Extreme makeover: school edition

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

An unprecedented experiment in school reform is underway here. Piggybacking on the city’s plan to tear down a glut of high-rise public housing and replace them with mixed-income communities, Chicago Public Schools has committed to remaking the schools in one area.

Mid-South is a composite of four poor communities that covers just over three square miles along Lake Michigan between 31st and 47th streets. It is home to some 80,000 people, 25,000 of them children under the age of 18. It is also home base to 25 public schools, few of which are filled to capacity—three are closed, four more will be this summer.

A comprehensive plan for those schools, with input from an impressive roster of civic, academic, philanthropic and community leaders, will be released this summer. Early word on what’s in it sounds like a recipe for enticing the middle class. More early childhood programs and specialty programs in math and science and the arts. Allowing community residents to have access to school facilities by keeping them open longer hours. Closing some schools and reopening them later as charters or contract schools, something the district did successfully a year ago with nearby Williams Elementary School.

Seizing the opportunity to perform a gut rehab on public education in tandem with a housing stock overhaul is commendable. A successful turn would have a positive impact on thousands of Mid-South students, particularly those whose schools are not serving them now. The project could become a model for urban districts across the country.

One looming obstacle, however, is fear. Attracting more middle class families to move into Mid-South isn’t the problem. “People tend to forget about what the area once was,” says one Mid-South developer. Getting them to enroll their children in a neighborhood school populated by a majority of poor children, however, is.

Mid-South homeowner Patricia Dowell sent her son to a private school elsewhere rather than enroll him in a neighborhood high school. “We looked at several schools,” she says. “You just would not send your kids there.”

Studies have shown that middle class students do worse in schools where the poverty rate exceeds 50 percent. Given the fact that Chicago’s public schools overwhelmingly are populated by low-income children—85 percent—it will take a huge influx of middle-income families to achieve socioeconomic balance. In Mid-South, only one school, Pershing Magnet, comes close with a 54 percent poverty rate.

Besides persuading the middle class that Mid-South public schools will be academically rigorous, the district must also allay poor families’ concerns that they will be shut out or shortchanged when existing schools are reopened. “There are rumors out there,” says Doolittle East Principal Lori Lennix, whose middle school twice took in children from nearby elementary schools when they were closed. It will have to do so again next fall, when it absorbs some of the children who will be displaced by the closure of its sister school, Doolittle West.

Attending schools that are integrated by income will benefit poor children, contends Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who has written extensively on the subject. “Having an economic mix gives low-income kids the chance to experience what middle-class kids take for granted—high quality teachers, supportive peers and active parents,” he explains.

He notes that academic success can happen in high-poverty schools. One example is Mid-South’s Beethoven Elementary, which offset the negative effects of its 100 percent poverty rate with a succession of strong principals, committed teachers, an extended school day and lots of extra resources. However, schools like Beethoven “are the exceptions,” he says. “The odds are heavily stacked against them. The whole point of making sure poor kids go to school with middle-class kids is that poor kids can learn if given the right environment.”

Fears on both sides could be assuaged by an income integration policy, like the one set in the Wake County, N.C., school district, where no school’s enrollment may be more than 40 percent low-income.

Improving the educational prospects for a sizeable number of poor children in Mid-South is a start. Raising expectations, standards and supports for all children—in Mid-South and across the city—is the goal.