Why Parents Fight to Keep "Failing" Schools Open

January 28, 2010

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School closures are becoming increasingly common in troubled urban school districts across the country.  District officials believe closing and revamping failing schools might be the best way to fix them. Chicago Public Schools tomorrow begins a round of public hearings on its most recent plans to revamp or close 14 more public schools. But many parents--from New York to Chicago--are fighting fiercely to keep open their children's failing schools. WBEZ visited Chicago's Guggenheim Elementary, one school on the closure list, to find out why.


PHONE CALL: James? May I speak to Ms. Wilson?

 

Since finding out last week that her children's school is slated to close, Betty Plair has spent a lot of time on the phone.

 

PHONE CALL: I want to make sure she's coming to go down on the 28th to the public hearing about Guggenheim closing. We're gonna get a bus together …I'm just letting her know, we're gonna send out flyers so she can come. Tell her I'll see her there. 

 

Guggenheim Elementary, in the south-side Englewood community, is where Plair's children learned their ABCs and made their first friends. She's watched six of them graduate in the gymnasium.

 

PLAIR: We're gonna fight. We're going to fight all the way. We're going down there, when they have the meeting here we're gonna be here fighting as well. I think anybody would fight for where they live and what they want. 

 

What these parents are fighting for is a school the district considers one of the worst in the system. It's in the bottom 5 percent of all elementary schools, CPS says. But many Guggenheim parents see a completely different place than the administrators downtown.

 

PARENTS: They never been here. They haven't been here! When they come here then they should judge Guggenheim. Come here and sit in the class. Watch. Not about what another person says, or what's on a sheet of paper.

 

Parents here see their kids advancing even though the district is telling them they're not—at least not enough.

 

HOOKER: Ohio State, Illinois State, Wright State University, Western Illinois

 

Rosetta Hooker rattles off the colleges her daughter's been accepted to. She and three sisters were all educated at Guggenheim—so was their dad, who moved back to the neighborhood in part for the school.

 

ALTON HOOKER: And they're all doing great, a 4.4 GPA, all honors classes—they're doing great. So I was very shocked that they was trying to close Guggenheim.

 

Parents see Guggenheim as a vital part of their community. For Betty Plair it feels like family. She remembers how the school came together after a kindergartner was hit and killed by a car, and the time her own family's home burned to the ground, and a Guggenheim teacher opened her doors.

 

KNOWLES: This is deeper than bad data on standardized test scores.

 

Timothy Knowles is director of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute.

 

KNOWLES: This is about an institution being taken away that my child goes to, I went to, maybe my mother went to. Frankly, it's about communities, it's about neighborhoods, it's about relationships. Data doesn't tip those things.

 

And the district doesn't factor those things in to its school closings. Most of Chicago's closings and turnarounds have taken place in neighborhoods ravaged by poverty. Knowles says it's hard to measure the cost of eliminating one of the last remaining institutions in a disinvested neighborhood. If we could measure that, it might make closing schools more of a dilemma.

 

CPS is convinced it's doing the right thing by moving Guggenheim kids to better performing schools, including some magnet schools. Tosheda Boyd doesn't agree.

 

BOYD: That's their opinion. But in my opinion, I have four kids… my son just graduated from this school with a 99 percentile in math and reading. So, this is a very good school for my kids.

 

There's an irony here for parents. While local and national education leaders talk about increasing school choice, parents like Phyllis Killins feel the choice they've made is being taken away.

 

KILLINS: My kids could go to a magnet school—they could have been in one. But I  chose for them to be in Guggenheim.

 

In surveys, most Americans say they're happy with their own child's school. It's when they're asked about public education in general that they cite problems.

 

CPS is convinced that once parents see how much better their new schools are, they'll come around.

 

BOYD: I don't think that's gonna be my case….