By Julie Woestehoff, PAA interim executive director
It has been more than 10 years since I and many of my former colleagues began warning Chicago that massive school closings would not improve education and would most likely lead to increased violence. It gives me no pleasure to see that this prediction has come true, and to such a tragic extent.
We began to sound the alarm about school closures in 2004, as Mayor Daley and Arne Duncan touted their Renaissance 2010 program, an attempt to satisfy the business community’s call to create 100 charter schools. Some of us slept on the sidewalk outside of the Board of Education headquarters the night before the August 2004 board meeting so that we could present a steady stream of testimony the next morning against the plan’s proposed 60 closures.
While Arne Duncan dismissed parent and community concerns, affected schools and neighborhoods became increasingly dangerous. In 2006, the media reported that violence had soared at five of the nine high schools that accepted most of the students transferred out of the high schools closed under Renaissance 2010. West side activists rose in anger in 2007 when 27 children were killed within a few months of the closure of the only open enrollment high school in Austin, the city’s largest neighborhood, forcing their children to travel across several gang lines to get to school. The nation was gripped by the horrific 2009 recorded murder of Fenger High School honor student Derrion Albert by a few youth from a faction of students transferred to Fenger after their neighborhood high school was closed.
In 2012, I wrote an article for Huffington Post, “Are Charter Schools the Answer to — or One Reason for – Chicago’s Violence?” The number of shootings and homicides had taken another alarming leap, and a charter school official suggested that the solution was opening more charter schools. The studies and reports I cited made it clear that this idea was exactly the wrong approach.
Along with the warnings and protests, advocates also tirelessly developed school improvement proposals in collaboration with recognized education experts, parents, teachers, students, and neighbors. All of these community-generated proposals were dismissed and disrespected by district officials.
Our protests continued unabated as the number of actual closures eventually surpassed 100. Hardest hit were the communities of color on the West and South sides of the city. Children fell through the cracks and disappeared, many simply moving to the streets. Thousands of teachers – most of whom were African-American and many who were residents of the affected communities – lost their jobs and livelihoods. Relationships between schools and families built over decades were severed. Neighborhoods were stripped of what was often the only center of community life. Much of the glue holding the city together dissolved.
Of course, this failed school policy is not the only cause of Chicago’s rise in violence, but it would be the height of irresponsibility to ignore the damage that has been done and the lessons that should be learned. Cities will not thrive if their schools are not strong, well-supported, and stable.
I used to work for another casualty of the corporate “school reform” movement — Parents United for Responsible Education. During PURE’s 27 years of service to the families of Chicago, we presented thousands of parent workshops, helped hundreds of local school council members carry out their duties, made sure that many, many special education students received the services they needed, supported parents in their efforts to advocate for less testing and more learning, and, together with so many other great-hearted Chicagoans, worked every day to fill the gaps left by city and district neglect and malfeasance. Because PURE’s challenges to Renaissance 2010 and other advocacy work did not sit well with folks with money in Chicago, we are no longer around to help. I moved to Wyoming, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the big news is usually related to game fish or fowl. But my grandchildren live in Chicago, and I will continue to speak out for the education, safety and well-being of all Chicago’s children and against the poor decision making of so many of our elected officials. I hope some will be listening.