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CPS students board a bus to Washington to testify before the Department of Education regarding inequalities in Chicago education.

Chicago residents call school closings a civil rights issue at D.C. hearing

by Bryan Lowry
Jan 29, 2013


Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

Gavin Alston attended Price Elementary before it closed. His mother has decided to home school him rather than have him attend school in a different neighborhood.


Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

Jitu Brown (right) before departing to Washington. His son is 4 and Brown says he is terrified about the prospect of him beginning his education in CPS.

Bryan Lowry/MEDILL

Shannon Jalida Bennett, of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, explains why Chicago's top-down approach to education results in what he calls civil rights violations before boarding a bus to Washington.

If officials in Chicago and Springfield won’t listen to you, what should you do? Go to Washington.

That’s the approach that was taken by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, an activist group for the two South Side communities, who represented Chicago at a hearing before the Department of Education on Tuesday.

The organization along with representatives from 17 other cities, including Los Angeles and New York, maintain that school closings constitute a civil rights violation because they disproportionately affect African-American and Latino communities. The trip has been named “Journey For Justice.”

Both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched their careers in Kenwood.

“We know Arne. Played ball with him and he’s a person from this community. We know very much about his lack of qualifications and the damage he did in Chicago,” said Shannon Jalida Bennett, the Kenwood Oakland organization’s deputy executive director.

Duncan, who formerly served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools under Mayor Richard M. Daley, does not hold a degree in education, but had nearly a decade of experience running charter and magnet schools before being appointed schools chief.

“Knowing the conditions in the urban community and knowing the impact of school closings with the violence and the fact that young people lose at least three years of education and growth for every transfer, Arne is one of the main people who should be advocating for different policies,” said Bennett.

Beginning at 6 a.m. Sunday a crowd composed of small children, high school students, parents and grandparents began to gather for breakfast at the community organization’s offices, which sits next to a furniture store on the 4200 block of S. Cottage Grove Ave. Once everyone had been fed, the 50 Chicagoans boarded a bus headed for the nation’s capital.

Gavin Alston, 12, had attended Price Elementary before it was closed last year.

“I felt really bad because that’s not fair to us, the children,” he said. His mother, Krista Alston, who accompanied him on the trip to Washington, has since chosen to home school him instead of sending him to a new school in a different neighborhood.

“I feel like as a taxpayer in the city of Chicago – I purchased a home in North Kenwood – we pay our taxes for the parks, the schools,” Alston said.

“I don’t feel like the Chicago Public Schools system is being fair to the residents of this community. I refuse to have them designate for me what to do as far as my son’s education, so I took it into my own hands. I don’t feel it’s fair for them to ship our children 22 blocks away,” said Alston, who is a former CPS music teacher.

In addition to railing against school closings, the activists’ testimony highlighted disparities between schools on the North and South Sides. Jitu Brown, the group’s education organizer, said Lake View High School on the North Side offers photography, studio art and music classes, while students at the South Side’s Dyett High School had to take an online course in 2011 to fulfill the district’s art requirement.

“These stark differences are rampant across CPS. This is why it’s a civil rights issue,” said Brown.

Marielle Sainvilus, CPS’ press secretary, clarified that school enrollment determines funding and that principals make curriculum and staffing decisions based on the money available. Dyett, which could seat 1,300 students, only serves 150, according to CPS. Art classes are currently being taught by a full-time teacher.

CPS officials argue that closing underutilized schools will enable the district to make sure all schools are better resourced.

"Today, about 50 percent of CPS schools are underutilized and nearly 140 are more than half-empty, which is stretching our limited resources much too thin,” CPS said in an emailed statement. “In the face of a $1 billion deficit next fiscal year we must make difficult decisions to address our utilization crisis, which will allow us to better redirect resources into all our schools and provide all our children with more programs and services that are critical to their success, such as new technology, playgrounds, libraries, more nurses and counselors, and art and music programs."

Aquila Griffin, a junior at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, previously attended Dyett.

“I felt as though I was pushed out of the place where I wanted to be. It was across the street from my house, all my friends were there, my teachers were like family, but because I wasn’t getting what I needed to be college ready I had to leave,” Griffin, a speaker at the hearing, said before boarding the bus.

After the hearing the 500 participants in “Journey For Justice” marched to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial for a candlelight vigil.

The Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment.