Journey for Justice Testimonies: Kansas City and Chicago


I am a parent of a third grader and volunteer parent organizer for Kansas City Public Schools, an unaccredited school district.

As an organizer, I serve on the District Advisory Committee, chair the Parent Advocacy Task Force and work with other parent leaders to research local education issues, provide unbiased information to parents and community members, gather parent and community feedback, and use research and feedback to advocate at the school, district and state levels. In 2009 and 2010, as we closed 28 of our 61 schools, much of my work focused on school closings.

Like many urban school districts facing school closures, Kansas City has been struggling to maintain enrollment since the 1960’s when the district served more than 70,000 students. By 1980 enrollment dropped to 35,000. In 2010, with an enrollment of 17,000, many of our schools were operating at less than 40% capacity.

Prior to the massive school closings in 2010, Kansas City had closed 16 schools as a part of top-down management strategies that failed to engage students, parents and community. Nine of the schools have remained vacant for more than 5 years; 3 for more than a decade. Most of the neighborhoods surrounding these schools have less than 50% occupancy. In one of the affected communities, 9 out of 10 homes and businesses are vacant. One of the schools caught fire in 2011 and has stood partially demolished for more than a year, serving as constant reminder of the devastation caused by failing schools and school closures.

Having learned from past mistakes, in 2010, the school board and district administrators worked hard to engage the community throughout the school closure process. About 6 months before schools were closed, consistent with the sustainable schools model, district administrators informed the community of the plan to close schools and the rationale for doing so, hosted forums to obtain community feedback concerning the closures allowing every person who desired to do so the opportunity to communicate concerns directly to the superintendent and his staff, and used community feedback to modify the list of schools to be closed. Three months before closing schools, the school board reached out to the community again to define a repurposing process that would ensure that each closed building would be repurposed to provide a community supported service rather than remaining vacant and contributing to the blight. To date 10 of the 28 schools closed in 2010 have been repurposed.

Because district administrators took the time to complete “a comprehensive needs assessment- done in partnership with parents, educators, students and community members- so that local solutions are tailored to local problems,” the 2010 school closures did not have as devastating an impact as previous closures.

As a Journey for Justice partner in Kansas City, I am asking that you consider replacing policies that “destabilize communities and shut out democratic voices”, with policies, like our districts 2010 school closure and repurposing process, that “recognize parent, student and community leadership as key to sustainable student success.”


My name is Rico Gutstein. I’m an education professor at the University of Illinois—Chicago and a parent of a CPS grad. I’ve taught math in neighborhood schools and have studied and published research on CPS for 20 years.

Since 2001, all but 2 of the 105 school actions have been in schools overwhelmingly serving low-income Black and Latino students. The probability of that happening randomly?? Less than winning the lottery. And while 42% of CPS students are Black, 88% of the students affected by school actions are—more than double!

These school actions were supposed to improve education—not in Chicago! A 2009 study of 44 closed elementary schools documented that only 6% of displaced students transferred to high-performing schools, while 80% went to under-performing ones. By high school, the majority was doing about as well as if they had never moved. Even the slight evidence suggesting some advantages is contested and shows slim benefit. For the majority? No benefit.

Likewise, probation was to help poor-performing schools. But the number of probation schools has soared from roughly 100 in 1997 to about 250 today. This is a successful policy? The policy failed partly because it stripped schools of Local School Councils, squelching local initiative and family input. You know from Tony Bryke et al.’s work on the five essential supports that a successful school includes families and community—and that without all ingredients, you can’t bake a cake. Racial impact? Almost two thirds of today’s probation schools are over 90% Black.

If you believe students need teachers who look like them and who can be role models, then the impact of school actions on Black communities is severe indeed. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of Black CPS teachers dropped from 41% to 30%. Many veteran Black teachers knew the community and students’ families—and had taught them. They were replaced by younger, whiter, less experienced, and less credentialed teachers who don’t stay long—their turnover rate is much higher, especially in charters, where many end up.

Experience, relationships, and the wisdom of practice have real impact on students’ lives. After CPS made Carver Area High School in Riverdale into a selective enrollment school, most Riverdale students attended Fenger, their new neighborhood school—five miles and two bus rides away, in Roseland, across turf and gang lines. Then, when CPS turned around Fenger in summer 2009 and re-hired only 10 teachers, they created a situation of deeply stressed youth and adults who didn’t know them. Three weeks into the school year, after almost daily fights, Derrion Albert was tragically killed in a large brawl between students from Riverdale and Roseland. Gone were the veteran Black teachers who might have been able to stem the rising tide of violence. As Secretary Duncan knows well, spiked violence resulted across Chicago where schools received students from closed schools in other neighborhoods.

These data and much more make clear the severe racially disparate impact of Chicago school policy on Black communities—a major civil rights violation!