Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett offered up a powerful response to charges of racism in school closure decisions at Wednesday's board meeting. She also laid out her arguments for closures.
"What I cannot understand - and will not accept - are charges that the proposals I am offering are racist. That is an affront to me as a woman of color. And it is an affront to every parent in our community who demands better for their children," she said.
"I grew up and went to school in an overwhelmingly African American community," Byrd-Bennett added. "Believe me, I KNOW what is racism and what is not."
The full speech as written (not as delivered) is below:
I believe that every child in every community in Chicago deserves access to a high quality education that will prepare them for success in college, a career, and life.
That is the purpose of public schools.
But for too long, children in certain parts of our city have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are trapped in underutilized, under-resourced schools.
Today, Chicago has 145,000 fewer school-aged children than it did in 2000. This has affected student enrollment, especially on the city's South and West sides, which saw significant population declines and now have the most underutilized schools.
CPS currently has space for 511,000 students, but only 403,000 are enrolled in our schools. About 50 percent of schools are underutilized and nearly 140 are more than half-empty.
The utilization crisis threatens our ability to provide every child in every school with access to the well-rounded, high quality education that all children deserve. We are spending money on half-empty buildings instead of redirecting those resources so we can educate our students to succeed in life.
Students in underutilized schools are more likely to be in split-grade classrooms, and lack access to art and music programs. They too often lack needed staff support, such as nurses and counselors. And they too often fail to receive critical intervention services to prevent them from falling behind their peers.
As a result, only 44 percent of African-American male students in our system are graduating from high school. This is unacceptable. It threatens their futures, and the future of our city. It leaves many young men with few alternatives.
We have two choices: we can continue to support the status quo, spending our limited resources on dilapidated and under-utilized school buildings and short-changing our students. Or we can recognize reality and consolidate our schools, using the savings from the consolidation to upgrade the education we provide to our students.
We have chosen the latter. We have already seen the reaction to our decision to consolidate schools. It would be much easier - and much quieter - to just leave things as they are. But that choice is unsustainable. Even worse, I believe it would be irresponsible.
As a former teacher and principal, I have lived through school closings. I know they are challenging, but in my 40 years as an educator I have never felt more certain about the need to take action -- and the need to do so now!
I made a commitment to our parents and school communities that we would work together on the front end of this process, and that I would ensure every voice would have a chance to be heard -- because every voice matters in ensuring a high-quality education for our students.
The recommendations I submitted to you to address the District's utilization crisis are directly based on the feedback of more than 20,000 CPS parents, students, teachers, principals, and community members received over 4 months of rigorous and thoughtful community engagement and 30 community meetings across the city.
Further, the proposals take into account the recommendations of an independent Commission on School Utilization that held 10 public hearings and received input from community members and subject matter experts.
I have personally spent hours reading through thousands of pages of reports. Based on this community input, and the Commission's recommendations, we developed objective and consistent criteria to address our utilization crisis.
Based on these criteria and the input of the CPS community, I have recommended consolidating 54 underutilized schools or programs to allow us to better focus resources and provide students with a higher quality education.
Additionally, I have proposed 11 co-locations that will allow CPS to more efficiently use existing space to provide options to students and families and relocate students from low quality buildings.
And I have also proposed 6 schools for the academic intervention known as turnaround, which keeps the existing buildings on line.
These proposals have caused community anguish, and I understand that. Change is hard. Change is frightening. We all get comfortable with the status quo, even when the status quo is not working.
But what I cannot understand - and will not accept - are charges that the proposals I am offering are racist. That is an affront to me as a woman of color. And it is an affront to every parent in our community who demands better for their children.
First, the overwhelming majority of students in the CPS system are children of color. Any significant change in the status quo is going to affect those children. That is not racist; that is a fact.
Second, the greatest population losses in our city over the past decade have taken place on the South and West Sides. School underutilization in those areas is the result of demographic trends, not race.
Third, and most important, to refuse to challenge a status quo that is failing thousands of African American students year after year - consigning them to a future with less opportunity than others - now THAT would be racist.
I grew up and went to school in an overwhelmingly African American community. Believe me, I KNOW what is racism and what is not.
We owe every child in our city -- especially those living in struggling communities - the opportunity for an education, a meaningful career and to become a success in life.
These children do not get a second chance at an education. Every year that we delay to take action on our utilization crisis means another year lost; another hope dimmed.
That is why we need to move immediately to consolidate the schools meeting the Utilization Committee's criteria, and to move students to schools that provide better opportunities to succeed.
Every designated "welcoming school" will have the things that parents, teachers and community members agree that every student deserves.
There will be air conditioning in every classroom, a library in every school, Safe Passage to provide increased security for students on their way to and from school, iPads for all students in grades 3-8, new and upgraded technology including expanded Internet bandwidth, and computer, engineering, media and science labs. These are not "perks" these are fundamentals
All welcoming school principals will also receive a "Welcoming School Fund," which they can use to select programs and services to help students successfully transition to their new school.
Resources and programs are in place to support a seamless transition for students into higher-performing, welcoming schools. And at the top of the list is making sure they are safe.
I would never seek to improve education at the expense of our students' safety - and I am certain that neither would the members of this Board.
That is why each welcoming school will have a dedicated safety plan tailored for its specific
needs. By consolidating schools we will focus on getting every child safely to a better-performing school less than a mile from their home. We will work with CPD to ensure safe streets for our children.
We will expand the successful Safe Passage program already in place at schools across the District. Not only will this help ensure the safety of students moving to their welcoming schools; it will also involve parents and community residents directly in the safety and education of their children.
We cannot and should not allow gangs to dictate the future of our city -- or limit the futures of our children.
We cannot and should not give them veto power over changes to improve our public education system.
We must stand up to any perceived threats and intimidation. And by working closely with the Chicago Police Department, we can and we will!
I cannot agree with adults who would use the excuse of gangs to leave our children trapped in failing schools. The answer cannot be to accept this
Our consolidation plan will add new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs, new International Baccalaureate programs, and a new Fine Arts program in welcoming schools next fall to ensure that students in every neighborhood have access to a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed.
Where will we get the resources for these investments? Consolidating underutilized schools is projected to provide long term capital savings as well as annual operating savings.
Both operating and capital funds from closed schools will be reinvested in welcoming schools to serve the needs of every child.
These resources will be dedicated to ensuring that every student attending a welcoming school next year has a safe, high-quality 21st century school with updated amenities, and the programs and supports every child needs to succeed and thrive.
Over 30,000 students will benefit next year from these focused investments and have a fresh start for a quality education next Fall.
I understand there are some who are invested in the status quo and who will fight these needed changes. That is their right as Americans. But if their goal is the future success of our children, it would be better served by working with us as we implement the needed changes.
The continued input of parents and our school communities will be critical in the weeks and months ahead.
For too many years, we have accepted the unacceptable. We have explained away failure and clung to what's familiar. We simply cannot afford that anymore. It's not fair to parents; it's not fair to teachers; and, most of all, it's not fair to the thousands of Chicago schoolchildren who are counting on us to help secure their future.
With your support for the recommendation I offer, we can bring the change they so desperately need.