Near South Side: Recruiting to stay alive

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“We’re going to have a new Near South Side,” says Delena Little, principal of Drake Elementary. “It would be good to have a good neighborhood school when the real estate boom catches up.”

Little hopes that Drake, which she calls “the best-kept secret on the South Side,” will be that school. For now, though, neighborhood dynamics are working against her.

With the Chicago Housing Authority tearing down buildings, many of Drake’s students have been forced to leave the school’s attendance area. This fall, the few remaining families in the Prairie Courts development, which borders Drake on two sides, moved out. Amid the turmoil, Drake’s rising test scores took a dip.

The influx of Williams students, who generally scored half what Drake students scored on reading tests, will make it difficult to resume the upward trend. “Yes, we know that it’s going to affect our test scores next year,” says Little. “You don’t relish the thought of your test scores being low, because that’s how people outside judge you, which is really unfortunate. But there are ways of disaggregating the data [into student groups], and I hope they do that.”

Little is not worried about serving kids from Williams well, since Drake has taught CHA kids for many years. “We’re not the kind of staff where you have to make our lives easy,” she says.

So far, the biggest adjustment has been getting the new arrivals from Williams acclimated to Drake’s school culture, says Julianna Melton, Drake’s recently retired school-community representative and unofficial grandmother. Williams’ kids “weren’t used to” Drake’s highly structured environment, she says. She recalls a visit to Williams for a meeting one day last year, saying, “It was like the place was just up for grabs.”

Drake now serves mostly kids from outside its neighborhood, including some who previously lived in Prairie Courts and now ride the CTA to school. “There aren’t a lot of walkers,” says Little.

If students from Williams leave Drake next year, it’s not clear who will take their place.

There are two large middle-class housing developments in the school’s attendance area, but few of those families send their children to Drake, where 93 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

CHA spokesperson Kathryn Greenberg says that redevelopment plans for Prairie Courts provide for just 134 apartments, with only 25 percent reserved for people eligible for housing assistance.

To stay in business, Drake likely will have to continue to rely on outsiders choosing the school. This year, it accepted all comers for its magnet program in world languages and cultures: 100 students applied, and 100 were accepted, according to Ryan Crosby of the CPS Educational Enhancements office.