By Kalyn Belsha, Special to the Crusader from the Chicago Reporter
When Chicago Public Schools announced plans to close their neighborhood elementary school in March 2013, Lettrice Sanders and her children protested the proposal together.
Sanders, the president of the local school council at Emmet on the city’s West Side, became a familiar face in the media. “My momma, when she talked on the news, she was fierce,” her 16-year-old daughter, Brittany, recalls.
Lettrice and her husband, Kenneth Sanders, didn’t finish high school. She wouldn’t let the closures disrupt their children’s education.
But Emmet and 48 other elementary schools closed in an unprecedented decision for Chicago and any district in the nation. Sanders had a hard time finding another quality school for her children in Austin, the majority African-American neighborhood where they lived.
She had other concerns too. The family of seven was squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment because that was all they could afford. And that year, gunfire killed or injured nearly 60 people in Austin.
So in August 2013 Kenneth Sanders decided it was time to go.
The family packed their bags for Gary, Indiana, a predominantly Black city where the schools struggled academically and financially, but Sanders could afford a house for his children in a safer neighborhood.
“I knew coming to a new state would be a new start for us all, and it was,” he said. “Most of us, no matter how bad we came up… wanted our kids to live better. That’s something I wanted for them.”
Chicago was once a major destination for African-Americans during the Great Migration, but experts say today the city is pushing out poor Black families. In less than two decades, Chicago lost one-quarter of its Black population, or more than 250,000 people.
In the past decade, Chicago’s public schools lost more than 52,000 Black students. Now, the school district, which was majority Black for half a century, is on pace to become majority Latino. Black neighborhoods like Austin have experienced some of the steepest student declines and most of the school closures and budget cuts.
A common refrain is that Chicago’s Black families are “reverse migrating” to Southern cities with greater opportunities, like Atlanta and Dallas. But many of the families fleeing the poorest pockets of Chicago venture no farther than the south suburbs or northwest Indiana. And their children end up in cash-strapped segregated schools like the ones they left behind, a Chicago Reporter investigation found.
About 15,000 students from the city’s predominantly poor and Afri- can-American schools transferred out of CPS over the past eight academic years, yet remained in Illinois, according to an examination of tens of thousands of state transfer records. About one-third enrolled in school districts that are both majority poor and majority Black.
The Reporter observed this trend continue in northwest Indiana. A public records request to East Chicago public schools, for example, revealed nearly 400 African-American CPS students had transferred into the district since 2010. The overall number of Chicago transfers to northwest Indiana schools is likely much higher, but record-keeping inconsistencies make it difficult to determine precise numbers.
Often, the receiving school districts in Illinois and northwest Indiana were chronically underfunded. Research shows poor Black students in Illinois perform worse academically in such districts compared with Chicago.
Janice Jackson, the district’s interim CEO, recalls talking to a West Side principal who was “baffled” when students transferred to lesser-quality schools outside the city. The issue needs to be studied more, she said.
“It’s not one thing that drives any of this,” says Jackson.
“It’s a menu of disinvestment,” says Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who teaches African-American history at the University of Illinois Chicago. “The message that public policy sends to Black families in the city is that we’re not going to take care of you and if you just keep going away, that’s OK.”
Chicagoans flee to a hollowed-out Gary
When Brittany first moved to Gary, the abundance of abandoned buildings surprised her. “It looked deserted,” she said.
Real-estate agents once marketed Gary as the “city of the century.” As home of the world’s largest steel mill, Gary employed tens of thousands of steel workers.
But in the 1950s and ‘60s, steel factories closed or modernized. Mass layoffs followed. Soon after, Gary elected its first African-American mayor and many white residents fled. Now, tens of thousands of buildings are vacant or blighted.
The Sanders family and other Black Chicagoans have sought refuge in a hollowed-out city.
Northwest Indiana is the top destination for African-Americans who leave Cook County but stay in the greater Chicago area. Since Brittany arrived in Gary, her grandmother, uncle and great-uncle have moved there, too.
Denise Comer Dillard, a lifelong Gary resident and the board president of a local charter school, first noticed the influx of cars with Illinois license plates in the 1990s and 2000s as Chicago tore down its public housing. “We had situations that it almost looked like locusts,” she said.
Though enrollment in Gary’s public school district is declining, it’s taken in more than 1,300 Black students from out of state in the last four years, records show.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Terrance Little, the principal at the high school that Brittany and her 17-year-old brother, Ken, attend. “They transfer out just as quick as they transfer in… The kids that are here are so accustomed to kids moving back and forth.”
At school, reminders of Chicago are everywhere. Brittany’s closest friend is a transplant from the South Side. Another classmate transferred in this fall from a charter high school in North Lawndale run by Chicago’s Noble network. Ken has a classmate who transferred in from a Noble high school in Pullman. Little, who requires every transfer student to meet with him, estimates 10 of every 100 out-of-district transfers to his school are from Chicago.
“Now, it’s basically Chicago,” said Terry Flowers, who moved to Gary to be closer to family in 2000 after living in Englewood and Roseland. Her son and younger brother attend high school with Brittany and Ken. “Everyone from Chicago is here.”
Influx of poor Black students in suburban schools
As African-American families leave Chicago, the percentage of poor black students in the suburbs has grown dramatically, straining already cash-strapped school districts.
The Reporter looked at the 50 Illinois school districts most impacted by transfers from Chicago’s predominantly poor, Black schools. Most districts were among the worst-funded in the state and have been shortchanged even more than CPS. (After years of debate, lawmakers overhauled Illinois’ school funding law earlier this year. To correct inequities, the state soon will send more money to districts with higher-need students.)
High-poverty districts in northwest Indiana that took in many CPS transfers have also seen their budgets slashed in recent years after lawmakers rejiggered the state’s school funding formula and also spent more on charter schools and private-school vouchers.
“If poverty is growing in their community and their property taxes and other budgets are stretched or declining, that makes it even harder to find the resources to address the need,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, who has researched suburban poverty extensively for The Brookings Institution.
In the south suburbs, the nearly all-Black Dolton School District 149 has taken in hundreds of transfers from Chicago’s low-income Black schools in recent years. Officials say the high transfer rate makes it hard to know how many teachers the small district of 2,800 needs. On top of that, the level of financial need has intensified with few new resources. Fifteen years ago, the district was about two-thirds low-income, but now nearly every student is poor. The students could be dealing with health or emotional issues. And many move around a lot, which causes children to fall behind academically.
“We need as much attention as the city schools because we have the same kinds of problems,” said Jay Cunneen, the former superintendent who now advises the district on its finances. “We’re overwhelmed by some of the needs the kids bring in.”
Gary Orfield, who co-directs The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, says attending poor segregated suburban schools can pose more challenges for students.
“Poor minority kids and families who end up in declining or dying suburbs are worse off in terms of the fact that they’re very far away from where the economic growth is taking place,” Orfield says. “They may be 30 miles away from where a really good job market is with almost no workable public transportation.”
Some of the former Chicago students also end up in farther-flung suburbs.
Danville School District 118 is about 150 miles from downtown Chicago and it, too, has taken in hundreds of CPS students from segregated Black and poor schools. Just over half of all students were considered low-income 15 years ago, now more than three-quarters are. That’s brought with it a host of additional student needs.
The district recently hired specialists from Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago to teach school staff about working with traumatized students and invested more money into summer school for struggling kids.
“Our children, they were hurting,” said Superintendent Alicia Geddis. “We needed to retool.”