South Shore: Magnet elementary schools lure South Shore students across town

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Neighborhood school only a bus stop

Jasmin Shah

Neighborhood school only a bus stop

Like many South Shore parents, anesthesiologist Kaye Davis enrolled her children in a school outside the neighborhood. She makes a 12-mile trip twice a day to drive her two primary-grade sons to and from LaSalle Language Academy, a high-scoring magnet school in Lincoln Park.

If the neighborhood schools were better, Davis says she would gladly forgo the long trip. She’s one of a few middle-class parents who signed up for tuition-based preschool at Bouchet Elementary, a neighborhood school. Both sons attended, and her youngest, her daughter, is enrolled there now.

Yet, the preschool is expected to close in June because only four families enrolled children this year.

Davis and others spent long hours trying to recruit more families, passing out 2,500 flyers and hosting two open houses. “We advertised like crazy,” says Davis, whose neighbors warned her she was wasting her time. “The attitude is: ‘CPS is not going to do a thing for my child.'”

Regretfully, Davis acknowledges that Bouchet, which is on academic probation and has only 28 percent of students meeting state standards, is not doing well enough to entice her to enroll her children. (Last September, the School Board fired Principal Robert Lewis, citing lack of academic progress, and appointed an interim.) On several occasions, Davis notes, she observed teachers speaking too harshly to children on the playground and youngsters using profanity. “I have to drive all the way up there [to LaSalle], or I put my child in a school without that level of instruction,” she says.

Despite her own misgivings about Bouchet and neighbors’ pessimism about CPS in general, Davis is interested in working to improve the elementary schools in South Shore. “This is the issue that could take South Shore to the next level,” she says. “A good public school will double your property values.”

To that end, Davis became involved in one of the community’s most active grassroots organizations, the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore, known as CIESS. In December, CIESS launched an initiative to determine what residents want at their schools and the best ways to help schools improve; the group is also seeking funding for a full-time project organizer and hopes to have concrete recommendations in 18 months.

Part of the initiative will entail forging a partnership with three elementary schools (not yet chosen) to find strategies to improve achievement. CIESS has also created committees to work on high school improvement, school safety, overcrowding, facilities and helping at-risk youth.

Though CIESS had worked with the district in the past, notably to revamp South Shore High, the group was caught off-guard by the School Board’s decision in January to open another campus of the Chicago International Charter School this fall in a shuttered Catholic school building at 7847 S. Jeffrey Blvd. The city’s largest charter, Chicago International now enrolls over 4,300 students on seven campuses and has a waiting list of over 2,000. The school outpaced CPS on test scores in 2004, with 56 percent of students meeting state standards, compared to 45 percent citywide.

Chicago International decided to apply for a charter in South Shore in part because of an Illinois Facilities Fund report ranking the neighborhood first on its list of communities that most need high-performing schools, says Elizabeth Delaney-Purvis, executive director of the Chicago Charter School Foundation, which oversees all of Chicago International’s campuses. “Rather than go where we thought we should go, we asked, ‘Where do other people think we should be?'”

The board’s decision came just two months after the Illinois Facilities Fund released its report, which defined a “performing” elementary school as one with more than 40 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards on the 2003 ISAT.

“Nobody knew the school was coming,” says Lestine Byars, education organizer for CIESS. “We’re too actively involved not to be included. That shows a lack of respect for residents who live in this area.”

Under Renaissance 2010 guidelines, however, the community—in the form of a board-appointed transition advisory council—is given the chance to review proposals and make a recommendation to the board only when a new school will open in an existing CPS building. In those cases where a school is slated to open in an outside facility, like Chicago International’s, CPS holds a public hearing. The public hearings for the recently announced Renaissance 2010 schools were held only after the district announced which proposals would be sent to the School Board for a vote.

“We weren’t going to oppose it,” says Marie Cobb, executive director of CIESS. “We just wanted to have input.”

Davis says that to attract parents like her neighbors, CPS will need to offer a higher-scoring option than Chicago International. “The board is going to look at [their] scores and say, ‘Looks good.’ We would say, if there’s a charter school out there that has 80 percent, 90 percent [meeting standards], that’s what we want in South Shore.”

No Chicago charter has test scores that high and, typically, CPS schools with scores in that range are selective-enrollment schools, while charters by law must be open to all students. (According to a January report from the Illinois State Board of Education, only one elementary charter in the state has more than 80 percent of students meeting state standards: Prairie Crossing in Grayslake.)

Other residents ask whether the charter just lets the district off the hook for not funneling more resources to poorly performing, existing schools. “I don’t see where bringing a charter school is a benefit in and of itself,” says Korla Williams, whose grandchildren attend O’Keeffe Elementary, which is on probation and in a particularly transient portion of the neighborhood. To improve school quality while the neighborhood stabilizes, she adds, “You must give [schools] what they need: staffing, materials, equipment.”

Indeed, all but one of South Shore’s nine elementary schools is on probation and in need of resources. Powell Elementary now has 43 percent of students meeting state standards and is off probation, but is still not drawing in nearby children; 59 percent of families who live in the school’s attendance area and have students in CPS enroll them elsewhere, according to 2004 CPS data.

That trend holds true throughout South Shore: At least 20 percent of the children in each elementary attendance area who attend a CPS school are not enrolled in the local school. In addition, about 10 percent of the neighborhood’s children are in private school, according to the IFF report, which analyzed census data from 2000.

Given such limited options, some parents are willing to give the charter a chance. “I don’t have any objections to it,” says Denise Harris, who has a son in Bouchet’s tuition-based preschool. “We live in a very nice community with very nice homes.

It’s a shame we don’t have quality daycare and quality elementary options. I’m going to look into the charter.”

Chicago International officials say they want to work with the neighborhood.

“It will always be a small, community-based school,” says Purvis, who expects enrollment to max out at 450 or less. “We hope to be another part of the revitalization effort of the South Shore community.”

Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), a business-backed education group, is working to broker a meeting between CIESS and the charter, says LQE Director Pamela Clarke, who is also working with CIESS on its efforts at South Shore High. Clarke says she encourages the group to use Chicago International as a resource for improving neighborhood schools. “It benefits all of them to find a way to work together,” Clarke says.

Overall, CIESS’ success improving schools will depend on whether the organization can hire a top-flight organizer. That, in turn, depends “on whether the foundations step up and give them the money to hire somebody really high-quality,” Clarke says.

“This is a community that’s pretty involved and wants to make things better.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.