After 10 years, Chicago school closings have left big holes, and promises unkept
George Smith Jr. looked over his shoulder every day on the walk home across the street from his Englewood school, scared of the tense environment, scared of neighborhood gangs, scared of getting jumped.
But he loved his elementary school. His band class gave him peace, his after-school programs something to do. And despite the anxiety he carried into adulthood, he was devastated when the school was one of 50 closed in 2013 by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
"I got a lot of pride in that school, a lot of memories," Smith says of his school, later renamed Woods Elementary. "To see it just be nothing now and to know what the kids had to go through to go to these different schools, it's sad. It's heartbreaking.
"That's what they do to us. ... They don't care about us."
Now 40, Smith moved back to the street he grew up on, two doors from his parents George Sr. and Gladys. Sitting on their porch overlooking the former school, the family has watched the block — home to Smiths since 1883 and the school since 1964 — lose its vibrancy.
Many neighbors moved or died without others replacing them. Once-beautiful yards were overtaken by weeds. Enrollment at Woods dropped nearly 60% between 2003 and 2013, leaving the building less than half full.
The school closing marked a breaking point, the Smiths say, with the midcentury building now a shell, stripped of pipes and anything valuable left inside.
A decade has passed since Emanuel called for the closings of more American schools at one time than ever before. Chicago's Board of Education cast its historic votes 10 years ago this spring, on May 22, 2013.
Today, Chicago and other big cities again face similar dynamics as those that led to school closings across the country: major student population declines, aging buildings in need of repair, and budget deficits.
The Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ spent months investigating the promises made 10 years ago by city and Chicago Public Schools officials as they shuttered the schools, examining how the closings changed the city, the school system, the children and their families, and studying potential alternate solutions.
Those promises, that investigation found, largely have never been realized. And city and school leaders haven't tracked the outcomes.
In justifying the closings, Emanuel said it was wrong to leave students in schools that had become severely underenrolled, were consistently low-performing, and were falling apart. Those three criteria would primarily determine which schools would close and which would be spared. All but one of the schools served elementary age students.
Carlos Azcoitia, one of the six Board of Education members who voted to close the schools, says a $1 billion deficit convinced him it was the right thing to do.
"When you close buildings like that, you save money in a variety of ways," Azcoitia says now. "Many of those buildings were old, and they had to be kept. And then you have to provide educational services in schools serving only 100 or 150 students."
Now, as a $628 million deficit approaches and enrollment losses have accelerated, even insiders who oppose closings say balancing the budget would be more difficult if those 50 schools were still open. CPS has 81,000 fewer students than it had a decade ago, far outpacing the decline in the 10 years prior to 2013.
The damage the closures caused
But the consequences of the closings still reverberate long after the officials who vowed to do better by Chicago's school children have moved on — including then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, to prison.
"The long tail of closures are harder to see, and I think it is about this mistrust with the public sector," says Ariel Bierbaum, an assistant professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland.
The hurt is still palpable among families who wanted their struggling schools funded and improved, not taken away.
And the neighborhoods around the closed schools suffered.
Amid continued population loss in predominantly Black communities, the immediate areas around closed schools saw steeper drops in the years after the closings, a Sun-Times and WBEZ analysis of census data found.
Census tracts with a majority Black population that included closed schools lost 9.2% of their residents between 2013 and 2018. Black census tracts with schools that did not close only saw a 3.2% population decline.
In West Englewood, where the Smiths live, three schools were closed in 2013. The surrounding areas then lost 27% of their population through 2018, compared with 17% in the rest of the neighborhood.
Experts say school closings might not be the biggest driver of population loss, but they send a message.
"Schools, in many ways, are representative of a general public commitment to a community and to the longevity and health of a community, to its vitality, to its future," says Amanda Lewis, a University of Illinois Chicago professor and director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy. "They are clearly anchor institutions in a lot of ways."
'Too many schools and too few children'
A decade ago, Byrd-Bennett, Emanuel, and his appointed school board said they had to act.
"CPS simply has too many schools and too few children – today CPS has space for over 500,000 students, but just over 400,000 are enrolled in our schools," read a CPS press release from the time. "This is stretching its resources much too thin."
Elected to follow the two-decade reign of Richard M. Daley, Emanuel was confronting issues that had piled up in previous administrations. Daley and then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan opened scores of new schools in neighborhoods with declining population, many of them privately-run charters, which further drained traditional schools of kids and resources. They closed several schools a year for performance reasons, but Byrd-Bennett said this "piecemeal" approach caused disruption and chaos.
Meanwhile, faced with limited resources and political considerations, Daley and Duncan didn't confront budget realities, including a mounting pension bill.
Emanuel opted to rip off the Band-Aid, unleashing a hurricane of disruption which he hoped to follow with a period of calm by promising not to close schools for five years afterward.
His administration made a host of pledges to make closing 50 schools seem more palatable — taking what was essentially a facilities dilemma and making it about school reform and neighborhood redevelopment.
Yet, as activists and parents feared and warned, many of these promises proved to be hollow — and have dropped from subsequent administrations' priorities amid scandals and the pandemic.
More than half of the buildings aren't back in use, most of them vacant and dilapidated.
The so-called "welcoming schools" that received displaced students got significant upgrades but couldn't ward off outside factors that caused declining enrollment — their average enrollment and utilization are now worse than prior to the closings. That was despite a promised $155 million in programs and support at the beginning.
And while some kids did well in their new schools, research shows few students transitioned to schools that were high-performing enough to make a difference academically. Students from closed schools didn't graduate at higher rates than kids from similar schools that didn't close, a Sun-Times and WBEZ analysis found, even though the closings were sold as a way to help improve outcomes.
Emanuel did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
Calculating the savings and the costs
The hardest promise to measure is whether the mass closings saved any money.
Officials estimated CPS would save almost $1 billion over 10 years by reducing administrators and support staff and by avoiding repairing and maintaining so many buildings. That broke down to $430 million in operations savings — or $43 million annually — plus $560 million in capital spending.
But a Sun-Times and WBEZ analysis shows CPS is likely saving roughly just $25 million a year as a result of employing fewer principals, assistant principals, and clerks — the foundations of school leadership — than a decade ago. While there are about 1,000 fewer teachers, that number tends to vary with enrollment.
CPS also is no longer paying to heat, cool, clean or repair the vacated buildings, but it's impossible to accurately calculate avoided costs.
With so many properties in CPS' possession for years, basic upkeep cuts into savings. CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus says officials don't know how much.
"We do not have a specific audit on the upkeep of buildings," she wrote, "but we know the district has spent several hundred thousand dollars ... since 2013 to ensure the most basic maintenance and repairs/restoration after vandalism."
Were the savings worth the cost?
Pedro Martinez, the school system's current CEO, says no.
"I strongly believe that the cost of closing schools in terms of the lost trust, the challenges of dealing with the facilities, and moving children ... outweigh any benefits you get from it," Martinez says.
"Even though I wasn't here when that happened ... we have to address that mistrust."
Grandmother and activist Irene Robinson says Emanuel failed to account for the humanity within the schools. Last fall, Robinson walked around Overton Elementary School on the South Side. Tears filled her eyes as she spoke of the mothers and grandmothers at the school in the morning.
"We were out here," she says. "It was family."
Like many of those who put themselves on the line fighting for their schools, Robinson avoids the building, saying "it's like a graveyard."
For many who lived through the closings, the most heartbreaking part was watching kids try to save their schools.
Back then, Asean Johnson became the most prominent voice of kids whose lives were disrupted. Asean's school, Marcus Garvey in Washington Heights on the South Side, was on the closing list. Garvey had educated generations of his family.
Standing on a chair behind a podium in Daley Plaza in May 2013, 9-year-old Asean declared that Emanuel saw the students as "toys" and accused him of not caring about them crossing gang lines to get to their new schools.
"These kids need safety and protection," the third-grader said then, a crowd erupting at his words. "You should be supporting these schools, not closing them."
Today a 19-year-old college freshman, Johnson says he remembers a fire inside him.
"This anger just built up," he says. "It felt like a release when I was able to speak my mind because it felt for so long that I wasn't heard."
Garvey was one of four schools spared at the last moment. And while he was happy and proud to have helped keep Garvey open, he was acutely aware other children were not as fortunate.
His mother, Shoneice Reynolds, recalls the moment she heard the school would stay open. She rushed to Garvey, where teachers and students were hugging in the hallway. Yet a heavy weight remained inside her as her joy was tempered by a stark realization:
"They still closed 50 schools."
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