Julie Woestehoff is interim director of Parents Across America. For many years, she ran a parent group in Chicago called Parents United for Responsible Education.
In PAA’s newsletter, she recalls how parents warned Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan that his public school-closing/charter-opening program called Renaissance 2010 would likely lead to violence. Do you remember Renaissance 2010? Arne Duncan said that Chicago schools would enjoy a dramatic renaissance by the year 2010. Julie sent me her newsletter after reading a similar post that I had written about the possible connection between school closings, neighborhood destabilization, and increased violence. Arne Duncan learned nothing from the failure of Renaissance 2010; he brought the same policies to Washington and embedded them in Race to the Top.
It has been more than 10 years since I and many of my former colleagues began warning Chicago that massive school closings would not improve education and would most likely lead to increased violence. It gives me no pleasure to see that this prediction has come true, and to such a tragic extent.
We began to sound the alarm about school closures in 2004, as Mayor Daley and Arne Duncan touted their Renaissance 2010 program, an attempt to satisfy the business community’s call to create 100 charter schools. Some of us slept on the sidewalk outside of the Board of Education headquarters the night before the August 2004 board meeting so that we could present a steady stream of testimony the next morning against the plan’s proposed 60 closures.
While Arne Duncan dismissed parent and community concerns, affected schools and neighborhoods became increasingly dangerous. In 2006, the media reported that violence had soared at five of the nine high schools that accepted most of the students transferred out of the high schools closed under Renaissance 2010. West side activists rose in anger in 2007 when 27 children were killed within a few months of the closure of the only open enrollment high school in Austin, the city’s largest neighborhood, forcing their children to travel across several gang lines to get to school. The nation was gripped by the horrific 2009 recorded murder of Fenger High School honor student Derrion Albert by a few youth from a faction of students transferred to Fenger after their neighborhood high school was closed.
In 2012, I wrote an article for Huffington Post, “Are Charter Schools the Answer to — or One Reason for – Chicago’s Violence?” The number of shootings and homicides had taken another alarming leap, and a charter school official suggested that the solution was opening more charter schools. The studies and reports I cited made it clear that this idea was exactly the wrong approach.
Along with the warnings and protests, advocates also tirelessly developed school improvement proposals in collaboration with recognized education experts, parents, teachers, students, and neighbors. All of these community-generated proposals were dismissed and disrespected by district officials.