Schools cope with influx of kids from public housing

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Sullivan Elementary

Photo by Christine Oliva

Sullivan Elementary

Principal Robert Esenberg of Sullivan Elementary is among a number of South Chicago principals and community leaders who say an influx of children whose families relocated from public housing has had a substantial impact on their schools.

“It’s been a big struggle,” Esenberg says, both for his school and others in the community. “We all felt the migration starting about six years ago. It has made a big change for us.”

One such change is in test scores. Esenberg, and other principals, report that the influx of children from impoverished communities and schools has led to a decline in scores, at a time when schools face increasing pressure to raise achievement. Most of Sullivan’s new students have test scores in the bottom 10 percent, Esenberg reports.

As the Chicago Housing Authority demolishes public housing high-rises, families have fanned out to new neighborhoods—one of them South Chicago, which ranks 12th out of 77 neighborhoods in the number of relocated families, according to CHA data from September 2005 (the most recent available). Since 1998, 117 families who formerly lived in CHA housing have moved into rental units in the community.

Sullivan, located in the Bush section of South Chicago, has about 120 units of scattered-site CHA housing, estimates Michelle Scheidt, manager of community-based and prevention programs at Metropolitan Family Services in South Chicago. Children living in scattered-site housing are participating in Metropolitan’s after-school programs, she says. Some have exhibited discipline problems, she adds, and the agency has “tried to put some programs in place to respond to the needs of those kids”

Martha Silva-Vera, retired principal of Mireles Elementary, says any influx of large numbers of new students will create difficulties. “You have certain traditions and values and customs that you try to build into the school,” she says. “We have to extend support to those children coming into a different school culture.”

Most of the children who were displaced from public housing are African-American; Mireles has a substantial Latino enrollment. Yet, Silva-Vera maintains the situation should not be seen in racial terms. “People are trying to make it a socioeconomic or racial issue. I don’t think it’s that. It’s more about kids adjusting. We don’t normally get 100 [new] kids from one community. That is hard.”

Neil Bosanko, an education activist and director of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce, wonders if schools will get a fighting chance to help kids coming from troubled communities.

“Can we keep these kids in one place long enough to make an impact?” he asks. “Or will they keep moving from place to place and [get] lost in the system?”

Silva-Vera points to the need for more resources. “The system knows where the housing is shutting down. They know where the students are relocating. But individual schools are faced with acclimating children into the new schools.”