Near South Side: In but not of the Gap

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Douglas Elementary gets plenty of attention from the Gap Community Organization (GCO), which has been working to boost the neighborhood’s fortunes for 20 years. The group conducts a toy drive every Christmas, floods the school with speakers on career day and supplies a volunteer to sit on the local school council, reports Leonard McGee, the group’s president.

But the middle-income home owners the organization represents do not send their children there. “Douglas was never really an option for me,” says Cordia Forte, a Gap resident whose children attend Pershing, a nearby magnet school. With Douglas’s low test scores, “I didn’t even consider it,” she says.

Forte’s case is typical, says Douglas Principal Beverly Blackwood, who has seen the school’s enrollment decline from more than 2,000 some 30 years ago to 700 today. Only 163 come from the school’s attendance area. “Within the Gap community itself, there are not that many students,” Blackwood says, and many of them “attend magnet schools and private schools.”

Although Blackwood reports the lack of interest from nearby families as a fact, not a complaint, the subject clearly is a sore spot with the GCO. “Ms. Blackwood is not happy with the level of [enrollment] in the community,” GCO President McGee says. “Now, parents make choices, and they’re allowed to make those choices.”

Douglas arguably is the weakest of the three schools to which students from Williams Elementary were sent this school year. It is one of 50 low-scoring schools where parents could apply to remove their children under the federal No Child Left Behind Act; 84 did, the third-highest total among the 50 schools.

Meanwhile, Pershing Magnet, which enrolls just 273 children, is in much demand. Last year, there were 773 applicants for 30 seats, and at least 230 of the applicants lived nearby. “Several of the realtors have been in touch with me,” notes Principal Katherine Volk. “When they’re selling their real estate, parents want a certain kind of school.

“I can’t make myself into a neighborhood school, but we try to maintain that balance as much as we can,” says Volk, who estimates that 35 to 40 percent of her students come from the Gap and the Lake Meadows apartment complex that surrounds Pershing.

Around Douglas, the limited number of school options is “a big issue,” says Cordia Forte, who serves on Pershing’s local school council. “From the time I first moved into the area, the number of children has really changed a lot.” She would like to see Pershing expand, but school officials say that they have other priorities for their limited construction dollars.

“At some point,” says Forte, “Douglas is going to have to be helped to become the kind of school people will want to send their children to.”