Loud and Clear
School staff and communities are coming together to fight school closings, disinvestment in education.
WHEN SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED, the ramifications run deep. Students are disconnected from the productive, caring relationships they had with school staff. Kids accustomed to walking to school are forced to travel farther—often through dangerous areas—to get there. And neighborhoods often lose an institution that had served as an important community hub.
Is it any wonder that school closings spark outrage and distrust?
This spring, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to close 27 schools and the Chicago Public Schools announced it was closing more than 50 schools. Both decisions led to massive protests. The crisis in Philadelphia was prompted by a recommendation from the Boston Consulting Group to close 64 neighborhood schools, almost a third of the city’s public schools. BCG is notorious for its privatization schemes, which typically hire far fewer school support staff and expect those who are hired to carry unreasonable workloads.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, also an AFT vice president, says the consultant’s proposal was the most recent example of what happens when governments disinvest in schools.
“For the past year, every major education action … has involved taking resources and people away from our neighborhood schools,” Jordan says. “And when the schools are sufficiently starved, they shut them down.”
The Chicago decision to close schools and relocate thousands of schoolchildren will devastate many neighborhoods and families, Chicago Teachers Union president and AFT vice president Karen Lewis wrote in an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune.
The usual argument for closing schools is that they are “underutilized” and a drain on public funds. But many people close to the situation believe the real goal is to privatize schools and expand charter schools.
In Philadelphia, AFT president Randi Weingarten and 18 other protesters were arrested at school district headquarters when they blocked the doors to prevent the reform commission from voting on the plan. “We made it clear that the people of Philadelphia want to fix, not close, schools and want to maintain, not destabilize, neighborhoods,” Weingarten told the Washington Post. “And we sent a powerful message to those who want to dismantle or starve public schools out of existence—that students, parents, teachers and community stand united and continue to fight for what our children need—a high-quality public school in their neighborhood.”
‘A plan of our own’
Those fighting the closings know that protests, rallies and arrests are not enough. There has to be a plan. And it must be developed with input from a cross section of the community and widely embraced—the kind of plan put together by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS). “We had to have an alternative” to the closings, says Action United executive director Craig Robbins. “It was important that we had a plan of our own. We couldn’t just say ‘No.’ ”
To ensure that its plan was community-driven, the coalition surveyed parents and residents, conducted listening sessions with 750 students, held town hall meetings and hosted a conference. These activities revealed overwhelming opposition to the plan, with many believing that closing buildings and outsourcing management would result in inferior opportunities for students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English language learners. The community also felt the plan would compromise student safety.
“You have to know that the community and the PFT were not going to sit by and let this happen,” says Steven Brinkley, a school food service manager in Philadelphia. “It wasn’t right, you know?”
Thanks to community action, Brinkley says, the number of closings has been reduced by 10, to 27 traditional public schools.
Frank Caul, a retired instructional assistant, wrote to the newspapers about the closing plan. He credits his pastor with organizing meetings. “We’ve been holding rallies and town meetings, trying to get the word out to the people,” Caul says. “Members of the School Reform Commission spend crazy money in the name of reform and accountability, but who’s holding the school district accountable? It’s about time for us to get up and stand up for the rights of children.”
In fact, students have been among the most vocal critics of the closures. In Philadelphia, Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union mobilized thousands of students to protest the reform commission’s vote to close schools.
The PCAPS plan urges the reform commission and mayor to give every student access to schools with appropriate facilities, learning materials and staffing; turn schools into community hubs; provide a rigorous curriculum; and enhance professional development opportunities for staff.
Rather than starving and closing schools, this coalition wants the city and state to invest in communities. So, even as the coalition continues to fight locally, it is taking its battle to the state capital.
Bridges to the community
Months before going on strike last September, the Chicago Teachers Union reached out to the public. This bridge with the community paid off when hundreds of allies stood shoulder to shoulder with striking educators. Those ties are still paying off.
June Davis, a PSRP field rep for the union, is among those who suspect the planned closings are a ploy to take over the best facilities for charter schools.
She points to the beautiful Mahalia Jackson K-8 school as an example. With handicapped access, extra services and a great staff, “it’s just a place you’d love to go. They take care of the total child. I am suspicious when you close a beautiful school like this and send children across dangerous streets.”
Davis cites a similar case of consolidation where children would have to navigate heavy traffic to get to their “new” school, actually an older facility. The city plans to provide bus transportion for only one year. “It boggles the mind,” she says.
Jitu Brown is the education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago and a leader in the Grassroots Education Movement, of which CTU is a member. Brown says GEM is backing state legislation that would place a moratorium on school closings as well as a bill to reinstate an elected school board in Chicago. “We’ve activated parents, students, union members and the community; and we’re launching an offensive,” he says.
In early May, CTU and its partners are staging a weeklong march during which they’ll stop and meet with residents in every neighborhood with a targeted school.
Davis has helped broker many wins and stop many losses for PSRPs in Chicago over the years, and she sees reason for hope, even though “we think we’ve nailed one end down and the other end pops up.”
“They’re talking,” she adds. “I don’t know how much listening they’re doing. We’ll know when the board votes in May.” A final list of closings is due May 22.
Brown remains optimistic.
“The opportunity to win is there,” he asserts. “I think Chicago can be an example for the rest of the country.”