Revisiting the Impact of Chicago’s Mass School Closings 10 Years Later in Austin, Garfield Park

“Chicago Tonight” is hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders.

Ten years ago, the Chicago Board of Education and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to close nearly 50 public schools, mainly on the South and West sides of the city.

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One of those schools was Delano Elementary in Garfield Park. Issues arose when those students had to then attend school with students at Melody Elementary.

“I thought it was erroneous for them to take these two schools that have been adversaries for almost 40 to 50 years and put them in the same school,” said Reginald Akkeem Berry Sr., founder of Saving Our Sons Ministries. “That was just, again, set up for failure.”

Berry said his organization had to step in to help mediate when the school closed.

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Andrew Carr was a guidance counselor at Delano Elementary. He also had a grandchild who was a student there when the mass school closures happened.

“The lasting impact is that children, they don’t trust the school system,” Carr said. “Then them, as parents, they reject the things that’s happening in the school and they feel like they don’t have a say-so in it, they don’t have a voice in what’s going on and they kind of give up.”

Dwayne Truss was an organizer on the West Side at the time and later served as a CPS board member from 2019 to 2022. He said the school closings failed to consider the connections that families had to their neighborhood schools.

In Austin, four elementary schools closed: Armstrong, Emmet, Key and May. 

Ten years later, Armstrong remains vacant. May’s building was taken over by its receiving school, Leland Elementary. In the last year, Key reopened as the Field School, a private Christian elementary school, while the site of Emmet will house a new workforce development hub called the Aspire Center.

A rendering of the Aspire Center. (Courtesy of Lamar Johnson Collaborative)A rendering of the Aspire Center. (Courtesy of Lamar Johnson Collaborative)

Quiwana Bell, chief development officer of Westside Health Authority, said the organization incorporated community feedback in planning the Aspire Center after having bought the shuttered Emmet school building.

“It really is symbolic because this is a monumental school and it had a monumental presence in the community,” Bell said. “For us to rebirth it with a new concept that looks at innovation and looks at ways we can include our young people into the new economy, and so, they’ll still be learning, but in a different way.”

Officials and community partners held a groundbreaking ceremony in May, announcing more than $22 million in state and city funding for the project.

A manufacturing training center and on-site services for job readiness and vocational training are also in the works for the center.

Community organization Austin Coming Together is among the Aspire Center partners. Executive director Darnell Shields said the center could serve as a model for reviving other closed schools.

“To see those buildings not as just places of desolation, but opportunities for something new that can go into the community, that can help address the problems that we have and start to build us back from what we lost with that decision to being made to close those schools,” Shields said.

Construction for Aspire Center is expected to wrap up in late 2024.

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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