A cacophony of young voices competed with the low whistle of a cold wind on a gray Chicago spring day as children skipped down the sidewalk in front of Pope Elementary. The school is located across from Douglas Park on Chicago’s West Side in the North Lawndale community. It is also one of the 54 Chicago schools slated for closing. Pope, like most of the schools on the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) death list, is located in a predominantly African American working class neighborhood.
I was at Pope School for a press conference on April 19 organized by the indefatigable Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.The assembled young people were eager to save their school and eager to talk:
“What I want to say on behalf of my fellow classmates is that Pope is a wonderful school.”
“I am part of a soccer team and the girls on the team don’t want the school to close.”
“I think it’s unfair to close the school. The school has been here for many years and is walking distance from my house which actually around the corner. This school has taught me a lot and my ISAT scores are like 99% and 98% and I think thats really good for my age.”
“I am a former student at Pope School and I still have two young sisters who go here and I have younger brother in the 8th grade and another brother in second grade…The school is outstanding. They have great teachers there. And we’re actually not saying we’re the best school, but we also have the academics to prove that this school should be open and not only do the teachers work with the students but they work with the parents as well.”
Lisa Pugh who heads up the Local School Council (LSC) had this to say:
”I’m here to keep Pope alive. We are just two points down from AYP and you want to close our school down. You are not giving us a chance…Our test scores show improvement.”
AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) is a measurement defined by the No Child Left Behind Act that determines how schools are doing academically according to results on standardized tests. The Local School Counsel is an elected board that helps support the school and determine some of its policies.
CPS has been closing schools for several years, often providing conflicting reasons as to why. This year’s flavor of the month is “underutilization” of school buildings. But Pope’s enrollment has been growing, up from 142 in 2009 to 184 in 2013. Pope’s class size is an optimum of 20 students per teacher which may explain its huge jump in reading and math test scores. West Side residents see “underutilization” as an opportunity for small classes after enduring decades of overcrowded schools in African American neighborhoods.
According to Valerie Leonard who studied how Pope uses its space, the school is well within the official CPS guidelines. CPS claims that the school does not have a science lab when it fact it does. It also has a computer lab, a special ed room, a nurse’s office, a game room, two rooms for America Scores which is a unique after-school program combining soccer and reading plus 3 rooms devoted to counseling from the Juvenile Protective Association (JPA).
According to Alderman Michael Chandler who also spoke, CPS is spreading “negative propaganda” about Pope by claiming that is is not handicapped accessible when it is. CPS also claimed that Pope has no Pre-K program while Alderman Chandler said,”…the fact of the matter is we still have families on the waiting list.”
The Chicago Teachers Union has repeatedly emphasized the importance of “wraparound” programs which provide social and psychological services for students. JPA counseling is just such a program. Such programs are especially important in African American working class communities that have been subjected to racially motivated disinvestment and deliberate withholding of resources. The resulting social problems can be overwhelming to those struggling to hold these neighborhoods together.
So why on God’s green earth would CPS want to close a school which is doing so much for the community and is showing such steady improvement. Part of the answer lies with AUSL, the politically well-connected Academy of Urban School Leadership. AUSL has been contracted by CPS to do school “turnarounds”. These turnarounds involve firing the entire staff of “failing” schools, regardless of the staff member’s performance, and replacing them with staff contracted by AUSL. But even according to standardized test scores, AUSL schools are often outperformed by neighborhood schools.
In what she calls with a twinkle in her eye, her “conspiracy theory”, Leonard believes that AUSL is trying to gain control of all of the school real estate around Douglas Park, pointing to the other schools that being closed in that area in favor of AUSL. Board of Education President David Vitale is a former chair of AUSL. Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer of CPS was also once an AUSL higher-up. Vitale is especially close to Mayor Emanuel and is essentially his “made man” at CPS.
According to Valerie Leonard, AUSL schools do not collaborate well with other North Lawndale schools, which despite the many social problems in the area, is a West Side tradition. When I mentioned to her that I thought AUSL was predatory, she made it clear that was an understatement.
I’ve personally talked to two AUSL teachers who told me they were recruited to the program under false pretenses, not knowing about the damage that AUSL was doing by destabilizing already distressed communities. AUSL funders include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund, both of whom are leading advocates of school privatization.
Lisa Pugh took a few of us on short tour of the neighborhood after the press conference. The street west of Pope has a strong block club, very important in African American neighborhoods. City services are still doled out according to Chicago’s traditional racial apartheid and block clubs must take up the slack. North of Pope are new townhouses and to the east is the expansive Douglas Park.
Closing Pope will most likely turn it into an abandoned building, a magnet for gangbangers, drug abusers, graffiti taggers and the commonplace urban vandal. Surrounding residents have worked hard maintaining their property and fear for the value of their homes and the stability of the neighborhood. Black homeowners were hit hard by the 2008 housing crash and can’t afford further losses. In addition, who would even want to move into a neighborhood with a huge abandoned building?
It is widely believed on the West Side that these destabilizing school closings are directly related to gentrification and an overall plan to remove the current black working class residents in favor of a whiter more affluent population. I do not think this is paranoia, but a shrewd observation of a conspiracy being conducted in plain sight.
North Lawndale and the other Chicago communities have made their opposition to further school closings known in multiple protest meetings and marches. I predict that this currently cold spring is about to heat up because of the growing resistance movement, not only to save public education, but to end Chicago's traditional racial apartheid.
Mr. Vitale, please note: the Pope School mascot is the black panther…
Some faces of the Pope school resistance movement
Photos by Bob Simpson
Study disputes turnaround stats for failing Chicago schools by Rosalind Rossi
School reform organization gets average grades by Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah