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Two Chicago schools inch closer to integration after divided vote

The decision on whether to merge, and integrate, two schools on opposite ends of the income divide is being kicked upstairs to top Chicago Public Schools officials.

The local school council (LSC) at Ogden International School voted seven to six in favor of a possible merger with nearby Jenner Academy of the Arts. The meeting lasted four hours and included seven presentations from parents both for and against a merger.  

Ultimately, the council does not have jurisdiction to approve a merger, but Ogden principal Michael Beyer said he wouldn’t move forward with the idea without the council’s support. Although the vote was largely symbolic, six members of the 13-member council chose to abstain.

The idea of a merger has grown increasingly contentious, in part, because the two schools are so different when it comes to race and family income.

Ogden is one of the city’s most privileged, with just 18 percent of students qualifying for free lunch (the CPS average is 86 percent, the statewide average is 52 percent). Just under 50 percent of Ogden children are white, while CPS’s white population is around 9 percent. The school attendance boundary serves families in the downtown Gold Coast, River North and Streeterville neighborhoods.

Jenner sits next to where the Cabrini-Green public housing towers once stood. It serves mostly black, mostly low-income children who still live in the area or once lived in the area, but now commute in from other neighborhoods.

Academically, the schools are polar opposites as well. Ogden’s test scores are ranked at the top of the district, while Jenner’s are among the lowest, which is concerning to some Ogden parents.

But Jenner Principal Robert Croston said it’s concerning to hear parents using “very veiled language around test scores” to imply the Jenner students would hurt the Ogden children’s scores.  

“I promise you this, if I gave you my children’s economic status… I’m sure those test scores would be very similar,” he said.

Over the summer, a group of Ogden parents came up with the idea of merging with Jenner, and in late September, the LSC voted unanimously to move forward with a process that would explore the idea and let other parents -- including those against the merger -- present alternatives to alleviate overcrowding.

By the school district’s standards, Ogden is not overcrowded. It is over the building’s ideal capacity, but not to the point of being overcrowded yet. However, there is a lot of real estate development happening in the school’s boundary and a recent settlement between former Cabrini residents and the Chicago Housing Authority could mean the return of public housing families who were displaced after the towers were torn down.   

Over the last month, parents split up into different task forces to explore overcrowding solutions. A couple of the groups advocated for delaying a decision, one sought to bring in an outside expert, and another proposed building a $5 million addition on the roof of the current Ogden East building or converting sections of the school’s parking ramp into mobile classrooms, at cost of around $3 million.

Regina Stein, a parent of two children at Ogden, said under the district’s formula, depending on how grades would be divided among the three buildings after a merger, Jenner could be over 100 percent capacity on the first day of school next fall.

But other parents disagreed that the formula was an issue.

“I walked the hallways of Jenner and I counted more than 20 empty classrooms, so you can’t tell me you’re going to put these two schools together and we’re over capacity,” Sandeep Soorya said. The CPS formula was criticized in 2013 when the city’s closed 50 public schools for not always capturing how classrooms are used in a school.

By the time the meeting started at 6:00 p.m., 547 people signed a petition in support of the merger. Another 161 signed a petition against the merger and 103 signed a petition to postpone a decision.

Last Friday, the principals of the two schools, Croston and Beyer, released a strongly worded joint statement about how consolidating the two schools would not only resolve overcrowding at Ogden and under-enrollment at Jenner, it would begin a “process of healing the harm done by the historical legacy of segregation based on race and class” in the Near North community.

“Waiting for the perfect plan to develop is, in our opinion, an attempt to indefinitely delay this consolidation in order to avoid facing uncomfortable realities in our society,” they wrote. “As Dr. King stated in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

The Jenner local school council, which has several vacancies, was scheduled to vote lastFriday, but did not have a quorum. A special meeting is scheduled for this week.

Jenner parent Mary Owens was at the Friday meeting and said she doesn’t understand why there’s so much opposition.

“I don’t see anything negative about it,” Owens said. “If one school is overcrowded and you have one that’s underpopulated, it’s the logical thing to do.”

Ultimately, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and the Board of Education have the sole authority to approve a school action. Under state law, Claypool would have to make a recommendation for a merger by December 1 and hold at least three more public hearings in order for the two schools to combine next fall.

It remains unclear if this will happen.

A new set of draft guidelines were released late Tuesday that allow for schools to consolidate, as long as there’s support from the community.

The change comes despite a promise made in 2013 that no schools would close or consolidate for five years after the city shut down 50 all at once.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.

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