The same week Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it will close a record-breaking number of schools at the end of the school year, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released a report revealing increased instances of homelessness and poverty amongst Illinois’ students.
Nearly half of Illinois’ approximately 2 million students qualify as low income, increasing from 37.9 percent to 49 percent since 2008, according to the ISBE.
“Research tells us that children in areas of concentrated poverty often experience higher levels of stress and can exhibit more severe behavioral and emotional problems than children overall,” the report reads. "These difficulties often impact a child’s likelihood of success in school, leading to lower achievement scores and higher dropout rates."
Homelessness has also increased in recent years. ISBE reports nearly 36,000 students statewide are living without a stable home, an increase of more than 6,000 from November 2010 to November 2012.
In Illinois’ largest school district, serving more than 400,000 students, CPS is closing 54 schools and slated six more for turnarounds, affecting an estimated 30,000 students. According to some researchers and education activists, this will have a negative effect on an already vulnerable population of students within the CPS school system.
“If students have already been displaced from their homes, there is probably a long list of uncertainties in their lives; sleeping arrangements are probably unstable; transportation is probably unstable; how and when you may eat next is probably unstable; and schools are supposed to be a constant,” said Jawanza Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO).
KOCO has a range of youth development programs for Chicago’s South Side students. The schools slated for closure within close proximity of the organization are Anthony Overton Elementary School, which will have its students sent to Mollison Elementary School, and Crispus Attucks Elementary School, which will be phased out over two years and consolidated with Beethoven Elementary School.
Malone said most of the students in the area are low income, and KOCO has worked with several who have had uncertain housing circumstances.
“When a school, something that is supposed to be dependable, is uprooted, what stability does a low-income or homeless student really have, and how does that play on their psyche,” Malone asked.
There are more than 10,660 reported homeless students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, according to a January Chicago Sun-Times article.
"With these inherent disadvantages, low-income children require a greater investment of educational resources in order to be adequately prepared for careers and postsecondary education," the ISBE report reads.
Facing a $1 billion deficit this year, CPS says the wave of schools closures is a cost-cutting initiative. Targeting low-performing and underutilized schools, the district has said the actions will save $560 million over the next decade. According to CPS, nearly 140 schools in the district are more than half empty.
“If you’ve got a building for 600, with 200 in it, you’re not going to be able to effectively use it, and this way we can take those resources and invest in these schools, which is what we’re doing,” Andrea Zopp, a member of the Chicago Board of Education, told WGN today.
Slated mostly on the South and West Sides of Chicago, approximately 90 percent of students affected by the impending school closures are African-American.
“Yes, this is happening largely on the South and West Sides and largely in African-American communities, but most importantly, what people should be upset about and what I’m upset about as a board member, is that in those communities the overwhelming majority of schools right now are underperforming,” she said. “We have to fix that and that’s what this effort is all about, fixing those underperforming schools and taking those resources and giving these kids a chance to have the schools they deserve.”
But at least one expert called the closures “immoral and unacceptable.”
“These school actions will be devastating, we are talking about students that are living in communities that have already been destabilized by increases in poverty,” said Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy study at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “These schools are anchors in their communities, and maybe the only stable factor for a lot of these students; closing these schools will weaken the community as a whole.”
Lipman questioned the data behind CPS alleged $1 billion deficit, saying she has “yet to see real data that demonstrates that amount.”
Instead of closing schools, she suggested using TIF funds as an alternative source of revenue for CPS.
“If you do have a budget deficit, which I have not seen the data to demonstrate that at this point, you can not balance the budget to the disadvantage of low-income students of color,” she said.
“The deficit should not be made up on the backs of Chicago Public Schools’ students and our city’s most vulnerable.”