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50 Years Later: Still Dreaming for Children in Chicago

I was livid when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board decided to close 50 neighborhood schools in the city this year. I predicted that the transition of some 30,000 kids to new schools would be chaotic and that people would be protesting and screaming in the streets on the first day of school. Well, I was wrong.

Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett actually pulled off a relatively seamless first day of school on August 26, and the newly installed air conditioners in the "welcoming" schools were just in time for the smothering heat wave the city is now experiencing.

But schools that did not receive evicted students also did not receive any fancy upgrades. Many of them were forced to sweat it out in classrooms that had 90+ degree temperatures. (While I'm no fan of Emanuel's educational policies, his administration is clearly a master at orchestrating controversial events and public relations.)

Today, two days after the start of school, and on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famed "I Have a Dream Speech," several community organizations are staging a one-day school boycott. They have rallied some parents to keep their kids out of school to protest this largest school closing in the nation's history and to protest CPS' discriminatory practices against poor African-American and Latino students.

Initially, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis had called for parents to take their kids to their original, closed schools on the first day of school, but cooler heads seemed to prevail over the summer. Lewis did not stick with that strategy but instead filed two lawsuits against the school closings, both of which were later dismissed.

Keeping students out of school is a tactic I would reserve for only extreme emergencies. Chicago has some very dangerous neighborhoods and it was in those neighborhoods that most of the schools were closed. The organizer of the boycott cleverly called those areas "school deserts."

I would not want kids out on the streets in those neighborhoods protesting school closings that, at this stage, have no chance of being reversed.

Even though I did not support the Chicago Teachers Strike a year ago, I wish teachers would have worked a year without a new contract and then walked out when the fate of 50 schools, 30,000 students, and 2,000 teaching jobs were on the line.

But enough about protesting and striking and such. It's a new school year and time to reconcile our differences (did anyone read my last blog post?)

It's time to reset and linger on the prospect of something new, something better. Here are my hopes and dreams for this school year:

1) I hope that no one's kid gets shot on the so-called Safe Passage routes. The district has hired 600 workers and have assigned increased police patrol (and even fire fighters) to keep an extra eye on students who now must travel as far as 10 blocks outside their neighborhoods—and into rival gang territory—to get to school. Already, several people have been shot (and some have died) in broad daylight along these "Safe Passages."

2) I hope Mayor Emanuel and CTU President Lewis can shake off their apparent disdain toward each other and begin talking and working together again. The culture of our city's educational leadership is about as toxic as the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. I know it's hard to build trust with people who have lied to you, but I'm not asking for trust as much as civil, solutions-oriented discourse.

3) I hope that the 50 school buildings that have closed will be utilized in a way that will bring economic and/or social stability to the residents of the community. My fear is that instead it will turn into a massive land-grab for corporate developers who want nothing more than to gentrify certain poor sections of the city. I also want the promise that Barbara Bryd-Bennett gave that none of the shuttered schools would be turned into charter schools to be honored (as a charter teacher myself, I'm not in support of charters being used to replace district schools, but rather to supplement and offer alternatives). However, based on the interview I watched last night with the engineering executive leading the committee on what to do with the shutter buildings, all options appear to be on the table.

4) Last, but not least, my dream is that the poor black and brown children of Chicago will get an equal chance at obtaining a quality education this year—not just at the "welcoming" schools but in the ordinary, less politicized neighborhood schools. For this to happen, everybody must buy-in to this vision: parents, teachers, administrators, and district leaders and community organizations. From the wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood downtown to the broken-down 'hood on the far South Side, all kids deserve a chance to be somebody great in life. It's time to make Dr. King's dream a reality.

"I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live but the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech.

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