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CPS Says Englewood Residents Support a Plan to Close Its Schools. Here’s What Really Happened

Five years ago, I helped create a plan for how to improve education in Englewood—with the support of CPS. Nowhere did it mention closing our neighborhood schools.

The author (center, facing forward) speaks to Englewood residents during the Englewood School Repurposing Retreat in 2014.   Photo: Courtesy of Asiaha Butler

Five years ago, I wrote a post on the online community board, Everyblock, titled, “No schools will be left in Englewood by 2017!

In it, I pointed out the grim statistics about our neighborhood schools: Many were on probation, didn’t have adequate resources, and were plagued by the racial inequity, segregation, and systemic issues that are considered the norm for Chicago. I felt that the community needed to get involved and find ways to invest in schools to provide our children with the best educational experiences possible.

Now, fast forward to today. Chicago Public Schools is hosting community meetings about a new state-of-the-art, $75 million high school to be built in Englewood. This is a victory, right?

Not at all—because this school is being built at the cost of closing the four current high schools in Englewood.

To add insult to injury, CPS is using a strategic plan that I helped author to justify its decision.

How did it come to this? Ten years ago, I began my search for a school for my daughter, who was 10 years old at the time. I did what most parents do: I visited local schools and scanned the reading and math test data. I found that our neighborhood schools were suffering in comparison to schools on the North Side.

I knew I had to do something. It was bigger than giving my daughter an equitable chance at a decent education: I had to stand up for the children on my block and my community. Even though my daughter had some years before attending high school, I joined the Local School Council for Robeson High School as a community representative. Between 2008 and 2010, I volunteered with four other groups that were working to better our community.

Then, in 2010, I was elected as the co-chair of the Englewood Community Action Council, one of nine neighborhoods where CPS convened members of the community to develop a strategic plan for educational success. We were asked to connect schools, students, and families to various community resources, devise a plan to improve educational opportunities, and provide guidance in developing a cradle-to-college/career pipeline to the CPS CEO and the Board of Education. My mission was clear: We needed to face these issues of racial inequality in communities of color and diligently examine the data and create solutions.

Published in September 2011, the Educational Strategic Plan laid out 12 detailed goals that would lead to the necessary transformation of education in our community. It included important data about the enrollment and academic achievement of all the schools located in Englewood. It touched on the need for appropriate parental/caregiver support, early childhood programs, improved, culturally relevant curriculum, high-quality administrators and staff, social-emotional learning, post-secondary career development, and more.

Nowhere did we suggest closing schools.

In fact, the strategies we listed were aimed at making schools more appealing for students and parents alike. But after filing the report in 2012, CPS suddenly lost interest in our work. Not only did the district turn its back on the Englewood CAC, it was difficult to keep parents and community stakeholders engaged. This was around the time I posted to Everyblock about the dire need for community involvement. Then, we were up against potentially 10 elementary schools closing, and although I walked away from the CAC at that time, I made sure my voice was heard on why these schools should remain open. After exhaustive research and effort to convince CPS that not all schools slated for closure were lost causes, the city decided to close six of the original 10—still the highest number for any neighborhood in Chicago.

Our strategic plan was shelved, enrollments declined, more charters opened, and many of the educational institutions that we knew are now boarded-up, vandalized buildings that remain as a reminder of the injustice we face in communities like Englewood.

I was extremely disappointed when I found out the Educational Strategic Plan created under my leadership five years ago had been dusted off and used as a bible for the school closures and new high school proposal in Englewood, which was officially announced last summer. (The final public hearing will be January 30, and the school board can vote on the plan as soon as next month.) CPS says the closures are necessary because the high schools are under enrolled and performing poorly.

I can’t help but think that these issues could have been solved, or at least improved, if the district had taken up some of the CAC’s proposed solutions five years ago. Since then, enrollment has dropped by 80 percent at each of our neighborhood schools. Three CPS CEOs have come and gone—Brizard, Byrd-Bennett, and Claypool—yet, the district did not engage with the people who they originally asked to help create solutions. It’s a slap in the face for them to come in now and conveniently use our old strategic plan as a way to justify their decision to close four schools.

I would be a fool to say I don’t want this school to be built, but I would also be a fool to not see that this is how communities like Englewood, Roseland, Austin, and other predominantly black neighborhoods must celebrate any civic win—as a bittersweet victory. We must walk the halls of current high schools with fewer than 300 students enrolled and listen to students as they romanticize about having a football team, or attending a pep rally, or taking basic classes to graduate. What do we tell the freshman girl in a class of only 10 students who wants to be a cheerleader but has no team to cheer for?

I’m now a proud parent of a daughter who received a full scholarship to one of the most prestigious historical black colleges in the nation. As an empty nester, my husband and I should be traveling the world or learning a new hobby­—let’s face it, I deserve it. Some days, I wish I could turn a blind eye, like most people living that “good life” in Chicago. But this is injustice, this is systemic racism, this is the outcome of a hyper-segregated city that chokes the life out of communities of color and deprives 14-year-olds from having fundamental high school experiences.

As a current high school steering committee member, I have publicly stated that I will resign if CPS does not restructure the makeup of this committee to ensure that there is a transparent process and that community voices are truly valued. We need more parents represented to ensure that this new school does not also suffer like our other neighborhood schools, and I am working to enlist them to join. There are education advocates working with us, and we will always welcome others who are willing to stand up for our children who are caught in the middle of this debacle. We all should be concerned for the current state of our city, our public schools, and how we dismantle the dreams of our future leaders.

Asiaha Butler is a homeowner in Englewood and president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.). She is a parent of a former CPS student and a community strategist.

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