How School Closings Ruin Communities

Decimating children's education can tear a community apart.

William Hite (Philadelphia Schools); protesters against school closings (Scott Olson/Getty Images); Kaya Henderson (Twitter)
William Hite (Philadelphia Schools); protesters against school closings (Scott Olson/Getty Images); Kaya Henderson (Twitter)

(The Root) — One way to exact structural change in America is through schools and their curricula, The Root‘s editor-in-chief, professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., said recently about creating a national dialogue about race that could help prevent tragedies like that shooting death of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Professor Gates was discussing his PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which explores 500 years of black history and premieres Oct. 22. He said one of his goals is to include the series in school curricula in order to tell an integrated story.

But America’s schools are in crisis. Big-city school systems, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are struggling under looming deficits, the result of years of neglect under an unforgiving economic downturn. Amid vociferous protests by teachers unions, parents, administrators, students and other activists, most systems are cutting costs by shuttering schools, slashing budgets and laying off teachers and staff by the hundreds.

Kimberly Bowsky, a rank-and-file member of the Chicago Teachers Union and a 21-year veteran of the school system, who is African American, said it’s important for protesters to make their voices heard because schools in poor and urban communities are being decimated.

“They are striking about public education all over this world,” she told The Root. “World leaders have ruined the economy. In America, it’s hitting poor and urban areas, which are populated by people who need services, including a good public education. That is why we have to organize to fight and help one another.”

Indeed, poor and minority schoolchildren are likely to be impacted by shrinking school budgets. Further, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research Poll, low-income and minority parents are more likely to see problems such as low expectations to bullying to out-of-date technology and textbooks at public schools attended by their children. U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), a longtime member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the nation’s schools are at critical turning point in terms of addressing the needs and concerns of minorities, especially now curricula can open a productive dialogue on race and help prevent tragedies like Trayvon’s death.

Davis, a one-time educator whose congressional district has one of the highest concentrations of gun violence on Chicago’s South and West Sides, has been vocal about fighting violence and improving schools.

Chicago is closing 50 underutilized schools — some in Davis’ district — and an estimated 2,700 teachers have been laid off in one of the largest closing initiatives in the nation’s history.

“These are difficult economic times,” he told The Root. “Many minority communities are low-income, and the communities are depleted of resources. In Chicago, I think there has to be a massive public relations effort on the part of the school board and administration to ease concerns about the closings. And at the end of the next year, citizens need to see dramatic results in math and reading, in school attendance and all of those things that are a necessary part to show that differences can be made and that there was some rationale for the decisions that have been made around education. I don’t think it will be easy. I think those are the tasks in front of school officials and citizens in Chicago.

Chicago parents and union leaders contested the closures in federal court. But last week, U.S. District Court Judge John Z. Lee denied their preliminary injunctions, ruling that they failed to show that students attending new schools “would suffer substantial harm.” Opponents had argued that children faced danger, having to walk farther and navigate gang-infested territories to get to new schools. In response, Chicago Public Schools released Safe Passage routes to new schools for thousands of children impacted by closings.