CHICAGO — With just hours until the fate of school closings is known in the third-largest district in the nation, students have joined their parents and teachers in protest and raised their voices in opposition to the mass shutter.
Heralded as the future mayor of Chicago in the year 2025, 9-year-old Asean Johnson, has spoken at school board meetings and hearings, and fired up a crowd of hundreds in a protest against school closings Monday that concluded three days of marches on the city’s South and West sides.
“I wanted to be there to support my school and for the other schools that are closing, because really, I think that no school should be closing,” he told theGrio.
A billion dollar budget gap
In March, Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced plans to close 53 elementary schools and one high school. Chicago public school officials have said the proposed closings are necessary to shutter underutilized schools and help the district close the gap of a $1 billion budget deficit.
Asean spoke about what many other protesters contend: that the school closures unfairly affect African-American and Hispanic communities, since many of them are in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“What Rahm Emanuel is doing is not fair, ‘cause you’re doing that to all the black schools in the neighborhood,” Asean said. “That’s just doing racism, just like the Civil Rights Movement. We shall not be moved!”
Asean’s school is slated for closure
Asean attends Marcus Garvey School on the South Side of Chicago, which is slated for closure. Should the school close, students will be sent to Mount Vernon Elementary, just a few blocks down the street. The two schools have historically been rivals and parents are concerned that the two groups of children won’t blend well in the same building.
Safety has risen as one of the main concerns if 54 schools close simultaneously. In many neighborhoods like Asean’s, kids will have to cross gang lines to attend their new school. He shared how afraid he was to walk the few extra blocks to attend Mount Vernon. “It’s a million things that can happen if you walk those extra blocks,” he said.
Parents, teachers and students have been confused at the Chicago Public Schools’ definition of “underutilized” and “lower-performing.” One test score comparison shows Chicago Public Schools’ classifies Mount Vernon, the “welcoming” school for Marcus Garvey students, as in good standing, a higher classification than Marcus Garvey. However, its student performance was further below average than Marcus Garvey’s, with less than 40 percent of students at or above the national Scantron average, according to district website reports.
“Mount Vernon was a school that they put in millions of dollars to re-do the school,” said Shoniece Reynolds, Asean’s mother. “So therefore, I feel that’s the reason why they are closing Marcus Garvey.” Reynolds started a petition on Change.org to save Marcus Garvey, a school which she says she chose to send her son to after being a private school parent.
‘Why we have to fight’
“Marcus Garvey Math and Science School is a neighborhood school with Magnet School expectations. Closing Marcus Garvey will hinder the stability of our children; affect them academically and place them in unnecessary danger,” the petition reads.
The system promises that displaced students will be sent to better-performing schools with better amenities like libraries, upgraded facilities and air conditioning. “We have what we need at Marcus Garvey,” Asean said describing new science labs, computer labs, air conditioning and other amenities.
Barely tall enough to reach the podium, the junior activist lead a chant that reverberated throughout downtown Chicago Monday, “Education is a right. That is why we have to fight.”
Asean sent a clear message to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “We are not toys. We are not going down without a fight.”
Renita D. Young is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.