Widening the Divide: School Improvements and Racial and Class Inequities

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At a time when the embattled Chicago Public Schools system is cash-strapped, decisions are being made about capital expenditures that appear to exacerbate racial and class segregation within schools.

WBEZ reporters Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea have begun broadcasting an investigative series that looks at specific examples of expensive additions to high-performing schools where the need for space might be better served by sending overflow students to nearby schools that are struggling to retain the enrollment numbers needed to stay open.

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“This new construction is disproportionately going to schools that serve the white, middle class, sometimes ignoring opportunities to create more diverse schools,” the reporters write in an article posted on WBEZ’s website.

By contrast, nearby schools that are struggling to receive funds for maintenance like lead abatement and failing heating systems have students who are black, Latino and poor. The overlooked schools are also linked to former or current Chicago Housing Authority properties.

The funding for the new structures comes from last fiscal year’s property tax hike.

Karp and Vevea examine the hidden, ongoing costs of new construction which could put the city back more than twice as much as the initial outlay for building. The impact of that decision is less money for new teachers, for reduced class sizes or for improved curriculum.

Specific schools cited in their reporting include Skinner West Elementary School on the Near West Side, which draws students from all across the city. Skinner West is scheduled to receive a $20 million annex. But Brown Elementary School, a little under a mile to the west, is under-enrolled and would welcome more students. Brown traditionally serves mostly poor and black students.

“We were hearing from some [Skinner West] parents that many of them didn’t even really know about Brown – didn’t know Brown was nearby – but officials appear to have already made this decision to build that annex there,” Vevea said to host Phil Ponce.

“Now, they did, at the behest of Ald. Walter Burnett, decide to invest additional money in Brown school, making that school a STEM school. So we just found out last night that Brown will get about $5 million,” she said.

CPS has a history of racial and class segregation that led to reform in the past. Karp and Vevea point to the end of court oversight regarding desegregation in 2008 as a potential fault line in the work to keep education fair and equitable across the system.

“Poor children improve their performance by leaps and bounds when they’re in an economically mixed environment,” Vevea said.

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