A site to discuss better education for all.
By Diane Ravitch
November 20, 2018
The best book about education this year was written by a woman who is a poet, a playwright, a novelist, and soon to be the writer of a Marvel comic about “a black girl genius from Chicago.” Eve L. Ewing has a doctorate in sociology from Harvard and is now on the faculty of the University of Chicago.
In case you don’t know all this, I am referring to Ewing's new book about school closings in Chicago. Its title is Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.
Eve Ewing was a teacher in one of the 50 public schools that Rahm Emanuel closed in a single day. Her book will help to memorialize Rahm Emanuel’s stigma as the only person in American history to close 50 public schools in one day.
Because she is a poet, the book is written beautifully. She has overcome the burdens of academic language, which can so often sound technical, bureaucratic, and dehumanizing. Her language goes to the heart of the experience of suffering at the hands of bureaucrats and technocrats.
She examines the school closings from the perspective of those who were its victims: students, families, communities.
The question at the heart of the book is this: Why do students and families fight to keep their schools open after the authorities declare they are “failing schools”?
She answers the question by listening to and recording the moving testimony of those who fought for the survival of their schools.
Ewing sketches the history of the Bronzeville community in Chicago, racially segregated by government action. What resulted was a community that was hemmed in but nonetheless developed strong traditions, ties, and communal bonds. One of those bonds was the one between families and schools.
She describes some of the schools that were closed, schools with long histories in the black community. Parents and students came out to testify in opposition to the closings. They spoke about why they loved their school, how their family members had proudly attended the school, only to be confronted by school officials who waved “data” and “facts” in their faces to justify closing their beloved school.
Ewing deftly contrasts the official pronouncements of Barbara Byrd-Bennett (now in prison for accepting kickbacks from vendors), who insisted that it was not “racist” to close the schools of Bronzeville with the emotional responses of the students and families, who saw racism in the decision.
Ewing writes powerfully about a concept she calls “institutional mourning.” Families experienced this mourning process as the city leaders killed the institutions that were part of their lives and their history. The school closings were “part of a broader pattern of disrespect for people of color in Chicago,” they were part of “a formula of destruction” intended to obliterate memory, history, and tradition.
The act of closing schools was integral to gentrification. And indeed, Chicago has seen a mass exodus of a significant part of its black population, which may have been (likely was) the purpose of the school closings and the removal of black neighborhoods.
Institutional mourning, she writes, “is the social and emotional experience undergone by individuals and communities facing the loss of a shared institution they are affiliated with—-such as a school, church, residence, neighborhood, or business district–especially when those individuals or communities occupy a socially marginalized status that amplifies their reliance on the institution or its significance in their lives.
“What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general? Is there room for democracy and real grassroots participation in a school system that has been run like an oligarchy?”Byrd-Bennett spoke about a “utilization crisis” that required the closure of schools in Bronzeville and the dispersion of their students. Ewing offers a counterpoint, seeing the schools in the black community,
“... as bastions of community pride” and (parts of) a long-running war over “the future of a city and who gets to claim it. There is the need to consider that losing the school represents another assault in a long line of racist attacks against a people, part of a history of levying harmful policies against them, blaming them for the aftermath, then having the audacity to pretend none of it really happened.
There is the way some of these policy decisions are camouflaged by pseudoscientific analysis that is both ethically and statistically questionable.
There is our intensely segregated society to account for, in which those who attend the school experience a fundamentally different reality than those who have the power to steer its future.
And finally, there is the intense emotional aftermath that follows school closure, which can have a profound, lasting effect on those who experience the closure even as it is rarely acknowledged with any seriousness by those who made the decision.”One bright spot in her book is the story of the successful resistance to the closing of the Walter H. Dyett high school in Bronzeville. She explains who Walter H. Dyett was, why the school was important, and why the community fought to keep the school named for him open.
Dyett was a musician and a beloved high school music teacher; he taught in Bronzeville for 38 years. The school bearing his name may be the only one ever named for a teacher. A dozen community members, led by Jitu Brown of the Journey for Justice Alliance, conducted a hunger strike that lasted for 32 days. Only by risking their lives were they able to persuade the Chicago Mayor and his hand-picked Board to invest in the school instead of closing it.
Why do parents fight to save their schools, a fight they usually lose? She writes, “They fight because losing them [their schools] can mean losing their very world.”
I have underlined and starred entire paragraphs. Certainly, the testimony of students at public hearings, which was very moving. Also Ewing’s commentary, which is insightful.
At the hearing concerning the proposed (and certain) closing of the Mayo elementary school, students talked about the shame they felt.
One student, a third grader, testified:
"My whole class started breaking out crying, so did my teacher. We walked through the halls in shame because we didn’t want Mayo to close. When I’m in fourth grade, I was really thinking about going to the fiftieth year anniversary, but how can I when Mayo is closing?"The shame was on Rahm Emanuel and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, but the students somehow felt culpable for what was done to them.
Another student from Mayo said:
"Every day I go to school, we sing the Mayo song, and we are proud to hear the song. We are proud to sing the song every…every day. All I want to know is, why close Mayo? This is one of the best schools we ever had."The book reads like a novel.
Let me add that I have waited for this book for a long time, not knowing if it would ever be written. History told from the point of view of those who were acted on, rather than the point of view of those at the top of the pyramid. Whose story will be told and who will tell it? Eve Ewing has told it.
I found it difficult to put down.