There’s a new school in South Shore, and it’s empty and beautiful. It has a swimming pool, a green roof, and state of the art lab facilities, but no students, as of yet. It needs to be occupied, though, and fast; by law, it cannot remain vacant past January 31.
Come fall, the new South Shore High School will welcome students very different from those currently studying in the older buildings; 60 percent of the freshman class will have tested into International Baccalaureate (IB), college prep, and career training programs, while the other 40 percent will be on the general track. The goal is to attract children from the neighborhood, 93 percent of whom currently opt to attend schools outside of the area, rather than one of the four small schools on the South Shore High School campus.
The four schools share a name, sports teams, campus, and are assessed collectively when it comes to test scores and attendance, but became administratively and ideologically disconnected in 2002, when the large and unsuccessful South Shore was divided into four sections in a Gates Foundation-financed “small school initiative.” A 2002 Chicago Tribune article quotes then-CPS head Arne Duncan: “These schools will all be schools of choice. No one will be assigned there. These schools will rise or fall based on their own merits.”
According to Black United Fund president and community organizer Henry English, this effort to make South Shore a high-quality high school for neighborhood students has failed: “whatever class you’re in, you don’t send your kids to South Shore. The majority of kids come from everywhere, it’s a school of last resort.” This failure has prompted a new design, which would accommodate students of varying educational abilities and only accept students from the surrounding areas. The old South Shore schools are going to be phased out, graduating the current students but not accepting any new ones.
Though the closing of the old South Shore schools is a tragedy for those who have invested so much in founding and developing them, the board’s desire to build an educational facility that will appeal to the people who live in the area is understood. “It is my strong belief that every community in Chicago is obligated to provide the best instructional program, facility, and resources for the kids who live there,” says School of the Arts Principal Douglas Maclin. “This is a very loaded issue. I’m just so saddened by the dichotomy of the different views–one side wants a new school to start, and the other one wants our kids to have access to this beautiful building.” The new school has the potential to transform the educational experience of kids in the neighborhood, saving them a commute across the city and fostering community closeness.
But the current South Shore students have reasons for attending as well–often the schools in their neighborhoods are not up to par, or will not accept them for one reason or another. Though the small schools have collectively been pronounced a failure, some students, at the School of the Arts in particular, have found the most supportive community they’ve ever known.
Walking through the metal detectors at 7529 S. Constance, still home to the Schools of the Arts and Technology, it’s hard to believe that in 1965 this was a new building replete with structural innovations: Brutalist design, hexagonal classrooms, and a photography darkroom. Today, there is only one working faucet in all of the science labs, and unfinished vents allow snow to blow into classrooms. In a few weeks, the building will be demolished to make way for a public park. The attendance office, partitioned off on the side of the lobby, is little more than an oversized cubicle; its walls do not reach the ceiling. In an office adjacent to the library, School of the Arts faculty and administration argue that their school should be judged separately from its three counterparts. English teacher Ms. Toloupas expresses her frustration with the board’s judgment: “CPS consolidated the four schools with respect to our numbers and reported that the school was failing. This school has not failed. Our numbers have improved every year.”
This question of how to gauge the success of a school, or of a teacher, is much disputed. But in this particular case, even looking at something seemingly straightforward like ACT test progress or drop-out percentages can be misleading. The drop-out statistics for the four schools are grouped together, adding up to an unbelievable 52 percent. However, the School of Arts prides itself on a 7.4 percent drop-out rate, which is one of the lowest in the city. In addition, almost 100 percent of the school’s population can be classified as financially needy, qualifying them for free or reduced-price lunches–the students most likely to drop out of schools across the city. The School of the Arts was singled out in a 2007 Stanford case study as an example of an effective small learning community, representing “many aspects of what leading researchers consider critical organizational and instructional changes.” Faculty members have also insisted that CPS look beyond the numbers: the School of the Arts’s uniqueness comes, in part, from its connections. The school has strong partnerships with arts organizations such as the Goodman Theater and the Joffrey Ballet, and United Airlines has provided over 120 paid internships for students, as well as flying a group of students to Obama’s inauguration. The school helps students with outside the classroom: local businesses have provided students with winter coats and discounts on tuxedoes and dresses for the school’s prom.
Although most students do not reside in the neighborhood and many have lived through homelessness or foster care, South Shore High School has become their support system. “I’ve never had any school that does what they do,” says LSC Representative and School of the Arts parent April Whitaker. “The principal and his teachers are a family unit. There’s an emotional connection.” One of her sons, Dexter Burns, graduated at the top of his class at School of the Arts with a full ride to University of Illinois-Springfield after having been denied entry at every other high school to which he applied. Ms. Whitaker was present at a January 7 public hearing regarding the proposal, which she felt served as an opportunity to showcase the students’ growth: “Even though they’re teenagers, no one behaved badly. They were phenomenal. It was empowering for them. That’s why Black Star called and contacted me to ask if I could bring students to a mayoral forum they’re hosting–they were so well-behaved.”
Two of the school’s founders are also in the office. Yvonne Burnett, once a special education teacher, is working at her laptop, neglecting the desktop sitting right in front of her. “You turn on this computer and the whole floor goes,” she shrugs. “Facilities matter. And the students don’t have access to those facilities,” adds Ms. Simmons, “We’re in limbo now. The children and the teachers. One thing about the School of the Arts, though, we function like a family. We lift each other up. We’re going to try to make the best of this situation.”
But the closing of the schools isn’t the only problem; the looming January 31 deadline for occupying the new building necessitates some counterintuitive moves. The students of the School of the Arts and Scbool of Technology are going to be placed in the new building only until June. “We have been working on this for the past two years; we have been talking about a new school opening with new programming,” says Mr. English. “But they have not given us plausible reasons for moving students into a new facility and [then] back into an old facility. It’s not cost-effective, and it’s not good for the students. The Board fully understands how to start a new school. We can’t understand why it’s doing everything counter to that model.
This move in/move-out proposal is all the more shocking for the administration of the South Shore High schools because, before December 17, they had been given the impression that the new building was intended as a replacement for the North building–that the same students would move to the new building, along with their teachers. It is clear now that they will soon have the building, but only temporarily–at the end of the year, their school and their jobs will be gone.
Ms. Toloupas recalls how a suit-clad team from the Board of Education came for a visit. The teachers were sat down at a table in the library, and surrounded by the Board’s three security guards. They were handed letters, which revealed that the January 26 proposal had reserved the new building for an entirely new school. Once the year was over and the Arts and Technology branches of South Shore were consolidated with the schools of Leadership and Entrepreneurship, the teachers would also be consolidated, based on seniority and tenure. The teachers were “free to apply” for a position at the new school.
“The immediate future is very unclear,” adds Jen Thomas, the librarian. “But there is a lot of heroism going on. You find that your teachers are working hard to keep a brave face for our kids. Not knowing what’s going to go on employment-wise is pretty difficult.” The library is filled with noisy kids, but hardly any books. “The library has been removed and donated to other libraries. It’s tough to look out there and see empty shelves,” Ms. Thomas admitted. She took a trip to the new building, and seemed happy that the children would be able to experience it. “The facility is what a school is supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to learn in. It’s hard to teach kids about the importance of education when you’re in a dark room! They’ll flourish over there.” Even if they can only stay there a little while? “I’m trying not to think about that.”