The Chicago Public Schools usually makes quick decisions about closing and merging schools.
But that’s not the case for a community-driven proposal to merge a Gold Coast school with an under-enrolled one near the former Cabrini Green public housing complex.
This is no ordinary merger. It would take one of the city’s most affluent public schools, Ogden International School of Chicago, and combine it with Jenner Academy for the Arts, which serves mostly black, low-income students.
The idea to merge the two schools first came up two summers ago. Initially, parents at Ogden saw Jenner as an answer to overcrowding at their school. But their straightforward idea tapped into much bigger issues of racial and economic segregation in Chicago.
Ogden parent Marielena O’Connell Kenny said she was frustrated by the conversation around a merger last fall.
“It is a shame for me to hear that word -- racism -- connected to this movement and that anybody that’s not for this is racist,” O’Connell Kenny said. “Just couldn’t be any further from the truth. It’s about giving our school a break. It has nothing to do with racism.”
O’Connell Kenny’s two children have been at Ogden for five years. She says “it’s been a little rocky” the last few years, timing that coincides with the merger discussion.
Three years ago, the school’s longtime principal was reassigned after an investigation into improper spending of school funds. A year later, a high-profile case of anti-semitic bullying led to an interim principal leaving. And this fall, a teacher was arrested on child pornography charges after a small camera was found in one of the school’s bathrooms.
“We need a break,” O’Connell Kenny said. “We need to let (the new principal) Dr. (Michael) Beyer have a school without being in the headlines so he can do what he was hired to do.”
Ogden’s enrollment dipped this year, leaving two empty classrooms. But parents who supported the merger with Jenner still think uniting the two schools will smooth out enrollment at both schools and address school segregation in the Gold Coast.
But they’ve struggled to get traction with other parents and district officials.
That’s partly because other parents have a lot of questions that only district officials can answer.
“Parents are nervous that there’s no plan,” Ogden parent Paul Jensen said, highlighting core questions such as “what teachers stay, what teachers go, the busing, class sizes, all that. The day to day stuff.”
But it’s also because the school board has no plan or policy for desegregating neighborhood schools. In fact, a recent WBEZ analysis found some of the new school construction has furthered school segregation by race and class. However, the district does take socioeconomic status into account when admitting students to the city’s magnet and selective enrollment schools.
The Jenner and Ogden communities have worked hard to get support for their idea. They held meetings with their local school councils last fall. Both voted to support exploring a merger further. A steering committee secured a grant from the Chicago Community Trust to hire consultants to do a feasibility study. It was sent to the Chicago Board of Education in September, but supporters didn’t hear much after that.
But that changed Dec. 1.
District officials, by law, have to announce all school mergers and closures for the following year by that day each year. Ogden and Jenner were on the list, but in an unprecedented move, the district proposed holding community meetings next spring to decide if they’ll officially put Ogden and Jenner on the list next December for a merger in 2018.
“I’m surprised we’re still talking about this a year and a half later,” said Rebecca Wells, who has a son in fourth grade at Ogden and was one of the first people to support merging with Jenner. “I’m glad we are because it’s important. And I’ve become this person that I’m talking about school equity all the time.”
But Wells said the parents and the steering committee can only do so much. Now, the district has to lead the merger discussion if it’s ever going to happen.
“One of my fears about it is that it’s not going to be productive time spent and it’s only going to hurt the communities if it ends up being a bunch of people yelling and screaming at each other,” she said. “I personally cannot live through three super nasty community meetings, so I’m really really hoping that it doesn’t end up that way.”
CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said the district does plan to take a bigger role in the talks about a merger.
“I wouldn’t really count it as a delay,” she said. “I see this as action on the part of CPS and I would go so far as to say responsible action on the part of the district. Our district has been criticized time and time again for not being thoughtful and methodical in those processes. and so this is an example of us trying to do that and I hope people appreciate that approach.”
But the move to delay a decision was confusing for Tara Stamps, a veteran teacher at Jenner.
“People had already wrapped their mind around that it was going to happen or could happen, so this kind of pause in the program, I think, threw everybody off to say, ‘OK. What does this really mean?’” Stamps said.
Growing up in Cabrini Green, Stamps has deep roots in the community around Jenner. She’s been frustrated with how the city moved hundreds of residents -- mostly black and poor -- out of their neighborhood when it tore down Cabrini’s high-rise public housing projects. Several schools in the area closed, and Jenner’s enrollment is so low, in part, because the city has been slow to return families to new mixed-income developments in the area.
Last year, when a merger came up, Stamps saw it as a way to keep her school alive, so she supported it. And she says she’s OK with the delay, “as long as it doesn’t mean that our school closes in the meantime.”
At this point, Stamps said she wonders why people don’t just consider Jenner as a viable option. It’s a struggle faced by other neighborhood schools in areas that have been gentrified.
“Why can’t Jenner just be Jenner and that those students attend Jenner Academy of the Arts as their neighborhood school?” Stamps said of the middle class families moving into the new high-end townhomes around Jenner. If they went to Jenner, she noted, the school could be integrated too.
Jenner has improved a lot and scores are on the rise. A district spokesman said they are investing $496,000 at Jenner over the next two and half years to implement “personalized learning” throughout the school, which includes new software, professional development and planned classroom renovations.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do and I wish we lived in a country that would judge us by the content of our character and not the color of our skin,” Stamps said.
Whatever decision the school district makes, it won’t be coming any time soon. The hearings start in February. The first one will be held at Ogden East Campus, 42 W. Walton, on Wednesday, Feb. 15 from 5 to 7pm. The second one will be held at Jenner Elementary, 1119 N. Cleveland, on Sat., March 18 from noon to 2pm. The final one will be held at Ogden West Campus, 1250 W. Erie, on Tuesday, April 25, from 5 to 7pm.
If the district opts for a merger, CPS is required by law to hold another three meetings in 2018.
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.