West Side Alderman Balancing Spending With Segregated Schools | WBEZ
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West Side Alderman Balancing Spending With Segregated Schools

One West Side alderman says he pushed back on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s latest school construction plan that would have ignored schools in his ward serving primarily poor, black children.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th Ward) represents two schools with opposite problems. Skinner West is packed full of students, while nearby Brown Elementary-- six blocks away-- is under-enrolled and struggling to attract new families. 

The mayor wants to build a $20 million addition at Skinner West, using the revenue from a record property tax hike approved last year. 

“I wouldn’t have felt justified doing this if I couldn’t do anything for Brown,” Burnett said Wednesday night after a meeting announcing the Skinner West annex. 

CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said Brown will get $4.7 million to build science labs and train staff for a new STEM program.

“We’re putting these investments here not only for the academic program to improve, but we want to signal that there’s more space here and attracting more students back to the school,” Jackson said.

The announcement comes after a WBEZ investigation found CPS has been spending millions on brand new schools and expensive additions, even in places where neighboring schools have plenty of space for extra students. The pattern is further cementing school segregation by race and class.

Many of the scenarios WBEZ looked at are playing out in neighborhoods, like the West Loop, close to where public housing has been torn down. Brown Elementary, for example, used to serve the Henry Horner Homes and still serves many children living in mixed income developments on the Near West Side. The students at Brown are 95 percent low-income and 90 percent black. 

Burnett grew up in public housing and he used to serve on Brown’s local school council. He said the way the district funds schools is partly why places like Brown struggle academically. Brown is in the second-lowest ranking on the district’s performance rating scale. 

When he was on the school council, Burnett recalled, “We had to fight just to get an extra teacher because we had two teachers teaching two classes. We had 7th and 8th (grade) together and 3rd and 4th (grade) together. The reason why (CPS) couldn’t give us the money was because we didn’t have enough students to get the money at the time.”

This is a common story in Chicago’s schools. The way the district allocates money is largely based on enrollment, and some schools have lost so many students, they struggle to provide a well-rounded academic program. 

Burnett said he saw the Skinner annex as an opportunity for Brown. 

“I hate to put it like this, you have to capitalize off the successful folks to help the folks that’s not as successful to be able to get better things and sustain themselves and grow to be successful too,” he said. “Let’s see how well Brown does. Brown may end up becoming just as good, if not better, than this school.”

Burnett said Emanuel called extra resources for Brown a “no-brainer” when Burnett raised the issue. 

It’s not clear if the infusion of money making Brown a STEM school will work. Research from Richard Kahlenberg, an expert in economic segregation in schools, has found that economically integrated environments are more effective at raising the achievement of poor students than simply extra resources. 

“The research has never suggested that low income students can’t learn,” Kahlenberg said. “It’s that low income students need to be provided with the right environment and when that environment is economically diverse, students of all backgrounds are likely to do much better than when students are isolated.”

CPS’s Jackson said she hopes the investment in Brown will attract middle- and upper-income families that have moved into the gentrifying West Loop.

“If we put investments in this school, if we improve the academic programming, I believe people are going to come back to this school,” she said. “Skinner isn’t the only school in town and that’s the point we’re trying to prove. It’s not a small group of schools that everybody should attend. We need to invest in other schools so they feel that they have other options.”

But many Skinner parents outside of the meeting Wednesday night didn’t even know Brown existed, much less that it had extra space.

“They’ve got more space over there?” asked Audrey Ochieng, a parent of a daughter in Skinner’s classical program. “Really? I didn’t know that.” 

The classical program at Skinner draws students from across the city, not just the neighborhood. Data from last school year show that more than two-thirds of the students enrolled don’t live in the boundary. 

Some raised questions about why the district wouldn’t relocate that program as a way to relieve overcrowding. The district’s own master facilities plan says before expensive buildings are considered, officials should make sure students outside of the boundary are no longer enrolled and special programs are relocated. 

Ochieng initially said she didn’t think it made sense to move Skinner’s classical program to Brown or another nearby under-enrolled school. But she seemed open to the idea, as long as the neighborhood was safe. “If you can provide the same thing over there, I’m cool.”

Tashonda Ford, a parent and local school council member at Brown, said she’s skeptical of the $20 million Skinner annex.

“There’s other schools in the neighborhood that could use the money,” she said.

Ford said she worries about how the new STEM program will be implemented, but has faith in Principal Kenya Sadler. Ford was hesitant about anything that could displace Brown students. 

“That was a concern of ours because the demographics of the neighborhood are changing,” Ford said.

Sarah Karp and Becky Vevea are education reporters for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter at @wbezeducation.

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