Three days of marches in Chicago to protest school closings

Students and parents from Lafayette School marched to their alderman's office March 21. Lafayette is one of a staggering 54 Chicago schools slated for closure—the most ever in a single year in a U.S. city. Photo: Bill Healy, Chicago Public Media.
Chicago students and parents from Lafayette School, which is set to be closed, marched in protest in March.  (Bill Healy/Chicago Public Media.

The Chicago Teachers Union and education activists are planning three days of demonstrations in different city neighborhoods, starting Saturday, to protest the closing of 54 public schools this year.

The closure plan by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school district officials has been highly contentious, and has played a part in declining support for Emanuel, according to a new Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll, which showed that a majority of city residents oppose the closure plan, and that has affected his overall job rating.

The city says the district is facing a $1 billion deficit and needs to close the schools. The teachers union this week went to court to block the closings, arguing that they disproportionately affect African-American students in the district, which is not majority black, and would harm special education students.

Recently, independent hearing officers who were hired by the school district to look at the plan to close the 54 schools said they opposed closing 13 of the targeted schools for several reasons, including child safety and lack of evidence that the students were being assigned to better schools, something that schools officials said would happen.

Many parents of the 30,000 affected oppose the closures because of safety concerns. Many children will have to walk through violent neighborhoods, and go to school with other students who are considered enemies — and their parents don’t believe that the city’s Safe Passage plans to get young people to and from school will work well enough.

Parents have pleaded with school board members and others to reconsider some of the closings and reassignments because of danger to students. Chicago officials say they are spending nearly $8 million to beef up the district’s Safe Passage Program, which puts people from the community onto major school routes to ensure the safety of students. And Emanuel recently asked  the city’s firefighters to patrol the new routes students will walk to their new schools — for the first three weeks.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that a memo sent to firefighters from Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said that Emanuel had requested the coverage, even though the president of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2, Tom Ryan, has concerns about the plan. The story said:

“We do whatever is necessary to protect the citizens of Chicago every day,” Ryan said. “However, should a violent or armed confrontation erupt while on this special duty, the concern is that we are not equipped or trained to deal with this type of situation.”

The Fraternal Order of Police echoed the concern and said using firefighters along the routes shows a lack of police manpower in the city.

If the firefighters are worried about a dangerous situation, you can imagine how the children and their parents must feel. Besides, Emanuel has asked them to patrol for three weeks. What about the fourth week?

There is also a safety issue that goes beyond getting to and from school. Chicago parent and activist Claire Wapole said that even if the kids are provided “safe passage” to and from school, kids can’t be protected everywhere inside the school building.

As an example of the tensions, read this blog post by Wapole, on the Web site of the nonprofit Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, about a  “hit list”  — with the faces and initials of students from a public school being closed by city officials –  that was made and briefly posted on the Internet by a student from the so-called “welcoming school.” The list was taken down after the post was published.

The mother mentioned in the post is Shereena Allison, who told me that her daughter, who will be going into the seventh grade next year, was on the “hit list.” (I’ve seen the “list” but am not posting it or linking to it to shield the young people on it from further exposure.)

Her daughter now attends Manierre Elementary School, which is being closed, and will be sent to Jenner Elementary School next fall. So will her son, who is entering kindergarten, and her nephew. She said the list, made by a student from Jenner, is just the latest example of longtime tensions between students at the two schools.

“It scares me that someone would say something like this about my daughter, and about any children,” she said. Pushing the two school communities together in the same building, she said, will cause more problems than those that already exist.

A parent named Curtis Johnson cried when he heard his children, ages 11 and 13 were being transferred to a new school, according to this USA Today story:

Johnson, 42, worries his children, ages 11 and 13, will have to “walk across gang-infested neighborhoods” to get to their new school. “I don’t understand that,” he says.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 17, 2013