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A United Front

American Teacher
May/June 2013
Feature Story

Educators, parents, students and the community are coming together to fight school closings and the disinvestment in public education.

When schools are closed, the ramifications run deep. Students are disconnected from the productive, caring relationships they had with teachers and other school staff. Kids accustomed to walking to a nearby school are forced to travel many blocks—often through dangerous areas—to get to school. And neighborhoods often lose an institution that had served as an important and reliable community hub.

Is it any wonder that school closings usually spark outrage and distrust on the part of parents, students, educators and the community?

In March, the Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission voted to shutter 26 schools and, that same month, the Chicago Public Schools announced it was closing more than 50 schools. Both decisions led to massive communitywide protests. The crisis in Philadelphia was prompted by a recommendation from the Boston Consulting Group to close 64 neighborhood schools, almost one-third of the city’s schools. BCG is notorious for its privatization schemes.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who is also an AFT vice president, says the consultant’s proposal was the most recent and most visible example of what happens when a state and city disinvest in their public schools. “For the past year, every major education action taken by the school district, the SRC and Harrisburg [the state capital] has involved taking resources and people away from our neighborhood schools,” Jordan says. “And when the schools are sufficiently starved, they shut them down.”

The Chicago Public Schools’ decision to close schools and relocate thousands of schoolchildren “will have a devastating impact on many of the city’s low-income neighborhoods and minority families, Chicago Teachers Union president and AFT vice president Karen Lewis wrote in an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune.

The usual argument for closing schools is that they are “underutilized” and a drain on district coffers. But many people close to the situation believe the real goal is to privatize school systems and expand charter schools—without regard to the needs of the students or the community served by the school. And there is a particular concern that the closings target schools attended by children of color.

PFT member Wendy Coleman has been on the frontlines of the effort to prevent the closings in Philadelphia. While quick to point out that she’s not opposed to charter schools, Coleman believes that many of the school closings in Philadelphia are directly tied to competition from charters. The parents who decided that the traditional public school was the best option for their kids, “are now being punished for that decision,” she says.

In Philadelphia, AFT president Randi Weingarten and 18 other protesters were arrested at the headquarters of the Philadelphia school district when they blocked the doors to prevent the School Reform Commission from voting on the school-closing plan.

“We made it clear that the people of Philadelphia want to fix, not close, schools and want to maintain, not destabilize, neighborhoods,” Weingarten told the Washington Post. “And we sent a powerful message to those who want to dismantle or starve public schools out of existence—that students, parents, teachers and community stand united and that we will continue to fight for what our children need—a high-quality public school in their neighborhood.”

Joshua Marburger, a teacher at one of the Chicago elementary schools on the school-closing hit list, was among the thousands of parents, students, educators, elected officials and community activists who rallied and marched this spring in downtown Chicago. “The board of education and the mayor’s office are making these unilateral decisions without really coming to the people who are on the ground level,” Marburger says. “It’s the teachers, the teacher’s assistants and clerks who really know our buildings—who really know our schools and the needs of our kids.”

More than 130 members of the protesting Chicago grass-roots organizations and unions staged a sit-in, which resulted in being led away by police and issued citations.

'We had to have a plan of our own'

The groups opposed to the school closings know that protests, rallies and arrests are not enough. There has to be a plan, an alternative to the closings. And it must be developed with input from a cross section of the community and widely embraced by that community—the kind of plan that was put together by the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools.

Made up of students, parents, teachers and other community members, PCAPS was created in response to the flawed and radical reform plan put forth by the Boston Consulting Group. The coalition is led by some of Philadelphia’s most influential community organizations, including Action United and Youth United for Change. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, along with several other unions, are members of the coalition.

“We had to have an alternative to the [BCG] proposal,” says Action United executive director Craig Robbins. “It was important that we had a plan of our own. We couldn’t just say ‘no.’ ”

To ensure that its plan, “Excellent Schools for All Children,” was based on community-driven solutions, the coalition surveyed parents and other community members, held listening sessions with 750 students, hosted town hall meetings and, last September, sponsored a major conference with more than 300 participants. These activities revealed overwhelming opposition to the BCG plan with many believing that its recommendations to close buildings and outsource management of the city’s schools would result in inferior educational opportunities for students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and English language learners. The community also felt it would compromise student safety.

Students have been among the most vocal critics of the school closings. In Philadelphia, Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union mobilized thousands of students to protest the reform commission’s vote to close schools.

One of the Philadelphia schools slated to be closed is Anna Howard Shaw Middle School. Kia Hinton lives in the neighborhood served by the middle school. Hinton’s children attend the school that many of the students displaced by the closing of Shaw will now be attending, and she’s worried that the number of kids in the already overcrowded classrooms will increase.

Hinton sees Action United as a vehicle through which she and other Philadelphia parents can address issues such as the closings and the underfunding of schools.

The PCAPS plan urged the School Reform Commission and mayor to give every student access to schools with the appropriate facilities, learning materials and staffing; turn schools buildings into community hubs designed to meet the diverse needs of students; provide a rigorous, well-rounded, culturally relevant curriculum; enhance the professional development opportunities for teachers and other school staff; and provide additional supports for struggling schools.

The coalition sent a clear message that the Philadelphia community was unified, Coleman says. “There has been a push to separate those of us who work in the school from the community when in fact parents and teachers have the same goals.”

Rather than starving and closing schools, PCAPS wants the city and state to invest in its communities. So, even as the coalition continues to fight locally for a fair shake for Philadelphia schools and students, PCAPS is taking its battle to Harrisburg where the governor and Legislature have made deep cuts in the state education budget in recent years. The coalition is also advocating for an expansion of community schools throughout Philadelphia, schools that would bring together educators, social services providers, small businesses and others with the shared goal of turning schools into thriving hubs with wraparound services for both students and for the community.

“If there’s a silver lining to the school closing battle, it’s that it has mobilized a ton of people who don’t always work together,” says Action United’s Robbins.

Hinton is excited about the coalition’s potential to be a game-changer for communities throughout the City of Brotherly Love. “We need to build on the relationships” that PCAPS has spawned, she says. “We need to continue to address the misconceptions we previously had about each other.”

Building bridges to the community

Months before it went on strike last September, the Chicago Teachers Union reached out to educate parents, faith leaders and others in the community about the pressing issues facing the city’s public schools and soliciting their input on a range of education reforms. Building this bridge with the broader community paid off when hundreds of allies and supporters stood shoulder to shoulder with the striking teachers and their union.

“It was heartening to see the level of support for CTU members from parents and community members who share the simple yet powerful belief that education is more than tests and test prep, and that the people who educate our children should be respected and involved in decisions affecting what goes on in our schools,” Weingarten said during the walkout.

Many of the community organizations and parents who backed CTU during its walkout have joined with the union in the battle to oppose the school closings being pushed by the mayor and other city officials.

Jitu Brown is the education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago and a leader in the Grassroots Education Movement coalition; CTU is a member of the coalition. He expects a protracted fight and points out that GEM already is backing state legislation that would place a moratorium on the school closings as well as a bill calling for the re-establishment of an elected school board in Chicago. “We’ve activated parents, students, union members and the community; and we’re launching an offensive,” Brown says. “It has to be about more than just marching and rallying.”

GEM is pivotal to coalescing the often divided Chicago communities around an effort to keep neighborhood schools open and increase funding, says Juan Soto, executive director of Gamaliel of Metro Chicago, which is also a coalition member. “GEM has provided us with a forum through which we can have dialogue and collaborate across races and communities.”

Reaching out and connecting with churches and faith leaders is critical if GEM’s efforts are to be successful, Soto says. “Many of the families in the schools that are targeted for closing go to churches in those communities, so it’s important that we have pastors speaking out for keeping schools open.”

Last December, CTU sponsored a summit that drew more than 500 teachers, parents, students, neighborhood activists and policymakers. “It’s about talking and listening and, in some instances, taking the lead from parents and the community,” says CTU organizing department coordinator Norine Gutekanst. It’s the community, she adds, “that is in the best position to tell us how their schools can meet the needs of students.”

In early May, the CTU and its community partners are staging a weeklong march during which participants will stop and meet with parents and others in every Chicago neighborhood where a school is targeted for closing.

In addition to being motivated, Brown is optimistic. “The opportunity to win is there,” he asserts. “I think Chicago can be an example for the rest of the country.”