Proposal would combine Gold Coast and Cabrini Green schools | WBEZ
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Merger of Gold Coast school with Cabrini-Green school would mean first integrated neighborhood school in a former public housing area

An idea hatched by parents and neighbors looking to solve enrollment problems on the Near North Side could end up merging two schools on opposite extremes of the income divide.

Jenner Academy of the Arts and Ogden International School are less than a mile apart—but they’re worlds away when it comes to their student bodies.

Ogden is among the city’s most affluent, with just 18 percent of students qualifying for free lunch (the CPS average is 86 percent, the statewide average is 52 percent). Ogden’s elementary campus is nestled among the mansions on the Near North Side; its attendance boundary includes the Gold Coast, River North, and Streeterville. Downtown development has meant classes are bursting.

Jenner Academy has for decades been all-black and all poor, a segregated school that has served kids whose families have lived in Cabrini-Green or other nearby subsidized housing projects.

With Cabrini’s towers torn down, the neighborhood has quickly attracted higher-income residents of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. But while the neighborhood has become more diverse, Jenner school has not. It’s a fate shared by other neighborhood schools in former public housing areas: new economically or racially diverse neighborhoods, segregated schools. Its enrollment has dwindled to 240.

If the plan to merge Jenner and Ogden goes through, Jenner would become Chicago’s first public housing school to be integrated.

“This right here--this commitment to develop a very robust, collaborative neighborhood school that is truly a reflection of our community--is what we should be doing in our city,” said Jenner principal Robert Croston, Jr.

“It unifies a very segregated community,” Ogden principal Michael Beyer said of the potential merger.

Beyer says a committee of Ogden parents researched multiple options to relieve overcrowding and felt this was the best approach. But he says Ogden won’t pursue the option unless the local school council supports it; a vote is scheduled for tonight. “Nothing is a done deal,” Beyer says.

Separately, Jenner parents and neighbors became interested in the idea of a merger with a higher performing, diverse school after CPS in 2013 proposed Jenner consolidate with Manierre, another Cabrini-Green school—also all black and all poor. That consolidation was scuttled, in part because students at the two schools tend to live on separate sides of a historic gang line.

One iteration of the Ogden-Jenner merger proposal calls for the two schools to be combined, with primary students at the current Ogden Elementary campus, 24 W. Walton, and grades 4-8 to be located at Jenner, 1119 N. Cleveland. Ogden already has a separate high school campus; this would give the school a third.

A meeting this weekend in the Ogden Elementary cafeteria brought out parents’ concerns about lower academic performance at Jenner, and about safety around the school, which has not lived down a notorious history that has at times made national news. In 1992, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis was killed by a sniper as he walked to school at Jenner.

A number of Ogden parents said they’d purchased homes in the area because of Ogden—and that was based on its current performance and demographics. One parent said she would consider an extension of the attendance boundary “a complete imposition on my personal space.” Another said she would worry if her child would come home alive from Jenner.

Listen to comments made at the hearing

Nora Hansen was among parents in Ogden’s packed cafeteria Saturday; she has two children at the school.  “The testing scores for Jenner are in the bottom one percent of the entire city of Chicago. So how are they going to adjust? I mean, I just want to be assured that my children are still going to be able to get the best education and have the best test scores.”

Hansen said integrating lower-performers into Ogden could negatively impact her children. “I think that the teachers will have to focus to bring up the kids, yes I do.”

Researchers have found that children perform worse in high-poverty schools.

Beyer says there are 1,100 K-8 students at Ogden; there are 240 at Jenner. He estimates the merger would add between three and five Jenner students to each classroom, and downplayed the impact on academics. He also said Ogden teachers already educate students from wide socio-economic and academic spectrums.

 Robert Croston, Jr. left, principal at Jenner Academy, and Michael Beyer right, principal at Ogden, talk to parents about the possible merger of the two schools. The proposal would combine one of Chicago’s richest schools with one of its poorest. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

Beyer said if nothing is done, it’s likely Jenner could face closure in the future for under-enrollment. In that case, he said, students could be assigned to Ogden by CPS. He encouraged parents to be “proactive.”

Most people in attendance at Saturday’s meeting seemed to support the plan. 

“I believe that Cabrini-Green has a PR problem,” said Rebecca Wells, a white parent at Ogden who sits on the school’s overcrowding exploratory committee and lives three blocks from Jenner. “Not to say that there’s not crime, but there’s crime everywhere in Chicago. And as far as the academics goes, with the support of the community and the parent support, we can get all of the children at higher academic levels together.”

Jenner principal Croston told the crowd that Jenner teaches children to “be neighborly. It’s one of the golden rules of every single world religion,” he said. “I think we are not doing our children a service when we continue to perpetuate stereotypes; when we continue to perpetuate myths.”

Hear Ogden principal Michael Beyer and Jenner principal Robert Croston speak at Saturday’s public meeting

Alderman Walter Burnett (27th), who grew up in Cabrini-Green and who represents the area around Jenner, called the merger a “no brainer.”

“For the Board (of Education), this would be a beginning of a great idea that could spread throughout the city of Chicago to bring people together and to help our schools to get better,” Burnett said.

Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @WBEZeducation

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