slated for closure.

“We believe that our city is under siege right now,” said teacher and CTU organizer Brandon Johnson. “Students are recognizing this process as racist.”

He points out that almost all the closings target black and Latino schools. Fifty are on the West and South Sides of Chicago. All are in poor neighborhoods. The closings will affect around 30,000 students and 1,000 teachers.

“The only thing that’s like it is Hurricane Katrina,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey of the potential devastation, “except this is being done on purpose.”

But the planned closings have provoked unprecedented outcry and resistance from Chicago communities. “I don’t think we have seen this type of demonstration and dissent to these school closings before,” Johnson said. “Parents are leading the way. It’s spreading like wildfire.”

Citywide Fight

The Chicago Teachers Union is trying to make the closings a citywide fight rather than a school-by-school battle. The bonds with parents forged before and during the teachers’ strike in September 2012 have carried over into protests around the city, at hearings set up by the school district.

Johnson and other organizers have been working with rank-and-file teacher leaders and with parents, holding school meetings and neighborhood meetings and working with existing community groups to educate parents about the crisis for neighborhood schools.

Today, protesters -- including leaders from the teachers, hotel and restaurant workers, and service workers unions -- will gather at individual schools and neighborhoods, then link up in downtown Chicago, where they will march on City Hall and the Board of Education. Community organizations are providing their members with transportation to the rally.

Officials may have hoped their “school utilization” meetings, powerpoint presentations, and breakout sessions would win parents over to support their schools’ being closed, but in many hearings (which were required by law), they could not execute any of their plans. The community members attending the more than 40 hearings voiced overwhelming opposition, despite the district’s attempts to “smooth over” potential closings.

These sessions were organized with nearly a half-million dollars in donations from Walmart’s charity, the Walton Family Foundation, which  paid for a marketing agency to set up focus-group-style sessions.

Appointed schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett told the media she wanted to hear from community members in the hearings. What she got was the overwhelming message: don’t close our schools.

A February  hearing in the Pilsen neighborhood on the South Side overflowed with shouting and protesting parents. They refused to participate in the break-out sessions, preferring to speak up in the large auditorium setting. Similar scenes took place in the Logan Square and Uptown neighborhoods.

Sharkey said the union is organizing teachers and parents who are “not just coming out to beg for their school, but coming out to fight for their school.”

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