Stop closing our schools!By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Feb 11, 2013 - 5:51:36 PM
Protestors send message to the Obama administration
That was the message hundreds of parents, students and community representatives from 18 major cities and small hamlets, including Ambler, Pa.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; District of Columbia; Eupora, Miss.; Hartford, Conn.; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Newark; New Orleans; New York; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; and Wichita, Kan.
They came to a community hearing Jan. 29 at the Department of Education before Secretary Arne Duncan.
“The closing of schools is going unchecked and is a veiled attempt to destabilize communities and speed gentrification of poor neighborhoods,” said Cheyenne Walker, student from Keep the Vote/NO Takeover in Detroit.
“These are serious actions to take without understanding the impact in a community and this ongoing neglect and disregard sends a message that these students are not worthy of investment and that educating low-income African American students is less important than the education of their peers. This is a civil rights issue.”
Parents and activists say closing schools in low-income communities has led to the displacement and destabilization of children and neighborhoods already in potentially vulnerable situations; significant negative impacts to learning; increased violence and threats of physical harm as a result of re-assignment; and destabilization at schools receiving the displaced students.
Upset citizens came together to issue a collective, “Enough is enough.”
“It was inspiring because you had grassroots people from all across the United States come together. Before this we were made to feel alone, it’s hard thinking you’re fighting this by yourself. Emerging from our work the opportunity for a movement is real. We’re making major steps in the right direction. This rally helped to develop a world view for everyone,” Jitu Brown of Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization told The Final Call.
“There’s poverty in Detroit, racism in Atlanta, these problems are the same everywhere but to make it concrete we had to come together and it’s been very successful.”
School closures are typically a local issue but the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant gives underperforming school districts money for “shakeups” or “turnarounds,” including closures.
Community organizers started connecting the dots on the closures and found those most affected by turnarounds were students of color and the consequences included academic problems for students in new school settings.
Several cities including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, D.C., Newark, New York, and Philadelphia have claimed these closures violate Title VI Rights of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits race-based discrimination in federally funded programs. These cities, with others to follow, have filed Title VI complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
According to court documents, Chicago’s filing notes Black students comprise 42 percent of the city’s public school population, but were 82 percent of students affected by 14 closings, phase-outs, and turnarounds in 2012.
For closings and phase-outs alone, Black students are nearly 100 percent of affected children.
The filing says the school district “has no criteria which can justify these decisions”—but instead operate off of a list of non-academic “considerations” described as “extremely vague” by the legislatively appointed Educational Facilities Task Force.
The New York filing notes 117 schools closed between 2003 and 2011 had greater percentages of English language learners, students in special education, and students receiving free or reduced-price lunches than citywide averages.
“Charter schools are not the answer either,” Taliba Obuya from Atlanta’s Project South told The Final Call. “We want a national moratorium on school closings. Our youth are saying ‘No Education, No life.’ Something has to be done. We brought young people from Atlanta who met young people from Mississippi who met young people from Philly. All had the same horror stories to tell about school closures.”
Cities are not just looking for a national solution, Philadelphia, New York and Detroit accelerated local protests to address the devastating affects and civil rights violations resulting from school closures.
The Philadelphia City Council Jan. 24 voted 14-2 in favor of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools nonbinding resolution for a one-year moratorium on school closings.
Debate heated up in New York City as representatives took the issue to the state capitol and Detroit confirmed that the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights had launched a probe into its Title VI Civil Rights complaint.
“For low-income, minority students the only outcome within the current strategy is failure. By choosing not to make an investment in these students and schools, this creates an unstable environment that leads to significant learning setbacks,” said O’Cynthia Williams, a parent leader with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. “The current federal Race To The Top policy has essentially doomed these students because of their demographic.”
In addition to a moratorium on school closings, the Journey to Justice Movement wants implementation of a community-driven school improvement process as national policy and a meeting with President Obama to hear direct accounts of the devastating impact and civil rights violations driven by his administration’s policy.
“To have effective and sustainable school transformation the people directly impacted need to help shape what that change looks like,” said Kayla Oates, student from Fannie Lou Hamer Center in Eupora, Miss.
“It is now up to policymakers at the federal level to do the right thing, put a stop to these discriminatory actions and create a national policy where those of us who are directly impacted can help reform our schools and our education. This is about our lives and our future,” she said.