Veteran Chicago Teacher & Former Director of Safety Speaks Out on the Impact of the Recession, Ducan Policies

“My speculation is that the damage this recession will do to kids’ education prospects is far more than the positive good most changes in educational policies can produce.” – EDDRA email listserv participant.*

Since the research basis for our sharings here requires some credentialing, allow me to post the following as (now retired) “Director of School Security and Safety” for the 35,000-member (at the time) Chicago Teachers Union as well as my current work as editor of Substance.

During those years I worked in that capacity, I organized a great many programs and events to further the union’s objective of neutralizing the impact of Chicago’s massive drug gangs on the city’s public schools. Therefore, you can assume my expertise in these matters I speak of below, since our work almost always overlapped poverty and drug gang problems.  

Some “educational policies” furthered over the past decade and likely to grow under Arne Duncan will do much, much more harm against these backgrounds of poverty and the destruction of the so-called “safety nets” over the past two decades. One will be hunger. The other will be the expanded impact of drug gangs within our cities (and in some cases, our more impoverished suburbs). Let me suggest two that may be going national out of Chicago now that Arne Duncan is CEO of the Education Department (in Chicago, the chief of the schools has not been a “superintendent” since 1995, when mayoral control became law; we have a “Chief Executive Officer”).  

1. School closings for “failure” (“underperformance,” “underutilization”,  etc.). Duncan has already suggested that he will be pushing the Chicago model of school closings for “underperformance” nationally. In Chicago, that has generally meant that schools described as “underperforming” (they stopped using “failing” here about five years ago) are closed and (usually, but not always) privatized. Invariably, those schools are (no surprise here, I’m sure) serving the most impoverished children (often schools with a 100 percent  “free and reduced lunch” rate) in completely (in Chicago, that means 90 percent to 100 percent black and/or “minority”) in the ghettos and barrios. For many of these children, the closing of their schools is the last straw, the destruction of the final stability in their lives. At one of the schools that Duncan proposed to close for “underperformance”  this school year (Holmes Elementary, the closing of which was rescinded by Duncan’s successor), teachers who organized against the closing (it was slated to be a “turnaround” which is Chicago for “reconstitution”), teachers  now report that homeless families of their children await the disposal of the garbage from (free and reduced price) school breakfasts and lunches. As a result, the school’s staff has asked that the food be separated before being placed in the dumpsters, so that the families that are waiting to salvage the uneaten food don’t have to sort, say, cartons of cereal from a spoonful of milk-and-cereal.  

2. Massive increase in gang violence. Once the final prop of stability is removed from these children’s lives (i.e., the now privatized public school where all the teachers who knew the community have been fired), the remaining locus of stability in many of these communities is the drug gang. In Chicago, which has the largest drug gangs in the USA (organized into two “nations” called the “People” — five-pointed star as main symbol — and “Folks” — six-pointed star as main symbol), the expansion of these drug gangs, and the highly publicized teenage body count that has followed from it, is partly caused by the school closings policies that Arne Duncan will soon be trying to bring to a school district near you.  Five years ago (June 12, 2004) I was still working as “Director of School Security and Safety” for the 35,000-member Chicago Teachers Union. My job at the time was to organize and train teachers to utilize union resources to counter the drug gangs in the schools here. In June 2004, Arne Duncan proposed the first “closing” of public high schools (later to be flipped into charter school hands) against Calumet and Austin high schools. I organized the testimony in opposition to those closing, and everyone who testified about the proposal said that one of the main results would be an increase in gang violence. The reason? In Chicago, gang members identify young people as being members of one gang or the other by virtue of their neighborhood. Therefore, any student who goes to another general high school after having attended Calumet High School would be identified as being a Black Stone (“People”,  five-pointed star) and an enemy (if the other schools was “Folks” — six pointed star).  That is precisely what happened. One of the main causes of the huge increase in the number of gang shootings of young people has been the policy of CPS in closing (and usually charterizing) traditional public schools, excluding the kids who had gone there and forcing them, if they want to attend public school at all, to attend a school outside their community. (Charters in Chicago utilize and elaborate application, lottery and elimination process to get rid of undesirables, with KIPP just being the most well known nationally).

That’s enough sharing for one morning. The impacts of poverty will go well beyond the disruption or destruction of once stable families. When corporate “school reform” polices such as those practiced by Arne  Duncan in Chicago are added to the mix of the economic downturn, the results can  be not only more suffering for children (hunger, dental and medical  neglect, etc.), but actual death from the increase in drug gang violence.  If you have seen The Wire (HBO) you have a sort of sense of what Chicago  has been facing with the drug gangs that I once organized against. But  Baltimore is child’s play compared with the fully developed drug gang empires of  Chicago and Illinois. If you are interested in more details, you can get “The  Gang Book” from the Chicago Crime Commission. Note only that those vast maps  showing areas of Chicago’s South Side as being controlled by the Gangster  Disciples or Latin King street gangs are realities in the lives of thousands  of black and Hispanic children and families.  And Chicago has let those realities proliferate as a matter of public  policy neglect for more than 30 years.

George N. Schmidt Editor, Substance

* Copied from the Education Disinformation, Detection and Reporting Agency email listserv managed by Gerald Bracey on April 30, 2009.

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