Beethoven a magnet for commuter students

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Joseph Barber had put Bush on the spot, asking who the candidate would appoint to the Supreme Court. Bush answered only that he would look for “strict constructionists,” a dodge that Joseph noted later when talking to reporters. “I was looking for a name,” he said.

The encounter produced a flattering photo: Bush smiling warmly at Joseph. Unbeknownst to the future President, he had made the young teenager a poster child for the commuter kids of the CHA.

Sixteen months before Bush’s visit, Joseph and his family had moved out of Robert Taylor. He and his two sisters take two buses and travel a total of 45 minutes to get to Beethoven each day from their home in Auburn Gresham, five miles away.

The trio is among 98 students who, as of last fall, were attending Beethoven after having moved out of theneighborhood at some point during the previous five years. Beethoven is the No. 1 school for commuter students who have moved out of the CHA’s so-called HOPE VI developments, an analysis of data supplied by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found.

Beethoven has a special draw. Though situated along the infamous State Street public housing corridor, the school boasts reading test scores that are almost at the national average. Joseph’s mother, Sandra Potts, had watched the school steadily improve through the 1990s “til it excelled,” she says. (For a profile of the school, see the November 1997 installment of the Catalyst series “What Matters Most.”)

In addition to Beethoven’s stellar academic reputation, Potts also had a personal reason for keeping her children enrolled there. “I knew the school,” she explains.

Potts was in the first wave of Taylor residents who moved out once demolition was in the works. She had the usual list of complaints about living in public housing—”the noise, the shooting, the filth.” But a large rent increase is what pushed her over the edge.

Potts had returned to work 1997, once she was comfortable leaving her youngest child in daycare. She first worked for Sweetheart Cup Co., but then got a better paying job at the University of Chicago Hospital. In 1998, her monthly rent jumped from $75 to $279. A year later, the rent went up twice more in two months, first to $505 and then to $579.

The last increase spurred her to action. “I felt like, If I’m going to pay that much, I’m gonna move,” she says. She wasted no time finding a new place to live. Potts and her family now occupy a spacious apartment in a two-flat on 81st and Green streets.

The benefits of attending Beethoven extend beyond the basics. A year before the family moved, Joseph, several of his classmates and a Beethoven teacher took a two-week trip to Ghana. They toured local schools and visited the grave site of W.E.B. DuBois. Joseph’s favorite memory is visiting a castle where slaves had once been held. “I got to climb the walls,” he recalls.

This year, Joseph is one of 50 winners of the Chicago Public Schools science fair who are traveling to Champaign/Urbana for a state-level competition next month. He already received a $500 award for his experiment on the effect of acid rain on plants.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Joseph rates Beethoven “8-point-something.”

He rates his old neighborhood even higher. As a place to live, Robert Taylor gets a 9, after “taking a point off for the violence,” he says. When he lived there, his aunt lived just two floors up, and his classmates lived close by as well.

By comparison, his new neighborhood gets only a 6. “It’s very quiet,” he says. “My mom likes it.”

She confirms that. “You’re able to lay down and rest and be comfortable in your house,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about the noise and the shooting and all that.”

Recently, though, Potts was reminded that living in Taylor had some advantages. A burglar broke into the family’s first-floor apartment in March, taking a new computer, a jar full of change and a stack of CTA fare cards. “I felt more secure in Robert Taylor than I do here,” she says. “You always had somebody watching.” The incident has caused Potts to consider moving, though she plans to stay in the neighborhood.

When Joseph graduates from Beethoven this June, his mother hopes to send his 11-year-old sister Josondra with him to Kenwood Academy, which has a program for advanced 7th- and 8th-graders. For their younger sister Kyra, age 7, Potts says she’ll look for a private school, something affordable and nearby, she hopes.

“The only reason I’m doing it is, Beethoven doesn’t have bus service,” says Potts. “Otherwise, she’d still be there.”