Community groups get their wish for South Shore, Brighton Park schools

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Board of Education members granted the wishes of two organized community groups in making polar opposite decisions about newly-built schools.

South Shore International College Prep will have no neighborhood boundaries, starting in September. Meanwhile, a new elementary school at 48th and Rockwell will be reserved for attendance-area students.

These decisions are the culmination of battles that began long before the current administration and board. They also show how different communities and parents look at schools in the current environment regarding choice.

Last winter, the debate over who would get to attend the building at the corner of 75th Street and Jeffrey Boulevard was raging. On one side were parents and current students at the old South Shore buildings, where four small high schools were housed. They desperately wanted to attend the shiny new school.

On the other side were community members who wanted a selective enrollment school, considering it the only way to have a fresh start. 

At the time, the CPS administration went with a compromise. The school would have two small specialty programs that would start with a new freshman class, but the majority of the students–61 percent–would come from the neighborhood.

Community activists told board members that the arrangement is not working out. They applauded the decision to keep the International Baccalaureate and career and technical education programs, but to reserve the other half of the seats for students chosen through the selective enrollment process. Though students must apply for IB and CTE programs, the threshold for acceptance is lower.

Students who currently live in the South Shore High School attendance boundary will now be sent to Chicago Vocational Career Academy, a school that has been struggling for a long time but is slated to become a turnaround this year. No parents or community members opposed to this plan spoke  at the board meeting.

LaShawn Brown told the board members that there are enough high-achieving neighborhood students to support a selective enrollment high school. The current problem is that they are all leaving, she said. Though she lives only a block and a half away from the new school, Brown drives her child to a selective enrollment high school in another community.

“It is a very great burden on parents,” she said.

She and others told the board that in order to make it work, South Shore International College Prep would need resources and a strategy to create a new brand image for the school. The change will take effect starting in September 2012. CPS will now send letters to students who applied for selective enrollment seats, but didn’t get one, to see if they are interested in attending South Shore International College Prep, said Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat.

While the community members in South Shore wanted a selective school, those in Brighton Park insisted that there be no barriers to neighborhood students attending their new school. 

As far back as the administration of Paul Vallas, community members were pleading for a new school. Shields, at 4250 S. Rockwell, has long been one of the city’s biggest and most overcrowded schools.  Currently, Shields has 1,800 students spread across three buildings, one of them an old Catholic school four blocks away.

As it often does, it took more than a decade to secure plans and funds and to get a school onb the drawing board.

Then, this year, just as the building was being completed, parents heard rumors that UNO’s charter school network was collecting signatures in an effort to open up a campus in the building. Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Association, says Ald. Edward Burke told parents and community members it was a done deal.

“The political threat was real,” says Brosnan. Brighton Park Neighborhood Association runs a community school inside Shields.

Parents and community members decidedly didn’t want a charter school. They wanted this new state-of-the-art school to be available to all the students in the community, not just ones chosen in the lottery. And they wanted to make sure that Shields reaped the benefits in that the crowding was relieved.

Lead by Brighton Park Neighborhood Association, parents waged a campaign against the prospect of UNO moving in. They let CPS officials know that they would have a battle on their hands.

“This would have been a very, very big deal,” Brosnan said.

Two weeks ago, in front of a meeting attended by 450 parents, CPS officials announced that they were recommending the school be a neighborhood middle school.

“This way all the neighborhood children get to go to this school,” he says.

In other business, the board voted to close achievement academies, programs for over-aged 8th graders who are not ready for high school. Achievement academies were created as a result of stringent promotion policies announced by then-Mayor Richard Daley in 1996. The policies resulted in thousands of students not graduating from 8th grade, though they were 15 years old or older.

Housed in traditional high schools, the programs were supposed to help students complete elementary school and get them ready to transition into regular high school as juniors. However, the drop-out rate for achievement academy students is high, and on other measures they continue to lag behind.

Starting this summer, over-aged 8th graders will go to an intensive four-week program and then into their freshman year of high school.

Over the years, CPS’ promotion policy has been weakened. College and Career Pathways Officer Akeisha Craven said that CPS has learned that, while retention has some short-term benefits, it doesn’t help in the long run.