I recently stumbled onto a meeting of a University of Chicago group called the Education and Mental Lives of Children study group of the Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry.
The topic was, “Closing Schools, Vulnerable Students,” and the evening turned into a very compelling discussion of the traumatic effects of school closings on children.
The presenters were education consultant Bruce Thomas and Erika Schmidt, a child and adult psychoanalyst on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalysis, where she is the Director of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy.
Both Thomas and Schmidt have worked with schools on this year’s Chicago Public Schools closing list, and oppose the district’s current plan to close 54 schools. Thomas testified at a hearing on behalf of one school, and Schmidt and her staff at the Institute wrote a letter to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett (see below) asking her to consider allowing another school to stay open to maintain it as a crucial safe haven for the vulnerable children who go to school there.
At the meeting, Schmidt said that children hear the school closing news as a clear statement that their school community is not worth saving, that they and their community are not valuable. To children who have already experienced multiple losses in their lives, the closing is a form of violence, another trauma and loss, another message that the world doesn’t care about them. These professionals explained that children cannot learn if they don’t believe they have a future, can’t see that their learning matters, or don’t trust their teachers.
Mayor Emanuel claims that he is the one looking out for the children’s best interests. His non-professional analysis is that the pain of the closings doesn’t compare to the anguish of “trapping” kids in failing schools. These mental health professionals disagree.
Here is Erika Schmidt’s letter, which she has given me permission to make public:
CENTER FOR CHILD AND ADOLESCENT PSYCHOTHERAPY
Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis
122 South Michigan Avenue Suite 1301
Chicago IL 60603
April 12, 2013
Chief Executive Officer
Chicago Public Schools
125 South Clark Street
Chicago IL 60603
Dear Ms. Byrd-Bennett:
For the past 4 years, I have had the privilege of directing a unique project at the Granville T. Woods Math and Science Academy in the Englewood neighborhood. This project provides group counseling services to children who have been exposed to violence at Woods, as well as several other schools in Englewood. Children are referred because they exhibit behavior problems in the classroom or home, because they do not learn at the level of their potential, and because they cannot negotiate interpersonal relationships successfully. Our goal is to help ameliorate the corrosive impact of exposure to violence on these children’s self-esteem, sense of safety, and hope for the future. We have had the support of the principal, Ms. Rosalyn Armour, and her staff, as well as the dedicated staff from Family Focus of Englewood, who have all contributed to the positive impact of this project on the lives and learning of the children we serve.
As we have helped the children become more effective learners, we have also learned a great deal from them. The most important lesson they have taught us is how the school becomes a vital community for these children, a “safe haven” where they feel protected from the violence outside, supported in their development, and can be respected members of the school community. Many of these children struggle with the problems of poverty, racism, and inadequate resources as well as the traumatic effect of violence. One child said to the group therapist, “If I can run really, really fast, maybe I won’t get hit by a bullet going to the library.” This poignant wish to avoid a bullet in order to read speaks volumes about the challenge these children face. When a child attends a school that inspires him to want to read anyway, that school has become a place that represents a child’s hope for their own future.
Woods School is a safe haven for these children, a source of continuity for them, and a place that represents the possibility for growth and development. The loss of the school environment, and the meaningful relationships they have established there, is another trauma in the lives of children who are exposed to too much trauma. We do recognize the challenge of providing for the educational needs of these children, but we are concerned that the children’s need for a secure community environment, which is absolutely essential for learning to take place, is being overlooked.
We request that you reconsider the decision to close Granville T. Woods Math and Science Academy.
Erika Schmidt, LCSW
Director, Center for Child and Adolescent
Director, Englewood Project
Englewood Project Staff:
Stephanie Beiser, LCSW, Project Coordinator
Sarah Clarke, LCSW
Eva Johnson, LCSW
Sonia Kennedy, EdD, MSW, LSW
Aileen Schloerb, LCSW
Sivan Schneider, PsyD
Deborah R.Weaver, LCSW