Eve Ewing
Big Brains podcst

Lessons From Our Country’s Largest School Closing with Eve L. Ewing (Ep. 20)

Eve Ewing explains how race, history and ‘institutional mourning’ intersect in the largest mass public school closing in U.S. history.

Eve Ewing
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

In her book Ghosts In The Schoolyard, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration scholar Eve Ewing asks a central question about the 2013 mass closings of Chicago Public Schools: If the schools were so bad, why did people fight so hard to save them?

Her investigation is a deep and nuanced investigation of the public school system that reveals important lessons about how we conduct education policy. The conclusions from her work reverberate beyond Chicago.

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Music used in this episode: Building The SledGaddy,Are We Loose YetRoundpineThoothless Slope, and Children of Lemuel by Blue Dot Sessions



PAUL RAND: Five years ago, Chicago found itself at the center of a national debate on public education.

TAPE WPTV: The Chicago school board has just voted to close 49 schools. It is the largest mass school closing in U.S. history.

PAUL RAND: The largest mass public school closing in U.S. history. The affected students, teachers and parents were devastated, and their outcry was staggering.

PROTEST TAPE: You should not be closing these schools without walking into them, and seeing what is happening in these schools.

PAUL RAND: But the Chicago Public Schools administration stood firm. It argued that these schools were underutilized and underperforming, that closing them would ultimately be better for students. The members of those school communities, however, saw it differently.

WBEZ TAPE: Sometimes I think that we are all pieces in a game that they’re playing.

PAUL RAND: And for University of Chicago scholar Eve Ewing, who was in a doctoral program at Harvard at the time, the public reaction raised an unusual question: If these schools are so bad, why are people fighting so hard to save them? 

EVE EWING: Yeah, I think that we make educational policy decisions using certain sets of criteria and decision-making factors. And I think people relate to the idea that sometimes those factors don’t show the complete picture. And I was frustrated at my own lack of understanding. And so that’s kind of what sparked the book project.

PAUL RAND: That project would end up becoming her critically acclaimed book, Ghosts In The Schoolyard, which was published last year. It is a deep and nuanced investigation of public school closings, explaining how history, race and something called institutional mourning all intersect with educational policy. The conclusions and lessons from her work reverberate well beyond Chicago.

EVE EWING: I think that people recognize that this is a story about how we make decisions that impact people who are already vulnerable and marginalized in the cities in which we live.

PAUL RAND: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains. Stories behind the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs reshaping our world. On this first episode of season two, Eve Ewing and the ghosts in our schoolyards. I’m your host Paul Rand.

Part 1:

PAUL RAND: For Eve Ewing, studying public education policy—specifically public education in Chicago—is an incredibly personal project.

EVE EWING: So, I grew up here in Chicago and I was a Chicago public school student.

PAUL RAND: She spent her childhood in the Logan Square neighborhood on the North Side of the city, an area that’s gentrified since she lived there.

EVE EWING: So, I’m a time traveler from a neighborhood that doesn’t exist anymore. So I’m from the past.

PAUL RAND: And Ewing’s experience as a student in Chicago schools would forever change her understanding of the systems underlying public education, and would eventually shape her research.

EVE EWING: So I went to a magnet school. I took the school bus every day. And Logan Square, where I grew up, was then an almost entirely Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. And so I got on a bus and there would be me and my brother as some of the only black kids in our neighborhood. And then we would go to our school and our school had, you know, people from all different racial backgrounds. And so right away there is this awareness of you know when I get to school I have friends that are white and black and Asian and Mexican-American and Polish and Jewish and all these different backgrounds but everybody on the bus looks like me. Everybody on the bus is brown.

Noticing those things as a kid was really important for me. People think children dont see race, they do. And what they do is they do their best to make meaning of it, with or without adults around to guide them. Those experiences made me start thinking about schools pretty young. And then the thing that was the final straw was, my brother went to a different high school than I did.

So, I went to Northside College Prep which is a building that cost forty-four million dollars to build. We had brand new graphing calculators, we had computers in every room. There are seven different languages taught at North Side. You know: cafeteria, gym, Olympic swimming pool, brand new theater. And my brother’s high school: at times there were kids fighting in the hallway there was a lot of gang activity. He felt really unsafe there. Once, there was a teacher who put chains on the bathroom doors. Seeing those differences, we live in a society where people really believe deeply in meritocracy, and there’s a narrative when you go to a school like North Side. People tell you that you earned it or that you deserve it. And it was very hard for me to reconcile the idea that I got to have certain opportunities or certain facilities that other kids did not, and that the supposed reason is that I’m somehow more deserving and I didn’t feel that just because my brother got like a C in math means that he shouldn’t be able to learn a second language or swim in a nice pool.

PAUL RAND: Ewing carried those questions with her when she came to the University of Chicago as an undergraduate student. At first she wanted to be a journalist or writer, but then she got involved with the Neighborhood Schools program, and fell in love with teaching.

EVE EWING: Number one I love children. I think kids are really magical and incredible, and the small moments of revelation that they experience on a daily basis are nothing short of miraculous to me. But I also saw how a lot of things that I really care about like public health and housing and poverty and equity were really coming to bear in the classroom.

So, I became a teacher after I graduated college. And I loved loved loved loved being teacher. I taught sixth seventh and eighth grade. There was one day when my principal called us all in for 8a.m. staff meeting, and she said cancel your vacations pay off your credit cards because you know there’s huge budget cuts coming down the line. And we were told that I as a teacher, my job would probably be safe, but that we were looking at layoffs of our custodians, our engineers, our clerks, our assistant principals, our security guards. And I went up to my classroom that day, and I thought about how I was maybe going to have a job but if the heat broke there was going to be nobody to fix the heat. If somebody called if a parent called to talk to me on the phone there’d be no clerk to answer the phone. If somebody threw up, there’d be nobody to clean it. And it just frustrated me to think about trying to do my work in that kind of setting. And when I got to my classroom I was teaching an eighth grade homeroom, and I got there and I looked at my students and we as a group were having a great year, and I felt like I had worked really hard to make an amazing classroom community, and my students had worked really hard to make that community, and my principal was great and my colleagues were great. And so I kind of looked around like well whose fault is this. And I realized in that moment it felt like the building was literally crumbling around me, and it was very frustrating to think that we were facing these decisions and nobody in the building was accountable for them. Nobody who was behind the decisions would ever come and talk to us about it. And so that’s when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school because I wanted to understand why it is that way and to try to meet the people. I wanted to understand who the people are that make these decisions.

PAUL RAND: To find the answers to those questions, Ewing went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. But it wasn’t long before a public education crisis would draw her back home. When the school closings were announced in Chicago, she pulled out her laptop and frantically scrolled through the names of closing schools. Then she saw it. The school where she had previous taught was on the list.

EVE EWING: It was really an emotionally devastating moment because Barbara Byrd-Bennett who was the CEO, which for non-Chicagoans that’s what we call our superintendent here, we call them the CEO, which no commentary on that for now. But

PAUL RAND: Look it up folks. You’ll see why she says that.

Ewe Ewing: Exactly. She was quoted in the newspaper as saying, you know we have to close these schools because they’re struggling schools they’re failing, they’re under-resourced, they’re underutilized. And when I when I heard that, I just visualized my school building and the beautiful paint on the walls, and the students, and their smiles, and all the things that we as educators worked so hard to give them, and the amazing learning environment that was so nurturing that we had worked to construct. I knew that that wasn’t what people would picture when they read these words, and I knew that people who had never been to the school or who had never been to a school like this, would kind of draw on their own stereotypes as well as the images that we portray in the media of what public schools look like especially public schools primarily serving low income black students. And that all those stereotypes would kind of fill their heads and that they would take it at face value that: okay, sure sounds good, close it seems bad. And that was really upsetting.

PAUL RAND: So she decided to do something to upend that narrative. She began investigating the closing schools and the people who lived in those communities, not as numbers on spread sheets or test scores in a binder, but as individuals with stories and a history. That investigation would become her critically acclaimed book, Ghosts In The Schoolyard. What she discovered, after the break.

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PAUL RAND: The central question of Ghosts In The Schoolyard is surprising, and led Ewing to some revelatory discoveries: if these schools were so bad, why did people fight so hard to save them? One of the major flashpoints where this question came into play, was the battle to save one specific school scheduled to close: Walter H. Dyett High.

EVE EWING: People in the community were really upset because with the closure of Dyett, it would mean that that was going to be the last open enrollment neighborhood school in the area. So a neighborhood school meaning they have to take anybody who lives in the residential area. So a group of parents, community members, teachers and allies fought this vehemently and ultimately they went on a hunger strike for 34 days to try to keep the school open.

PAUL RAND: And this was a school that supposedly is not very good but people are going on a 34-day hunger right. 

EVE EWING: Yeah, that’s really kind of the crux of the matter is exactly that: if a school is so bad, why would people go on a hunger strike—literally facing death. I mean, some of them were hospitalized. There were press conferences from nurses and one of the former Surgeon Generals of the city, public health leaders saying this is really truly a danger to folks. And I think that it really called a lot of attention to asking that question of OK well somebody sees value in this institution. And so why is that.

PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE TAPE: I’m out here on a hunger strike because I live in a city that doesn’t respect me or my children because of the color of our skin and our income.

EVE EWING: And I think that the symbolism of the name, Dyett, is important as well because Walter H. Dyett, who the school’s named after, he was a music teacher here in Chicago in the 1940s after the Great Migration. And he was a music teacher for people like Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, many famous jazz musicians, but also many regular kids whose names we’ll never know. And it’s very rare to have a school that’s named after a teacher. When was the last time you heard of a school that was named after a teacher and not a famous historical figure. Right. And so it was really important to the hunger strikers to actually say the name of the school matters and we want it to be Dyett High. Walter H. Dyett High School. And an interesting thing about the school closures was that the matter of names ended up being really important symbolically because many of the schools that were destined to close were actually named after famous black people often famous black Chicagoans. So Mahalia Jackson Elementary, Mahalia Jackson being a famous gospel singer here, Daniel Hale Williams is one of the schools I write about in the book and he was the first physician to perform the first documented successful heart surgery in the United States. And he also ran Provident Hospital on King Drive which was one of the first hospitals that actually served black people in the city when there weren’t other hospitals that would do that. You know these are important people. And so it was also symbolic to talk about those closures in that regard. 

WBEZ TAPE: When you start taking schools away from our community that are named after Black heroes and when you do that you take away our history and the quickest way to destabilize and kill the hope of a community is you take away it’s history.

PAUL RAND:  So decisions were being communicated that it was because of the performance of the schools. But you said not necessarily so. I think you were talking about it in terms of being structural racism. What in the world is structural racism?

EVE EWING: Well structural racism is a way of understanding racism that is not about individual people and their biases or their prejudices, but actually the ways in which decisions that are made across structures, like for example a school system, differentially affect different groups of people based on race.

So even though the justification that was given was this building underutilization, 88 percent of the students that were displaced by school closures were black. Across the city, one in four of the schools that had majority black teachers and majority black students were closed. Now the pushback to that that Barbara Byrd-Bennett the CEO and others said was, well it just happens to be that this is where the students are. Right. It just so happens to be that these students are majority black and they just happen to be in these empty buildings. And one thing I talk about in the book is that there’s nothing incidental about this, that the very high concentration of black students in those neighborhoods and in those buildings was actually the result of segregationist policies both in housing and in schools throughout the 20th century. So the students were clustered in those places for a reason. And the thing about structural racism is it doesn’t have to tie back to somebody’s malicious intent. It’s about the disproportionate impact on groups of people. And so regardless of what Barbara Byrd-Bennett may have intended or what school leaders may have intended. If black students are the ones who bear the brunt of this dispossession and displacement, then we say this is a structurally racist outcome because it is within the structure that they are going to be disproportionately harmed. 

PAUL RAND: Toward the end of Ghosts In The Schoolyard, Ewing writes that another central factor that’s important to understand in all this, is how neo-liberalism has shaped our education policy decisions, and has been a driving force in the School Choice debate.

EVE EWING: So neoliberalism is basically the idea that our society will do best if we behave as consumers in a marketplace. And if we use the resources available to us to go out and earn as best as we can and access the things that will make our lives easier and better and it’s different from thinking about ourselves as people who have rights to access certain kinds of things. Now, the way that this is played out in education is that we now in the past couple of decades have started thinking about schools and talking about schools not as things that we have rights to, you know the idea of everybody having a right to a good school, but rather as something that we are to consume and choose. The same way we might, I think I say in the book, you know choose a cereal in the cereal aisle that we go, we look at the nutrition facts, we think about our personal preferences, we think about how much money we have, and we make the consumer choice that’s best for us. So neoliberalism in education has kind of applied that same kind of thinking to schools, where schools should be competing with each other, whichever one is the best will win out, whichever one is the worst will fail in the marketplace, and that’s kind of the natural order of things. And the problem with that is that there are children involved. Number one, we live in an unequal society where people have disparate abilities to go out and behave as these quote unquote conscious consumers. So for instance many people in Chicago do not have access to a car or a reliable transportation, reliable child care. Those are all things that can impact where you would actually be able to send your kid to school. It’s not just a matter of I’m going to look at the data and pick the best school and the second thing is that the cost of failure is very high.

When a school is dying or struggling because it’s been starved of resources there are still children in that building who are then being deprived of a high-quality education and they don’t deserve to be given less resources just because their school has been deemed a failure by the broader public. And often those students are the very same students that are facing the most tremendous obstacles in other areas of their life. They are the homeless students, they are the students whose parents are struggling with drug abuse or addiction. And so it becomes sort of a vicious cycle wherein we punish those who already don’t have a whole lot. And neoliberalism basically excuses that by saying well you couldn’t compete.

PAUL RAND: Ewing calls the grief and loss people experience after a school closure, Institutional Mourning. And, for some people, it can feel as painful as losing a loved one. She writes “in losing a school, one loses a version of oneself”.

EVE EWING: Well can I ask you where did you go to school as a kid.

PAUL RAND: I went to the school in Youngstown, Ohio. Steel mill town in Youngstown, Ohio.

EVE EWING: So I mean being a Midwesterner and being from Youngstown I’m sure people probably had a close sense of affinity with the mill, right, with the school. And for most of us, if you were to go back right now, all these years later, and walk by your elementary school you’d probably see yourself right. There you go on that one day when you were late for school because something happened, or when somebody dared you to kiss somebody, or you know when somebody challenged you to a race and you won after you tried all those times and lost, or when you were embarrassed because you didn’t know the answer in math class. All those things are things that are so remote from our adult lives. Right. You’re all these years and all those miles away but those are still part of you and there’s something about the place and about the building and the sight of these memories that is really special to people and it’s hard to put a monetary value on that.

Many of the kids in these schools that closed had almost familial relationships with their parent, with the teachers, with their classmates. They also had multigenerational familial attachments to the school. So some of students go to the same school where their parents their grandparents went. They feel like this is part of themselves as an institution where their own lives find meaning and resonance and safety. And so when I say a school is a part of you it’s a version of yourself. It’s all of those selves that that experience loss and love and human connection. 

PAUL RAND: So this is where the concept of institutional mourning comes in.

EVE EWING: Yes precisely. In the book, I have an idea called institutional mourning which is a theory I put forth about the ways that, in some cases, we mourn institutions the same way we would mourn a human loss. And so the theory is sort of developed out of my interviews with folks in the community because people talked about their lost school as though they were talking about a lost person often and they described very intense feelings of emotional longing and in grief in the way they talked about their schools. That was very striking to me. And it also was commensurate with my own sort of emotional experience that catalyzed my desire to write the book. And I think institutional mourning obviously in the book I’m writing about it in the context of schools. But I think that people also experienced this when it comes to public housing with other beloved community institutions that get torn down or closed up where you feel a pang of hurt and grief and loss every time you’re near that site.

PAUL RAND: Ewing’s work in public education is important. It changes the way we should understand how schools serve students and families beyond test scores. And it causes us to pause and consider how history can affect policy. But Ewing’s work extends far beyond the world of academic writing. She’s also a poet and comic book writer. But despite how disparate those projects might seem from being a scholar, she says it’s all really part of the same project. That’s coming up after the break.


PAUL RAND: When Ewing isn’t working on public policy, she’s continuing her prolific career as a poet. Her books of poetry have won numerous awards. And she also writes comic books for Marvel, currently, Ironheart featuring Riri Williams, a female super genius from the South Side of Chicago.

EVE EWING: So Marvel approached me, and in my first conversations with them, I wanted to basically talk about what I think comics are for and what I think superheroes are for. And I think that they serve a really important place in our kind of national mythology because they’re the place where we work out what does it mean to be good. What does it mean to save people what does it mean to be a hero.

And so Ironheart you know the fact that she is a superhero who’s from Chicago, who’s from the South Side, and in many ways challenges what people assume when they think about a typical superhero. She’s a black teenage girl. And nevertheless, she is grappling with those same kinds of questions. And I think that’s part of the kind of imagining of a better space that I want to be able to do, is to be able to ponder those questions in public in this very fun way. It happens to be fun, but it’s also part of the work of political transformation to be able to imagine what comes after. And I think that in order to really transform the world in which we live, we can’t simply come up with things that are a rebuttal to the reality as we know it to to. We can’t simply come up with things that are a rebuttal to reality as we know it. We also have to have the fortitude and the bravery to think about what comes after. And that to me is the work of imagination. It’s fun but it’s also radical.

People often say you know you have so many projects, and I think of myself as having really one project that has a lot of component parts. I love writing and I love teaching and I’m interested in using primarily the written word to create spaces to reimagine what kind of home is worthy of the amazing people that live in this city because Chicago is such an incredible place and I love it so much and it’s my home. And it’s also been really dismissive and a very tough place for a lot of people to live. And a lot of the things that I write about in Ghost in the schoolyard and kind of non-fiction writing things like racism violent policing segregation poverty transit into equity health and equity et cetera et cetera all these really tough terrible things. I think that my job as a writer is to certainly try to document those things but also try to create spaces for us to imagine something else and to uplift celebrate acknowledge and see the people who nevertheless make a home here despite the challenges of all those things.

PAUL RAND: So you’re a poet.


PAUL RAND: Do you have a favorite poet or a line you really love? 

EVE EWING: One of my favorite poets is Gwendolyn Brooks. And she’s the poet who’s had the greatest impact on me, not just as a writer, but in the way I try to move in the world as a writer and the way I try to live my life. And she has a poem where she says: “Say to them, say to the down-keepers, the sun-slappers, the self-spoilers, the harmony-hushers, ‘Even if you are not ready for a day it cannot always be night.”

It’s from a poem called “Speech To The Young, Speech To The Progress-Toward.” So it’s her writing to her two children and to other young people. And I think a lot of the things that I write about feel really insurmountable.

You know the classes I teach here—I teach a class called The Social Meaning of Race and a class called Race in American Public Schools. And my students, every week, they feel like what are we supposed to do because they come in and they understand, more than ever, the enormity of inequality in our country. But the thing is that these are structures that took multiple centuries to construct. And it’s really unfair of us to expect of ourselves that we’re going to deconstruct them in a year or a decade or even a lifetime. But at the same time we’re beholden to the people who come after us to try our best. And so I don’t expect that that kind of metaphorical day that Gwendolyn Brooks is talking about in her poem. I don’t expect to see that in my lifetime, but I know that the night can’t last forever.


Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you liked what you heard, please give us a review and rating.

Thanks to Eve Ewing for joining our program. She is an assistant professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Be sure to look for her second book of poetry called 1919 about the 1919 race riot in Chicago. That book will be out in June.

Our show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by Matt Hodapp. Thanks for listening.

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