No Alternative

Claire Hungerford

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In the early morning, things are pretty quiet around St. Clotilde Church in Chatham. A few cars may be heard turning west off Calumet onto 84th Street, but most of the noise comes from the wind hitting the trees that line the area’s sidewalks, shading its one- and two-story brick houses and 80-year-old stone church. It’s an area that feels more like a suburb than a part of the city, and its residents–mostly families and seniors–generally seem to like it that way, quiet and uneventful. It came as a surprise, then, when on the morning of September 6 a school bus stopped in front of St. Clotilde, and for the first time, opened its doors and let out a handful of teenage students. As far as the community was concerned, the school housed by St. Clotilde had been closed for years.

As longtime Chatham resident and community activist Worlee Glover tells it, “Many of the residents had been seeing things move in throughout the summer, and when they were asking questions no one would answer. They approached the church, the church told them they didn’t know, nothing was going on, and then they went to call the Archdiocese and were really told it wasn’t none of their business.” After the school bus pulled up for the first day of class, more calls were made. Eventually it came out that the church’s second and third stories had become the new home of Richard Milburn High School and its 37 high school and ten junior high students.

In the official language of Chicago Public Schools, Richard Milburn is an “alternative safe school,” serving students who have received long-term suspensions or, pending adjudication, may receive a long-term suspension. According to CPS spokesperson Frank Shuftan, “In the absence of a safe-school option, these students would be out of school.” Along with Banner North in Lincoln Park and Vivian Summers in Roseland, Milburn is designed to help suspended students continue their education, receive support services, and ultimately graduate, be it from their safe school or local school.

Though safe schools are publically funded, each is operated by a contracted company. At Milburn, for example, administrators like school director Calista Winford are employees of Richard M. Milburn High Schools Inc., a private, Virginia-based company that has been contracted by CPS since 1998. The city has similar contracts in place at Banner North, where the school is operated by Banner Educational Group, and at Vivian Summers, operated by Human Resource Development Institute, Inc. According to Shuftan, the contractors “are better positioned to provide the flexible scheduling, wrap-around services, and transition supports needed for these students in highly personalized, very small school settings.”

In addition to running each school’s programming, the companies are also responsible for finding and maintaining school facilities. Milburn was previously located at Holy Angels Church in Bronzeville, but, according to Shuftan, “serious facility issues were discovered that made the building unfit for school occupancy and required a relocation.” The school’s lease at Holy Angels was between Milburn and the Archdiocese, not CPS, so the company negotiated directly with the Archdiocese to find a new location. The upper story classroom space of St. Clotilde had been available since the church’s Catholic school closed several years ago due to low enrollment, and so a new lease was drawn up and the school began to move in.

This explanation of the move is disputed by Worlee Glover. Relying on information from Chatham residents who attend Holy Angels, Glover claims that the church “decided not to do the repairs because of a lot of pressure from the community. They did not want the school down there.” An employee of Holy Angels claims that the school did not move because of health and safety issues, and that in fact there were no health and safety issues–moving the school, she says, was the decision of the pastor, Father John Atoyebi. Contradicting CPS’s account, Ryan Blackburn, head of communications for the Archdiocese’s Catholic schools program, says that because the lease was for a school outside the Catholic school district, it was handled by the relevant parishes–in this case, Holy Angels and St. Clotilde–instead of the Archdiocese. And, it turns out, Father Atoyebi is the pastor of both Holy Angels and St. Clotilde. Neither the Archdiocese nor Father Atoyebi have responded to requests for additional information.

Some Chatham residents have speculated that the gentrification of Bronzeville spurred the move. According to this line of thinking, the neighborhood’s population became increasingly uncomfortable with the presence of Milburn’s students. However, alternative schools and ritzy neighborhoods don’t have to clash. Banner North’s location at St. Bonaventure Church in Lincoln Park is surrounded by upscale housing along Paulina Street and Marshfield Avenue.

Regardless of the motivation for moving Milburn High School, the move caught everyone in the community by surprise. Roosevelt Vonil, president of the Greater Chatham Alliance, expressed dismay at the “secretive nature” of the deal, according to an article published in Copy Line Magazine last month. Even 6th Ward Alderman Roderick T. Sawyer did not foresee Milburn’s arrival in Chatham. In a September 28 letter to the Chicago Defender, Alderman Sawyer wrote that the lack of communication regarding the school’s move to Chatham was “disrespectful to the community” and showed “a complete lack of regard for the legitimate concerns of a neighborhood.” According to Worlee Glover, Chatham had been approached by an alternative school before regarding the St. Clotilde location, but the community turned them down, telling the school it wouldn’t have it. The issue for Glover, Alderman Sawyer, and many others in the community is safety. Alderman Sawyer wrote, “There are legitimate concerns about having teenagers take public transportation to a school that is multiple blocks from most sources of public transportation.” Per CPS policy, middle school students are bused, while high school students must arrive to school on their own.

However, residents seem less concerned with teenagers riding public transit than with troubled students walking through the neighborhood. Reasons students are transferred to an alternative safe school like Milburn vary, but may include aggravated assault, burglary, or battery. “We don’t know where these young people are coming from, we don’t know where these young people have been,” says Glover. His fear was reinforced by a recent triple-homicide in Chatham, “where we had a teenager who wanted to settle a score, didn’t care about life, didn’t care who was around, picked up a gun and went and shot three people.”

The teenager was not connected to Milburn, but the fear of student violence has led to a community-wide backlash against the school’s presence. In October, Jennifer Vidis, deputy director of alternative schools for CPS, was met with displeasure and frustration at open meetings held by the Chatham Avalon Park Community Council and the Greater Chatham Alliance. At the meetings, Vidis stated she would speak with the CPS legal team and attempt to come up with some solutions to community concerns. As of press time, Vidis has not responded to requests for more information about these possible solutions. Shuftan claims that principal Winford has met with members of the community and made herself available to address any concerns, and the school is also in the process of organizing a “Safe Passages Program” to assuage community concerns about students walking through the neighborhood.

While tensions remain, it’s hard to tell that anything’s changed about St. Clotilde from the outside. The neighborhood looks the same–the streets around the church are still quiet, the lawns still trimmed and green. The only change occurs early, around 8am, when the first school bus pulls in and a group of teenagers starts walking down 84th Street. “The community understands these young people have to be educated,” said Glover. But “at the end of the school year, my neighborhood wants the school to move.”