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What Happens to Schools When They Close? These Heartbreaking Photos Tell the Tale

Liz Dwyer

It's back-to-school time across America, but after the largest mass school closing in United States history, dozens of campuses in the Windy City will never again see a first day of class. Chicago Tribune photojournalist Brian Cassella visited 38 of these shuttered campuses on the day Chicago's students headed back to school. The images and the corresponding details about each closed site reveal the silent emptiness left behind.

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  • Lisa Lightbourn-Lay

    I'd love to know more about how to go about "recreating" schools. There is an amazing old school in a small town near where I live outside of Toronto and I keep looking at it and seeing it as more than just the past. Its somehow heartbreaking to see a building like a school just fall apart over time when it could become so much more...especially if it has any sort of historical status.

  • Liz Dwyer

    When I was at the Clinton Global Initiative America in June, one of the suggestions I made was that these schools should be turned into hubs of community learning and activity. Have the city's private sector businesses each adopt a campus and then run job training programs from them so that folks can learn new skills. Start maker spaces in them, offer enrichment classes in them, or help people in the community start their own businesses and let them use classrooms as "stores/offices." And turn those concrete playgrounds into green space/community gardens. But sitting vacant is just a constant visual slap in the face to low income black and brown folks who live around these school sites.

  • Andrew

    I've turned some of the older style abandoned schools into successful senior housing. The wide halls are nice for seniors and provide common space. The buildings are much more solid than some of the stuff we build today. And it preserves a historic asset to smaller communities.

    If nothing happens to reuse the buildings, it would be so cool to see a year by year series of the gradual decline. Or just set loose some teenagers in there and fast forward the decline.

    • Liz Dwyer

      That's very cool that you do this. My mom's old high school was closed and abandoned in 1972. In the mid 1980s it was turned into apartments, which are actually pretty nice.

      These closings in Chicago are the result of terrible politics and backdoor dealing, and were met with massive protests from the school communities. It's been heartbreaking to see students as young as 9-years-old going to school board meetings and breaking down in tears over the decision to close the schools. And, just months after the school closings--ostensibly because the city needed to save money and the buildings were supposedly not being maximized-- Chicago gave a private university money to build a sports stadium and put out a request for proposal for new charter schools. (

      So these photos are all the more poignant given what's happened there.

    • Barbie Rizpah

      That is an absolutely AWESOME idea! Especially for the elderly in inner cities.

  • Alessandra Rizzotti

    It would be awesome if this was brought to the attention of the city/superintendents and the teachers that worked in those schools. They should print them out HUGE and paste them onto buildings where school board meetings are held.

    • Liz Dwyer

      The city knows. And the unelected school board knows, too. There have been so many protests over these closings, and attempts to get them blocked by the courts, but they went forward. A couple thousand teachers who knew their communities and were dedicated to the children are now out of work, too.