Chicago Board of Ed votes to close 50 schools

CHICAGO – After what has become one of the most divisive debates in Chicago and in spite of a rash of rallies and protests, the Chicago Board of Education voted Wednesday to close 50 schools, the largest simultaneous school closing in the nation.

The move comes after months of opposition by the Chicago Teachers Union, parents, students and a teacher’s strike that shut down the nation’s third-largest school district for seven days.

Just before the Board voted Wednesday, several protesters had been removed from the room as they sang “We Shall Not be Moved.”

‘Our voices have been heard’

There were originally 54 schools planned for closure, however earlier Wednesday morning, Board vice president Jesse Ruiz confirmed with NBC Chicago that Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett planned to withdraw her recommendation to close four schools.

George Manierre Elementary School, Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy, and Marcus Garvey Elementary School, where 9-year-old Asean Johnson, who took on Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a rally, attends, will remain open.

Early Wednesday morning, parents honked their horns in excitement outside of Marcus Garvey Elementary, after they found out their school was spared.

“Our voices have been heard. We as parents came together collectively to make this happen,” said Tracie Smith, who after dropping off her child was headed to CPS headquarters for the board meeting. “I understand hearing it from the media, but I also want to hear it straight from CPS.”

‘A day of mourning’

CTU president Karen Lewis said four schools is a start, but not enough, and called the day “a day of mourning for the children of Chicago.”

CPS 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. Lewis strongly disagreed, saying, “Closing schools is not an education plan. It is a scorched-earth policy. Evidence shows that the underutilization crisis has been manufactured.”

Parents have continuously been concerned with safety, saying that in many neighborhoods, children will have to cross gang lines to go to school, and that chaos could ensue when students of rival schools are placed in the same building.

Since the majority of the schools on the closure list are in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, opponents contend that the closures unfairly target and will therefore destabilize those communities.

What happens to the displaced?

“From the start, community feedback has driven every step of this process and will drive the ongoing development of our transition plans for every school,” said CPS board president Barbara Byrd-Bennett in a statement.  “We will continue to engage with the community and work in partnership with them to ensure a safe, smooth transition for students this fall.”

CPS promises that displaced students will be sent to better-performing schools with better amenities like libraries, upgraded facilities and air conditioning.

“By consolidating underutilized and under-resourced schools, CPS can redirect its limited resources into higher performing Welcoming Schools that will provide the investments needed to create a quality, 21st century education for every child,” CPS said in a statement.

CPS said it will seek to ease the transition by putting into place “robust social and emotional supports to help students develop the skills to cope with change.” The system said it’s working with the Chicago Police Department and other city agencies to provide safe passage for kids traveling to and from school.

Consequences for Emanuel

The vote comes at an inconvenient time for Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who marks the halfway point of his first term. “I will absorb the political consequence,” said Emanuel earlier this week.

“I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future,” Emanuel said in a statement. “More hard work lies ahead, but I am confident that together with teachers and principals, engaged parents and community support, our children will succeed.”

Dick Simpson, head of University of Illinois-Chicago political science department, noted that Emanuel was elected two years ago largely because of the African-American community in Chicago. However, a Chicago Tribune poll released earlier in May shows Emanuel’s rating in the black community has dropped sharply since the opposition over schools closing started. About 48 percent of African-Americans disapprove of his performance, compared with a third of blacks disapproving one year ago. Disapproval of Emanuel rose to 39 percent among Hispanic voters, up from 30 percent in 2012.

Lewis and other supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union have vowed to continue the fight. “Our fight for education justice has now moved to the courts, but it must eventually move to the ballot box…We must resist racism in all of its forms as well as the escalating attacks on the working class and the poor. Our movement will continue,” Lewis said.

Renita D. Young is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.