Families ‘not running’ from Swift

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In 1996, Catalyst reported on Swift Elementary in Edgewater, which had one of the worst mobility problems in the city.

The school’s mobility is significantly better now, but transfer statistics from back then proved eye-opening: Over a five-month period, 177 students transferred in but left again before being assigned to a classroom; 170 new students transferred in and stayed; and 198 students left, most to nearby schools. (See Catalyst, April 1996)

“We used to remark that every single day, there was a transfer in and a transfer out,” says Emil DeJulio, the principal at the time. “In over a year, half of our kids would leave, but the enrollment would never drop.”

Students moved in and out so often teachers there accepted it as “a fact of life,” he adds, but tried to help new students cope by, for instance, assigning them a buddy from among their classmates. (DeJulio retired last year from an area instructional officer’s job.)

Swift’s mobility seemed a reflection of the neighborhood, which included a homeless shelter for families and a preponderance of rental units. The school was among more than 100 elementary schools in the city pegged by a 1994 University of Chicago study with having significant mobility problems.

All of those schools now have more stable enrollments, although schools in gentrifying communities like Edgewater have improved slightly more than those in lower-income and predominantly black neighborhoods.

Schools now ‘draw people in’

At Swift last year, 88 percent of students who were enrolled at the start of the school year remained the entire year and only 9 percent of students transferred in mid-year. In 1994, those figures were 62 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

But while an explosion of new condos and retail stores has attracted middle-class residents, those families haven’t rushed to enroll their children at the school. Swift’s poverty rate is 91 percent, above the citywide average of 85 percent. And 41 percent of students speak little or no English, compared to 14 percent citywide.

In Swift’s case, gentrification worked in reverse to help stabilize enrollment, DeJulio points out, as improvements in the neighborhood and the school led parents to make efforts to keep their children enrolled.

“The neighborhood was improving and our school was doing a good job,” says DeJulio. “Families were not running away from the school and the community.”

South of Swift in Uptown, gentrification appears to have had a similar effect at Stockton. As rents rose and apartment buildings converted to condos, “the cost of housing priced people out,” says Anna Correa, Stockton’s former principal. In 1994, just 55 percent of Stockton students stayed at the school the entire year and 26 percent of kids transferred in mid-year. Now those figures are 91 percent and 7 percent.

Stockton’s current principal, Jill Besenjak, like DeJulio, points to change at the school as well as the community. Stockton still has an 80 percent low-income enrollment, but test scores have risen and the school now has a math and science magnet program.

“That is an attractive feature,” says Besenjak. “That draws people in.”