Bridging the class chasm in South Loop

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Ten years ago, low-income and middle-income families were dug in for a long tug-of-war over a new school in the South Loop, an industrial wasteland that was being converted into upscale housing. Parents from a nearby public housing project eventually prevailed, winning seats for their children in South Loop School. The middle-class families angrily walked away.

Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars in city subsidies have poured into the neighborhood, and Chicago’s mayor has become its most famous resident. Now, his school board, high-profile developers and an independent activist are trying to bring the middle-income families back. They say they’re shooting for an arrangement that serves all sides.

“If we stay focused on children, we’ll have a win-win,” says Ray Anderson, the board’s interim director of intergovernmental affairs. “If we lose sight of that goal, we lose twice. We split the community and leave children uneducated.”

The board’s strategy is to make the educational program at South Loop so good that it will override the fears middle-income parents have about sending their children to school with public- housing kids. The board has tapped the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago to help the school upgrade its program, and put up $82,000 toward a two-year effort. In addition, the local school council has kicked in $41,000 of the school’s discretionary funds, and the Workshop has committed $41,000. The money covers the cost of a full-time facilitator, plus planning and research time for teachers.

Deputy Chief Education Officer Carlos Azcoitia is coordinating activities of the school, its outside partner, developers, activists, local institutions such as museums and residents on both sides of the area’s class divide.

In addition, the board has set aside $9 million for a permanent building to replace the 11-year-old prefabricated structure that serves as South Loop’s branch. In a related move, it plans to rehab and expand nearby Jones Commercial High School, which is being converted from a two-year, vocational school to a four-year, college-prep school. Proposed neighborhood set-asides for magnet schools like Jones would guarantee seats for at least some area families.

Board officials have been careful to avoid siding with developers and yuppies against public housing residents. They rejectedone charter school proposed for the Dearborn Park area, and they have consistently defended many of the prerogatives of South Loop’s LSC, which is dominated by families identified with local housing projects.

Middle-class organizer

Board officials say their initiatives stem, in part, from concerns raised by activist Robert O’Neill, who started pitching the charter school a year ago.

“Tons and tons of people cycle in and out and take their money and their stability with them,” says O’Neill. “If public education in certain communities [is] not up to par, the tax dollars and the people [will] continue to leave.”

Last year, O’Neill quit his job as a corporate attorney and established himself in a new role: community organizer for middle-class parents. He started a non-profit organization called Urban Assets, installed himself as director, and went to work organizing parents, cultivating local leaders and lobbying School Board officials.

O’Neill says his own parents became “urban pioneers” in the early 1980s, moving from the suburbs to the Near West Side, and that he’s convinced that gentrification can produce mixed- race, mixed-income communities. Schools, he says, are key.

O’Neill picked the South Loop as his first target because of its history. As Dearborn Park was developed in the 1970s and early 80s, developers and residents pressed the Board of Education for a neighborhood school. The board finally responded in 1986, breaking ground for South Loop School near State and Roosevelt, just south of the first Dearborn Park buildings.

When it came time to set attendance boundaries, families at the Hilliard Homes and the subsidized Long Grove apartment building, seven blocks south, mounted a campaign to be included. They said that they, too, had been promised a new school after years of sending their children to classes in decrepit trailers outside Haines Elementary. A temporary branch had opened at 18th and Archer, across from Hilliard and next to a garbage dump, but some children still had to walk through a dangerous viaduct to get to school. The board crafted a compromise that pleased no one: Hilliard and Long Grove children would go to the temporary building through the primary grades and then transfer to the main building.

In 1990, then-Supt. Ted Kimbrough came forward with the arrangement that stands today: All children go to the branch for kindergarten and 1st grade; then they transfer to the main building.

Most Dearborn Park residents pulled their children from the school, and few use it today; LSC Chair Sheila Garrett guesses fewer than a dozen. Some Dearborn Park parents said they didn’t want to send their young children to a busy intersection so far away. Seeing how far their neighbors to the north then traveled for other schools, Hilliard leaders doubt that distance was the problem. “They’re scared the kids from Hilliard are gonna rub off on their kids,” says Garrett.

Hard feelings persist on both sides.

‘It’s a class issue’

Albert and Gayle Randall moved to the Central Station development around the time their daughter was born; now 4 years old, she attends a nearby private school. While they don’t like paying both public school taxes and private school tuition, they are unwilling to send their child to a school where low-income students dominate. They are becoming more active in working with O’Neill.

“The people in this neighborhood need to reclaim that school,” says Albert. “But no one wants to fight the battle again, because of the firestorm. I understand the concerns of the parents from the Hilliard Homes, but they’re not the ones paying these property taxes.”

After targeting South Loop, O’Neill contacted developers who were sinking millions into the area. “I said, ‘I’ll work on this school issue full time, and next to the children, you will be the biggest beneficiaries.’ ” After meeting with dozens of local parents, he proposed a charter school. To craft the proposal, O’Neill teamed up with the Small Schools Workshop on the advice of schools chief Paul Vallas, who also advised the team to work with South Loop School.

Board officials wound up rejecting O’Neill’s proposed charter, citing fears that it would be perceived as a haven for the white and well-to-do. “He hasn’t gotten his charter because I’m still concerned it’s going to racially isolate the area,” says Vallas. Since Dearborn Park is racially integrated, a charter likely would have been racially integrated. However, O’Neill did discuss quotas that would have limited low-income students to 30 percent of enrollment.

In mid-October, O’Neill formally withdrew his charter proposal, but he says he’s encouraged by the attention board officials are paying to the area. Meanwhile, he has raised $14,500 from local developers, and landed $60,000 in contracts from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Rush University for similar work on the Near West Side.

Board staff, including Anderson, have monitored South Loop LSC meetings at the request of O’Neill and Dearborn Park residents who say they have been shut out of the school. The council has rebuffed proposals from neighbors who want to run after-school programs at the school; board officials have backed up the council.

Says Garrett: “I feel that the community should have input, but if your kid goes to Andrew Jackson [Magnet School on the Near West Side], then how can you come in and run South Loop? If you’re so concerned, come send your kid and help make the change.”

Albert Randall, for one, may take her up on that offer. “If everyone [from Dearborn Park] registers their kid at that facility … that would be a viable option,” he says. “I believe if we do that, and we get enough parents from this community involved, we can turn this school around. I’m not trying to be discriminatory, but it’s a class issue.” The Randalls are African American.

Almost 90 percent of South Loop’s some 550 students are low-income; about a quarter score above national norms in reading. “They can improve, but the school does have a lot to offer,” says Mike Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop.

Teachers have visited small schools in Chicago and New York and will begin organizing their own schools-within-a-school this month. Klonsky says the idea is not just to create smaller schools, which research shows tend to be more effective, but for teachers to work as instructional leaders and teammates. That, too, would improve the school’s effectiveness, he says.

With help from the board, Klonsky and O’Neill, the school also is exploring partnerships with local institutions like the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.

“You can see that community development is driving a lot of change,” says Klonsky (a member of Catalyst’s editorial board). “In these communities, where they’re asking developers to spend billions of dollars, they’ve got to have some high-quality educational programs or vouchers, one or the other.

“There’s still a lot of unsolved questions,” he acknowledges. “Who will benefit? That’s the political question. But hopefully there’ll be enough high-quality learning opportunities that everybody will be able to participate. And if there aren’t enough, we’ll have to make more of them.”