Closing Schools in Chicago for Gentrification by Michelle Strater Gunderson

Michelle Strater Gunderson | @MSGunderson | Originally published on livingindialogue.com | 2017 | Republished with permission | View the original article | Photo: livingindialogue.com 

By Michelle Strater Gunderson

On December 1, the Board of Education of the Chicago Public Schools announced its plan to shutter Harper, Hope, Robeson, and Team Englewood High Schools. All of these high schools are located in the predominantly African American Englewood neighborhood. With their planned closing there will be no neighborhood open enrollment public high schools left in this community of 30,000 people.

Schools are the cornerstones of neighborhoods, the place where a community comes together and relationships are built. Once a neighborhood school is closed it is like giving the community a black eye. The message is clear – this part of the city is not deserving of a public school and its children can be educated elsewhere.

You will hear about a beautiful, new high school planned for Englewood. While this sounds good, it does nothing for the current students of these Englewood high schools. NONE of the current high school students at Harper, Hope, Robeson, and Team Englewood will be allowed to attend. The school will start with a freshman class in 2019 and build a new class each year.

In the meantime, current students are set adrift and told to search out another school in an adjoining neighborhood. This brings up both academic questions and serious safety issues for these youth. In essence, Englewood students will be shipped to other schools, and the end of their high school careers sacrificed for a “fresh start” for the new school.

There is only one word for pushing African American children outside of their community in order to make room for a future student population – apartheid.

If CPS sincerely cares for the children of Englewood the current high schools would stay open until the new one was built and there would be a plan for integrating their students into the new school. To ‘start clean’ with only freshmen is to deny the value and humanity of the current youth in this neighborhood.

The narrative around the school closings is that the schools are under-enrolled and that they are not meeting the needs of the students. Janice Jackson, chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools said, “When I look at Englewood, at the experience some kids are getting, I can’t make the case they’re getting a good high school experience.” On this, she is right. The high schools in Englewood have been starved of the resources needed for high quality school programming for years. They have been intentionally run into the ground so that their closings would be inevitable.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has been fighting for fair funding of schools for many years. The union’s underlying analysis is that the Chicago Public Schools purposefully defunded schools, claimed them as failures, and then proceeded to close them. The city is in fact “broke on purpose” so that these neighborhoods can be taken over and gentrified. What are the values of our society when children’s lives are sacrificed to the real estate ‘gods of gentrification’?

There will be readers who ask, why would a city government plan the demise of the high schools in an entire section of town? The answer is clear – real estate. Englewood sits in prime territory just south of Chicago’s Loop and with ready access to expressways and transportation. This is a real estate grab.

To make matters worse, the plans for the shuttered school buildings are to extend charter school operations. Team Englewood and Hope High Schools had already been sites of co-locations with charters schools. The plan is for Urban Prep Charter School to fully take over the Team Englewood building, and a Kipp Charter School will occupy the Hope High School campus.

Charter schools are controversial in Chicago and a topic of many writings. In short, Charter schools are privately run operations using public funds. At the heart of their existence is the use of tax dollars without democratic public oversight. Charter schools do not have to accept all students. There is a long and ugly history of “push out” of children from these schools. In other words, some of the Englewood children will be welcome, but not all.

In a press conference about the school closings Janice Jackson said, “It’s hard to make these types of decisions and completely please everybody. They require tough decisions.”

Greg Michie, a Chicago Public School teacher and longtime advocate of public education replied by saying. “CPS says they ‘can’t please everybody’ with school closings announced this week, so they decide to please whites in the South Loop, parents with money, & charter operators. Shameful.”

Michelle Strater Gunderson is a 30 year teaching veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction.

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