Saturday, September 25, 2021

Chicago considers closing 4 Englewood high schools


Now on the chopping block: four traditional public high schools in Chicago’s primarily low-income, primarily African-American Englewood neighborhood; the school board will vote in February, but students are already expressing their displeasure with the announcement, WLS-TV (ABC affiliate) reports.

(via Twitter from ABC)

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to move forward with the closing of 50 public schools, most of which were not high schools, a little more than four years ago, the protests from students were part of a nationwide voice against the privatization of public schools.

Voxitatis pointed out at the time that students have lost interest in these schools because the programs offered have been cut to the bone and school just isn’t fun anymore. That, in turn, predictably, leaves school boards no alternative but to close the school.

A closer look

Consider one of the four schools: Robeson High School. There’s no marching band director, no girls’ volleyball, cross country, or softball coach, no boys’ cross country coach, and no certified athletic trainer listed with the Illinois High School Association. Most of the listings just say “TBA,” which means the school at one point had these positions filled but no longer has anyone in that slot.

This is a sure sign that extracurricular programs are deteriorating at the school, so as you might expect, most kids who want to enjoy school choose to go elsewhere: enrollment at the school declined from 644 students in 2013 to 448 in 2016 and—now, the death knell—just 145 students as of this September.

If anyone thinks the school should maintain all the overhead it takes to run a high school for just 145 students, think again. The board will have no alternative in February but to vote to close the school, given that it isn’t serving the students of Chicago at all. Even for those 145 students who may have no other choice, the school isn’t functioning as it should.

How it got that way is another question entirely but possibly water under the bridge at this point. Trying to fight this closure is similar to trying to jump across one of the city’s drawbridges after it was already up: a pessimistic outlook and probable injury await anyone who tries.

It’s worth noting, however, that all but a few of those 145 students are designated as low-income students of color. For comparison purposes, Chicago has a high school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood with only 55 percent of students designated as low-income. Lincoln Park High School has a band director, more than a dozen sports coaches for both boys’ and girls’ athletic teams, including bowling, cross country, water polo, and competitive cheerleading. Enrollment numbers there have held steady slightly north of 2,100 for the last five years.

Comparing apples to oranges is kind of my point. From a fiscal stewardship perspective, Robeson should be closed, and Lincoln Park should remain open. From a humanistic perspective, though, some of those coaches and music directors should beef up the quality of life for students at Robeson so the school and neighborhood could turn around. (Maybe that’s why the district plans to raze it: to clear the way for a more enriching school. I assume teachers at Robeson are just as good as those at Lincoln Park, so academics isn’t the issue on this one.)

Protests are expected

Closing schools, whether in wealthy suburbs or impoverished city neighborhoods, will bring out the protesters. “The whole purpose is to see if we can change the board’s mind about closing our school down,” WLS-TV quoted a sophomore at Harper High School, one of the schools on the list, as saying. “A lot of people around here want to keep this school open.”

The city plans to build an $85 million, state-of-the-art high school where Robeson is now, built to serve some 1,200 students, if the plan to close the four schools moves forward. That new school would open in the fall of 2019, according to the news station, citing officials with knowledge of the plan.

“There is a vision to have a high-quality high school in Englewood, and the district and the city are actually putting dollars behind that idea,” the station quoted CPS Chief Education Officer Janice K Jackson as saying.

The future looks brighter than life for the schools’ current students

Given the situation how it is right now, I would vote to close the schools and build a new one, too. And of course, building a new, state-of-the-art high school in the neighborhood will be good for students moving forward.

The problem is that the district didn’t just decide to build a wonderful high school in Englewood. It first decided to make these four high schools worse so that enrollment would go down. Look, if kids aren’t getting anything out of high school, they’re going to look for other alternatives. Those who stay at the school will make the student population more and more homogeneous over time: the majority of kids will be those who don’t like school but whose parents either can’t or won’t send them anywhere else.

That’s not a recipe for success, and it all started when the district narrowed the curriculum, bit by bit, down to just the parts of a few subjects that would contribute to test scores. It all started when the district cut programming, music group by sports team, down to just the minimum requirement to list the school as one that even provides any extracurricular activities at all.

At this point, though, it’s water under the bridge: the school is lost. The protests are a few years too late. The best I hope for is a focusing of all this protest energy on the planning for a new school that will fit into the district’s current plan and serve students of Englewood well into the future, a school where programs like sports teams and fine arts activities will be added, not taken away, and a community that will rise up from these ashes.

That’s what I hope for, because hoping that Chicago Public Schools will vote in February to keep these schools open is a lost cause. And there are kids in school, right now, who don’t have time for us to waste on lost causes. The education they are getting right now is far more important than keeping some underutilized school building open in the short term.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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