Q&A with Sandra Stone

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Sandra Stone

Christine Oliva

Sandra Stone

In June, the School Board closed Suder Elementary on the gentrifying Near West Side. Sandra Stone, who spent 19 years teaching preschool and kindergarten at Suder, says the decision was a big blow to faculty. Teachers had been working hard to improve academics and were hopeful that plans to transform the blighted community into a mixed-income mecca would help the school, which got public notice through author Alex Kotlowitz’s 1991 bestseller “There Are No Children Here” and an NBC documentary on children experiencing trauma. Stone talked with Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher about the impact of closings.

Why did the staff think Suder was closed?

The board said it was to save money. We felt they should have combined schools. At [one school], the principal was retiring, they had quite a number of administrators already there and not very many children. We thought they could have combined with us since we had a clinic and they were going to have to go through principal hiring. And physically our school was in so much better condition, very bright and painted every year, with African and African American original art in the hallways. It was newly wired and tuckpointed. Now Suder is used by administrative staff, so it’s still using electricity and heat [which costs money].

In the last three years Suder made substantial gains in reading.

Yes. I believe it was 17 percentage points based on the newest scores coming out. You only need to improve 10 percentage points to get off probation. We used an accelerated reading program with computers. Some faculty had written a grant that got us a state-of-the-art computer lab. And we had two to five computers in each classroom.

After the redevelopment of Henry Horner Homes, were displaced families still bringing their kids back to Suder?

Yes, there were parents that made sure their kids got back to us. But there’s been a lot of scattering. After Suder closed, many kids went to Herbert, which is farther away. Have you heard about how students are faring there? They have to cross Madison Street, and I understand there’s no light [at the intersection many children use]. One friend said there is a crossing guard two or three times a week but not consistently. Another friend told me Herbert has a dismal technology environment compared to Suder. Just for her to locate a globe was an undertaking, and there are no maps like at Suder, which received wonderful classroom maps several years ago.

Thanks to Alex Kotlowitz’s book and the documentary, Suder got noticed. How did that help build partnerships?

The Erikson Institute offered us an opportunity to go through counseling as a faculty. Not only were the children dealing with difficult situations growing up, but we had to deal with [issues] also in helping to educate, nurture and raise them. And more people began to understand what our work was like. Having that validation was wonderful.

How did Suder build good relations with the neighborhood?

We got a $5 million grant to open a clinic in our school. We had a psychologist on staff, and our nurses could take care of the children’s medication. Mothers could bring siblings in. That was a wonderful connection with the community.

Instead of closing Suder, what could the board have done to make it an attractive option for a mixed-income neighborhood?

Make it a community school. (See Timeline.) We had a connection with the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club and the Chicago Bulls, and other people wanted to contribute to Suder. We partnered with the Chicago Botanic Garden. We also taught French, starting with kindergartners. It could have been made into a nice community school.

Can a school to serve both middle-class and poor children?

It doesn’t matter if they’re poor, if they’re rich or what ethnicity they are—they’re just kids. If you treat them well and teach them well, they’ll turn out to have good, productive lives.