In neighborhoods across Chicago where development and gentrification have taken hold, middle-income families are staying in the city and raising children. But there’s one aspect of city life many have been slow to embrace: their nearby public school. WBEZ looks at the dynamics that come into play when higher income neighbors don’t feel the neighborhood school is good enough for their kids.
Jeff Rosen thinks he lives in one of the best neighborhoods in Chicago, the area around the University of Illinois.
ROSEN: We’re a vibrant university community, a very racially and socioeconomically diverse community. We’re really a microcosm of the entire city.
And every morning, all the middle-class public schoolkids in the community scatter across the city, to more than a dozen magnet and gifted schools where they’ve won seats in the district’s lottery.
Last year, Rosen applied to all those schools for his kindergartener. He says you don’t realize how difficult the Chicago schooling situation is until you’re in it. Pretty soon, Rosen had a stack of rejection letters.
ROSEN: You know, your greatest fear takes hold, and you think to yourself, ‘My gosh. I don’t have any option for the fall.’ Other than the neighborhood school, which you don’t consider to be an acceptable environment for your child.
Ambi: Smyth school kindergarteners and first graders read details they’ve written about toads
More than 600 kids attend Rosen’s neighborhood school, Smyth. Rosen’s daughter has a guaranteed seat here, no lottery needed. But nearly all Smyth students are black, and nearly all are poor, many from public housing.
It’s essentially a segregated school, one of dozens that exist in otherwise diverse Chicago neighborhoods.
And Smyth is struggling. It posts some of the worst test scores in the city. In fact, scores here are 20 points below the district’s average for both African-American and poor students. Rosen never even considered sending his daughter here.
That stirs up a lot of emotion in Delora Scott-Wimberly, a Smyth parent who’s had to explain to her seventh grader why white people won’t send their kids to her school.
SCOTT-WIMBERLY: If you come inside and get an actual visit of the school, then maybe they’ll change their perception of the actual school and the people that’s inside of it.
Classroom ambi, 6th grade
Inside Smyth, the spacious, 100-year-old classrooms are bright and welcoming, floors polished until they gleam. Smyth’s main hallway features fish tanks and flags from around the world. Every kid here studies Mandarin and is part of the highly touted International Baccalaureate program.
Principal Ronald Whitmore was an award-winning teacher and oversaw early childhood education for the entire school district before coming to Smyth. But just about every other year since Whitmore arrived, CPS has closed a low-performing school nearby, and assigned those kids to him. Whitmore says his attention is on improving Smyth.
WHITMORE: I can only welcome people that come. I can’t make people come that don’t want to. So we’re focusing on how to make Smyth a better place for the students that choose to come here.
O’NEILL: Smyth— I think the principal is doing a very good job there. It is not yet seen, however, as an acceptable alternative.
That’s Dennis O’Neill, speaking to the Chicago Board of Education. O’Neill directs the well-connected University Village Association. He’s met privately with top CPS officials and twice with the mayor about getting what he calls an acceptable school option for the neighborhood.
Demands from O’Neill’s group are probably the main reason CPS is thinking about adding magnet school seats to this area—O’Neill says fixing Smyth is a long-term project. He says people’s property values are on the line—and so is a plan to build 2,000 more market-rate homes here.
A segregated school is something nobody wants.
MURPHY: They say, ‘Oh, it’s not socio-economically or racially diverse.’ Someone has to start that trend.
Tamara Murphy has a second grader at Smyth.
MURPHY: They were willing to move into this area knowing it’s not racially diverse. If they were willing to take that step in the real estate market, then why not be willing to go all the way and diversify the school system?
ORFIELD: Most people who move into a neighborhood like this are not racist. They’re perfectly willing to be in a diverse setting—but they don’t want to be the only one.
Gary Orfield is a national expert on racial integration in schools. He says integration leads to equity—and it brings connections and resources that middle-income families possess to kids who need them.
Orfield says few urban school districts have figured out how to promote integration in schools like Smyth. Chicago has a tiny bag of tricks to lure higher-income parents into neighborhood schools—things like gifted programs, and preschools that charge tuition.
But while CPSspends lots of time and money promoting diversity in magnet schools—it has nooverarching strategy for supporting integration in dozens of neighborhood schools where that would be possible.
That leaves a lot up to parents.
EDELBERG: So here’s our lunchroom. We turned it into Bistro Louis
Jacqueline Edelberg is showing me around Nettelhorst School in Lakeview. It’s become the textbook example of a local school that middle-class parents finally bought into. Today, every inch of Nettelhorst is covered with painted murals. There is a new science lab and a jaw-dropping kitchen …
EDELBERG: All of this is the work of people in this neighborhood who wrapped their arms around the school and said, ‘We want this school to be the heart of the community.’
In her book, How to Walk to School, Edelberg describes how she and a small group of parents took nine months to get the school to a point where their friends would enroll their children. Scores were still dismal, but parents signed on. Looking back, Edelberg says the transformation was both maddeningly difficult and “shockingly easy.”
KAHLENBERG: It’s not as if the school has to overnight has to turn to 50-50. If the kindergarten class is economically mixed, that’s the key variable.
Richard Kahlenberg says as few as 10 or 15 kids can meaningfully integrate a classroom. Kahlenberg helped design Chicago’s new magnet school admissions policy, which mixes kids up by income.
He says high-poverty schools aren’t good for anyone—not for poor kids, and not for middle-income kids either. At Nettelhorst, integration has meant higher test scores for minority and low-income students. But every year there are fewer of those students represented at the school… that is a whole other story.
There’s been an interesting side effect to the debate over schools near UIC: people are looking more closely at Smyth.
Leslie Thomas lives four blocks away. She’s applying to magnet schools for her five-year-old—the deadline is today. But she’s also visited Smyth, and is considering it, even if her son would be the only white kid. He wouldn’t be the only kid, she points out.
THOMAS: I didn’t move here so that we could drive across town and go to school in another neighborhood. I moved here so that we could contribute to this neighborhood. We’re torn and we’re really trying to think about what the best thing for our son and our community is right now.
Thomas has hung flyers up near her loft development…to try to find other families who might be interested in looking at Smyth. She says no one has called her back yet.
Maybe they will when rejection letters go out from the city’s magnet schools.