By Trisha Marczak
As Chicago plans to execute the largest school closure in the nation’s history, the city is experiencing an increase in homeless youth, causing concern among those who see school closures as a direct attack on already low-income neighborhoods.
The announcement of 49 elementary school closures means big changes for the students and parents impacted. Students will now struggle with distance, yet another barrier to their education.
In addition to the closings, another 28 schools were impacted, with 5 schools becoming “turnaround” schools and another 23 schools merging into 11 school buildings.
According to Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2,600 homeless students will be impacted by Chicago school closures. Considering all 127 schools that will either be closed, merged or become “turnaround” schools, 3,600 homeless students will be impacted.
“All students are harmed by this chaos and destabilization, and students who are homeless are particularly vulnerable to harm,” Patricia Nix-Hodes, associated legal director for the Chicago Coalition for Homelessness, said in a press release.
Attucks Elementary School, one of the schools on the closure list, has a homeless student population of 131. Its upcoming merger with Beethoven School will increase that number to more than 200, representing nearly one-third of the school’s population, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“The very cornerstone of homeless education law and policy is to provide stability in education to students who lack stable housing,” Nix-Hodes said. The massive scale of Chicago Public Schools school actions undercut the very stability that students who are homeless so need and richly deserve.”
Last year, 4 percent of the Chicago Public School population — 18,000 students — were already considered homeless, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Yet those who back the school closures say it has nothing to do with an attack on the low-income areas of Chicago, claiming instead it’s an issue of simple arithmetic.
“We can no longer embrace the status quo because the status quo is not working for all Chicago schoolchildren,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett told the City Council, claiming the closures are a move to address schools that were not meeting standards in both academics and enrollment.
Meanwhile, charter schools in Chicago that aren’t required to enroll all students who apply are on the rise, having doubled since 2005.
Homelessness and school closures: a recipe for disaster?
National Runaway Safeline is partially funded through the Family and Youth Services Bureau, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its intent is to provide a service for youth who are thinking of running away, and for those who have found themselves on the streets.
In 2012, more than 10,200 young people reached out to Illinois’ National Runaway Safeline hotline, according to the organization.
While statistics for homeless youth living in Chicago are difficult to gauge, the National Runaway Safeline indicates it has experienced tremendous growth in the number of teens and young adults who have reported themselves as homeless, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The last official homeless youth count in Illinois was taken in 2004, when the University of Illinois at Chicago documented 9,000 “unaccompanied” homeless youth in the metro area. Throughout the state, that number was 25,000.
The rise in youth homelessness, accompanied by the announcement of additional school closures, has some Chicago residents concerned.
“Since 2004, the Law Project has assisted students experiencing homelessness who were impacted by school closures,” Nix-Hodes said. “(Chicago Public Schools) has never demonstrated its ability to successfully serve students transitioning to new schools.”
Closing schools, closing neighborhoods
Many students impacted by the closures will attend the city’s burgeoning for-profit charter school system. The number of students attending charter schools in Chicago doubled in five years, reaching 52,000 by 2012.
Not all students are guaranteed acceptance into charter schools. While some, like Chicago International, host “lottery” drawings for students, others choose based on application, leaving room for a pick-and-choose approach.
This creates a problem for some special-needs, low-income and minority students.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, charter schools nationwide enroll a lower percentage of students with disabilities than those of their public counterparts. Causes for this trend were not identified in the report.
According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 90 percent of all students impacted by the school closures, mergers and turnarounds are considered low-income.
Considering the schools on the docket for closure are in some of Chicago’s poorest areas, the odds are only being stacked higher against those who are at greatest risk for homelessness, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
As those living in areas where schools are set to close see it, when the school goes down, so does the neighborhood.
“Closing a school is akin to closing a community,” City council alderman Ameya Pawar told the Chicago Tribune.
Chicago school closures and mergers are expected to begin in June.