(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Research Poll, low-income and minority parents are more likely to see problems such as low expectations to bullying to out-of-date technology and textbooks at public schools attended by their children.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.
"Every child in every community deserves a rich and robust education in a safe learning environment that will give them all the tools they need to be successful," Molly Poppe, deputy press secretary for Chicago Public Schools, told The Root in an email statement. "While the district has made steady progress over the last few years, we must continue to make the necessary investments like a full school day, full-day kindergarten, quality early learning programs and the rigorous Common Core curriculum to ensure that every child has access to the 21st-century education they deserve. And by closing underutilized schools, CPS is able to redirect those resources to the higher-performing welcoming schools to provide children the opportunities and programs they need to be successful."
A National Problem
Chicago is not alone in its plight.
William Hite, Philadelphia schools superintendent, earlier this month sounded a Cassandra warning that schools would not open Sept. 9 if the system did not receive at least $50 million by Aug. 16.
The good news is that the system received the money by last Friday's deadline, and the doors will open for 136,000 students. The bad news is that system will be a faded remnant of its former self. An estimated 3,800 employees were laid off, and 28 schools were closed.
"On June 7, The School District of Philadelphia announced that we would begin issuing layoff notices to about 3,800 employees in light of a drastic financial shortfall," Hite said in a prepared statement. "These layoffs affected significant numbers of our school-based staff, including assistant principals, teachers, counselors, recess and lunch aides, secretaries, supportive services assistants and teacher assistants. I was joined on that day by four outstanding principals, all of whom expressed grave concerns over their ability to run a school without these staff."
To be sure, there are no easy answers or solutions to looming deficits, as school administrators have found in Washington, D.C. Last year, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced plans to consolidate 15 schools, 13 at the end of the last school year and two at the end of the upcoming school year.
"We heard from people across the city that have never reached out or offered feedback before," she said in a January news release. "People spoke up at meetings, they sent emails, they called, and we made sure to track everything they said. I've been inspired and encouraged by the thoughtful feedback we heard from parents, advocates, students, school staff and others during this process. My priority is, and will remain, what is best for our students, and I am confident that our final plan will best support our students and their families."
For his part, Davis says he plans to buckle down even more to work with the community on education and lowering the crime rate. Davis, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and the Congressional Black Caucus held a summit in July to get community input on how to stop Chicago's violence. They are in the process of developing a plan to present to the community, he said.
"We must become better and more effective parents," he said. "We must spend more time in schools dealing with the problem. It takes a community to create a public life we find must desirable. It's all of us working together to create the kind of city that we want to live in and be a part of."
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root and the managing editor and Web editor at the Chicago Defender.