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Shifting Demographics Change Suburban Schools

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The face of suburbia is changing—and so are schools there. For decades, Chicago has educated the vast majority of the region's low-income, minority, and immigrant students. But that's shifting, and education issues once considered “urban” are increasingly showing up in suburban schools. It's placing cultural, academic and financial demands on districts that at one time catered to mostly white, middle-class kids.

Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham

ambi: outside Burr Ridge Middle School

Outside Burr Ridge Middle School , there's a park, trees, and multi-million-dollar mansions—the kind with separate quarters for the nanny.


ambi: hallways at Burr Ridge Middle School


Inside Burr Ridge Middle school, 70 percent of kids qualify for free lunch. Most live in a sprawling apartment complex nearby.


Sonya Ballard moved to that complex three years ago from Chicago , looking for better schools and a safer setting for her two girls.


BALLARD: I'm very happy with the schools. My daughters' grades have been excellent. The teachers work with you. If they detect any slipping in the grades they call me at work. The schools, I give them a grade A-plus.

But Burr Ridge and other schools are struggling with demographic changes. Test scores have faltered as Burr Ridge has taken on hundreds more low-income and minority kids who've moved to the apartments. Teachers are faced with a much wider range of academic and social needs than before. And while the student body is now 85 percent minority, the teaching staff is still 96 percent white.

Paula Dupont is a parent and president of the local school board.

DUPONT: We always had more of a diverse school community than our neighbors do. So we had some programs in place to help us be ready. It was still a real challenge when we had the big changeover.


NIETO: I think that many suburban school districts are not prepared for the change. Because they've always defined suburbs as being white. 


Sonia Nieto is a leading thinker nationally on multicultural education.

In the last ten years, minority enrollment in Chicago's suburbs has grown 73 percent. More than a quarter of all suburban students are now low-income. These kids should benefit from the smaller classes and better credentialed teachers many suburban schools offer.


But at least two reports in the past two years have shown that the region's suburban schools are not better at educating low-income and minority kids than Chicago is. An example? African-American kids back in the CPS school Ballard's daughters used to attend score better on state tests than African American kids in posh Burr Ridge.


Suburban districts are looking to people like Nieto to help them navigate questions of culture. Last week, Nieto told teachers and board members in Elgin District U-46 that schools need to change the way they do almost everything if they're going to serve poor and minority students better.


NIETO: It should be pervasive. It's not just about reading Langston Hughes in English class. It's also about the pedagogy. It's about parent outreach. It's about the food that's served in the cafeteria. It's about everything in the school day.


Like in other diverse districts, U-46 white and Asian students are more likely to graduate than the district's black or Latino kids. Middle-class students post higher scores than poor kids. Eliminating those achievement gaps is now part of the district's mission statement. Teachers are being evaluated on how well they adapt their teaching to reach all students.


Those are big changes, but things as simple as homework are being rethought across the region.


OSMANSKI: We have homework help at school now. The children can come for assistance during their lunch hour.


At Rupley Elementary in Elk Grove Village , around 60 percent of kids now come from low-income families; many don't speak English. Principal Karen Osmanski hands out school supplies for kids to do their homework.


OSMANSKI: The school has really changed practices in order to address the needs. And that hasn't been easy.


Especially for veteran teachers. Pam Dedes has been at Rupley for 22 years. She struggled to understand some of the new kids and their families--


DEDES: We always wondered: We're like, ‘Whoa, how come THEY… some of these students, they say they're poverty, but they're walking in with the gym shoes that cost $100.'


Dedes says a book about poverty that's widely read by suburban teachers has helped her be less judgmental. But it's also been criticized for reinforcing stereotypes.


DEDES: When they have money, you know, they're not used to that, so when they have the money, they spend it. And it's like an instant gratification…‘Ooo I can get the thing I want!' And you just kind of see that and you say, ‘OK. They grew up differently than me. So I shouldn't put my middle-class value on them.'


Education experts say attitudes might be the trickiest things to change.


Luckily for Rupley students, the school district has a strong local tax base. That's hardly true of all suburbs, though. The south suburbs have some of the region's neediest students, and the least amount of money to help them.


Superintendent Jose Torres says finances are a hurdle in Elign too.


TORRES: Some of the poverty issues require more resources, and in fact we have fewer resources.


Torres says it's only fair to give more funding to those who need it. But that can be a difficult sell.


TORRES: There are real issues around resource allocation and how do you fund these things when people are saying, ‘Well, when I was growing up we didn't have those kinds of programs.'


ambi: bilingual class

Nearly a quarter of districts in DuPage County are now majority minority, and Bensenville is one of them.

Bilingual classrooms at Tioga Elementary didn't exist six years ago. Now there's a whole floor of them. There are bilingual teachers, bilingual materials, and bilingual psychologists. There's all-day kindergarten and Saturday school.

If you ask Luis Reyes, he'll tell you Bensenville has come a long way since he enrolled his daughter here seven years ago. It was her first experience in an English-only classroom.

REYES: The first week my daughter came home crying because she could not understand anything.

Reyes' daughter had been in a bilingual magnet school in Chicago . He says her Bensenville teacher was not sympathetic to her situation.

REYES: At one point I lost my temper, and I remember saying, ‘We are paying your salary to educate our children, not to judge us. Not to point out my daughter because she is not with the rest of the kids.'

Today, Reyes is one of two Latino members on Bensenville 's school board.

At some point, he says he'd like to bring up issues Bensenville doesn't seem ready to grapple with just yet. He wants to see more minority authors in kids' backpacks, and he wants to hear some different songs at the music concerts—something that reflects the identity kids bring to school.

REYES: I think eventually the district will move in that direction, not because we want to, because we have to.

That may be the new reality for many school districts. 

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