CN July 14 2016


Suppose your elementary school is really overcrowded, and you think maybe a new school’s needed in the area, or at least a nice addition to your current school. How do you go about getting it?

Well, there’s a process. It’s just that nobody really knows what it is. But there are some hints.

WBEZ’s Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea got themselves a copy of the CPS Master Facilities Plan, and have been snooping around in it.  They were trying to figure out how two schools in affluent areas were able to each secure $20 million additions despite the fact that there were many other schools with far greater overcrowding issues.

In fact, they concluded, two-thirds of the six hundred-million spent or allocated by Mayor Emanuel has been spent at schools with at least 25% white enrollment. And considering the fact that the student population is less than 10% white, that’s a very small number of the city’s schools.

“The decisions about where to build, where not to build, who is going to even get the new roof, right, who is going to get the new boiler? It’s done in such a vacuum, Karp asserts. “You know, we have this masters facilities plan, but nowhere in the master’s facilities plan does it say you’re first, you’re second, and you’re third. Where are you on a list? It’s sort of like…there’s no way for anybody to tell. So then you have Rahm Emanuel having these private meetings with parents, giving out little presents.”

It’s made all the more complicated  when one considers that, in the past few years we’ve seen Hispanic families holding lengthy hunger strikes to call attention to the need for new schools in Little Village, and African-American families holding a lengthy hunger strike to win a new high school to replace Dyett.

“They wait and they starve themselves to get things,” Vevea explains, “whereas for whatever is going on in the outer ring around the Loop right now it’s like somebody mentions it at a cocktail party and all of a sudden you will get an annex. It feels a little like these came out of nowhere. ”

Karp’s and Vevea’s recent story about how construction spending advances segregation uses several examples of policy-makers turning their backs on solid, adjacent schools that could have been dramatically improved for the money spent on additions, in at least one case less than a mile away.

They describe the situation with Lincoln School in Lincoln Park, given a 20-million dollar addition, while chronically under-enrolled Manierre sits about a mile away with an almost totally black student body.

“Why is the district willing to allow this isolated school, it’s a racially isolated, economically isolated school – to exist in the middle of one of the best neighborhoods in the City?” Vevea asks.  “We’re not talking about shipping kids into one of the dicier neighborhoods of the City. We’re talking about Old Town.”  She points out that expensive houses have been built right adjacent to Manierre, but middle-class parents (both black and white) won’t consider it. We’re left to ponder what might have happened if the $20 million had instead been spent on this classic, struggling neighborhood school.

A similar issue exists along Ashland Avenue just west of the wealthy West Loop community. Skinner West, a relatively new school, will also be getting a $20-million addition, despite the existence of Brown just six blocks north, but west of Ashland.Skinner is considered over-crowded because it has a city-wide gifted program with 600 of its 950 students attending from all over the City.

“In the case of Skinner West & Brown,” asserts Vevea, “the District could have decided to move the gifted program to Brown. You know now they say we’re going to give Brown $5-million and make it a STEM school. It’s still I believe going to have a neighborhood component, and yes, that will be a very good investment for Brown. I go back to my earlier point though, unless Brown is able to attract the new residents that school will remain segregated. That school will remain in a racially and economically isolated situation.” That despite the fact that it is geographically, if not socially, only a few blocks away.

Obviously, the CPS planners are dealing with powerful social forces. As Education chief Janice Jackson told WBEZ, there’s only so much she can do. At some point parents have to believe the schools are worthwhile and send their kids there. If they don’t do it,”they have choice”.

Over the years, CPS has tried building new, quality schools in minority neighborhoods with wide boundaries, but they don’t attract students from outside the neighborhood. “There are schools in Austin, now this is shocking, there are schools that are the highest rated in Chicago Public Schools in Austin, in brand new buildings because Mayor Daley built some very new buildings all over Austin in the mid-2000s,” Karp explains. “But that is on a whole different planet than somebody who lives in Edgebrook. I just don’t… I mean I guess that’s something we have to discuss as a City.”

But Karp concludes that, after years of reporting on CPS, there’s one certainty. “That parents actually want good neighborhood schools. They want good schools that they know they can get in.”

Yesterday, after months of wrangling in Springfield resulted in cash infusion of possibly $600 million, CPS was able to cobble together a budget. Despite the fact that about $250 million of the pension relief funding is predicated on some kind of “pension reform” being passed before January, Karp says CPS is moving full-steam ahead.

“We’re counting on it. We’re already budgeting for it, so the damn money better come in.”

You can read a full transcript of this show in Word format HERE: CN transcript July 14 2016


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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