Ghosts in the Schoolyard

Score: 7 / 10

In 2013, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would close 54 neighborhood schools, most of them on Chicago’s predominantly Black South and West Side. CPS characterized the schools as “underutilized,” “under-resourced,” and “failing,” and said the decision would ultimately benefit students by giving them better opportunities. However, the decision was met with public outcry, particularly from the parents, students, and teachers using the schools.

So if the schools were truly bad, why did people care so much about saving them? Ghosts in the Schoolyard strives to answer that question. It primarily focuses on one neighborhood, Bronzeville, and documents the history of segregation, disinvestment, and racism perpetuated by institutions like CPS and the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).

Such history is critical to the book’s narrative. It provides context for the outrage of community members who feel like public institutions are (once again) working against them. And it reframes the debate from “CPS with facts vs. community members with feelings,” to “CPS ignoring community input from historically ignored groups vs. community members who want a modicum of self-determination.”

All of this is bound by exceptionally beautiful and insightful prose. One of my favorite paragraphs is:

Why do people fight for schools like Dyett? Why did the Coalition continue to fight even after those in power assured them of their own victory? Because it was never just about Dyett. 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 children. (p. 47)

And later:

The school closures that took place in Bronzeville in 2013 were a policy rooted in racism. These actions were not racist because of the “hearts and minds” of the people who made the decisions; I don’t know these people and can’t claim to know their hearts or their minds, and in any case that would be beside the point. They were racist because they were the culmination of several generations of racist policy stacked on racist policy, each one disregarding, controlling, and displacing black children and families in new ways layered upon the callousness of the last. (p. 91)

However, Ghosts in the Schoolyard isn’t without flaws. Its narrative is sometimes disjointed, hopping through time and space. It occasionally feels feels overly academic and inaccessible, such as when it uses critical discourse analysis in chapter three.

But my biggest disappointment with Ghosts is that it completely ignores the institutional dynamics of CPS. Ewing acts as an outside observer. She purposefully looks only at the outcome of the school closing policy rather than the decision-making that led to it.

Ewing undoubtedly didn’t have access to the internal debates happening at CPS or the Mayor’s office. And she states in the appendix that she, “strive[d] to tell a story, rather than the story.” But I wish she’d somehow managed to reveal a little bit of the insane dysfunction and poor management required to reach such an astonishingly bad policy decision with little to no community input.

That said, I still enjoyed the book. It’s essential context for the increasingly hot debate around equity in education, and a potent reminder that policy should be driven by more than just what can be easily measured.