Students urge CPS against a facility-solution to a funding problem
As CPS moves to build a new Englewood high school, community members call out the city's attack on black and brown communities.
Since this story was published, news broke that Chicago Public Schools has had a change of heart and will not be closing all four high schools in Englewood. On Dec.12, CPS’ CEO Janice Jackson announced that Harper, Hope and TEAM Englewood will be phased-out over the course of the next three years, allowing current students to graduate from those schools. Robeson High School is still set to close this June as it is the planned site for the new Englewood neighborhood high school.
At the third and final public hearing on the closure of four Englewood neighborhood high schools, a Harper High School student asked the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education: “What are you so intimidated of? Is it the way we walk? Is it the way we talk? Is it the fact that we are going to fight for something you didn’t think we were going to fight for?”
W.R. Harper, John Hope College Prep, Paul Robeson and TEAM Englewood Community Academy are the four southside high schools proposed to be closed at the end of this academic year. Students, teachers, parents and community members have staged sit-ins, walk-outs and rallies over the past several months to demonstrate the importance and value of their current schools to the board — which many believe has already made up its mind.
CPS has proposed the closure of these high schools to build what they are calling the “state-of-the-art, 21st century high school Englewood needs and deserves.” However, the students and community have urged that CPS reinvest, rather than disinvest, in the already existing schools. They think that the proposal is a facility solution to a performance and funding problem. Students challenged the board on what they would do if the new school experienced underenrollment as well.
“What’s the point of building a new school that students can’t go to,” a Harper student asked. “Ya’ll gonna build a new school again?”
Within the past decade, enrollment at these schools has dropped dramatically, with each school having lost close to 90 percent of their student body. According to CPS CEO Janice Jackson, the new high school is an attempt to move Englewood students back into their neighborhood schools. Englewood has the sixth highest high school-aged population, but the second lowest neighborhood enrollment in the city. Approximately 89 percent of them travel outside of their attendance boundary because their neighborhood schools are in such bad standing. The four high schools are currently ranked amongst the lowest in the city, as level 2 and level 3.
The new high school will be built on Robeson’s current grounds at an estimated $85 million, and is set to open in Fall 2019 with a new freshman class. Students currently enrolled in these high schools will need to transfer elsewhere and will not have the option of attending the new school because they won’t have freshman standing. CPS plans on shifting attendance boundaries at Bogan, Gage Park, Phillips and the Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School to accommodate them.
"Are you listening?”
Over the past several months, students, teachers, parents and concerned community members have flocked to community and public meetings to let CPS know that many of them are vehemently against the closure of the Englewood high schools. It has been called a systemic attack on black and brown communities, and an unprecedented sweep of schools in one neighborhood.
“Are you really listening? Why is it always black and brown families who are asked to sacrifice?” Ra Joy, running mate of Democratic candidate for governor Chris Kennedy, asked the CPS Board at the Jan. 30 hearing.
When the proposal was initially announced, the Chicago Teachers’ Union strongly rejected the plan and continue to hold that stance, labeling the plan “a way for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to sabotage the community at its time of greatest need,” in a June 2017 press release.CTU Communications Director Christine Geovanis explained that throughout the 2013 school closings, the union argued that the lack of a long-term plan ensured that school closures were haphazard, and that this remains the case in Englewood.
“[They are] dangerous for students and racist in their implementation, if not their intent,” she said.
Community members agree and feel that this is the doing of the mayor in his ongoing attack of black communities in Chicago, arguing that he is up to his old tricks as the five-year moratorium on facility closures that started in the fall of 2013 comes to an end.
CPS’ community engagement a “farce”
Despite community uproar, CPS claims that the proposal was borne out of Englewood residents themselves asking for a new high school.
“At the request of community members throughout the city, Chicago Public Schools announced today that it will propose several school actions for the 2018-19 school year to expand quality academic programming for students and create more diverse school environments,” a Dec. 1 press release said.
CPS points to the Englewood Community Action Council and the new school’s steering committee to corroborate that the proposal was in fact generated by the community. However, the council and committee were made up of individuals hand-picked by the board itself, some of whom have since resigned upon realizing CPS’ true intentions.
Keith Harris, president of the Englewood Political Task Force and resigned member of the steering committee said that CPS representatives left many of the committee’s questions unanswered and didn’t accept alternate plans even though they were given some. Harris shared this information at the Jan. 13 community hearing.
“I'm asking all the people that are residents of Englewood – not the stakeholder, not the CPS people, but the people that are residents – to join me because this proposal is disingenuous,” he said. “It's not about our kids. It's about the mayor getting re-elected. This ain't got nothing to do with our kids.”
Amidst statements made that CPS surveyed 1,200 community members and spoke to Local School Council (LSC) chairs, some are claiming that this simply isn’t true. Harris supports these claims, and he isn’t the only one.
“They say they spoke to the LSC chair,” said Bobbie Brown, “Well, I’m the LSC chair and they didn’t talk to me!” Brown is a Harper parent, as well as the chair for the Harper LSC.
A plan of empty promise
CPS believes that their proposal is in the best interest of Englewood high schoolers, however, it displaces current students and puts them in a vulnerable position. Current 11th-graders will need to go to a new high school for their senior year and eighth-graders will need to look outside of their neighborhood for a high school. Only current seventh graders stand to benefit from this proposal.
CPS insists that they already have plans in place to support the displaced students, and will be providing the appropriate resources for their transition. They have budgeted $8.3 million for “transitional financing” to aide students from these schools over the next three and a half years, however, members of the community have pointed out that this plan does not address individual and unique needs for students at each school, calling it an “empty promise”.
“Firstly, this proposal violates state guidelines because, one, it is not community generated and two, the transition plans are vague,” explained Erica Clark of Parents 4 Teachers Chicago.
The claims of nonspecificity are substantiated by the copy-paste document that was sent out to parents of all four high schools. The only difference in each document is the name of the school, but the guidelines in these “transitional plans” are uniform for all four schools.
A foregone conclusion?
The community feels that CPS has dangled a new, shiny object in front of them, knowing that they are so desperately in need of resources.
“You cannot starve us and then blame us for being hungry,” said one of the 10 Harper students standing at the podium.
Funding and resources for existing schools has been scarce, and the community feels that CPS should prioritize making them more attractive options by raising their quality in order to attract those students that have gone outside of their attendance boundary back to their neighborhood schools.
“If there’s $95 million for a cop academy and $8.3 million to displace students, there’s definitely money for sustainable community schools,” said Erica Nanton, another concerned community member.
As some members had pointed out in the hearings, the community meetings appear to have been a farce, and CPS has seemingly already made up their mind to follow through. As early as October 2017, the mayor already announced that minority-owned contractor UJAMAA/ Power II Joint Venture would complete the design and construction of the project, and CPS unveiled the rendering for the new facility on Jan. 8.
The community had until Jan. 31 to send CPS their final comments on the matter. CPS says they will be announcing their final decision in the next few weeks, however, the community believes the decision had been made long before they were even welcomed into the conversation.