Eve Ewing still believes in Chicago’s public schools | Feature | Chicago Reader

Eve Ewing still believes in Chicago’s public schools 

The new book Ghosts in the Schoolyard explains why people care so much about institutions that the world has deemed “failing.”

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NOLIS ANDERSON
  • Nolis Anderson

Before she became a nationally acclaimed poet, comic book writer, and arguably Chicago's biggest Twitter celebrity, Eve Ewing was a graduate student visiting her father in Florida during the spring of 2013. This is where she learned that Chicago would be closing dozens of public schools. "I was alone, sitting on the edge of the bed with the door closed, my grip tightening on the glowing rectangle of my phone," she recalls in her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side. She scrolled through the list of schools. "When I got to the school in Bronzeville where I'd been a teacher, I had to read and reread it and read it again to be sure I wasn't missing something. Surely this was a mistake?"

Between 2008 and 2011, Ewing had taught science at Pershing West Middle School. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools officials claimed it was necessary to close Pershing and 48 other schools because of underenrollment and students' poor performance on standardized tests. After the announcements came protests from teachers, parents, and students. This all made Ewing wonder: "Why do people care so much about schools that the world has deemed to be 'failing'?" For the next few years of her life, she tried to figure it out by observing the effect school closures had on the Bronzeville community.

Ghosts grew out of Ewing's doctoral dissertation at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, but it's written in deliberately accessible language. It demonstrates the history of the racism that shaped CPS policy for decades and continues today. It also chronicles what she calls "institutional mourning," a kind of collective existential crisis prompted by the destruction of public institutions in Bronzeville. She finds that school closures are a form of publicly sanctioned violence that not only derails black children's futures but also erases a community's past. "I hope I can keep black history from going away," she writes. "I hope to help us understand, and remember."

I recently sat down with Ewing over too-complicated cocktails and bowls of pappardelle pasta to discuss the book, the latest round of CPS school closures, and how people can fight back.

Who do you hope will read this book?

I envision a number of audiences. One is graduate students and other faculty members for sure. There's this idea of institutional mourning, which is a theoretical idea that I hope colleagues in my field will take up and be interested in. I wanted to make a really clear case for how people should understand what structural racism is—when we say something's racist or something is not racist, what that actually means.

I want teachers and policy makers and parents and community members and even high school or middle school students to be able to read the book. When we think about history, a lot of people think of [it] as something that happened somewhere else. History happened somewhere else a long time ago. Part of what sparked this whole project was the ahistorical way that people were talking about school closures. That's a broader issue with so many topics, whether it's Confederate monuments or ICE—people talk about these things in a way that is stripped of any historical context. That happened in 2013 with the school closures in a way that was infuriating for me.

I want people in Chicago and students and teachers to have a chance to reckon with the fact that CPS is a historical entity that exists in a historical context that was made and constructed by human people. I remember a CPS student interviewed me for a school project when I was still writing this dissertation, and she said, "It never occurred to me that CPS had a history."

It's such an enactment of power to convince people that they are existing in a history-less vacuum. Because every decision that you make and every question that you face then becomes a matter of this false immediacy that doesn't ever force you to reckon with the wrongs that people have committed or the lessons that you could learn.

It's like the revolving door of faces and names that run CPS are always able to have some sort of plausible deniability for their decisions: "This is now, and that was then, and that's it." You observe in the book: "The only history that matters is last year's test scores." And when city officials imply that, it's hard to figure out how to respond, because that's the only sense of history they have: whoever is in charge was put in charge literally last year or even last week. How do we grapple with this revolving door of actors who make this history?

Actually, it's a form of gaslighting. It has so much resonance with what's happening at the federal level. It also has resonance with the everyday lived experiences of people of color, of women, of queer people, which is that people can just say things to your face and you're kind of looking around for the camera. Like, is this really happening to me? Is somebody really saying this to me? And in the moment you can kind of freeze up.

They were talking about the police academy on WBEZ. It was when there were a lot of people doing protests at City Hall. And 'BEZ did like a quick 30-second summary of it. I love 'BEZ and I love their reporting, but what I heard on the radio was so discordant from what I had witnessed myself being there the previous day. They played a short clip of Rahm saying: We need this police academy because there's been these years of disinvestment on the west side and it's time that somebody finally invests. And that's why we need to spend these $95 million. I yelped. I was like, Ahh! It was such a masterful, Karl Rovian flip of the script. He took the script of investment/disinvestment, west side, putting money in the community, and flipped it to talk about building a police training academy. It's that kind of thing that makes you look around like . . . am I loony? It's that kind of moment of cognitive dissonance that sparked the whole book.

Do you think about the possibility of Rahm reading this book?

I had not thought about it one way or the other. I don't care. I believe that most people who work in CPS are good people who actually love children and want to do good. When you're working within a large bureaucratic system that largely sets terms beyond your control you end up participating in a lot of things that maybe, if you stepped outside of yourself, you might not agree with or you might regret.

I think that there are some people for whom, perhaps, reading a book like this might change their perspective on some things. They may or may not be in a position to implement any of those different perspectives. Rahm—I don't know him personally. I've been in the same space as him, I've never spoken to him. I do not get the sense from his public actions that he is necessarily a person who is open to the kind of reflective practice, to say, "Wow, I read this book and it made me realize that maybe some of the things I did were wrong."

I suspect that in order to become a politician, at a certain level you have to turn off the part of you that is a critically thinking, educated, conscientious person who's open to learning new things and changing your mind about stuff.

NOLIS ANDERSON
  • Nolis Anderson

The book analyzes public records of school closure hearings and takes them seriously, like, Hey, people are saying something real. These are not just two-minute recitations from people who are taking things too personally.

I sat and spent hours listening to these recordings just crying. It was actually one of the more traumatic research experiences I've ever had. I had to spend hours listening to kids weeping on tape. It was horrible.

The whole structure of the two-minute hearing is a construction that is handed to us. We are told, "This is the way that you get to participate." Another point that I'm trying to make in the book is that the city overall is profoundly undemocratic, and that we live in a kind of autocracy that manifests in all these different ways. So we're told by somebody that the way you get to participate in the governance of your school system is that you get two minutes to talk. You have to come to this meeting at this time, and you get your two minutes, and [if you go over] you will be removed BY SECURITY! People were removed by security when their two minutes was up. Old people, kids, people that were crying. And says who? Who says that it has to be that way? Everything about these hearings is interesting to me. It's a highly performative setting that is also bizarrely like a trial for some reason.

I'm a person who has spent a lot of my life in institutional settings that feel extremely foreign to me. I spend a lot of time professionally and personally trying to understand what people are really saying or what they're really doing. Rarely are people doing what they say they're doing.

Do you think this latest round of school closures in February 20181 is any different than the previous one you write about in the book? Do you feel like anything has changed?

On a large scale, no. On a small scale there are some changes that I think are notable.

In the [more recent] round of school closings there are three categories [of schools]: There's National Teachers Academy, there's a set of Englewood schools, and then there's the Jenner-Ogden merger.

The Jenner-Ogden merger is really interesting because no one even calls it a school closing. People call it a merger. On paper what is happening with Jenner and Ogden is exactly the same as what happened in 2013. The schools are going to merge, they're going to have one name and the students are going to be united together. That's essentially what was happening in the majority of the school closings in 2013. The reason that it doesn't cognitively register with people as a closure is because it was a community-driven process.

These two principals had a lot of engagement with parents over a long period of time. And because of that [the process] wasn't a devastating, horrible experience. That's why people don't even call that a school closure. This is so instructive. When I interview people most of what they complain about is feeling disrespected and excluded from any semblance of a process where they had any real voice or mechanism for participation.

What's incredible with the Jenner-Ogden merger is that the city isn't pointing at it and saying, "See, look, we are doing a great job."

It's because that is not a precedent they would want to see replicated. The precedent set there includes a lot of participation from some really good, well-meaning parents. Many of them also happen to be middle-class white people. And I do not believe that city leaders are giving that level of ownership and participation to people of color. That is not a precedent that they want to see replicated across the district. It's dangerous and it's scary to them.

What about the Englewood schools?

I feel like CPS made an attempt [to have] what they called a "community process." Now, South Side Weekly and lots of other folks did really good reporting to illustrate the ways in which it was arguably not a community- driven process. But the initial plan of leaving the students out of luck without a school for a year—that got changed. The initial plan was so brazen—in a city where black people were already fleeing because it's functionally uninhabitable for so many, [CPS] knew there was no possible way that all those kids would come back [to the neighborhood]. And so I think that the reaction to that outcry [in the form of public protests] signals some kind of marginal difference.

And then with National Teachers Academy [NTA] . . . man. Even I'm surprised. It is surprising to me even with my cold, dead, cynical heart. [CPS's] tactics of stalling, of evasion, of misleading—that they use those things on middle-class white parents at a school that was academically successful. Or I should say a diverse cadre of parents, including middle- class white parents. Man, [NTA parents] got played the same way as all these other schools have gotten played.

I do this Chicago Poetry Block Party—this year it was in Austin—and it's like an outdoor poetry festival that I co-organize. I was painting a kid's face and a white woman came up to me and she was like, "I just want to say thank you for your work and thank you for fighting for my kid's school. My kid goes to NTA and I appreciate you fighting for my kid's school." 2 And I was like "Thank you," and tried to say some nice things in response. And she said: "You know, in 2013 I just didn't understand. I just didn't understand, and I didn't pay enough attention, and I didn't understand how they lie. And I didn't understand until it was my school, until they were saying those things that were not true about my school, and they were lying about my school."

I remember during the last mayoral election interviewing young people organizing for Chuy Garcia in Chinatown who were telling me about going to Thomas Kelly High School in Brighton Park, where there were around 45 kids to a classroom. The NTA closure was presented as a project undertaken on behalf of Bridgeport and Chinatown high-schoolers, so wasn't there some support from people in those communities for NTA's conversion to a high school?

I think that the very, very real need of a high school for Chinatown is something that was apparently never an issue that was of interest to anybody until it conveniently overlapped and converged with [white South Loopers' interests]. And I think that that very real fight has been co-opted as a convenient justification for other parents and other purposes, namely—and I say this because I've gone to these meetings and seen them say this—a handful of white parents in the South Loop whose kids are zoned for [Wendell Phillips Academy High School, a predominantly black school in Bronzeville] and they don't want their kids to go to Phillips. And the closest high school in the South Loop is Jones [College Prep], [but] the selective enrollment is crazy and they're not sure that their kids are going to get into Jones. And that's it.

[NTA] is a beautiful building, and they wanted it, and they got it. The soapbox that I'm on all the time is that every kid in Chicago deserves a high-quality school regardless of where they live, regardless of whether they are in foster care, regardless of whether their parents are dealing with a substance abuse problem, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Every kid deserves a great school. I wish that we judged the success or failure of our school district by our ability to provide adequately for the most vulnerable children. Until we do that I think we're just going to keep patting ourselves on the back for the highs without paying adequate attention to the lows. I believe that there is enough for everybody. Until we make the commitment to provide what every child needs, anything less than that is morally unacceptable to me.

In the book, you didn't delve very deeply into the problems with the way that school funding works, particularly the state's per-pupil funding formula. Did you just want to avoid going down that rabbit hole?

I don't want to say that it's not relevant, because it is. But per-pupil funding doesn't make anybody set a two-minute timer for somebody's grandma to speak at a meeting. Again, I think the problem that so many people articulated is a problem of feeling disenfranchised. It's almost not about the closure. The closure is a manifestation of a broader pattern. The deep mistrust in people's responses to the closure is a manifestation of a longer-term history of malfeasance.

The other thing is, the funding formula can change. There's [been] active debate going on in the last year about how our schools should be funded. I wanted the book to have a little bit more longevity and versatility than that particular fight. I don't think a lot of the things that one might advocate for after reading this book actually cost money.

Third, there's so much wealth in this city. I just have a hard time taking it seriously whenever people are talking about scarcity and what we don't have money for. We have money to pay Aramark to not clean the buildings. 3 Where'd that money come from?

One of the things you articulate is the way that people engage with public space in Bronzeville. The black community there is attached to parks, schools, and public housing, and has a sense of ownership over those places that has nothing to do with private property ownership.

Right, because we don't have it [hearty laugh]. It's like, what do you do when you don't have a house in the suburbs with the backyard? You sit in the park.

There's often outrage when people who don't own property show that they care as deeply for it as if they owned it—like public housing, or a park. In public discourse, there's a history of reading that as over-reliance on public goods, or entitlement to property that isn't "theirs." This discourse tends to come from well-to-do white people. Do you think it's just impossible for them to understand attachment to place that's not based on property ownership?

When I talk about that in the book that's not uniquely my observation. In terms of black people and the attachment to public space and public institutions—I'm citing political scientists and psychologists who talk about this sense of collectivity and fictive kinship and togetherness that African-Americans use to move through the world. Some of which I think is forced upon us by necessity and some of which I think is actually common across a lot of cultures around the world. It's one of the ways in which normative American whiteness is actually aberrant. White Western culture fetishizes property. That is fair to say. From the time of Adam Smith to the 21st century, when somebody trespassing on your property is considered grounds for murder without repercussions.

I also think that that's coupled with a broader American hyperindividualism. In a way that's what NIMBYism is. I mean, that's why the backyard itself is a metaphor for one's own property, one's own sense of ownership and space. And there's so much evil bound up in that. It's about capitalism, it's about settler colonialism. Because in an American context all of that enclosure and obsession with private space—the cost of that is indigenous genocide, actually. Property, as a concept in the American imagination, includes black people, our bodies. It absolves people of a sense of responsibility for caring for one another. It absolves people of a sense of a broader public or a polity of which they are a part.

That same fundamental impulse, to preserve and protect one's own property with a total disregard for the well-being of other people, has to do with how you think the CTA should run. How you think the schools should look. How you think the park should look. Who you think should get housing. Etc, etc, etc.

I think that that attachment to place and institutions that I write about is by and large a very beautiful thing. I think it's a really amazing and special way to live your life. But it also leaves you vulnerable in a society that is obsessed with personal property. It leaves you vulnerable to having nothing.

NOLIS ANDERSON
  • Nolis Anderson

Do you have any battle tactics people can use to push back against further school closings?

I'm a person that has very limited invesment in electoral politics, but I think that we have to make people accountable with our votes. This is a city where an election was lost because the snow wasn't plowed. It's reasonable for us to try to rouse each other to make our public officials accountable for the kind of schools that we want to see.

Absurd as they are, one of the reasons I love the aldergoons is because to me the aldermanic position is like the perfect democratic position. Because it's close enough to regular people. A fairly regular person can run for that office and potentially win. These are the people you can go to and be like, "I need a trash can," and they'll be like, "Got it." But at the same time they have enough power to actually make legislation in the third- largest metropolis in the United States. That to me is perfect. Close enough to people, but powerful enough to make real change.

I wish that we had that for our schools. I really wish we had an elected school board. I feel like this is an area where we have to weaponize the vote. We need to elect a mayor who's gonna be accountable when it comes to education. We need to enhance our ability to not only rely on this one person by pushing for an elected, representative school board—which is also something we can influence through the vote.

Every single mayoral candidate should be on the record saying what they feel on this. Every single mayoral candidate should have to justify why they continue to deny Chicagoans the rights that their citizenship endows them with to elect the people that run their schools. Period. So yeah, I feel like we gotta vote.

Because of the segregation in the city, and because so many white parents don't have kids in CPS, there are many people in this city—huge portions of the electorate—that are basically able to opt out of caring about what happens to CPS. I think that everybody in the city needs to see it as their moral and civic and political responsibility to care what happens to our schools. The same way that I vote for the person who runs the water reclamation district I should be able to vote for the person who runs the school district.

Can you imagine a sea change in national education policy coming anytime soon?

The tricky thing about American education is that it's highly localized. At a national level we can see trends, we can see policies that absolutely are broadly enforced and visible across the country. But I think that most change in school policy has to be local, whether you define local as your school district or your state. Because ultimately what happens is that, for better or for worse, school districts learn from each other, and the federal government learns from school districts. A lot of policy that we saw in the last two presidential administrations—the national school policy—came from Chicago.

I think that our obsession with quantification and our obsession with test scores is going to be a much tougher nut to crack. At the same time I think it's important to remember that not everybody has to live or die by those numbers. Those numbers become important when it's time to incentivize or punish districts serving poor children [who rely heavily on federal funding]. In wealthier districts, in majority-white districts, a lot of these tests are just a thing that you do. They're not the be-all, end-all. It's just like something you have to do once a year and you get it over with. They only become magnified in importance when they're being used to punish or control or sanction certain people. Having less of a reliance on tests is important. But it's hard to fight that fight without at the same time looking more deeply at why we have this impulse to so heavily rely on the tests.

The funny thing about all my work is that for some reason I still really believe in public schools. I mean, I think it's very important to not conflate schooling and education. Schooling is a series of institutional practices that take place in a school, some of which have to do with learning, some of which have to do with social acculturation, some of which have to do with punishment and control. Education is the infinitely unknowable, beautiful thing that human beings have been doing on their own and with each other since the beginning of time.

Some education happens in school and some education happens outside of school. Some of what happens in school is educational and some of it is not. Education is beautiful and fundamental. Schooling, in many ways, for pretty much the entirety of American history, has been really nefarious, unkind, and counterproductive. Especially to people of color. We have virtually no historical precedent for what it means to enact the kind of public school system that I think we really need, but for some reason I still believe in it. For now. Get back to me in, like, ten years.   v

1 In February 2018 the Chicago Public Schools board approved the closure of four high schools in Englewood with dwindling enrollments as well as the National Teachers' Academy, a high-performing elementary school in the South Loop serving largely minority students; NTA would be converted into a high school. It also approved the merger of Jenner Academy for the Arts in the Cabrini-Green area with Ogden International School of Chicago in West Town. There was much public outcry about the Englewood school closures and even more about NTA: students and parents argued that the conversion of their school into a high school was being done at the behest of white South Loop parents who didn't want to send their children to Wendell Phillips Academy High School, a predominantly black school in Bronzeville. E-mails obtained by South Side Weekly showed South Loop parents had been lobbying the city for a new high school in the neighborhood for several years. Many Chinatown and Bridgeport residents also supported the conversion of NTA into a high school after years of having to send their kids to overcrowded high schools far away. NTA parents have now filed a lawsuit to halt the plan, alleging that CPS used discriminatory criteria to justify closing the school.

2 Ewing was outspoken about her opposition to the decision to close NTA on Twitter and in public appearances.

3 In March the Sun-Times reported that of 125 schools inspected by the CPS facilities department and Aramark, a private company that had been managing custodians and food service since 2014, only 34 were found sufficiently sanitary; many others had filthy bathrooms and food-preparation equipment and were infested by rats and other pests. During the 2016-'17 school year, CPS paid Aramark $152 million and another private custodial company, SodexoMAGIC, $28.5 million. Leslie Fowler, the head of the facilities department, later resigned.

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