Controversy of CPS School Closings Documented in New Film

This was not a good week for the Chicago Public Schools or Mayor Rahm Emanuel on education, as a Chicago Tribune poll found that nearly 60 percent of Chicagoans disapproved of how the mayor has handled the issue in his first term.

This – punctuated by massive financial woes and impending labor problems – comes as Chicago Public Schools’ unprecedented shuttering of 49 schools in 2013 remains a contentious topic  for the displaced families. Some of them recently gathered at an emotional full-house screening at the Logan Center of The School Project’s “Chicago Public Schools: Closed.”

The film, the second in a series, documents how one family’s life was changed by one of the country’s largest school closings in history.

According to a report published on the same day by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, 93 percent of the approximately 11,000 children affected went on to better schools. But these numbers have caveats.

A 2007 UIC study found that combining schools often leaves students worse off. Many of the combined schools in the report became strained for resources, leading to a lower quality education for both new and returning students.

“The first year at her new school there were plenty of resources,” said Rachel Dickson, the film’s supervising producer and a graduate of Chicago Public Schools, about a girl she met during filming. “ There were lots of different programs. They had a dance team and a math tutoring team, and a lot of different activities that she wanted to be involved in. And now they’ve cancelled almost all of them, except for the dance team.”

Dickson said this isn’t rare for combined schools.

“The year after the closing these schools had this influx of budget, and now that budget’s leveled out, and then they don’t have the same quantities of money,” she said.

The 2007 study found other problems, like students facing the stress while overcoming the idea that they have come from a ‘failed’ school, and many families having to change their morning routine to drive to schools that used to be in walking distance.

Dickson said students weren’t the only ones in the community affected by the closings.

“These are community anchors and important institutions,” she said. “Some of the schools had health clinics or GED classes. Some of these schools were serving other functions, or they had a large Special Ed. population.”

Dickson said losing the fight to save their schools may signal to some students that their government will ignore their demands, regardless of how hard they work.

“School isn’t just about test scores,” she said. “School is a huge formative part in children’s lives and families lives, that it’s not just about the academics. It’s about developing community, relationships, trust and being effective members of society. So I think the trauma—I really do think that there was a certain level of trauma families went through, and now the lingering mistrust of Chicago Public Schools, Board of Education, and the mayor and the city government is going to have impacts in the long run in how people relate to their government and democracy.”

The School Project will continue to release films from this series, of which “Chicago Public Schools: Closed” is the second. The films to be released later this year cover school discipline policies, test scores, charter schools, and effective education in a system beset by massive financial difficulties.

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