Annals of school reform: the school without walls comes tumbling down | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Annals of school reform: the school without walls comes tumbling down 

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Metro High School, Chicago's great experiment in alternative education, where teachers and students wrote their own rules and designed their own curriculum, was born in the late 1960s, when the public schools were controlled, ironically, by an authoritarian central administration.

Now, in an era when every school is supposedly free to chart its own course, Metro is being destroyed by a school board and general superintendent who claim to support reform--or so its parents and teachers contend.

The struggle over Metro first erupted last August, after general superintendent Ted Kimbrough merged Metro with Crane High School, located in a high-crime neighborhood on the west side.

The move--which horrified many of Metro's parents, who fear for their children's safety at Crane--was necessary to save money, says Kimbrough. But Metro's parents and teachers charge that neither Kimbrough nor the board have the authority to unilaterally close a school and nullify its local school council. In protest, they either have transferred their children to other schools or are illegally keeping them at home; attendance at Metro is down roughly 70 percent from last year. They're also talking about filing a lawsuit that would question whether the Board of Education has the right to close a school without the consent of its LSC.

"Kimbrough and the board may think what they did is legal, but it's certainly not moral," says Ron Sistrunk, director of the Citywide Coalition for School Reform and a parent of a Metro student. "Some of those central-office bureaucrats couldn't find a classroom, it's been so long since they've seen one. Now they want to tell us what to do with our school? That's asinine."

It's not unusual for Metro to buck the system; it was started by educators who had problems getting along in a traditionally structured system. "The idea was to create a public school without walls," says Shelby Taylor, a social studies teacher at Metro since 1971. "As we saw it, the whole city was our classroom."

Metro's teachers set up classes for their students at museums, banks, and public institutions--including Cook County Jail. There were no bells or study halls; students and teachers were on a first-name basis.

"Metro's attendance boundaries are the city of Chicago, but there are no learning boundaries," reads the preamble to this year's course catalog. "Humanistic learning is stressed in an open environment where students share in decision making."

Since it was a "school without walls," there was no reason to build a permanent schoolhouse for Metro. In the course of its first 16 years, Metro moved to four different sites in and around the Loop before settling in an old north-side schoolhouse at 160 W. Wendell. That was in 1985.

"We would have preferred a location right in the Loop, so the students could be closer to some of the institutions where they have classes," says Juanita Collins, who has sent two daughters to Metro. "But the Wendell site was close enough to the Loop, so after a while we accepted it."

By conventional standards Metro thrived. Truancy was lower and test scores higher than in most other public high schools. Most of its graduates went on to college, and each year more and more students applied to take their places. Enrollment was determined by lottery; Metro has 350 students and a waiting list of 1,000.

Nonetheless, in early summer Kimbrough unveiled plans to move Metro from Wendell Street into Jones Commercial High School in the South Loop. In order to trim $2.6 million from an estimated budget deficit of $315 million, Kimbrough was proposing to close or merge several schools. He was particularly interested in selling the Wendell Street building, figuring that its location would fetch it a good price.

Protests from angry school reformers forced the board to back off and announce that no schools would be closed. But the system desperately needed money, and neither Governor Edgar nor Mayor Daley would push for aid unless cuts were made. (In fact, Daley publicly chided Kimbrough for not having the courage to do what his suburban counterparts had done: close the schools and take the heat.

So in late August--one week before the new school year--Kimbrough proposed to save money by killing a promised teachers' pay hike, cutting $30 million in supplies, programs, and salaries, and closing or merging 13 schools, one of which was Metro.

The merge with Crane made a lot of sense, at least from Kimbrough's perspective. Crane was underused; it had room for Metro's students. And Metro was small; closing would cause only marginal political fallout. From now on Metro would not be a school but a program within Crane. Its LSC would be abolished, and its principal, Nina Robinson, would be reclassified as a program director, a position subordinate to Crane's principal, Melver Scott.

"The decision to merge Metro and Crane was a board action that was voted on out of the need to balance the budget," says a central-office spokeswoman. "Originally we thought that we would move Metro to Jones. But in a comparative analysis done by administrators here who are familiar with factors like academic compatibility, it was decided that Crane would be a better site. Crane is located in an area that is literally experiencing an economic revitalization."

That's not how Metro's parents see it. True, the community around the University of Illinois is revitalizing--but that's a mile or so away from Crane, on the other side of the Eisenhower Expressway. Rightly or wrongly, most of Metro's students do not want to go to school at Crane because they do not think the neighborhood is safe.

"I'm not putting down Crane--I'm sure it's well run--and I'm not putting down the west side," says Collins. "But there is violence outside the school. Going to Metro does not mean walking in and shutting the door. Our kids are constantly going in and out of the building. But some police officers told us that they could not guarantee protection outside the building. Would you want your child going to that school after the police told you that?"

There was also the issue of educational compatibility. Crane has all the trappings of a traditional high school: 40-minute periods, bells, and teachers who aren't used to students addressing them by first names.

"Crane's students will resent it when they see Metro's students roaming around the halls and leaving the building during the day," says Taylor. "Crane has their way and we have our way of doing things. I'm not saying one way is better, just that both ways are different."

What bothered parents and teachers most is that they had no say in the matter. It was a blatant example of the kind of top-down fiat that reform supposedly ended. Kimbrough made his decision without consulting parents from Metro or Crane. They first heard about the merger on the news. Official notification, in the form of a letter from the central office, arrived after the school year started.

"I don't see how a local body like the school board can nullify an LSC, which is mandated by state law," says Taylor. "It violates the spirit and law of reform."

Hoping to avert the merger, some of Metro's parents pleaded their case to several school board members. But the board members were not swayed.

"They basically told us that they have an unwritten policy not to publicly disagree with Kimbrough," says Sistrunk. "They said we would have to take up our problems with him."

So during the first few days of school, Metro's parents and students picketed the central office and organized a student boycott. But the protest backfired.

"Suddenly we had all these west-side activists and politicians angry because they said we were trying to make Crane and the neighborhood look bad," says Taylor. "It got turned into this Crane-versus-Metro situation, and that's not what it was at all. We got nothing against Crane; their rights were also violated. No one asked them whether they wanted to take us in."

To soothe feelings, Metro's parents agreed to a September 17 breakfast meeting with Crane's LSC. But when they showed up for their 9 AM rendezvous they found the room filled with reporters, central-office bureaucrats, and an assortment of west-side leaders. After a few minutes, the Metro parents walked out of the meeting.

"We had been lied to," says Collins. "We had been told that we would be meeting with Crane's parents--which we wanted to do so we could reassure them that we had nothing against their school. Instead we were greeted by a bunch of people who were going to tell us how great the west side is. And that's not the issue. We were set up."

As far as the central office is concerned, the matter is closed. The board has sent letters to protesting Metro parents warning them that they can be fined $500 and jailed for 30 days if they don't enroll their children in school. Moreover, if Metro's enrollment doesn't increase, the board will start transferring its teachers to other schools.

"This entire issue has been blown way out of proportion," says the central-office spokeswoman. "We're talking about some dissident students. If you put this in the bigger realm of things, we got the school open; 409,000 kids went to class."

Metro's parents, however, feel the principle at stake extends beyond their school. "Today it was our school that they closed without due process or consent," says Sistrunk. "Tomorrow the school they close could be yours."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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