BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK
AND ART GOLAB
Nine out of ten of the Chicago Public School students potentially affected by school closings this year are black, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found, a discovery one community activist called a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Of those 129 schools located mostly on the South and West sides, 117 are majority black. And 119 of them have a percentage of black students higher than thedistrict average. At the 129 schools on CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s list of schools that could be closed this year, 88 percent of the students are black.
Schools with at least 90 percent black students account for 103 of the 129. Just nine are majority Hispanic.
The racial breakdown of the schools that could be closed is not in line with the overall demographics of the district. Across the city, 41.7 percent of CPS students are African American, 8.8 percent are white and 44.1 percent are Hispanic. The rest are Asian, Native American or members of other racial groups.
With the brunt of closings likely falling on black children, community members fighting to save schools are disgusted.
“It bothers me that schools that are in mixed neighborhoods, schools that are mostly Hispanic or Caucasian, they don’t seem to show interest to close them,” said Willetta Gary, a substitute teacher at Shoop Academy, who attended a recent school closing hearing on the Far South Side. “Children fare best when they can attend school in their own neighborhood where they live.”
Dwayne Truss of the Save Our Neighborhood Schools Coalition in Austin and North Lawndale, home to 16 of the schools on the list, was more blunt: “It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Byrd-Bennett insists race is not a factor in the process to close schools in an effort to “right size” the district. Rather, population decline has led to “under utilization” — or how empty or full a building is. The district, which this year decided to base school closings on capacity rather than the academic prowess of the students within, said schools targeted for closing are in areas that have lost population.
Indeed, the district claims the city has lost 145,000 children from 2000 to 2010, though school enrollment dropped by about 30,000 during the same decade. CPS cannot explain the disparity in the numbers.
African Americans of all ages left the city and number about 177,000 fewer as of the 2010 census than they did in 2000. During the same decade, the number of whites and Hispanics grew. Many of the schools considered overcrowded are in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods and, therefore, safe from closing or consolidation.
“Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves to have a high-quality education that will prepare them to succeed in life,” Byrd-Bennett said in an emailed statement. “These numbers show that right now, that is not happening, and a disproportionately high rate of our African-American children are in schools that lack the resources necessary to give them an education we can all be proud of.”
The Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization called CPS’ under-utilization statistics a “manufactured crisis,” saying the district hasn’t lost as many children as it claims. The group testified before the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that closing neighborhood schools has most affected minority children and violates the civil rights of children who then must travel to be educated.
When told of the list’s demographics, the organization’s education organizer Jitu Brown first let out a long sigh.
“The racial breakdown of the schools that are eligible to be closed is really an indictment on the fact that the district has operated without accountability in a two-tiered education system,” Brown said.
“What we should be saying instead of blaming parents, instead of blaming teachers or having low expectations, is, ‘Why can the school district set up excellent public schools on one side of town because it wants to keep that demographic there but starve out neighborhood schools in another community that’s African-American, and after the district neglects those schools, say ‘Look your schools are under-utilized, your test scores aren’t where they should be.’”
In Philadelphia, where dozens of public schools are slated to be closed come June, a community organization sued the School District of Philadelphia, saying its choice of schools to close is racially discriminatory.
The group, called Action United, claimed in January that African Americans made up 81 percent of students at the 37 schools the district wants to close but only 56 percent of the district’s students overall.
Last year, a group of Local School Council members in Chicago sued CPS, alleging that the 17 proposed schools targeted for major change were overwhelmingly African-American. That case was tossed in March from circuit court but continues on appeal in the Illinois Appellate Court.
“It’s criminal that in 2013, after all the sacrifices people have made,” Brown said, “that you still have a school system that looks at black children as if they are less.”
Outside Fernwood Elementary School in Roseland, an elementary school that is 97.7 percent African American, Cornelia Glover called the list “not fair.”
“They don’t care,” she said of the district, waiting to walk her three grandchildren home, “they just want to save money.”