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Gary Younge

The Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis, speaks outside the Mahalia Jackson elementary school. Photograph: M Spencer Green/AP
Chicago schools fight closure as drive for charter schools continues

Like a condemned man taking time out for a manicure, Mahalia Jackson elementary school on Chicago's south side will have its gardens replanted in the next week or so. Then, if the city's school board has its way, just as the new flowers reach full bloom it will prepare to close its doors for good.

"We're a tight-knit school in the heart of the community," says GC Middleton, a social science teacher who has taught there for 25 years. "I taught the parents of three of the children in my class. They say there's a method to this madness. But I still don't understand what it is."

Monday night marks the school's last chance to make its case to stay open, at a public meeting organised by Chicago Public Schools. Supporters are hopeful that if they get a large crowd and make some noise they can turn things around. Jymette Penson, co-chair of the local school council, whose two grandchildren go to the school as did their parents, is not so sure. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has already said the time for negotiations are over. Some activists are calling for a boycott. Penson says: "They set up these things so they can say you have free speech and then they do what they were going to do anyway. Go ahead and talk. It don't mean squat to us."

Mahalia Jackson is one of 54 schools that CPS recently announced would close at the end of this year, affecting more than 30,000 students. CPS officials claim the closures are necessary to plug a $1bn deficit, and that consolidating under-used and under-performing schools will save $560m over 10 years by reducing investment in shuttered buildings. The district insists the savings will go to improve classroom resources including air conditioning, libraries and iPads for all students in grades three through eight.

The closures are part of a nationwide move to shut large numbers of urban public schools and set up privately run, publicly funded charters. Closures have taken place in Detroit, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and many other cities, with questionable success. Teachers' unions and community activists counter that the rationale for the closures has been inconsistent, the potential savings have been exaggerated and the social costs of closure these schools, predominantly in black and Latino low-income neighbourhoods, far outweigh any budgetary benefit. In Chicago, the plans have sparked demonstrations across the city and have been forcefully challenged at many rowdy hearings recently, just six months after a citywide teachers' strike.

In many ways, Mahalia Jackson is typical of the schools in the city's sights. Its student body is 98% black and 75% low-income. The school's mission statement, on display as you walk in, says: "To enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens."

Clearly the school is struggling to fulfill its stated mission. It is on its third principal in three years. According to CPS performance criteria, it is in low academic standing. Its students test far lower than the city and state average in reading, maths and science. Only 5% exceed state standards as a whole. Since 2006, its enrollment has shrunk by 22% to its lowest in eight years. According to CPS "ideal program enrollment" criteria, which multiplies the number of allotted classrooms by 30 (the optimum number of children in a class) the building can hold 750 students. At present it has 302. When Middleton arrived there were three 7th and 8th grade classes. Now there is only one of each and she uses twice as much space to teach a class as she once did.

"For too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed, because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CPS's chief executive, explaining the announcement. "The district must consolidate … to get students into higher-performing schools."

Jesse Sharkey, the vice-president of the Chicago Teachers' Union, says this is a non-sequitur. "Parents and communities have been campaigning for more resources and better schools for years and their demands have fallen on deaf ears in city hall," he said. "Something should be done to make sure the children at Mahalia Jackson get a better shot than they are currently getting and, on paper at least, one thing the city might do is close the school in which so many appear to be faring so poorly and send them somewhere else. But Mahalia Jackson does not exist on paper."

The school sits in the Gresham/Englewood neighbourhood, bordered on two sides by a railway track, in a zip code where more than a third of the families with children live in poverty and well kept homes with well tended lawns are interspersed with boarded up houses. The banner hanging from the front railing announcing the school spells out its name in sign language. It has a comprehensive program for the hearing impaired. It is equipped with special carpeting and lighting that does not buzz, to assist the hearing impaired. The closest school with similar facilities, says Middleton, is almost 10 miles away.

Indeed, almost 20% of the children at the school have some kind of special needs – 40% more than the system as a whole – ranging from autism to general behavioural difficulties. These children generally do need smaller class sizes – a factor not fully taken into account in CPS's calculations. They also need more support services.

"The physical therapist, the case worker, the occupational therapist, the social worker, the counsellor all have their own offices," explains Middleton. "Not all of them are here all the time but when they are they don't have to meet with children in a closet or the corridor like they do in other schools. I can't think of a single room in the building that isn't used."

 Deviyea Dean, an eighth grader at Mahalia Jackson elementary school in Chicago. Photograph: M Spencer Green/AP
Deviyea Dean, an eighth grader at Mahalia Jackson elementary school in Chicago. Photograph: M Spencer Green/AP

And despite their disabilities, almost all children with special needs do the same tests as the non-special needs children and their scores are included in the averages without any weighting.

"When you see the numbers its one thing. But when you actually see the child it's quite different," says Katie Osgood, a teacher at a psychiatric hospital in the city. "A lot of them already come quite chaotic home lives. The children I work with can't be in a large noisy classroom. They need space to be by themselves."

So the academic standards at Mahalia Jackson are not quite as low as they at first appear and the school is not quite as empty as the official statistics suggest. (Not least because while calculated at 30 to a classroom, the actual CPS target is 28 to a room) If the school closes, the plan is that the children will go to Fort Dearborn, a 13-minute walk away on the other side of the railway tracks. The area is not gang-infested but there has been a longstanding rivalry between the two schools which has occasionally gotten out of hand. "My daughter had friends across the tracks, says Penson. "She used to fight her way over there and then fight her way back."

Since 2006, Fort Dearborn's enrollment has plummeted by 45%. According to CPS "ideal program enrollment", its building could hold 990 students. This year 452 enrolled. With two under-enrolled schools sitting so closely together the case for closure of one of them would seem to be sealed. But it's precisely at this point that the CPS' arguments start to fall apart.

Fort Dearborn, which is in the same zip code, seems to struggle with the same issues Mahalia Jackson does. Its student body is 98% black and 94% low income. It's test scores are higher – in maths it is better than the city average. But it has half the percentage of special-needs children. It is also on probation and in low academic standing. So there are no grounds to believe Mahalia Jackson's students would be going to a better place academically. This too is typical. A study, When Schools Close, by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research revealed that from 38 schools closed between 2001 and 2006, only 6% of students who were moved went to high-performing schools.

The financial case is also weak. Schools-closure costs money and of the scores of schools closed in the last 10 years, the CPS has only been able to sell on around half. The rest require maintenance or fall into dereliction and become sites for drug dealing in rundown neighbourhoods.

"Our research found that school districts tended to save under $1m per school closed," said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told the New York Times. "So in some ways that's not a game-changing amount."

Moreover, a short walk around Mahalia Jackson reveals that if too many schools is the source of the problem then the very people responsible for closure are in no small part to blame, because even as they argue for closures they keep opening new schools. Several charter schools – publicly funded, privately run and often for-profit establishments – have opened in the area with the blessing of CPS in the last eight years. One has an intake which overlaps with both Fort Dearborn and Mahalia Jackson and one is identical. The one school that has an identical intake – Learn charter school – has been open for just a few years. It has a higher percentage of low income students than Mahalia Jackson but lower than Fort Dearborn and a lower percentage of special-education students than both. Its test scores are comparable to Fort Dearborn.

In short, the closure of Mahalia Jackson is guaranteed to cause a huge disruption to those who go there and is unlikely to save much money – indeed it may end up costing some – or improve the lot of its students. The Chicago Teachers Union and community organisations have vowed to fight the closures through direct action.

"We're signalling that there is going to be a large and determined movement that will use the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action in order to keep these schools open," said Jesse Sharkey, shortly after he was arrested outside City Hall two weeks ago, at a demonstration against the closures. "We see this event as kicking off an extended campaign this spring and we think it was a great success."

Some schools may go into occupation. But they admit they have an uphill struggle. "People mistakenly think if it's not their school that's going to be affected then its not going to affect them. But it's going to affect everybody," says Katie Osgood.

The fact that the closures are happening in low-income black and Latino neighbourhoods makes organising city wide opposition difficult. "Chicago has been a deliberately segregated city for over 100 years and this is a legacy of that and a continuation of that," says Cassie Creswell of Raise Your Hand. "I think it's going to be tough to stop them but we are obligated to try."

GC Middleton still thinks there is room to persuade the city of its error. "But if we are going down," she says, "then we're going down fighting."

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