The walk to a better school that puts lives at risk

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MSNBC – Philadelphia – Each morning just before school, Dawn Hawkins and her 13-year-old son Khyrie hold hands, close their eyes and bow their heads.

“Be a shield of protection for my baby,” Hawkins prays over the lanky 8th grader.

Then it’s off to his new school: a 15 minute walk through Strawberry Mansion, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, in the most murderous section of the city. The school is a little less than a mile from home. But it could well be foreign territory.

Until September, Khyrie’s daily journey didn’t require a call for divine intervention. But he is one of 9,000 Philadelphia public school students taking new and often more dangerous routes to school this year. The district shuttered 23 schools over the summer, plunging an already beleaguered system into further disorder. These students, many of them elementary-school age and almost all of them black, have been scattered across 50 schools, often in unfamiliar or unwelcoming neighborhoods. Some must take longer walks to school, crossing dangerous intersections and neighborhoods.  Deep budget cuts has meant fewer crossing guards.

What’s happening in Philadelphia is happening across the country. In major cities including Chicago, Detroit, New York and Oakland, mass school closings have affected thousands of black and Latino students. Opponents describe the closures as a steep blow to a generation of minority students already struggling with social and economic instability. The school closures and their unintended consequences have sparked protests among parents, students, and advocates who say the school board targeted minority students and low income communities.

“You have poor kids all over the country but the mass closures are disproportionately affecting children of color,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Instead of fixing a school and making public schools the center of a community where parents want to send their kids, you’re hurting communities, you’re hurting schools and you are sending kids outside of their neighborhood to places that in the long run, frankly, are no better than the places they left.”

Weingarten said the mass closure model is an “abdication of responsibility” by school leaders that sends a chilling message: “The schools are dead and the neighborhoods are dead.”

In Philadelphia, more than 80% of the students affected by the closures are black, though they make up just 58% of the public school population. Four percent of the affected students in Philadelphia are white.

The majority of the closings were in North and West Philadelphia in high-poverty neighborhoods where African-American students like Khyrie were disproportionately affected. Roughly 93% of them come from poor families, according to the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, a national coalition of student advocates and organizers.

“I think part of what we are seeing is the targeting of African-American and Latino communities. That’s not hypothetical, that’s fact,” said Pastor Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church, who has rallied against the closures. “My parishioners are coming to me saying, ‘my child has to walk longer distances and through dangerous neighborhoods just to get to school.’ Or, ‘I have to get to work late because now I have to drive my child to school because I fear for their safety.’”

The school board’s decision to close the schools— deemed underutilized, underperforming and by most accounts under-resourced— was a cost-saving measure in response to the district’s $304 million shortfall. But even with the closures, the city had to borrow $50 million to help schools open on time and to provide the bare minimum needed to operate the schools.

With shuttered schools came nearly 4,000 layoffs. Most city schools don’t have counselors, librarians or full-time nurses. Hall monitors, often the first to break up fights and maintain order, were among those laid off. Classroom sizes in some cases have bloated to 40 or more students, without enough desks for every student. Resources such as paper, pencils and textbooks are in such short supply that Mayor Michael Nutter has made a public plea for donations.

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