School Closures in 2013 Have Long-Term Effect on Woodlawn

 As we continue to discuss various issues that contribute to flourishing communities, this month we look at the effects of the school closures on Woodlawn.  I share my personal perspective as a parent and community member in Woodlawn.

It was May 22, 2013 and I sat on the front porch of my brownstone in East Woodlawn, tears streaming down my face as I listened to the live-stream of the Chicago School Board meeting.  One by one, they unanimously voted to close nearly 50 schools.  My twins were in preschool at our local public school, Wadsworth, at the end of our block.  In the months leading up to the vote, I felt the weight as a parent and neighbor of how much the closing of our schools would affect our community.  I attended protests with my young children in-toe. I spoke at public forums.  That spring day felt particularly cold. I couldn’t help but feel that this vote was a direct message about where our community stood as a priority to the city.  

In our community, two schools were closed – Dumas and Sexton, and were merged with two other underperforming schools – Wadsworth and Fiske.  The process of merging was chaotic and messy. Both merged schools ended up with new principals that were left with the task of not only stabilizing the schools, but also picking up the pieces of emotional trauma inflicted on the families.  The School Board and Mayor Emmanuel promised the majority black and brown communities that these closings would ultimately benefit the children. Has that promise been fulfilled?

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research conducted extensive research in 2018.  “The evidence provided in this report suggests that closing schools and moving students … did not automatically expose them to better learning environments and result in greater academic gains.” A few highlights from their research include:

  • School staff said that the planning process for merging closed schools into welcoming schools was not sufficient, resulting in staff feeling unprepared.
  • When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning.
  • Students who were attending welcoming schools that relocated into the building of closed schools transferred out at higher rates just before the merger; mobility was not affected by school closures in subsequent years for either group of students.
  • Students affected by school closures did experience negative learning effects, especially students from closed schools. The largest negative impact of school closures was on the test scores of students from closed schools; their scores were lower than expected the year of the announcement.
  • Students from closed schools experienced a long-term negative impact on their math test scores; slightly lower and short-term effects for reading test scores.
  • Students from welcoming schools had lower than expected reading test scores the first year after the merger but they rebounded the next year.

Current Woodlawn 20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor has been instrumental in fighting against school closures for many years, including leading a hunger struck to stop Dyett High School from closing, which was successful.  As a mother and Woodlawn resident, her lived experience informs her opinion. “The city of Chicago has gotten rich off the backs of low-income and working families, predominantly in black and brown communities. We have a city of haves and have-nots. And the haves are okay with us being have-nots.” Eve L. Ewing, author of Ghosts in the School Yard and Assistant Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, describes the effects of the school closures on black and brown communities.  She explains that these communities see the closing of their schools—schools that are certainly less than perfect but that are theirs—as one more in a long line of exclusionary policies. The fight to keep them open is yet another front in the ongoing struggle of black people in America to build successful lives and achieve true self-determination.  A school is shuttered due to underutilization but the lack of use is due to the tearing down of the very community it was meant to serve.  Students and teachers are pegged as underserved and under-resourced, but they’re neither given the resources nor have access to the funding sources to correct the problem.  The overarching message from Ewing’s research is that it’s impossible to point the finger at the community for these closings when the very infrastructure they depend on has set them up to fail.

She goes on to explain that there’s always a rush to defend acts of “progress” by couching them under the guise of good intentions. However, even the most sincere of intentions can’t hide the fact that what’s happened in Chicago, and in many other urban communities, is directly related to policies that were put in place to keep blacks and whites separate and not equal, referring to redlining policies preventing black families from purchasing homes in certain areas of the city.  

I have watched our community struggle to rebound from the effects of these school closures.  Quality education is incredibly important to communities flourishing and the principals, teachers, and neighbors in Woodlawn have made monumental strides amidst tremendous odds.  Next month I will continue this conversation by highlighting the various ways Sunshine has joined with neighbors to address these issues.

Written by Holly Daly, Marketing and Communications Coordinator