School's Out Forever 

Certain poor black schools are sitting on some mighty promising real estate. How convenient that enrollment's down too.

Once again schools CEO Arne Duncan wants to close schools in poor, black neighborhoods. Once again he says he has no choice: the system can't afford to keep the schools open, and the students would probably be better off going somewhere else.

And once again the people in the affected communities don't believe him. "I'm tired of watching this happen every year," says Deidre Brewster, a community activist who lives in Cabrini-Green. "They're bailing out on the kids and the communities. They want the land, so they close the schools and they move the kids."

During the big-money days of the late 90s, former schools CEO Paul Vallas played Santa Claus, dashing around the city giving people pretty much anything they wanted--a new roof, new windows, a new playground, a new school. But by the end of his reign the board was running low on money. Unable to deliver on all the promises he'd made in his multibillion-dollar capital-improvement plan, he started hearing complaints from residents frustrated with construction delays.

In 2001 Mayor Daley replaced Vallas with Duncan, in part because he wanted a low-profile team player who wasn't afraid to tell people what they didn't want to hear. Duncan's far more cautious than Vallas. The system, he points out, is far from flush. The great real estate boom of the 90s has petered out, he says, so there's no expanding source of income. Home owners are resisting higher property taxes. Governor Blagojevich opposes income tax hikes, even to pay for schools. So instead of talking about building schools, Duncan's been shutting them down.

According to the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a not-for-profit watchdog, Duncan had closed ten schools by the end of 2003. On June 4 he proposed eliminating ten more: Byrd, Doolittle West, Douglas, Hartigan, Jefferson, Raymond, Spalding, Suder, Truth, and Wright.

The closings follow a pattern. Duncan usually announces them late in the school year, giving parents, teachers, administrators, and students little time to organize a protest or search for ways to keep their schools open. And most of them have been in poor, black communities.

School board officials say the closings are dictated largely by demographic changes that are beyond their control. "It's a fairly complex calculus," says Peter Cunningham, a Duncan press spokesman. "We look at enrollment. We make sure there are other options nearby to send the kids. We look at the condition of the schools. If we're spending a lot of money to keep them open, that's a factor. If it turns out a school's performing really well, we'll take that into consideration as well. But most of these are not performing well, which is not surprising--if they were performing well, more kids would be going there."

According to Cunningham, each of the ten schools that already closed had falling enrollment and bad test scores. He says the local aldermen, with whom Duncan consulted, didn't oppose the closings. And he points out that the latest closings have been endorsed in editorials in the Defender. "It's hard to make a case for these schools--it makes sense to close them," he says. "It's hard to argue with the demographics."

But residents say demographics and test scores tell only part of the story. "They want you to believe that the closings result from random demographic trends, but these trends are not so random," says Derrick Harris, a community activist from the west side. "They encourage development, which forces out poor people, and then they say, 'The poor people have left, so we're closing the school'--which only forces out more poor people."

To illustrate their argument, activists point to Byrd, at 363 W. Hill, and Truth, 1443 N. Ogden. Years ago the neighborhood that surrounds both schools--bounded by Chicago on the south, North on the north, Halsted on the west, and Wells on the east--was a densely populated working-class and lower-income black community anchored by Cabrini-Green. The area had five bustling elementary schools--Manierre, Jenner, Schiller, Byrd, and Truth--and a high school, Near North. But a decade and a half of gentrification has forced many residents to move. Developers have torn down factories and old houses and bulldozed vacant lots and baseball fields to make way for upscale town houses and single-family homes that most longtime residents can't afford. The city itself tore down several Cabrini-Green high-rises, driving hundreds more residents out of the area.

Daley has been sensitive to charges that he's overseeing an updated version of urban renewal. In 1996, when he announced plans to tear down the Cabrini-Green towers, he said residents would be welcome to move back once mixed-income housing went up. Yet few such complexes were built. The city also pledged to keep the local schools open, but in 2001 it closed Near North high school, at 1450 N. Larrabee, saying it was unsafe due to a "sinking foundation." Curiously, the next year that same foundation was strong enough to allow Jones high school to be housed there temporarily. Jones is now back in its rebuilt home on South State Street, and the board says it's sticking to its plan to sell the Larrabee site to developers.

Neither Duncan nor Daley so much as hinted that they planned to close any grammar schools in the area. In fact, about seven years ago Vallas promised the community that the city would build a new Byrd and a new Jenner on land formerly occupied by Cabrini high-rises. And over the last five years the board has spent about $5 million making repairs at Truth and Byrd.

In 1999 the new Jenner was completed, but construction on a new Byrd never started. Its proposed site remains a vacant lot. Locals now believe they were suckered. "I don't think they ever intended to build a new Byrd school," says Brewster. "They just didn't want folks to be outraged by all the changes."

The old Byrd did need major repairs, but many teachers and students thought the school would stay. Its test scores had gone up, even though most students still scored below the national average. Gym teacher Brian Billings had put together winning basketball and flag football teams. Sprinters coached by Billings and Pat Wade raced to several victories in last month's regional track meet.

Earlier this year, fifth-grade students in Brian Schutz's class put together a Web site on which they pressed the board to make good on the promise to build a new school. In May Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote about their crusade, and soon the board sent work crews to fix windows that had been broken for ages. Those repairs were still going on in early June, when two board officials showed up at Byrd to deliver the bad news.

"They brought us into a room and broke it to us--you're getting closed at the end of the year," says one teacher who asked to remain anonymous. "You have to admit, it's pretty silly to make repairs when they're closing us down. In my opinion, they just made those repairs as a PR stunt."

From the board's perspective, there's no compelling reason to save Byrd. Though the school was designed for more than 900, enrollment has fallen to 380. There's room for the Byrd kids at Jenner, which is right across the park at 1009 N. Cleveland, and most of Byrd's current families will probably be driven out of the area within a few years. As one school official put it, "It's time to shut it down and move on with life."

Duncan hasn't announced what the board plans to do with the property, though there are several options. They could sell the land to developers. Or they could use it to expand Seward Park, perhaps make it the site of a swimming pool and tennis court.

For many observers, that would be a bitter pill. "From an educational standpoint, you could argue that Byrd's never been better," says Dion Miller Perez, director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. "It works well with fewer kids--you have smaller classrooms, more individual contact between students and teachers. Supposedly, this is what Duncan wants. But let's not kid ourselves. This is not about education. This is about getting access to property."

Byrd's teachers, like teachers in other schools that have closed, have been told to reapply for new jobs elsewhere in the system. Those with full tenure will be guaranteed a salary for at least a year while they look for work at other schools. Those without tenure are off the payroll until they find a new position. "They told us it was a done deal," says the teacher.

Not quite. Duncan's list of closings is only a proposal and must be approved by the board of education after a public hearing. Generally the board gives him what he wants, and presumably he cleared the plan with the board before announcing it. But if enough parents get up and scream, Daley might intervene and force the board to reverse Duncan's decision.

On June 10 residents, parents, and teachers held a rally in front of Byrd. They demanded that Duncan build a new school with money saved by offering veteran teachers early retirement or firing central-office bureaucrats. On June 23 the demonstrators plan to take their protest to the central office, where the board will be voting on Duncan's proposed closings.

"Saving these schools is a long shot," says Miller. "It's easy for people to overlook the issue because it's happening to someone else, but you wouldn't want your kids shuffled from school to school."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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