Haunted Schools: From Memories to History

The best scholarship conveys more than theory, notes and data. It crafts stories and arguments that give one pause, that interrupt the expected and make you stop, wonder and think. Eve L. Ewing‘s Ghosts in the Schoolyard is that sort of work. It’s an award-winning book that is even better than anticipated. Ewing weaves together methodologies, ideas and observations to offer one of the most trenchant analyses of Chicago, racism and public discourse that I’ve encountered in many years. She does it with elegance, too. Her language and metaphors are most definitely manifestations of her “literary mind.”

In 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and later disgraced head of Chicago Public School (CPS) Barbara Byrd-Bennet called for a large number of school closings. The reasons cited for this massive realignment of neighborhood schools included a CPS budget shortfall, changing demographics and a commitment to providing every student with a quality education. All told 54 schools that were labeled as failing in some manner were shuttered. There was tremendous resistance from many throughout the city. Ewing’s book focuses on several school closings in Bronzeville, an area on Chicago’s South Side that is a vital touchstone to the Black community and its history.

Ewing grew up in Bronzeville, attended CPS and has taught in CPS. She is now a professor of social work at University of Chicago, a writer, a poet, an editor and a visual artist. She brings a special perspective and comprehensive skill set to the study of the school closings, which affected her personally. Ewing is up front about it, too, noting that she is not an objective observer and does want to be one, either. She offers a revelatory story, grounded in ethnography, history, educational policy and practice, and a nuanced understanding of how “rational” decisions can reinforce racism.

The book explains the different ways that schools matter to communities, what they mean to those that learn, work and live by them. Local history informs this, particularly as one committed teacher or administrator can have profound leadership. Walter Henry Dyett, an extraordinarily influential bandleader and music teacher, was one of those individuals and CPS honored his legacy by naming a Bronzeville school after him. Dyett is one of the schools Ewing investigates, described as a “failing” school and then “saved” through community action. It’s a messy story, with concerned students and parents, bureaucracy, local politics and lots of emotion and passion. Ewing shows us how “a fight for a school is never just about a school. A school means the potential for stability in an unstable world, the potential for agency in the face of powerlessness, the enactment of one’s own dreams and visions for one’s own children.” This is an argument, expressed in language, that resonates with anyone who considers themselves to be an educator.

The story of CPS is best realized in the context of Chicago’s history of race and segregation. Ewing offers that context, sketching out the consequences of exclusionary housing policies, the unwillingness or indifference of political leadership to offer viable alternatives, and the impact of these on how CPS built, staffed, and operated its school system. Benjamin Willis, CPS head from 1953 – 1966, serves as critical example. Willis’s professed commitment to local school control was also a commitment to segregation, overcrowding in Black schools, and inequitable and unfair educational practice. What happened under Emanuel administration was a consequence of these and other aligned practices. Ewing calls them out as “the culmination of several generations of racist practice stacked on racist policy.”

In examining the closing of three Bronzeville schools, Overton, Mayo and Williams, Ewing pulls apart the multi-layered rhetoric of officials. A close reading of a statement by CPS portfolio planner Brittany Meadows gives the reader insight into how the scientifically-influenced language of policy can obscure truths and distort meaning. In this space, Ewing’s analysis reminded me of Garcia’s work on Hispanic Serving Institutions. True and real understanding allows for different languages, priorities and visions. Ewing is particularly strong on how a preoccupation with numbers and quantitative analysis cannot “account for some basic realities in a public school system.” Ewing, who interviewed many who were directly affected by the closings, gives voice to those who wrestle with these realities. The community’s collective mourning is also a way to remember. It is vital history.

It is also important to emphasize that Ewing does not argue that there should never be school closings. She states it explicitly: “this book is not to say that school closures should never happen.” Enrollment, policy, money and practice remain important. What she seeks is something more valuable: understanding and willingness to confront and address and transform racist practice.

I strongly recommend giving Ghosts in the Schoolyard a read. It is about much more than school closings; it is a window to a more informed understanding. It most definitely will make you think.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. David, Thank you for sharing your review of this book. Segregation in Chicago, and the overcrowding of classrooms in the Black community had a big impact on me. I actually had a conversation with a colleague last week, and she described my experience as traumatic. This never crossed my mind, but describing my experiences as a CPS student were harrowing to them.

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