When a School Isn’t Just a School
Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side
By Eve L. Ewing
University of Chicago Press 2018
“Like an electrical current running through water, race has a way of filling space even as it remains invisible,” writes sociologist Eve L. Ewing in her introduction to Ghosts in the Schoolyard (p. 10). It is an apt simile, penned with the deftness of a skilled writer and the trenchant insight of a trained sociologist. It is especially apt because, as with racism, invisible though electric current in water may be, those who have been touched by it feel its sting acutely. We know it to be deeply damaging, even deadly. In its invisibility, racism is also like Ghosts in the Schoolyard‘s titular apparitions—often hard to see, but impossible to ignore or deny for those who feel its presence. Even if you feel it, convincing others of the existence of racism’s spectre can be an uphill battle.
Which brings us to why Ewing’s new book is both so fittingly titled and such an urgent and important intervention into the discourse around education policy, the so-called achievement gap, and “failing” schools. On the face of things, Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a story about school closings in Chicago. But from the very beginning — with its title that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up at curious and nervously anticipatory attention and its cover, depicting a spectral student floating through darkened halls—it is clear that Ghosts in the Schoolyard is about more than the shuttering of a building. This ghost story is a warning and an invocation to reach beyond what is readily visible and to uncover hidden narratives.
Ghosts in the Schoolyard asks—and answers—a number of important questions. In the first chapter, Ewing asks why communities fight for failing schools and shows how the “failing school” trope doesn’t necessarily reflect how the people served by a school feel. Reading Ewing’s discussion of how Chicago Public School (CPS) leaders expect the “failing school” narrative to be met with acquiescence, I was reminded of Brian Lozenski’s recent observation in the Harvard Educational Review of how “crisis narratives” with respect to Black youth and education create space for and justify certain types of policy actions, often undermining the self-determination of Black families and communities. Here, Ewing continues the important work of correcting ahistorical narratives about current “failures” of schools serving Black students.
Ewing responds to the question of why schools are failing in the second chapter by talking directly about how the Great Migration, Chicago Housing Authority policies, and an inevitable population bubble’s burst all contributed to the current state of CPS. The common thread? Racism. Building on that idea, the third chapter tackles the question of what racism is and isn’t. On the issue of whether the school closures were indeed racist, Ewing drives home that racism is most usefully thought of as an institutional force, not just a collection of individual interactions, dispositions, or beliefs. In what struck me as the most dramatic chapter, Ewing depicts the school closure hearings, which feel much more like a trial in which CPS officials are prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner all at once. It’s striking that somehow failed communities, not failing schools, feel like the defendants. Ewing, however, manages to flip that script by taking up the question of why and how the schools were deemed failing in the first place. By highlighting the voices of people most directly affected by school closures, Ewing pushes back on utility-focused narratives about funding formulas or “enrollment efficiency ranges”—an important counterpoint in a time of increasingly “data-driven” decision-making, based largely on ostensibly objective metrics that summarily discount qualitative data on children’s experiences that are less easily captured or represented numerically. It is a powerful reminder that there are many ways of thinking about the value of a school and that, when we see numbers in a table, we should see the students and families and communities represented by those numbers.
In the final chapter, Ewing explores what is lost when a school is shuttered. We hear from teachers, students, and community members who express deep sadness. But those same people also vehemently reject the failure narrative, wholeheartedly embracing a spirit of endurance, possibility, and hope that seems absolutely necessary if we are to revive our failing institutions. Here, we see the school closures from a variety of perspectives—everyone from teachers distraught about being placed in another school to a local business leader who says that the injury of school closures might be tolerable if the insult of advancing a narrative based on flawed metrics weren’t added on top. Ewing’s theorization of “institutional mourning”—the grieving attending the loss of a beloved pillar of the community—is once again a striking reminder of why we must attend to the affective outcomes attached to policy decisions.
Reading this book as a graduate student, I felt that I was attending a master class in how to produce a dissertation that will matter to more than my mama and my committee. The range of Ewing’s data sources and methods is impressive: Ewing uses archival data to construct a historical narrative, interview data to illuminate the present-day context, discourse analysis to examine transcripts from school closing hearings and proceedings, and ethnographic observations to capture the experiences and perspectives of communities navigating those proceedings. Such an expansive approach could have felt disjointed, but in Ewing’s hands, the final product is a rich, multilayered narrative in which the different approaches all feel necessary. This is the case in part because, as Ewing asserts early on, “a fight for a school is never just about a school” (p. 47), but is instead “a referendum on where we live” (p. 44), so it’s appropriate to look not just at the school, but at the history of the community surrounding it. But I think the bricolage of methods also works because, although varied analytical tools are used, there is a singular, clear vision guiding the work. Ewing leads with a statement of her positionality, her epistemological stance encapsulating her scholarly and personal commitments. It is empowering to see a black woman sociologist—born, raised, educated, and now working in Chicago—directly reject, in the tradition of critical race theorists, the pretense of objectivity. Ewing reaches further, for something more real—a story rigorously researched and grounded in experience, both hers and those of her participants.
Throughout the book, Ewing demands that we consider the perspectives of the students, families, and communities to whom schools belong. She insists that we sit with their pain and mourning as they fight for and sometimes lose the institutions that moored and connected them. And as she breathes life into the school, making it every bit as important a character as the people who fill it, she also expertly renders visible, tangible, and undeniable the phantasm that looms in the shadows of this story: racism. By plainly stating that Chicago’s school closures have been racist and providing ample evidence of that fact, Ewing names the invisible force shaping CPS policy, and helps us—scholars, policymakers, school leaders—imagine a path forward. Correctly naming the problem is a crucial first step, as Ewing reminds us in a characteristically visionary alternate-universe retelling of what school officials could have, should have said: “the story of the community’s empty school buildings has deep roots in history. Sadly, that history is a racist history. Now we are tasked to do something about it” (p. 92).
Whether you’re an education researcher, a sociologist of race and racism, a teacher, a policy analyst, or simply a member of a school community, there is something in Ghosts in the Schoolyard for you. The critical race lens Ewing brings to bear on the issue of school closures adds an important dimension to ongoing conversations among education researchers who might hope to focus on “objective” or “race-neutral” considerations of how a school is performing. Ghosts in the Schoolyard will be a welcome addition to any sociology of education syllabus, but it also belongs in classes on race and racism in American society. The way it centers schools while elegantly weaving together discussions of history, schools, and housing policy (word to Gene Demby’s #HousingSegregationInEverything!) is an important reminder of how racism runs through all our institutions. The book is also a generative text for a qualitative methods class, given the tour-de-force of analytical methods Ewing uses and, building on Carla Shedd’s perspective in Unequal City, the “place sensitive” sociological lens she brings to the study. Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that this book is public sociology at its best—insightful, sharp, and with a clear sense of its scholarly lineage, without being inaccessible or unnecessarily abstruse.
Ghosts in the Schoolyard begins with Eve Ewing paying homage to Bronzeville’s great writers and wondering “what narrative could match their example?” (p. 3). The voices of the writers and artists she so admires reverberate throughout her book—most obviously in the epigraphs beginning each chapter, but also in subtle hints throughout the text, as when she closes with a reminder of the bravery and sacrifice of Black ancestors who “took the freedom train.” By the end of the book, it is clear: the story Ewing tells about Bronzeville is every bit in the tradition of the greats who have come before her. “I hope to help us understand, and remember,” she intones at the beginning. Understand and remember we will.