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Mitchell: Closing low-performing school programs is long overdue

Karen Lewis  center;  President Chicago Teachers Unialong with parents students clergy community leaders reads statement  during press

Karen Lewis, center; President, Chicago Teachers Union along with parents, students, clergy, and community leaders, reads a statement during a press conference outside of the Mahaila Jackson Elementary School. Lewis reads a statement on CPS plan to close schools. Thursday March 21, 2013 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 23, 2013 2:28PM

There is no easy way to close a school, even one with a floor full of empty desks.

But Chicago Public Schools Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett appears to have given it her best shot. She appointed a commission that was guided by Frank Clark, the former CEO of ComEd. Clark not only stands shoulder-to-shoulder with top executives across this country, he has a long track record of trying to improve the quality of life for African Americans in this city.

That Byrd-Bennett put this explosive issue in his hands should have been enough to convince naysayers that the matter would be handled delicately.

And it was.

After countless meetings and testimonials that generated a 2,000-page report, Byrd-Bennett decided to close 54 elementary school programs.

The number is actually a fraction of the public schools that are being underutilized because so many black families have moved out of neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

The closures do not include high schools, a particularly vulnerable population because we have allowed certain neighborhoods to be overrun by gang factions.

But to hear opponents tell it, closing schools is just another conspiracy to deny African-American children the right to be educated in their own neighborhoods.


Where were these people when children sat in stagnant classrooms and fell years behind their grade levels?

Where were they when these children were trying to learn in deteriorating buildings while new schools were being built elsewhere?

Where were they when neighborhoods became so dangerous, a lot of these students had to hook up with gang-members just so they could get back and forth to school?

Education is the only thing that can save these children from a broken life. But instead of fighting to provide children in public schools a quality education, too many of us are fighting to preserve a tired status quo.

Well, the blame game isn’t working anymore.

Gone are the days when you could kiss your kids goodbye and send them off to a decent school down the block.

When it comes to education, parents are demanding choices.

Indeed, some of them get up at dark-thirty and put their kids on a school bus because they are desperate to give them a better educational experience.

If CPS has found a way to send students to schools that are performing at a higher level than the ones they are leaving, then we are making progress.

Frankly, I would rather see the plan blow up in Byrd-Bennett’s face than see the school system continue to educate the few at the expense of the masses.

Obviously, no one is going to be able to fix all that ails this school system in one fell swoop. But dragging the process out won’t work either. There are too many self-serving adults involved, and public schools have been used by some of these adults as a power base.

That doesn’t just happen in so-called underperforming schools, but in most Chicago Public Schools.

That is why the groups that have squealed the loudest have been able to keep a school open even when it was clear that no amount of tinkering would change the abysmal outcomes.

Some of these same groups fought “turnaround” schools tooth and nail even when it was just as clear the new administrators were meeting educational goals.

According to Byrd-Bennett, every child affected by the school closings will go to another school in close proximity. More importantly, every child will go to a higher-performing school.

Parents have every right to raise heck if CPS does not live up to this promise.

But now that the closings have been announced, the receiving schools should put out a welcome mat and work hard at being a part of the solution.

Unfortunately, some of us would rather see kids stuck in underperforming schools than invite them to share in the blessings of a good school.

During this process, Byrd-Bennett, who grew up in New York City, saw up close that our city is not only divided by race — but by class.

To close 54 schools at one time will put her in the cross hairs of an undeclared war.

That can’t be helped.

This war is long overdue.

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