Near South Side: New Williams starts out from behind

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Williams Elementary

photo by John Booz

Williams Elementary

On Oct. 1, for the first time since the School Board closed Williams Elementary last spring, the school’s doors opened to children again—the back doors. They were opened to allow the Chicago Park District to resume after-school programs in the gym and lunchroom.

As children gathered outside, Crystal, a 4th-grader, asked a visitor: “When they open this school up again, will the people from this neighborhood be able to come back here, or will it be for white people?”

As Crystal’s question shows, distrust of the Board of Education continues to run rampant in the Dearborn Homes public housing development, which surrounds Williams. The surprise announcement last April that the school would be closed for a year to allow its rebirth as a Renaissance School made many in the community angry. Parents organized community meetings and protests at the school, the Board of Education and City Hall.

Williams parents “were disrespected,” says State Rep. Lovana “Lou” Jones (D-Chicago), who represents the Dearborn Homes. The board sent notices home with students. “They wouldn’t have gone into Hyde Park and done that,” Jones says. “They wouldn’t have gone up and done that on the North Side.”

Protests subsided once the board’s decision became final in late May, but the board continued to irritate residents with slow responses to their concerns.

From the start, parents worried that their children would have to cross gang boundaries to get to two of their three temporary schools, Drake and Douglas. Transportation was the biggest issue at two July meetings, one arranged by a social service agency, the other by the board. By the time classes resumed, the board had decided to bus the kids to Drake and Douglas.

The community also was upset that the park district programs were discontinued when the school closed. The Dearborn Homes Local Advisory Council, among others, pressed the board to reconsider that decision.

With all of the neighborhood’s problems, including gang warfare and drugs, “it didn’t sit too well with me that they wanted to keep this building closed,” says John Pointer, who grew up in the Dearborn Homes and has worked at Williams Park since he was a teenager.

With Williams shuttered for a year, he says, “I’d still have a job [at another park]. But what about these kids over here? Where are they supposed to go?”

Still undecided is who will get to attend the new school. At press time, the only sure bet was former Willliams students. Discussions were still under way about new neighborhood students—e.g. kindergartners and families moving into Dearborn Homes—and students outside the neighborhood.

Planning for the Williams Renaissance School also has gone slowly. When Schools CEO Arne Duncan announced the closing of Williams and the intention to reopen it with an “accelerated curriculum,” he drew praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who called the move “a model that people should pay attention to.”

So far, there hasn’t been much to watch. Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins has been “meeting informally with a number of different people” since late April, according to her chief of staff, Hosanna Mahaley, who is leading the efforts to create “Renaissance Schools” at Williams and at Dodge Elementary in East Garfield Park.

In late August, board staff distributed a short community survey listing options for what the new school might look like. There were seven choices for a curricular focus, including arts and humanities, and science and math.

The format was not a hit with parents, says Kimberly Muhammad-Earl, a board official who has been helping to coordinate the board’s community outreach for the Renaissance project. “They said, ‘You’re directing us, guiding us as to what you have in mind for the school,'” Muhammad-Earl recalls.

The board’s first community meeting, held a few days before school started, met with even less enthusiasm. Three parents showed up and were outnumbered four-to-one by CPS administrators.

Community groups that had been asked to help with turnout complained about “not getting enough notice from CPS,” says Andrea Lee, schools organizer for the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. “There doesn’t seem to be an effort to respect community groups’ need to use their time to the fullest.”

A month later, on Sept. 30, Mahaley led a community meeting at Williams to announce the re-opening of the Williams Park after-school programs and to recruit applicants for an advisory council that will help steer decisions about the school’s future.

CPS officials plan to choose four parents for the council, which will have 12 to 15 members. “It shouldn’t just be us sitting downtown making decisions by ourselves,” Mahaley told parents at the meeting. “There are going to be some decisions we have to make, but there are things we can talk about.” The council was chosen in late October and will meet every other week.

Mahaley said the board hopes to make key decisions about curriculum and other programs by January. At the end of the evening, Mahaley said she was pleased to find that more than 20 parents had signed in for the meeting. “I was totally shocked,” she says. “I was expecting two.”

The board faces an uphill battle in gaining parents’ trust. Tiffanie Pewee, who was a member of the Williams Local School Council when the school closed, says she will apply for a spot on the advisory council, but she doesn’t expect much to come of it. “It’s a fine time to get somebody’s input on something,” she says. “They didn’t ask for input on closing the school down. They just did it.”

She suspects the advisory council will amount to window dressing. “I don’t think they’re going to take it too serious,” she says. “I guess they feel like we live in a low-income development, so they can just treat us any kind of way.”

Parents are not the only ones who are skeptical. Even fans of the board’s work elsewhere say that officials have a lot of patching up to do.

The board is doing a great job in supporting community-proposed small schools in Little Village and at DuSable High School, says Mike Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But the way the board closed Williams and Dodge last spring “was problematic,” he says, “and once you do something that way, digging your way out is really hard.”

Following the community’s lead is the key to success, says Klonsky. “If you say, ‘We’re gonna put some Renaissance School here, and we may call you together to hear your beefs, and then we’ll ignore them, like we always do,’you’re gonna reap what you sow,” he says.

Meanwhile, a fan of the Renaissance School concept is starting to worry about the timetable. Barbara Sizemore, retired dean of the DePaul University School of Education, had worked with Dodge School and has offered to help plan its rebirth.

“I have not heard from them regarding any scheduled activities or any plans,” she says. “As time goes on, and it gets delayed, it becomes clear that the school will not be ready to open next year.”

Sizemore says she isn’t familiar with the situation at Williams, but Mahaley and Muhammad-Earl say that Dodge is further along in the planning process.

Time isn’t the greatest hurdle, says Marvin Hoffman, founding director of the North Kenwood-Oakland Charter School, who has observed other new-school efforts closely. “If they’re seriously starting the planning process now,” he says, there should be sufficient time.

But he does worry about the system’s ability to create a new school amid competing demands. “I have to confess, in spite of the great respect that I have for Arne Duncan and Barbara Eason-Watkins, underneath, I have a terrible feeling that ventures like this at the hands of large bureaucracies are doomed to unravel.”

He cites the newly opened National Teachers Academy as an example. Staff there had decided that to get a solid start, the school would open with only preschool and the primary and intermediate grades. But then the board decided to close Williams and send its 6th- through 8th-graders to the Academy.

“I was involved in a startup like this in Houston,” he recalls, “and I argued strenuously against opening all the grades simultaneously. Sure enough, it was a recipe for disaster. It was forced on them, and it was very painful to watch [the Teachers Academy] have to replicate that.”

Through bureaucratic necessity, he fears, a system of Chicago’s size “maybe will always find a way to screw up what are worthy conceptions.”