School closings traumatize vulnerable children

strongschoolsLast Thursday, I 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.

Not my usual crowd, but a neighbor was making a presentation and the topic was, “Closing Schools, Vulnerable Students.”

The evening turned into a very compelling discussion of the traumatic effects of school closings on children. The group plans to discuss the same issues with respect to the effect on children of standardized testing in a future meeting.

Besides my neighbor, education consultant Bruce Thomas, the other presenter was 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 Bruce and Erika have worked with schools on this year’s closing list, and are against the closing plan. Bruce testified at a hearing on behalf of one school, and Erika and her staff at the Institute wrote a letter to Barbara Byrd-Bennett 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. Byrd-Bennett did not respond to their letter.

At the meeting, Ericka 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, if they 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.

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Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.