Growing up as a first-generation American, I was lucky to receive an excellent public school education, with peers as diverse as my hometown of Los Angeles. School was my joy, just as it was my stepping stone, and it’s with this sort of pride that I decided to teach in a Newark public school through Teach for America in 2015. Introducing pristinely uniformed ninth graders to Toni Morrison for the first time, I remember my heart beating with urgency as if it were a siren coming from a fire truck on Central Avenue. Each day I was confronted by what Eve L. Ewing calls “moments of intense focus and commitment where trying to help someone understand seems like the most important thing in the world.”
Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a hybrid book — equal parts 20th-century American history, education sociology, and personal memoir. The author, a sociologist of education at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and an acclaimed poet, looks at the 2013 closures of 50 Chicago public schools (the largest mass closure of public schools ever in an American city) from the perspectives of the students and families who were most affected. She connects these developments to the housing, legal, and education policies that are inextricably intertwined with the ugly realities of racial and socioeconomic politics.
Bronzeville, a historic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago and a final destination for many black Americans during the Great Migration from the Southern states, is where Ewing grounds her narrative. A former resident of the neighborhood and Chicago Public Schools teacher, Ewing gracefully channels the struggles of the community’s students, educators, and parents who fight valiantly to keep their schools open despite local politicians’ efforts to enact large-scale “reform.” These efforts beg the question that frames much of the book: If the schools are so terrible, why do people fight for them so adamantly?
Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side
Eve L. Ewing | The University of Chicago Press | 240 pp. | 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-0-226-52602-7 | More about this book
In 2012 the Chicago Board of Education announced its intention to close Walter H. Dyett High School, a Bronzeville stalwart since its founding in 1931. Ewing takes us to press conferences held by Chicago Public School officials making the case for why Dyett should be shut down. But through the eyes of its students and parents, we see how attempts by local officials to close Dyett look like attempts to “get black history to go away.”
Schools aren’t merely the sum total of their test scores and attendance levels; they’re spaces that facilitate an under- standing of a shared past and culture. Or as Ewing puts it, a school is “a place of care, a home, a site of history.” By looking at decades of racist housing policies and opaque school board processes that consistently under-resource schools in black communities, the author exposes the structural inequalities that can undergird our public education system and make any objective evaluation of individual schools quite challenging.
Ewing gracefully channels the struggles of the community’s students, educators, and parents who fight valiantly to keep their schools open despite local politicians’ efforts to enact large-scale “reform.”
By looking at the multiple roles schools perform in a community, Ewing explains why these families wage such fierce battles to keep them open, just as the depth of their resistance — for example, a month-long hunger strike — debunks a common myth about low-income and minority families being disinterested in their children’s education. In fact, the commitment of these families contrasts with the bureaucratic indifference of the public education system that marginalizes them.
However, one tension I confronted in Ewing’s work comes from my own experience as a classroom teacher: What should be done with schools that fail to adequately educate their students according to commonly accepted standards? Ewing herself acknowledges this tension when she writes that her “purpose in this book is not to say that school closures should never happen.” Paradoxically, the undeniable power of Ewing’s book is that she steers clear of offering blanket solutions. Rather, she underscores the importance of understanding how power and politics intersect in our communities, validating the experiences of all families and nurturing our young people in environments that preserve their cultural legacy.