Manierre Elementary is in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, tucked away behind the bustling commercial corridors on Wells Street and North Avenue.
The school is surrounded on two sides by renovated brownstones, new modern abodes and mini-mansions.
But most of Manierre’s students are poor and black. Many live directly across the street in the Marshall Field Garden Apartments, a 10-building complex of subsidized housing.
Over the past few years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school district officials have made a series of decisions that virtually guaranteed that Manierre will not be integrated with children beyond those in the subsidized housing nearby.
Manierre’s story is illustrative of a pattern that is playing out in other areas of the city, especially in communities that circle the Loop. In these cases, new schools or annexes are built to deal with the overcrowding that is the result of middle-class families flocking to the city.
But this new construction is problematic for several reasons. For one, it’s the most expensive option for dealing with overcrowding, according to the district’s own master facility plan. The debt service on a $20 million annex is $1.3 million to $1.7 million for 30 years.
The district also has 313 schools out of 566 that have space for additional students, according to CPS data.
It also passes up a prime opportunity to get poor children in racially and economically isolated schools into more diverse, higher-performing ones.
Research has shown that students attending racially and economically integrated schools benefit academically and socially.
Deciding Manierre’s future
The first recent decision was made three years ago, in 2013, when Emanuel and school district officials put Manierre Elementary on the list of schools they wanted to close. Their plan was to merge Manierre with Jenner — the only other predominantly-black, predominantly low-income school left in the area. These two schools once served families from the now-demolished Cabrini Green public housing complex.
Parents, teachers and community activists were outraged at the proposal to move Manierre students to Jenner. All around Manierre were high performing, diverse schools. At best, Jenner Elementary was only marginally better academically than Manierre.
Parent Ernestine Coleman confronted district officials at one of the hearings on the closing of Manierre.
“I do not understand why our students are being forced to lower academic standing schools when there are a great number of excellent standing schools within a shorter distance,” Coleman said. “If this isn’t segregation that CPS is doing, I would like for someone on the board to explain to me exactly what it is.”
At the last minute, the recommendation to close Manierre was yanked. The official reason was that Manierre, and the preschool it housed, had a lot of good “outside partners.” For example, Target had just invested in the school’s library.
But Michelle Drezcynski, who lives in the area and works for a local social service organization, says she thinks officials backed down because they couldn’t justify it.
“CPS and the mayor’s office probably thought twice about consolidating those two schools because they themselves could not find one piece of academic evidence that would support doing something apparently so crazy,” she said.
In the summer after the school closings, a document came to light that appeared to give a reason for the district’s desire to close Manierre and merge it with Jenner. It was an internal planning document generated by school district officials and produced as part of discovery in a lawsuit challenging the school closings.
The document says that once the Manierre building was “emptied” of Manierre students, it could possibly be “leveraged” to deal with overcrowding at nearby schools.
Michael Persoon, an attorney with Despres, Schwartz and Geoghegan, who was hired to litigate the case, says the document is stunning because it seems to say that the only way Manierre could be used is if the poor, black students were removed.
He says the logical step would have been to merge Manierre with Lincoln Elementary. Lincoln was over-capacity and parents were clamoring for more space.
In a deposition, Persoon asked then-CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley why this wasn’t a consideration.
“A reason why not is because it is highly disruptive to relocate from their existing school to another school,” said Cawley in the deposition.
To many, Cawley’s answer that it would be “highly disruptive” to relocate Lincoln students—the majority of whom are white and middle class—was shocking.
The Board of Education had just shuttered dozens of schools, disrupting the lives of more than 14,000 students, the majority black.
A new addition for Lincoln
Emanuel’s next decision further cemented Manierre’s racial and socioeconomic isolation. He announced a $19 million annex for Lincoln Elementary, adding 19 classrooms.
The mayor, district officials, and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) defended the controversial addition, arguing the redevelopment of the old Children’s Memorial Hospital would bring many new families to the area.
But once the new annex was built onto Lincoln, there would be no incentive for wealthier residents of the Lincoln Park area to look to Manierre as an option for their children.
Even some Lincoln Elementary School parents were flabbergasted.
Thaddeus Wong, a Lincoln parent who was with a group of Lincoln Park residents protesting outside of the board meeting when the annex was approved, says it was the biggest waste of money he had ever seen.
Lincoln Elementary School parents are super-involved and last year raised $328,000 for the school. Private fundraising for schools allows them to buy things like state-of-the-art technology and make up deficits caused by budget cuts.
Wong said he thought CPS should spread the wealth.
“If you separate that, you’re empowering a whole other school with a lot of parent involvement,” he says.
Kalyn Harris, who works at Manierre and whose children and grandchildren attend the school, can not fathom why Emanuel would build an addition to Lincoln Elementary when her school has plenty of room.
“They claim they don’t have money,” she says. “I don’t know. Kids are kids. Kids are kids.”
“But when it comes to adults…” Harris trails off, sounding resigned.
Harris says she’s proud of the progress that Manierre has made since the closing scare. It is no longer ranked among the worse Chicago Public Schools. Test scores have improved and this spring, the eighth graders went on a class trip to Washington D.C.
The principal Derrick Orr has lowered suspensions and brought a more positive mood to the school.
But that hasn’t been enough to draw more students in. In 2012-2013, Manierre had 351 students. Last year, it had 349.
Becky Vevea contributed reporting for this story.