School Closures Condemn Communities to Hopelessness: A Plea from a Chicago Teacher

An open letter to CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett from a district teacher

Dear Dr. Byrd-Bennett:

I am a veteran teacher in a C.P.S. high school, a C.T.U. member and the parent of two C.P.S. graduates. I would like to share my thoughts and observations with you regarding the school closing process that has been underway.

Terry Mazany, of Chicago Community Trust and former interim C.P.S. chief, addressed your dilemma, in the Chicago Tribune, "You've been dealt a difficult hand, not of your creation." I agree. And I want to appreciate the fact that, in my observation, you have made a sincere attempt to be thoughtful and rational in your approach to this issue. I have been hopeful that your tenure would start to heal the gaping wounds of distrust that exist between the public and C.P.S. Since 1987 as a C.P.S. parent and 1997 as a C.P.S. teacher, the one constant has been pervasive distrust that has poisoned the water for constructive dialogue and problem-solving.

That being said, I want to go on the record to say that I do not believe in closing public schools. Public schools are at the heart of our communities. I believe that we are making a false choice by closing schools. I view this action as a collective sigh of defeat coming from our leaders. We educators who have made it our life's work to nurture children to become strong, resilient human beings and productive citizens, have a responsibility to dismiss an impulse toward defeat and to search for solutions. Giving up on those in need is not only morally bankrupt, it will haunt us as the effects of endemic poverty and hopelessness sprout like weeds in our communities - gangs, drugs, broken families, and violence. The message we send by closing schools is that we have given up on them because they are failures. The affected communities and the city at large, internalize that message. Many members of the affected communities live that message out to its sad conclusion. Is that the message we want to send to our most vulnerable citizens?

Instead, I believe neighborhood schools should be a place where everyone has a vested interest, a place where we support teachers, students, and community members. A neighborhood school should be a resource for the entire community, a beacon of hope in hopeless communities, a model for what is possible. Schools should be open in the evenings to serve the community and to aid those hardest hit in tough economic times. They could offer job training, computer access, adult-learning, classes for dropouts. The community schools movement has been around for a long time in urban, suburban and rural communities. Its goal is to build strong, resilient communities that keep hopelessness at bay. Our faith-based sector has been at the forefront of supporting positive solutions and could be instrumental in its implementation. Furthermore, Chicago has a strong corporate and non-profit sector that has shown a willingness to support innovative solutions for our schools. They too could be engaged in this solution as well as the hundreds of parent groups around the city.

Would this be a costly strategy? Yes, it's an investment in communities and our future. The message it sends to the poorest in our city is that our leaders will not abandon them but rather will support them. Most of the schools on the "hit" list are located in socio-economically depressed areas of our city. That is the root problem that needs to be addressed. WBEZ's recent program on Harper High School recounts in stark terms how our children are suffering. For example, here's a list of rules that the students recounted for how to survive in their neighborhoods located in gang territory:

  1. Know your geography - you must always be aware of where you are and what gang controls that specific territory.
  2. If you must go out, never walk alone because it makes you the target of a gang member; never walk with someone else either because that makes you appear to be a gang member. Walk with someone but separately so that you have each other's back.
  3. Don't use the sidewalk, walk in the street to feel safer.
  4. If you hear shots, don't run, fall to the ground.
  5. Watch what you say and do. You can be shot for big and small reasons (boyfriend-girlfriend stuff, money owed, petty stuff, he said-she said, retaliation, off your block).
  6. Never go outside if you don't have to.
  7. Stay at school as long as possible.

These students recognize their school as a safe haven. We should celebrate and nurture that within our communities, not destroy it. I would ask that you consider delaying the decision until you have had time to explore other solutions that affirm our city's commitment to the poorest communities, support their schools and support them in their struggles for a better life. The Illinois legislature has even suggested a moratorium. You can do this differently. I am hoping and praying that you do.


Mary Brandt, C.P.S. teacher

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