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Why We Need to Fight Back Against Chicago's Mass School Closings

This is not even just the Chicago struggle—this is an international struggle.

What will you do to save the lives of the children of the city of Chicago?

Last week, the Chicago Board of Education announced their plan to proceed with major actions against 71 schools. Basically, unless stopped, they will close 54 schools—and send students to surrounding "welcoming schools"—and will either turnaround the rest by firing every single adult in the building, or co-locate them by placing a charter into the same building as the existing school. The schools selected are not the least utilized schools, nor the lowest performing by Chicago Public Schools leadership's own flawed metrics.

This is the ultimate insult to nearly 20,000 parents, students, educators, and community members who came to community hearings held to nearly unanimously protest the closings. Parents came to demand that CPS not compromise their children's potential, and now they have been utterly ignored. Anyone who came to any of the hearings knows that the parents know far more about the district than the board employees responsible for the decisions and deeply oppose these actions. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett neither attended the hearings nor listened to the community voices, responding instead with the proclamation that "everyone understands that we need to close some schools."

Byrd-Bennett, Mayor Emanuel, and the Chicago Board of Education have supported that misinformation by pointing to an alleged $1 billion dollar deficit. However, the independently audited Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Chicago Public Schools showed a $500 million surplus and the mayor has been reserving nearly $250 million from the schools for the TIF funds he controls each year.

Meanwhile, students sit in classrooms that reach class sizes of 35 or 40, temperatures that reach 96 degrees due to a lack of air conditioning, and buildings without libraries or science labs. Many days students lack teachers at all as the board refuses to pay for substitute teachers or properly appoint new teaching positions. Chicago educators channeled their anger at these conditions into a 7-day strike this past fall in which they did not win much in the way of wages, but won concessions from the board on learning conditions. The strike enjoyed wide support with over two-thirds of parents of CPS students supporting the action.

On the other hand, the board continues to make political decisions to help their deep pocketed allies that will hurt tens of thousands of Chicago students.

And what of that hurt? Let's put it directly—real talk—if we, the people of Chicago, the ones who the schools belong to—the ones who attend, work at, and send our own kids to CPS neighborhood schools, allow the board to follow through on this decision, we will lose children. They’ll become victims of an absurd system in which an unelected school board plays Hunger Games—much respect to community activist Joel Rodriguez who coined the comparison and whose children’s school is slated for closure—with the lives of poor children of color even as they and many of the decision makers at central office give their own children and grandchildren highly resourced, stable educations.

Can you imagine parents from the wealthy North Shore suburb of Winnetka having to come to Chicago and beg poor people of color to “allow” their high school, New Trier, to stay open? Can you imagine the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School being labeled "underutilized" and closed?

Close your eyes for a moment and envision your own child, or grandchild. Now add their classmates and other students who go to a school. Now imagine that someone sitting next to you expressed their intention to press a button that would hurt a percentage of the children you see, cause another portion to dropout, and put another portion six feet underground. What would you be willing to do to stop them from pressing that button? Would you reason with them? Would you beg? Would you march around? Or would you do more?

Now, in Chicago, if the kids you are envisioning are rich or white, the likelihood that you would have to treat this as more than a thought exercise is very low. After all, this is a nationwide experiment on poor children of color—"other people's children."

Our corporate overlords have taken historically under resourced schools, and placed them under constant siege in a barrage of overtesting, charterization, and constant chaos—and now is the moment they expect our neighborhood schools to fall.

This is unjust. It is disgusting. It is a slow genocide. It is Tuskegee and Jim Crow, and "Kill the Indian, save the man." It is the death knell of Brown v. Board aborted before it could even sniff its potential.

And it must not stand.

What are you willing to do to stop it?

There are specific actions we must take to save these young people's lives. They may risk your job or your freedom—are our kids' lives worth it to you? I must admit, while my heart never wavers on these matters—as I have shown in action in the past—my mind sometimes questions.

But when it does, I think of a brave young woman. I think of Sandy Hook Elementary School teacher Vicki Soto, who faced with a mass murderer armed with an automatic weapon, walked out to almost certain death in order to increase the likelihood of her students surviving. And I remember what it means to be a teacher.

I think of my own students like Araceli Medrano who snuck into the principal's conference room to scrawl on the data board a powerful message: "Reading scores aren't everything. Reevaluate the rules you have imposed for next year because students and teachers agree the atmosphere is 'suppressive." We have all lost our spirits. Do not take offense; take action. Listen to those you work for, and then signed her name with her graduation year.

And I am ready to protest.
And resist.
And speak truth.
And suffer punishment.
And risk livelihood, profession, personal safety,
And even life.

Rahm Emanuel and his minions—our bosses—aren't pulling triggers, but they're on the verge of becoming mass murderers. Let's save their victims—Chicago's children—but also let's save them from themselves and ourselves from being accomplices.

The people of Chicago are refusing to be accomplices. Today thousands of parents, students, educators, and community members will march in the streets to fight to save these schools. They will gather at Daley Plaza in Downtown Chicago at 4 PM CT and then march on City Hall and the Board of Education. This mass shuttering of schools will not be our legacy.

This march is only the beginning. Our communities have been training for civil disobedience actions because we are willing to make huge personal sacrifices when it comes to what's just and right for our young people.

This is not even just the Chicago struggle—this is an international struggle. On the one side we have community school reformers who would like to see better schools and educational opportunities for our children. On the other side we have corporate and top down school reformers who either naively and paternalistically believe they know what's best for our children or simply don't care about anything except their own power and profitability.

How can you get involved? Please wear red during our major actions and send your support to those risking everything here in Chicago. Also, please organize in your own city and state to save your public schools. If you need any help please don't hesitate to reach out to us here in Chicago.

Let's fight to build a bridge from this dark day to the day when our schools belong to the only group who could ever actually develop the school system Chicago's children deserve—our communities themselves. Whatever harm and danger that we may encounter together on that journey, let us dance the desperate dance of justice together.

Xian Barrett is a Chicago high school teacher and 2009 United States Department of Education Fellow

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Photo courtesy of Twitter user INTP Poet

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