CHA’s commuter kids

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A walk to school

Photo by Marc Monaghan

A walk to school

Four years ago, demolition crews began moving into Cabrini-Green, forcing Twanna Johnson and her four children to move out.

She planned to return to the “new,” mixed-income Cabrini, so she kept her children enrolled in two Cabrini-area schools. As it turned out, that decision spared them more educational trauma than she had imagined.

The Johnsons have been forced to move two more times since leaving Cabrini—first to escape gangbangers and then when their apartment building changed ownership. That’s common among the thousands of families who have been displaced by Chicago Housing Authority redevelopment, says Jennifer O’Neil of CHAC Inc., a private firm that oversees the CHA’s Section 8 rent subsidy program. Last year, over 18 percent of displaced CHA families using Section 8 subsidies moved for the second, third or fourth time.

And Johnson’s decision to keep her children enrolled in schools in their old neighborhood is not unusual either, a joint investigation by CATALYST and The Chicago Reporter has found. The investigation focused on the developments that received extra federal money for redevelopment, under a program called HOPE VI: Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, Henry Horner Homes, Ida B. Wells-Clarence Darrow-Madden Park Homes and Addams-Brooks-Loomis-Abbott (ABLA).

Between 1995 and 2000, the enrollment of CHA kids in HOPE VI-area schools declined by 3,636. Today, at least 720 of the kids who moved out are traveling back for school, according to an analysis of school data supplied by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

That number likely understates the phenomenon because it doesn’t include students who initially remained at their HOPE VI-area elementary school but have since graduated, moved on to a transition center or later transferred to schools in their new neighborhoods.

These figures also do not include students who moved out of other CHA developments and travel back for school. Since last fall, an additional 500 students who moved out of CHA housing citywide are traveling back, school officials estimate.

The Johnsons now live in Austin—six miles west of Cabrini—but every day Twanna loads the kids into a 1993 Buick Roadmaster and drives them to Manierre and Schiller elementaries. At least 340 students travel 2.5 miles or more back to their old HOPE VI-area elementary schools, the CATALYST and Reporter analysis shows.

“I have a problem with putting my kids in a new school, where if I’m not around; I don’t have no one to look out for them,” Johnson explains.

Meanwhile, most of the students who transferred out of HOPE VI schools have dispersed widely, landing in 420 public schools, mostly on the South and West sides. Many displaced families moved into the predominantly African-American communities of Englewood, Austin, South Shore, Grand Boulevard and the Near West Side. Like the “project” schools they left, schools in these neighborhoods are overwhelmingly poor and racially isolated and post below-average test scores, the CATALYST/Reporter analysis found.

Judging from interviews with principals at over a dozen receiving schools, the displaced children, arriving only a few at a time, often receive no special attention. “They don’t come in with ‘ABLA’ stamped on their foreheads,” quips Gladstone Principal Gary Moriello, whose school picked up some displaced children from the nearby ABLA development.

School officials say they have taken a number of steps to ease the transition for CHA families, such as limited transportation assistance for parents and bridge funding for schools with declining enrollment.

“We know that uprooting someone can be disturbing,” says Chief Officer of Schools and Regions Blondean Davis, who has convened a series of meetings for principals whose CHA-area schools are losing students. “So we’re trying to bend over backwards to make this easier on [displaced families].”

However, some principals interviewed for this report were unaware of these transit measures. As to the larger question of what will become of the CHA schools, school officials say no decisions have been made—though redevelopment plans circulating in some communities show a park where a school now stands.

Many displaced families keep their children enrolled in CHA-area schools “at all costs,” says sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, the author of American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, who is tracking 152 families who moved out of two high-rises in the Robert Taylor Homes. “The goal for almost every single family—I’d say about 90 percent—is to keep their kids in the [old] neighborhood school,” he says.

Research suggests that’s an appropriate goal. Each time a child moves, he or she loses a bit of educational momentum, reports University of Chicago researcher David Kerbow, who has studied student mobility extensively. If students stay put after a single move, they can recover what they missed in a year or two, he says, but if they continue to transfer from school to school, the damage is more difficult to overcome. “In math, if a child moves three times in the same year, it’s possible for them to miss important topics altogether,” says Kerbow.

Kimberly Scott learned the downside of mobility the hard way.

When she first moved out of Cabrini in 1998, she took her six children out of Jenner elementary and enrolled them in a school near the family’s South Side apartment. That transition was so tough, Scott says, that the kids fell behind in their studies. The family moved back to Cabrini a year later, and Scott sent the children back to Jenner.

Two months ago, Scott and her family moved out again. But this time, Scott kept her five school-aged children at Jenner. “I didn’t feel it was fair to them to pull them out in the middle of the school year like that again, and have them go to a totally different school, trying to get used to the teachers all over again,” she says.

Now, Scott gets up every day at 5 a.m. to catch the Halsted Street bus with all six children for an hour long commute back to Cabrini for school. After dropping them off, Scott continues on to her cleaning service job at the United Center.

For now, the school is picking up the tab for the children’s bus fare—about $45 a week. But that support is likely to run out when the school year ends. Scott says she plans to keep taking her kids to Jenner. She hasn’t even looked at the schools near her new home in Englewood.

Familiar surroundings:

Displaced parents like Johnson and Scott have another reason to keep their children enrolled at the same schools: a well-established network of support from relatives, friends and social service agencies.

Scott’s 3rd-grader, Destaney, is struggling to read and gets extra help from Jenner teacher Susan Isaacson and a tutor at the nearby New City YMCA. “I like how she’s progressing since they’ve been with her,” says Scott. “I don’t want to take her away from that.”

Johnson expresses similar sentiments. She works for Parent Patrol, a Cabrini neighborhood safety program that is run by a local church and funded by CPS. When Johnson can’t do so herself, Parent Patrol escorts her children to nearby Wayman Methodist Episcopal Church for an after-school program or to Johnson’s mother’s apartment in Cabrini.

That extra help from people she knows and trusts buys Johnson the time to take classes at Malcolm X College on the Near West Side. “I know they’re going to be there,” she says. “I know that people will call me if [my children] are not there. It’s safer, if I’m trying to work and go to school.”

New neighborhoods are a tough adjustment for low-income parents, says Johnson—especially “if you have small kids and you’re not getting off [work] until late [and] if you have no family in that neighborhood” to help out with childcare.

Many parents say they trust the school staff in their old neighborhoods to do right by them and their children. Denise Stroger grew up in the Henry Horner Homes and attended Suder Elementary in the 1980s. When she moved out of Horner in 1992, she kept her children enrolled there. The staff “lets me know what’s going on,” she says. “They keep you informed.”

In his Robert Taylor study, Venkatesh found many families who felt the same way. They had established relationships with school staff and were comfortable that their kids could make their way in a familiar community. They still had friends and family who lived in Robert Taylor and were on hand in case of emergencies. Such feelings lead parents to keep their child enrolled in the same school “even if they are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the education and have the intuition that they may get something better where they’re moving,” Venkatesh explains.

Venkatesh also found that some parents moved to suburbs like Harvey and Dixmoor but paid friends or relatives who still lived in Taylor to board their children during the week. The children attend a Taylor-area school, then go home to their parents on the weekend.

“People are not willing to turn their children over to strangers,” says Mark Pratt.

He should know. Two years ago, Pratt moved out of Cabrini to buy a house near 83rd Street and Aberdeen Avenue. But he continued to send his children to Byrd Elementary in Cabrini for over a year.

Pratt has deep ties to Byrd—both as a graduate and now as an employee in the school’s television studio. His nieces and nephews are also enrolled there.

Moving on:

After a year, Pratt found that getting his children up early enough to get them to Byrd, a commute of more than 10 miles, was too much. He transferred them to Cuffe Elementary in Auburn Gresham, but he doesn’t consider it a trade up. He attends local school council meetings at Cuffe and comes away unimpressed. “They’re just starting things that we were doing four years ago at Byrd,” he says.

Of course, some parents manage the transition from CHA without a backward glance. Edward Green moved out of Robert Taylor Homes in December of 1997. He bought a house on South Burnham Avenue, just a block away from Bradwell Elementary. Green’s daughter is enrolled at the school and he expects his 2-year-old son, Moses, will eventually go there as well. Green’s older children have already graduated from Bradwell and are now in high school at Chicago Vocational High School. Bradwell was too close by to pass up, says Green, and “in terms of curriculum, it’s about the same as their old school.”

Both Cuffe and Bradwell are, in many ways, mirror images of Byrd and most other HOPE VI-area schools; they are racially isolated, have student bodies that are overwhelming low-income and have low test scores. However, Beethoven—the school Green’s children attended while living at Taylor—has significantly higher test scores than Bradwell.

A Catalyst Reporter analysis of Consortium data found similar patterns for the majority of students who transferred out of CHA-area schools. About 75 percent landed at schools where at least 95 percent of the student body is African American; even more, 85 percent, wound up at schools with student populations that are at least 90 percent low-income. And most receiving schools posted below-average test scores. Close to three out of four displaced children attend schools where fewer than 30 percent score at or above national norms in reading.

Former ABLA resident Evelyn Robinson is one of the relatively few parents who transferred her children to a school that is different from the one they attended. Falconer in Belmont-Cragin serves mostly low-income white and Latino students. Last year, close to 39 percent scored above average on standardized reading tests.

Robinson’s two daughters, who left ABLA nine years ago, had a difficult transition. Ebony and Amber, now 17 and 11, met with blatant discrimination. They were called “nigger” and told to “go back to Cabrini-Green,” Robinson recalls.

“They never had anyone to play with,” says Robinson, who regularly took them back to ABLA to play with their old friends.

Ebony suffered academically. At Riis, her former elementary school near ABLA, she had been a good student and had skipped a grade. But her bad experiences at Falconer continued when she moved on to Foreman High School, says Robinson. Ebony dropped out of Foreman and now is studying for a GED at Wright Junior College.

Robinson thinks perhaps she should have kept her daughters enrolled at Riis. “Sometimes I wish I had done it,” she says. Although Falconer is a better school academically, Robinson says Riis was a better social environment for her kids. “That’s what you weigh as a parent.”

Lone rangers

For the most part, children who have left CHA buildings in recent years have been lone rangers. Those who transferred from the schools serving the five developments that Catalyst and the Reporter studied scattered to more than 400 schools. More than three-quarters of those schools took in 20 or fewer students over a five-year period.

Since 1995, only two schools enrolled more than 75 students from HOPE VI-area schools. Bradwell Elementary in South Shore took in the most: 95 students, an average of 19 students a year. But with a total enrollment over 1,300, that sum was a small drop in a large bucket.

Most principals interviewed for this report say they don’t know whether new students have come from CHA developments that are being torn down. And agencies that help these families say that the families have so many other concerns that schools and educational issues rarely come up. Theresa Jimerson, a mobility counselor with the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities says parents are more concerned with finding a decent home in a safe neighborhood.

She acknowledges, though, that adapting to a new school is a big issue, especially for children ages 7 to 13. “The children [who] don’t adjust get into conflicts with others at schools,” she says. “We’ve had one child tear up an apartment [because] he was so frustrated about school.”

CPS should notify principals when children displaced by CHA demolition transfer into their schools, says DePaul University Professor Barbara Radner. Such services are often available for adults, adds Radner, citing companies that provide new employees with “someone from Human Resources [to] look after them for a few days.”

Schools try to cope

Some CHA schools, such as Beethoven Elementary in the Robert Taylor Homes, are actively encouraging families to keep their kids enrolled after they move out. “Parents say, ‘I don’t want to take my child from here,'” says Principal Frances Oden. “And I say, ‘We don’t want to take your child out of this school.'” Sometimes, she adds, staff members dig into their own pockets to help families pay bus fare.

According to Consortium data, more displaced students are traveling back to Beethoven—which has an excellent academic reputation and high test scores—than any other HOPE VI-area school. Last fall, 98 Beethoven students were traveling back from their new neighborhoods.

Donoghue Elementary Principal Margaret Tolson takes a different approach. She encourages parents moving out of nearby Ida B. Wells to check into schools in their new communities. “Donoghue is not unique in the programs that it offers,” she says. “Sometimes I say, ‘Have you really checked with the school where you’re going? Are you part of the LSC? Are you going to meetings?'”

But Tolson is working with parent leaders to cushion the academic fallout from CHA redevelopment. They have successfully lobbied CHA officials to postpone moving dates for Donoghue families until the end of the school year. “We had a group of parents who were supposed to be moved in December,” Tolson says. “Most of that will now occur after the ISAT and ITBS testing is done.”

School officials have requested that CHA take a similar approach in other developments. “They agreed … that whenever possible they would make these changes during the summer, so children could enroll with their class at the beginning of the school year in their new area,” says CPS’ Blondean Davis.

According to Davis, the School Board has made special provisions for students who move from CHA buildings mid-year: It will provide transportation back to their CHA-area school for the remainder of the year. In addition, the board will pay for 7th-graders to stay at their schools an additional year so that they can graduate with their classmates, she says.

Last year, the board spent over $776,000 to bus 708 displaced CHA students, according to CPS Operations Department spokesperson Carolyn Tucker. This fall, she says, the board expects to pay transportation expenses for 763 displaced students at a cost of $1 million. About half of them are riding schools buses, she says. The rest ride the CTA and get reimbursed.

Davis says that CPS can’t support a post-CHA diaspora by busing displaced families indefinitely. Even if the board had the money and the will to do it, she says, there aren’t enough buses. The board has already “cornered the market” on school buses, she says. “We’re utilizing every bus that is available in the city to rent.”

Parents like Twanna Johnson, the former Cabrini-Green resident, say that Davis should consider finding a way to extend the transportation offer—”stretch it out for parents that are working” and need help with childcare, she says.

Meanwhile, word about Davis’ existing transportation offer has been slow to filter out. Several principals interviewed by Catalyst and the Reporter said that they had only become aware of the policy in recent months, and some said they are still unsure how the plan is supposed to work.

Fewer students, fewer dollars

Meanwhile schools that serve CHA developments are starting to face another challenge that goes with declining enrollments: Declining budgets. State and federal funds earmarked for low-income students are distributed on a per-pupil basis. Schools have used the money to pay for supplemental programs, teacher training, foreign languages and cultural offerings. As enrollment drops, such funding drops in lock-step; at some point, many schools will have to cut positions.

In the Robert Taylor neighborhood, Terrell Elementary has experienced the steepest decline in enrollment—60 percent between 1995 and 2000. Farren Elementary, also in Robert Taylor, saw enrollment drop 57 percent during the same period. So far, Farren has managed to stave off staff cuts for special programs by lining up grants from outside the school system. Enrollment has dipped only 9 percent at Beethoven, also in the area, but Principal Oden says she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to keep all six of the positions currently supported by supplemental state and federal funds.

Davis says that when she met with about 90 principals in January, she encouraged them to write her a letter describing what they needed. “You can’t do everything,” she says. “You can’t replace [everything schools will lose]. That’s just not possible. But, generally, when there’s a dramatic decrease, we provide some kind of bridge funds.”

As of late March, she had received only five or six letters, she says, but she expects many more in early April, as school budgets go on-line.

What’s next?

As enrollments continue to fall, board officials will be faced with a larger-scale problem: What to do with close-to-empty school buildings?

The board’s options include:

Mothball an empty school. To maintain the building, the board would have to continue paying for heating and security expenses.

Recycle the building for new use. Davis says some schools could house citywide programs. In the late 1990s, the board recycled two CHA-area schools: The former Medill Intermediate in ABLA now houses administrative offices; the former Einstein Elementary in Wells is now a parent training center. Still, as the number of empty buildings multiply, the board may not find uses for all of them.

Tear down the school. That’s a tough call, particularly in newly developing neighborhoods, where no one can predict future demand for schools.

“At this point, we know the [enrollment] numbers are going to go low,” Davis concedes. CEO Paul Vallas has not recommended any closures, she says, but when a school’s enrollment dips to 100 students, closing it would get serious consideration. So few students would not justify staffing a K-8 school, she says. “We certainly don’t want three grade levels in a classroom.”

Terrell has already warned Davis it’s likely to soon slip below that threshold, but Davis says she is trying to come up with creative solutions.

Taylor-area schools face the most uncertainty. CHA’s aggressive demolition plans will be complete by late 2002, but construction of new housing doesn’t start until nearly everything has been torn down.

Developers estimate it will take three to ten years to rebuild what is now the Taylor community. Davis tells schools to hope for the best. “We tell the principals, ‘Hang in there for three to five years, and something wonderful will happen to you.'”

While Davis says there are no plans to close schools, others have tentatively put schools on the chopping block. At a recent community planning meeting, CHA consultants displayed two renderings of redevelopment at ABLA. One drawing showed Riis Elementary being replaced by a park.

Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward) says she is working with school officials to convert Donoghue into a parent training facility to take the place of Einstein, which is slated to be torn down to make way for a park. However, the CPS Operations Department says Einstein’s demolition does not yet have funding.

Some suggest CPS needs to begin now to prepare for the next wave of CHA children who will be displaced.

When demolition began at Cabrini, children at Byrd began to act as if they had been “eating candy for about ten days straight,” recalls parent Mark Pratt. After calming them down and talking to them, the children told him what was really on their minds: “We don’t know where we’re going to live next year.”

DePaul’s Radner, who trains faculty at several CHA-area schools, sees long-term consequences for students. “The impact … will not just show up in their test-scores, but in their life-choices,” Radner explains. “As in, long-term, ‘Am I gonna choose life?’ … I don’t care who you are or where you live, if your neighborhood is being torn down, you don’t feel right.”