Promise of new schools not met

Print More

In the furor surrounding the latest school closings, many residents in the communities most affected on the West and South sides view the promise of new schools with skepticism.

Most new schools are now open to applicants citywide and many do not reserve seats for students displaced by closings. New schools are also cropping up in neighborhoods where real estate development is encroaching and low-income residents are being priced out.

Zakiyyah Muhammad, one in a small band of protestors who descended on Clark Street this winter, has seen six elementary schools close within a mile of her Bronzeville home while condominiums spring up all around her. “The plan was to squeeze us out,” she insists.

Since 2003, Chicago Public Schools has opened 52 new schools that now enroll over 15,000 students. Some were built to relieve overcrowding, others were created when large high schools were replaced by several smaller ones. But new schools that caused the most controversy are the 13 that replaced neighborhood schools that were closed for low test scores or under-enrollment.

As a group, these schools—seven elementary or middle schools and six high schools—are enrolling students who are similar to those who were displaced, a Catalyst Chicago analysis found. Of the 2,200 students who are enrolled, 90 percent are African American and 90 percent are low income. Three high schools that opened on DuSable’s campus, for instance, have poverty rates ranging from 82 percent to 98 percent, identical to rates for the old DuSable High School.

Yet there are exceptions at individual campuses where poverty levels are significantly lower than they were before.

* Suder Montessori opened this year with a student population that is 61 percent low income; previously it had been 100 percent, with nearly every student it served living in the nearby Henry Horner Homes, which is being torn down and replaced by mixed income housing. Students are admitted citywide. (See related story)

* Donoghue Charter, run by the University of Chicago, also opened this year with fewer poor students than it had before, 85 percent as compared to 99 percent. Students who live in the attendance area for Donaghue, one of only five charters to have such boundaries, get preference for admission. The surrounding community is also the site of a former public housing development that is being replaced.

* Pershing West, a new magnet middle school that replaced Douglas Elementary, closed in 2004. Pershing West’s students are 71 percent low-income; Douglas had 92 percent. Next year, Pershing will convert to a neighborhood school and aims to continue attracting more better-off students than Douglas did. Children from other communities may be admitted if space allows.

CEO Arne Duncan sees the economic integration of new schools as healthier for children and the city’s tax base. “For far too long, middle class families have gone private or Catholic or fled to the suburbs. We’re starting to reverse that trend,” he says.

‘Kids nobody wants’

Unlike neighborhood schools where any child living in a prescribed attendance area may enroll at any point during the school year, new schools can limit the number of students in the community who will be admitted, and set a deadline.

Once those targets are met, schools are not obligated to enroll more. For example, the new Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, set to open next fall in the old Austin High School, has 200 slots for freshmen and will not accept any students after Sept. 15, says Michael Bakalis, president of American Quality Schools, the non-profit contracted as the school’s manager.

Neighborhood schools receive transfers all year long, and students who change schools frequently are often the neediest—foster children transferring in and out of care, those who are dislocated by family crisis or public housing demolitions. One study on CPS student mobility found that kids who switched schools three times by 6th grade were a year behind stable classmates in math and reading.

Troubled families are less likely to research and apply to the new, choice schools, observes Bill Gerstein, principal of a small neighborhood high school on the South Shore Campus. By default, their children land in neighborhood schools, he says. “I spent almost the entire morning with kids with a lot of issues,” he says.

And it’s those mid-level students, he believes, who are most likely to benefit from the new schools. Often those kids reading below grade level and unable to win admission to selective schools end up instead in large, failing high schools, he explains.

The new Renaissance schools offer an alternative for below-average students who are not well served by neighborhood schools but can not get into selective schools, says Gerstein. “You empty out the old toxic culture and you bring in new teachers. Students have to go through [an application] process to prove that they are worthy,” he says. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“But still,” he adds. “What are you going to do with those kids who nobody wants?”

Intern Emily Horbar contributed to this report