Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The last neighborhood school

Last month the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, one a daily jog down Augusta Boulevard from my house. I don't have children there, and neither do my neighbors. Which is strange, because Elizabeth Peabody Elementary School is what the school district calls a neighborhood school -- in fact, the last neighborhood school in the East Village neighborhood. Principals, police and parents will stay busy this summer figuring out how to resume classes at another school in another neighborhood.

It's a curious turn of events at Peabody. This spring I blogged about it, which made me something of a neighborhood expert. The alderman dropped my name at a public hearing downtown. (Or at least he tried -- it came out Steve Rysznyski.) Public radio called for an interview too, but not much came of it. The reporter told me I don't speak in sound bites. Maybe I can work on that, but for now this will take a couple minutes to unpack.

Neighborhood schools are the city's name for open-enrollment schools. There are 398 neighborhood elementary schools in Chicago, four times as many as all others combined. With all the attention paid to magnet and charter schools, it's a bit of a surprise that there are only 39 magnets and 20 charters.

This in fact is the 40th anniversary of the Chicago magnet school, which is a specialty school that does not have to accept kids from the neighborhood. My nearest school is a magnet: LaSalle II Language Academy, which teaches Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Urdu. It used to be the Hans Christian Andersen Community Academy, a neighborhood school, but as the community improved the school did not. As a magnet, now there's a waiting list and an active local school council. Two parents I know got involved while waiting for a son or daughter to come off the waiting list.

Magnets are so popular that many of the community schools have become mini-magnets. Otis Elementary, where Peabody students will move this fall, is a Magnet Cluster school teaching Latin, Italian and Spanish. Talcott School, another West Town school that draws from East Village, is the city's only museum school, with three museums as partners and a lot of field trips.

Another surprise finds 17 buildings preserved as "small" schools, where teachers know everyone in the building and collaborate on classwork. (The city also counts eight special-ed, five classical and four contract schools.) Peabody is not designated a "small" school, it's just small -- 255 students. In this case though, small is not favored: Size made Peabody a target for closing four years ago. But when the school showed up again on the list of potential closings, size made it simple during my morning run to knock on the door, meet the principal and learn more.

Peabody is competitive in science fairs, but it's not designated as a STEM school either. Mostly its known for a 98% low income student body that is three-fourths Hispanic, with many families of limited English proficiency. At the local hearing on its closing, there was a constant crosstalk of simultaneous translation into Spanish. Peabody has managed to work its way off a watch list, but raising test scores likely would remain a heavy lift.

Since Otis has no spare classrooms, the Peabody merger will pack Otis 30 students to a homeroom. Most likely some classes will be much bigger to free up space for Peabody's 42 special-ed students. At the neighborhood meetings, the local police superintendent was upfront taking notes. By most accounts there are several gangs operating in the mile between the two schools, making for a dicey twice-daily walk. The map the school district gave parents shows the direct route to Otis is through an alley.

Peabody does not have a high-profile school council, and I was the only person in our community group in contact with Peabody staff. Fellow volunteers all wondered what would come of the building, a red-brick Italianate dating from 1895. The city had just spent the better part of a year closing a nearby police station and finding another law-enforcemnt tenant. The school will be a tougher case, because the teachers' contract limits education uses for closed buildings and because so many will hit the market at once.

So what does it mean that my neighborhood is losing its neighborhood school? Maybe not much. Magnet schools still have rummage sales and outings and assemblies. But not everyone in the neighborhood is invited: Their kids are in the neighborhood school, and that's in another neighborhood. After 40 years of magnet schools, we still have a lot to learn.

On the TV news, students are crying and parents are angry. The drama is understandable: These schools are the only ones most pupils know. But it's difficult to see how raising class sizes will raise test scores for the displaced kids or their new classmates. And it's difficult to see this debate play out the same way with magnet schools up for elimination, their angry parents already successful at fighting for their sons and daughters' seats in class. Whatever the benefits of consolidation -- and the schools' revenue issues are profound -- the choice of targets leave parents with the feeling they were never in a fair fight.

The best result of the process is that consolidation moved these questions front and center, even if answers have not yet followed. Principals and police will be under pressure to make mergers work. But accountability also will demand that parents and neighbors keep watch, make new connections and likely fight for funds to deliver on the city's promises. We'll all need to embrace a wider concept of community and acknowledge the role education plays in our safety and success. The classrooms are gone. Our responsibilities are not.