Southwest Side Plan Stirs Discussion About School Segregation

Parents gather to give Ald. Matt O’Shea input on his plan for reorganizing schools in his ward. Many are unhappy with his proposal.
Parents gather to give Ald. Matt O’Shea input on his plan for reorganizing schools in his ward. Many are unhappy with his proposal. Sarah Karp / WBEZ
Parents gather to give Ald. Matt O’Shea input on his plan for reorganizing schools in his ward. Many are unhappy with his proposal.
Parents gather to give Ald. Matt O’Shea input on his plan for reorganizing schools in his ward. Many are unhappy with his proposal. Sarah Karp / WBEZ

Southwest Side Plan Stirs Discussion About School Segregation

Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th, is in the middle of a heated discussion that touches on two issues in Chicago Public Schools: integration and choice.

Last month, O’Shea dove into the discussion when he presented a plan to reorganize schools in his Far Southwest Side ward.

O’Shea’s plan is to relieve overcrowding at a mostly white school by closing or consolidating nearby schools with more racial diversity.

But it is not a discussion he wants to have. At a meeting in Beverly, he criticized parents for bringing it up.

“I have no patience for those that would try to divide our community by race… If you don’t like this proposal, I can understand that. If it is disruptive or not in the best interest of your particular family, I can understand that also,” O’Shea said. “But that this idea is motivated by race or class, you are just wrong.”

O’Shea said his plan was spurred by the prospect of his ward getting $20 million from a property tax approved by the City Council last year for school repairs and construction. The tax will bring in $45 million a year, and Chicago Public Schools have said it will leverage that money to take out up to $900 million in bonds.

The district has not publicly announced how it plans to spend that money, but WBEZ obtained a secret list.

The list includes $20 million for an annex to relieve overcrowding at Mount Greenwood Elementary School in O’Shea’s ward. According to CPS, Mount Greenwood Elementary has space for about 990 students, but this year has enrolled more than 1,100.

But O’Shea said he didn’t want to build the school an annex. In recent years, the school district has spent more than $13 million on extra space for the school.

Instead, O’Shea said he wanted to spend a bulk of the $20 million to fix up Esmond, a grade school that serves mostly poor black children.

Still, he is intent on giving Mount Greenwood Elementary’s principal and parents what they want: more space, nearby.

But critics are honing in on the fact that Mount Greenwood Elementary is one of the few schools in CPS that is mostly white, and that O’Shea’s plan would disrupt three diverse schools with significant black populations.

O’Shea’s plan would give Mount Greenwood Elementary the building now occupied by Keller Regional Gifted Center.

Then, he’d move Keller, which takes in children from around the city, to the building now housing Kellogg Elementary, which is located in the neighboring Beverly community.

Kellogg would close, and its students would be sent to Sutherland, another Beverly elementary school.

Both Kellogg and Sutherland are technically neighborhood schools, but like all neighborhood schools in Chicago, they can fill extra seats with a lottery for children outside the neighborhood.

At the moment, the buildings of both Kellogg and Sutherland are efficiently used, but O’Shea said part of the reason is because they take in students from outside their attendance boundaries.

With projected enrollment loss over the next five to 10 years, O’Shea said Sutherland could handle all the students from Beverly.

“It would make a strong neighborhood school in Beverly,” he said.

But parents and community members from Sutherland and Kellogg are incensed by this argument. For one, taking in children from outside Beverly makes their schools more economically diverse.

“The worst thing about this is it goes against building diversity and integration, both racially and economically,” said community member Mike Wolf. “Parents say, you send your child to Kellogg and children from Gresham or Burnham or Brainard or Englewood might be there… That is a good thing because people need to get the benefit for difference. It is a positive for kids from the lower socio-economic strata, but also a positive for kids whose parents may be lawyers and they are not in a bubble all the time.”

About a third of students at Sutherland are low income, about 37 percent at Kellogg are low income, and less than 20 percent are low income at Mount Greenwood Elementary.

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One grandmother whose grandson lives outside the Kellogg attendance boundary said she appreciates that he gets a chance to attend a high performing school.

“We wanted him to get a better education,” Consiglia Smiter said. “That helps society as a whole. He is going to grow up with an education. It will give him something to live for.”

Troy LaRaviere, head of the Chicago Principal’s Association whose children attend Kellogg, said he thinks O’Shea’s plan is driven by the idea of choice, and because Kellogg and Sutherland are better than the charter schools around, parents are choosing them.

He said he thinks the Emanuel administration would rather steer students to charter schools.

The situation brings up an interesting point. Chicago Public Schools is a school district of choice, yet part of O’Shea’s argument is that he wants to create a strong neighborhood-only school in Beverly.

Indeed, in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods, the idea that parents buy into a neighborhood so their children can attend the neighborhood school is strong. This is particularly the case in the city’s few white enclaves and in some gentrifying neighborhoods.

Mount Greenwood Elementary parents make the argument that they moved to the neighborhood for the school, which has CPS’ top rating.

“As a parent and an educator, I made a choice for my children and what was best for my children, and I scoured the neighborhood when I looked for a home because I knew exactly where I wanted to be,” Ann Doyle said at a Mount Greenwood Elementary Local School Council meeting. “I wanted my kids to attend this school… Mount Greenwood. And this is the best solution for our children.”

But mother Regina Lake said she thinks O’Shea needs to examine the question of why families flock to Mount Greenwood Elementary.

“At what point are you going to investigate why is Mount Greenwood so overcrowded?” she asked. “What is happening? Why are children just choosing to go to that school? That is what we need to understand, that is what we need to investigate. Every student should have a chance to go to a school that is diverse.”

Lake said she doesn’t think CPS should be constructing policy to allow a school to stay segregated.

Yet that has happened a lot in recent years.

A WBEZ investigation found that, over the past few years, CPS decisions on new construction to relieve overcrowding often perpetuate school segregation, even where there are opportunities to promote integration.

In this case, there might be less disruptive ways to solve the space crunch, but some Mount Greenwood Elementary students would wind up in a different, more diverse school. CPS itself said there is room for at least 500 students at other schools within two miles of Mount Greenwood Elementary.

National researchers urge parents and school districts to consider the educational benefits of integrating schools. A 2015 Columbia University report said exposing middle-class children to students different from themselves improves cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving.

Amy Wells, a professor of education and sociology at Columbia and an author of that report, said there’s lots of ways to go about integrating schools, from shifting enrollment borders to having all kids in a community apply to schools centrally.

“The problem is you can’t make these decisions school by school … you have to have a broader view, of the total student population and where the overcrowding is and where it isn’t — the demographics of the students,” she said. “It has to be driven by some goal that less segregation is good.”

Chicago Public Schools has put out a statement saying it is “listening to the community.” But so far, district leaders aren’t engaging in the discussions around O’Shea’s proposal. Ultimately, the district’s Board of Education will decide on whether to move forward.

Sarah Karp reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter and @wbezeducation.