Desperate for Desks | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Desperate for Desks 

Why a new school in Belmont-Cragin can't promise overcrowded locals more class room.

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By Ben Joravsky

The three public schools in Belmont-Cragin are so overcrowded that some of the area's students must be bused to a school in another neighborhood.

So what's the central office doing about the problem? It's starting a new school in this far-northwest-side neighborhood that's open to students from all over the city. In other words, it's inviting more students into a community that can't accomodate the students it already has.

Huh?

"We're confused about it too--it doesn't make any sense," says Loida Mojica, a parent with a child at a Belmont-Cragin school. "Why would you bring more kids into a neighborhood that's already overcrowded? Why would you take a problem and make it worse? Where are we going to put all these kids? What about the kids we already have?"

The new school (run by a for-profit Minnesota-based outfit called SABIS Educational Systems, Inc.) belongs to the latest trend in educational ideology to be endorsed by the board's Pershing Road bureaucracy. It's a charter school. That means it gets public money without having to play by all the public rules and regulations.

Charter schools can design their own curricula, hire their own staff, and choose their own specialties (African-American culture, say, or the arts). Most important, they don't have to honor many union-negotiated rules. If, for instance, a charter school can find teachers willing to sacrifice tenure rights and work for minimum wage--well, sign them up. Charter schools will have more financial and educational leeway than ordinary public schools, and their teachers will be under greater pressure to produce higher test scores (which is how academic success is measured these days).

The laws allowing charter schools were passed last year by the state legislature. Over the last few months, the Board of Education has approved several charters, including one for the SABIS school.

"We offer college preparatory education," says Joy N'Daou, a school administrator for SABIS. "We have 15 schools in seven countries, including two charter schools in Massachusetts and one in Minnesota."

There's one law the Chicago charters must abide by: they can't restrict enrollment. Students from any neighborhood are eligible to apply; if there are more applicants than vacancies, a school must select its students by lottery.

"We didn't think a lottery would be a problem," says N'Daou. "Chicago is already used to admissions lotteries--they're used in the magnet schools."

According to N'Daou, the SABIS schools have achieved success through a rigorous back-to-basics format. Not surprisingly, school chief Paul Vallas, who puts great emphasis on raising test scores, was impressed. The board approved SABIS's charter in December and N'Daou went looking for a site.

"The hardest thing anywhere in the country in setting up a school is finding a building," says N'Daou. "For Chicago, I called the archdiocese real estate office. Believe me, it wasn't easy. It's a challenge. There aren't a lot of buildings out there, and there are other schools looking for the ones that exist."

Through the Catholic archdiocese SABIS found the parish school at Saint John Bosco church, not far from the intersection of Fullerton and Austin and just east of Riis Park. The church closed the school years ago, and a portion of it is being used as a branch of overcrowded Mary Lyon elementary, a local public school.

For the last decade or so, Belmont-Cragin's demographics have been changing, with many of the older Polish and Italian homeowners selling their property to Hispanic families. For the most part the transition has been peaceful.

"The big problem is with the schools--there's just not enough of them," says Oswaldo Idame, a resident of the area. "The people who sold their houses were older and had already raised their families. Now with the new families there are kids everywhere--the streets are filled with them. We don't have enough classrooms. It's the biggest, most serious problem we face."

As Idame explains it, the three local public schools (Mary Lyon, Burbank, and Hanson Park) have hundreds more students than they were built to accommodate. As a result there are classes in hallways, lunchrooms, and storage rooms. "How much education can you get in a situation like that?" says Mojica. "They're doing the best they can, and still that can't contain the overflow. So they have to bus some kids out of the neighborhood. They go to a local school and a bus takes them to Blaine, which is on the north side. It's ridiculous."

Not surprisingly, residents were livid when they found out that the SABIS school would not be limited to local children. Closing the branch at Saint John Bosco would require as many as 175 more students to be sent to other schools. Within a few weeks, the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, a local community group, was rallying residents to the cause. In early March more than 300 residents attended a meeting with N'Daou to discuss the matter.

"I told the residents that the rules are clearly laid out in the legislation--enrollment is open to the whole city," says N'Daou. "It's one of the few things that's not optional. We're sympathetic to their overcrowding but there's nothing we can do about changing that rule."

Most residents disagree. "How can you tell me that these charters have such freedom, but in this one matter--the one matter we care about the most--they have none?" says Idame. "What! They have the freedom to pay teachers less, but not to ease overcrowding?"

Some residents accuse SABIS of wanting to limit enrollment to high-scoring students--something N'Daou denies. She says she doubts SABIS will be flooded with applicants from outside Belmont-Cragin because "we can't provide public transportation to the school. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the students come from the neighborhood even if we can't make it a neighborhood school."

In other words, in her mind the issue is basically moot and the community outrage misdirected since the new school will, in effect, become a tool against overcrowding whether enrollment's restricted or not. "We will go to meetings and forums in the community, encouraging parents to apply," says N'Daou. "We want to be part of the community."

If that's the case, residents counter, why not simply limit enrollment to locals? Few people believe state officials would object if Vallas either asked that state law be amended on their behalf or just sort of (wink, wink) quietly limited enrollment.

It certainly seems as though the new school would have no shortage of local applicants. Right now there are at least 200 kids being bused to Blaine and 175 enrolled in the Saint John Bosco branch; Mary Lyon, built for 750 students, has 1,191; Hanson Park, built for 560 students, has 1,150; Burbank, built for 825 students, has 987 (according to a Northwest Neighborhood Federation analysis of board enrollment figures). That's a pool of some 1,500 more students than the local schools can comfortably handle. The SABIS school is expected to open in the fall with from 500 to 650 students.

For the record, Vallas has not taken a public stance on the matter. But he's assigned a top aide, Greg Richmond, to act as a liaison between SABIS and the community. "We're doing other things to address the problem of overcrowding in this area," says Richmond. "We plan to build annexes at other schools. There's going to be another 1,500 seats created under our capital program."

If his past behavior in related matters is any guide, Vallas won't stop there--he'll play the issue like a political pro. He'll meet with residents and listen sympathetically to their concerns (as though hearing them for the first time), then look like a hero by letting residents know that somehow or other he'll make sure that most of the slots are reserved for local children.

Just in case, the federation is continuing to apply pressure to Vallas by building community and political support (they've won backing from aldermen Mike Wojcik and Sam Burrell).

"I know Vallas is very proud of his charter schools and he wants them to succeed," says Idame. "But he can't overlook the practical needs of the schools we already have. They should address the problems they have instead of pretending they don't exist." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Oswaldo Idame, Loida Mojica/ photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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