Mid-South: Balancing needs of poor students with demands of middle class

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This summer, Chicago Public Schools will unveil an ambitious initiative to reinvent 25 schools in Mid-South to serve the economically diverse community that urban planners hope to create.

The plan, according to two sources who have been briefed on it, calls for reopening some schools that are already closed, like Donoghue Elementary, and closing others for low enrollment.

Indeed, in early June, CPS announced it would close four Mid-South elementary schools—Doolittle West, Douglas, Hartigan and Raymond.

Schools slated for reopening would do so in a variety of formats such as charters, contract schools and schools with specialty programs such as math and science, or performing arts. The plan also envisions more early childhood education programs and facilities that serve students as well as the communities they’re based in by remaining open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

CPS officials declined to comment on details of the plan.

The concept of closing and reopening schools got a trial run in 2002 when CPS closed Williams Elementary on the Near South Side and opened it a year later as three smaller schools housed in the same building. If it works on the larger scale envisioned for Mid-South, CPS stands to become a national model, city officials predict.

But some educators are skeptical that the district will be able to muscle enough resources to complete the project, and community residents worry that low-income families will get short shrift or be left out.

“[The] communities’ fears about being forgotten are justified,” says one adviser who provided input for the plan. On the drawing board now are ideas for schools that would serve students from a variety of backgrounds; however, the district’s track record indicates that it “responds to the squeaky wheel and the people in power,” the adviser says.

CPS cast a wide net to devise a plan, seeking advice from more than 150 outside experts. In December, advisers were tapped from CPS, City Hall, foundations, universities and local banks and corporations, then divided into six working groups that would make detailed recommendations. The groups discussed issues ranging from early childhood education to professional development for teachers and principals to after-school programs and clubs for students.

‘We want bold, innovative’

At the first meeting, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins gave the marching orders. “We want bold and innovative. We want you to think outside the box.”

Meanwhile, CPS also convened focus groups with principals, teachers and community leaders to gather their ideas, and held two community meetings, inviting parents and community residents to attend.

“I’ve seen a lot more inclusion on this than I’ve seen in other places,” says Timothy Knowles, executive director of the Center for Urban School Improvement. “It has been an open door to the point of excess. There have been plenty of opportunities for everyone to weigh in.”

Still, one community leader says the formal process should have included more parents and teachers, who have insight into problems that affect education, like poor health, unemployment, crime and drugs. “These realities were not vividly included,” says Greg Washington of the Grand Boulevard Federation. “These groups were looking at pedagogy and academic enhancements, not the nitty gritty things on what keeps kids and teachers from being successful.”

The Mid-South school plan encompasses “three big ideas that are potentially very powerful,” Knowles says: Attracting good teachers and principals, building systems that support them and hold them accountable for results, and creating a portfolio of new schools, he explains.

Offering more school choice has been a priority for CPS under CEO Arne Duncan. “We want families to be able to look out their window and say, ‘I think I’ll send my child to the school across the street.’ Or, ‘My child has an interest in math and science, I should send him to the school two blocks away.'” says Lisa Schneider, who is overseeing the Mid-South project for CPS.

However, the notion of shutting down existing schools does not sit well with some.

“We certainly are not doing handstands over charters, and we are concerned about contract schools,” says James Alexander, financial secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union. Instead of closing schools, the union is pushing CPS to improve security, Internet access and school leadership. “There are schools where principals are not doing their jobs,” he says. “We’d like to see all the schools get the proper resources.”

Also, educators are concerned that it will be difficult to serve kids from a variety of academic and economic backgrounds in a single school.

The goal can be achieved, but it is complex, says Anthony Bryk, founding director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “What they are trying to do is a very complicated issue,” he says. “A school has to be good enough for the gifted kid who walks in off the street and for the child who is at a lower level academically.” North Kenwood Oakland Charter School, which Bryk helped launch, is working to solve the dilemma. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Getting middle class buy-in

Mid-South resident Patricia Dowell, a former director of the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission, says the area has a lot to offer middle-class families who are looking to move in—convenient location, public transportation, historic and cultural significance. But public schools in Mid-South have a way to go, she says. In exploring possible schools for her son, she checked test scores, school enrollment and school poverty rates. “All this plays into whether you send your kids to a particular school. Someone who is paying $200,000 or more for their home is going to look at that.”

Another resident notes the importance of resources, equipment and programs. “I want a school that offers more than just a general curriculum—I want music and art and languages,” says Cynthia Love, who lives in Grand Boulevard with her husband and 18-month-old daughter. “Otherwise, I would look for a magnet or a new charter school.”

Harvard University Professor Gary Orfield says it will be a challenge to get middle-class families who move into Mid-South to take the extra step and enroll their children in neighborhood schools. “Many middle-class African American families prefer interracial schools—that is why many move to the suburbs,” says Orfield, a former Kenwood resident. “And white families, they won’t say it, but they don’t want to have their children be the only white kids in the schools and be isolated.”

However, some will if the conditions are right, he notes. When Orfield, who is white, lived in Washington, D.C., for instance, he enrolled his children in an all-black school in a gentrifying neighborhood and recruited other white parents to do the same. The school had good programs, he says, and “we had a principal that we trusted with our kids.”

A core of supporters among those who are vested in quality public education are rooting for success in Mid-South.

“The foundation community will work hard to step up to the plate on this,” says Terry Mazany, newly named CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. “I don’t have a ballpark sense of how much all this will cost, but I think it would be shared broadly.”

CPS’s Schneider points to two reopened “renaissance” schools and other new schools opened in the last two years to show that the district will see the project through completion. “Even skeptics would have to admit that we made good on our commitments,” she notes.

The plan is expected to be released by the end of June.

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail williams@catalyst-chicago.org.