If you look at a map of school boundaries in the area just north of downtown Chicago, you’ll start noticing something.
“Cabrini’s been carved out,” says Lori Smedley, a parent at Ogden International, a public school built in 2009.
Ogden is one of the best public schools in the city and the school and its boundary encompasses high-rise condo buildings downtown, tony mansions in the Gold Coast, and even gentrifying areas just west of the Chicago River.
There’s another public school just seven blocks away. The children living where the massive Cabrini-Green public housing development once stood are assigned to that one--Jenner Academy of the Arts. It is segregated, serving mostly low-income, black children.
One year ago, these two schools hatched a plan to merge . At first, it was a straightforward idea — the goal was to fix overcrowding at Ogden and low enrollment at Jenner. But it has become one of the boldest school integration plans to be tried in Chicago in decades.
Chicago is annually ranked as one of “the most segregated cities in America” and the public schools have been even more segregated — on purpose — for decades. The school district was placed under federal court supervision in 1980 for its practices of keeping kids segregated. One of the allegations in that consent decree was “the association of segregated schools with segregated public housing.” That supervision ended in 2009.
Only 9 percent of children in the district are white, so opportunities to integrate are rare. But the city has designed some neighborhoods to be mixed income, and in places that are intentionally mixed by housing, the district has a chance to create more integrated schools.
The Near North Side is one of those places where public housing residents now live right next door to CEOs. But on the whole, their children don’t go to school together. Some in the community want to change that, but city leaders have so far ignored their efforts.
What would happen if these two schools merged?
The idea to integrate Jenner with Ogden happened almost by accident.
Last July, parents at Ogden got together to discuss overcrowding at their school.
Rebecca Wells sends her son to Ogden and remembers a meeting when Chicago Public Schools Chief of Strategy Todd Babbitz suggested they convert the school’s state-of-the-art library into classrooms.
“People were all up in arms,” Wells recalls. “And he was like, ‘Nothing is going to happen here for you guys from CPS. There’s nothing on the books. But if you come to CPS with a plan, they’ll listen to it. And if it’s a good plan that doesn’t cost any money or very little money, you probably have a good chance.’”
Ogden’s principal Michael Beyer was just a week on the job. He says, at first, he thought parents were interested only in Jenner’s building.
“When the idea was first proposed to me, it was framed in a way that seemed like we would just take over Jenner,” he told WBEZ at the time. “ I flat out rejected it, and I said I do not want any part of taking over another school.”
But he says a parent on the Ogden Local School Council suggested they could keep both schools and mix the students together. Eventually, their plan morphed and the two principals, school staff and parents came up with an idea to create one school with two campuses, moving Jenner’s younger students to Ogden and Ogden’s older students to Jenner.
“We’re only talking about adding three to five students to each classroom,” Beyer pointed out at a public hearing.
Alderman Walter Burnett represents the area around Jenner and has been long concerned with Jenner’s declining enrollment. As the city tore down Cabrini, enrollment dropped dramatically and now hovers around only 250. The school has room for hundreds more children. Because of how the district budgets, low enrollment translates into fewer programs, less enrichment and sometimes, less experienced staff.
When he found out about the possibility of a merger between Ogden and Jenner, he threw his support behind the idea.
“For the board, this would be a beginning of a great idea that could spread throughout the city of Chicago.”
He and others could see that a merger had the potential to nudge Chicago’s segregated history in a new direction.
“How often do you end up with a group of white people that are supporting something like this?” parent Rebecca Wells said. “We are saying to CPS. Look at this great idea that we can help both schools. It’s a win-win.”
Parents on both sides push back
When the idea became public last September, the principals scheduled a public forum at Ogden to get feedback. Several parents who spoke were not on board.
“People buy into neighborhoods where they want to live, where they want their kids to go to school,” said one dad who spoke against the plan. “They don’t buy into a citywide social experiment.”
One mother called the move “a complete imposition on my personal space” and another said she wanted to be sure Jenner teachers and families were motivated, before the schools moved to merge.
Ashley Linzy was one of few Jenner parents at that meeting, sitting at a lunch table in the corner of the room. To her this was all a bunch of coded language. These parents just didn’t want to send their kids to school with kids like hers — black kids whose parents didn’t make a lot of money. So she stood up to speak.
“I used to live in Cabrini,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of an individual just because of skin complexion. A lot of people keep saying ‘diversity.’ We are diversity. It’s just up to you to help not just one child, all child.”
Linzy now lives in a subsidized townhome near Jenner and works at a fancy movie theater where they let you drink wine during the show. She tried really hard to get her son Keyon into a magnet school by getting him tested and getting him on a waitlist. But she never heard back.
She loves Jenner and volunteers at the school. But she knows the education is separate and unequal. It still upsets her to talk about that meeting at Ogden.
“I was furious,” Linzy said. “For one, it was all about themselves.”
Others at Jenner were suspicious of the merger idea.
“It was like déjà vu all over again,” said Maurice Edwards, who also grew up in Cabrini. He has a stepchild at Jenner and has been an activist in the community for years.
He says the city tore down the public housing development in the name of integration -- to create a mixed income neighborhood instead. But to do that, Cabrini residents were all “temporarily relocated,” and during that time the school district has shut down many of the schools that once served Cabrini.
The district closed Schiller in 2008 and reopened it in 2010 as Skinner North. In 2004, they closed Sojourner Truth Elementary School and Byrd Community Academy. Truth now houses two charter schools and Byrd is now Immaculate Conception.
“I used to hear this thing, ‘Well the school is underperforming and understaffed.’ And gee, if I come over and hand everybody temporary relocation notices and move all the folks out the neighborhood, why wouldn’t the schools be understaffed?” Edwards said.
Jenner teacher Tara Stamps also grew up in Cabrini. She’s the daughter of housing activist Marion Stamps, one of the founding members of the Chicago Housing Tenants Organization.
“They want the building,” said Stamps. “But they don’t want to do that with black children in the building and a densely black staff. And that’s just the racism that is our everyday, and I think when we attend to the elephant in the room, we may be able to push past that.”
But Stamps also knew the district could justify closing Jenner because of low enrollment. A merger with Ogden could give their school a fighting chance.
“Either we can make this work or we’re going to get moved out anyway,” Stamps said. “Those are our only two choices.”
Many of the Ogden parents were upset for other reasons. Some said the timing was problematic, because the idea was hatched over the summer, while many families were away.
In late September last year, Ogden parents started over, again looking at other alternatives to merging with Jenner.
Some parents wanted to fundraise for a new annex. Others suggested changing Ogden’s boundary. One group looked at building extra space onto the roof or converting the parking garage into classrooms.
Still, the original merger idea moved forward. By the end of October, more than 500 people had signed an online petition in support of a potential merger. There were petitions around some of the other ideas that also garnered support, but none had as many signatures as the merger with Jenner.
City leaders ignore opportunity to integrate
During all this time, district officials were mostly absent. An open records request for e-mails exchanged by top district officials turned up only a few messages between the principals and upper management. Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson asked for an update once.
A CPS spokesman said the district would only consider school mergers or closures if they were “community-driven” proposals.
The two principals stuck their necks out and released a joint statement supporting the merger. Ogden Principal Michael Beyer read the statement at a Jenner Local School Council meeting.
“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,” he said. “As Dr. King stated in ‘A Letter From a Birmingham Jail,’ justice too long delayed is justice denied. And it’s mutually signed by Principal Croston and myself.”
In November, after months of debate and many long meetings, the elected school councils at Jenner and Ogden took a vote to send their idea up to the district.
“It was neck and neck, but the majority of the people said ‘Yeah’,” recalled Ashley Linzy.
But the district did nothing.
Every year, by December 1, CPS has to put out a list of the schools it wants to close or consolidate. When last year’s list came out, neither Jenner nor Ogden was on it. There wasn’t even a public acknowledgement of the community’s plan.
In fact, the only proposals on the list last winter would have merged black kids with black kids, Latinos with Latinos.
The Jenner-Ogden merger idea had turned out to be a significant test for one of the most segregated cities in America, and Chicago leaders failed it.
CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said mergers take time. In the case of Ogden and Jenner, it could still happen, but she questioned if it was really what most parents wanted.
“If this works, I think it’ll be a great thing,” Jackson said. “But I also think that we’re fooling ourselves if we think you can just put everybody in the building and they’re going to live harmoniously.”
School district officials weren’t the only ones who shut down the plan last year.
Parents say the district told them they needed the aldermen on board. Alderman Burnett supported it. But the two local aldermen representing Ogden families didn’t say a word. Aldermen Brian Hopkins and Brendan Reilly made no public statements and didn’t show up at any of the meetings.
At a City Club luncheon last month, Alderman Hopkins did give his opinion on the merger when someone in the audience asked.
“The answer is, no, I don’t support this plan,” he said. “But I will support this plan if the majority of Ogden parents support this plan and that’s what we’re trying to ascertain.”
“I don’t really have control over the schools,” Hopkins told WBEZ after that speech. “I’m not on the school board. I’m not even an LSC member. So it isn’t really my place to dictate how that goes.”
One of Hopkins’ top aides, Christian Ficara, was on Ogden’s Local School Council. He abstained from the vote on the merger plan.
“A lot of schools have a lot of issues all over the city,” Ficara said after that vote. “For us to look to other schools to help in their problems or vice versa is setting a dangerous precedent. I think everybody should focus on the needs of Ogden first.”
Hopkins said he and Alderman Reilly are working with a developer to get a new public school built in the Loop. New schools cost the district about $45 million and would likely require some borrowing with public money at a high interest rate. WBEZ recently found much of the new school construction in Chicago is furthering segregation by race and class .
A second chance
Some parents at Ogden say they are leaving the school this year because they say the climate became too racially charged.
But a small group of parents at both Jenner and Ogden are working on making a merger happen for the 2017-2018 school year.
Cira Conley has two children at Ogden and says a lot of parents still thought something was happening, even after their schools were not on the district’s list of consolidations.
“My question was, well, who’s in charge of this?,” Conley said. “We never got a clear answer, so we figured, why don’t we just start exploring what does CPS really need, who’s holding the bag, who’s moving this forward?”
A steering committee has been put together and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation has hired consultants to research how a consolidation between Jenner and Ogden would work. They sent a letter to parents at both school communities and are running surveys and focus groups.
Jenner teacher Tara Stamps says she’s not that bothered by the district’s delay. “We got a whole another school year and we’ve gotten stronger as a result,” she said on the last day of the school year in June.
“It’s going to be either another missed opportunity or it’s going to be an incredible blessing,” Stamps said of the merger. “But it all has to do with how it’s planned and executed and that there is sensitivity on both sides.”
Rebecca Wells is also part of the new effort and sees that Ogden and Jenner could be a model for other schools.
“We’re not alone in this,” she said. “It’s not going away. These conversations still need to be happening all over the city.”
The principals at the two schools are not involved this year and have been told not to speak about the merger with the media. As recently as March, a top district official sent multiple e-mail responses to a few Ogden parents who were upset a merger might still happen.
“This is an issue that our District will revisit at the appropriate time, but I assure you that this is not the time,” the email read.
Janice Jackson, with the district, wrote a letter of support for the grant that’s paying those consultants. But she insists they need to look at all options and not put “one stamp on any idea.”
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.