Hyde Park: Kenwood Academy limits outsiders

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Kenwood Academy

photo by Christine Oliva

Kenwood Academy

By the fall of 1999, competition from the city’s new college prep magnet was beginning to weigh on Careda Taylor, the principal of Kenwood Academy. A neighborhood school with a large magnet program, Kenwood was a top pick for high-achievers around the city. It also attracted a large proportion of students from the surrounding Kenwood and Hyde Park communities.

But Taylor sensed that was about to change, as did her contacts at the University of Chicago, she recalls. Top-scoring students, they feared, would be lured away by the college preps.

Although the university runs the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, it has a stake in the reputation of nearby public schools. “We cannot attract students and faculty to the University of Chicago if the neighborhood is not perceived in the best possible terms,” says Duel Richardson, the university’s neighborhood relations director.

That spring, the Kenwood local school council got to work on a plan to make the school more attractive. Three years and two spirited school council elections later, a plan is in place. Kenwood is strengthening its magnet program and, to reduce crowding, is taking in fewer students from outside its attendance area. But some see the “Future of Kenwood Plan” as a way to keep poor kids out for the benefit of Hyde Park’s middle class.

“I call it ‘The Strategic Plan for the Gentrification of Kenwood,'” says Judy King, chair of Kenwood’s local school council, who was elected after the plan was adopted.

Some also believe an unspoken goal of the plan is to make Kenwood better reflect the racial composition of the neighborhood, which means bringing in more white students. Combined, Hyde Park and Kenwood are 33 percent white, according to the 2000 census.

But the percentage of white students at Kenwood Academy dropped from 10 percent in 1990 to 4 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, black enrollment grew to 91 percent.

“As it’s gotten less racially diverse, it’s become more difficult to attract non-African-American kids to the school,” says 4th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who thinks good school leadership is the key to improving racial balance.

Hot LSC contest

As the “Future of Kenwood Plan” unfolded, it became clear that some supporters in the community had another unspoken goal, the removal of Taylor.

Taylor’s contract was up for renewal in the spring of 2000, and that was a hot topic in the community.

Some Hyde Parkers felt that under her tenure, the school had become less safe, less orderly, and that teachers distrusted her management. Her supporters blamed the school’s troubles on outside factors, such as College Preps luring away top Kenwood teachers.

They insisted Taylor needed more time to make improvements.

Taylor won another four-year contract by the slimmest of margins, 5 to 4.

That decision sparked a vigorous contest for the local school council elections held later that spring. Twenty-three parents and neighborhood residents competed for eight seats. A slate of five viewed as Taylor critics all won seats, as did two Taylor supporters.

Ken Warren, a Kenwood parent and a University of Chicago professor, ran independently, and the council subsequently elected him chair. Since this council would be up for re-election before Taylor’s next contract renewal, its goal was only to press for school improvements, he says.

During the 2000-01 school year, Warren organized a round of community forums to solicit ideas for redesigning the school. School structure was a major issue, with suggestions ranging from subdividing into small schools to reopening as a full-fledged magnet school.

The small schools proposal had scant support. But teachers overwhelmingly supported a magnet designation because they believed it would draw more resources for the school. However, as they subsequently learned, magnet status guaranteed little extra funding.

In the end, the council decided it would enhance the appeal of its existing magnet program, which serves honors-level students. Now all students in the program could accelerate their coursework and qualify for one or more University of Chicago classes their senior year, tuition free.

The size of the school’s enrollment also had come under scrutiny during the community forums. Like many high schools in middle-class neighborhoods, Kenwood is able to attract high achievers from neighborhoods with low-performing high schools. At Kenwood, accepting these students has boosted the school’s test scores but left the school crowded with more than 1,800 students.

Reducing enrollment would make it possible to reduce class size and allow for more individual attention to student needs, forum participants said.

The “Future of Kenwood Plan” called for reducing enrollment to 1,500 over the course of several years. In October 2001, the local school council gave its approval. It anticipated that test scores would dip initially but then recover as students from an upgraded neighborhood middle school, Canter, entered Kenwood in fall 2004. Careda Taylor says she supported reduced enrollment but thought the council was overly optimistic about its benefits.

Scott Chesebro, who cast a dissenting vote on the “Future of Kenwood Plan,” says it’s unrealistic to expect that these measures will lure back the neighborhood’s “whitest and brightest,” given the wide array of magnet schools and programs now available.

He thinks it is both unwise and unfair to reduce the number of high-achievers accepted from elsewhere. “For many people outside the Hyde Park neighborhood, Kenwood is still considered a premier high school, one they desperately want their children to get into,” he says.

New leadership

Taylor’s standing as principal got a boost in the 2002 council elections as four candidates seen as supporters, including Chesebro and King, were elected. Even so, she decided to call it quits when, in November, the School Board offered her a position as special assistant to the chief education officer.

“I felt like perhaps I was in the way of progress,” Taylor says of her decision to step aside. “There were many forces—the alderman, the University of Chicago, and the community who might have supported the school more if I was not there.”

Ald. Preckwinkle says she hopes that new leadership will result in more “non-African-American” enrollment at Kenwood. When asked whether she lobbied to have Taylor eased out, she replied, “No comment.”

The School Board dispatched Arthur Slater, a management support director and former principal of Austin High, to serve as interim principal at Kenwood. The search for a contract principal is underway.

The University of Chicago’s Richardson sees quality leadership as the key to making Kenwood more attractive to the neighborhood. “Good principals attract good teachers. That’s at the core of making a school work.”