Skinner, South Loop stories highlight lack of facilities plan for Chicago schools

Print More

Once upon a time, Chicago’s West and South Loop neighborhoods were industrial areas with mostly lower-income, minority residents and few children. To draw in students, the West Loop’s Skinner and South Loop Elementary were given specialty programs: Skinner became a classical school and South Loop, a regional gifted center.

Once upon a time, Chicago’s West and South Loop neighborhoods were
industrial areas with mostly lower-income, minority residents and few
children. To draw in students, the West Loop’s Skinner and South Loop
Elementary were given specialty programs: Skinner became a classical
school and South Loop, a regional gifted center.

Over the past decade, condos rather than factors began to dominate the
neighborhoods, and the streets began teeming with couples and their
kids. The neighborhood-based programs at Skinner and South Loop are now
overcrowded, pitting longtime parents against newbies. CPS officials
have tried to solve the dilemma, but as is often the case in
gentrifying neighborhoods, few are happy.

Faced with strong community objection by parents, CPS recently backed
away from a plan to move South Loop’s middle grades to the National
Teachers Academy, a five-year-old, underutilized school 10 blocks away.

At Skinner, conflict is simmering over space and resources, pitting
parents of neighborhood children against parents of children in the
selective classical program.

Advocates note a larger issue: The district’s failure to develop a
comprehensive facilities plan that takes into account community input
and demographic shifts.

“CPS tends to wait for a crisis and then make quick decisions,” says
Andrea Lee, the education organizer for the Grand Boulevard Federation.
“If they had sat down earlier, they could have reached some sort of an
agreement with the community. CPS has a blank check to do anything at
any time at the expense of students and their families.”

The Grand Boulevard Federation wants CPS to adopt a facilities master
plan that would allow the district and the community to map out the
population of a neighborhood and make a fit with the facilities in the
area—eliminating the disconnect between neighborhood population and
school capacity.

CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan says the district is examining the
situations in the South Loop and trying to come with
solutions. However, residents say the dramatic change has happened over
time and that CPS officials should have noticed.

“When I first moved here, the second young couples started having kids
they would move to a different area,” said Enrique Perez, a longtime
resident of the South Loop. “Now, people are sticking around and
sending their kids to the neighborhood schools.”

Former Skinner local school council member Andre Taylor noted the demographic impact in his neighborhood.

“A lot of people, mostly African Americans, got displaced because they
couldn’t afford to live here,” Taylor says. “The majority of new
residents were white people with children.”

South Loop

In the South Loop, parents’ demands for better schools brought a
regional gifted center and fine arts program, plus a program for
neighborhood children. In 2002, CPS shifted South Loop’s attendance
boundaries, expanded the northern and western edges and shrinking the
southern edge—a move that, in effect, opened the school to more
affluent families.

Initially, the South Loop LSC supported the proposed move to the
National Teachers Academy. But during the December LSC meeting, members
revoked their support as parents and community members voiced concerns
about displacement of their children. Parents were also worried that
having two schools under one roof would create problems. By early
January, CPS pulled the plans and began convening community groups to
look at the issue.

“From the public testimony, it was clear that this was something CPS
was pushing,” Perez says. “Some of the parents were in tears. The
community is dead-set against the move.”

Also troubling is that parents at National Teachers Academy were not consulted. 

“We have nothing against South Loop,” said Lenora Foster, a Teachers
Academy parent. “This is our school, and bringing in another school is
bound to cause problems.”

At Skinner

Just last year, students from Skinner Classical moved into a new,
state-of-the-art building in the West Loop. Neighborhood parents
lobbied for, and won, seats for their children, who will be admitted
without regard to test scores.

Skinner Principal Deborah Clark is concerned about accommodating an influx of neighborhood children in coming years.

“The size of the school isn’t big enough,” Clark says. “We’re using all
of the space we have, and we’re supposed to get a new class of
kindergartners next year. I don’t know where we are going to put them.”

Meanwhile, Skinner is facing the complications created by housing two
different programs in the same location. Darnell Crenshaw, an LSC
member, says that former CEO Arne Duncan promised that the neighborhood
and classical programs would receive equal resources. But the
neighborhood program does not have enough funding for strong foreign
language and arts programs.

Skinner LSC chair Angela Griffin said she fears that Skinner will
eventually become so pressed for funding and space that its classical
component will be phased out.

“CPS knew the specs of that building and the number of [children] that
they were going to put into it,” Griffin says.” It’s not fair to the
students if the classical program gets pushed out because of their
[lack of] oversight.”

To combat the overcrowding problem, CPS opened a second Skinner
location a little over two miles to the north. That school was designed
to take in some of the students that West Loop’s Skinner could not
accept. The newly opened school currently serves kindergarten through
2nd grade, and will expand by one grade each year.

Clark said that the second location has provided some relief, but some
parents in the area believe the additional school has been an
ineffective solution.

“Skinner North was a waste,” Crenshaw says. “It was a deal made to benefit only a few.”