The New School Shuffle | Politics | Chicago Reader

The New School Shuffle 

As facilities meant to solve overcrowding sit half empty, a successful school for the gifted gets its marching orders.

Matt and Samantha Farmer

Matt and Samantha Farmer

Jon Randolph

Matt Farmer's a hotshot trial lawyer in a downtown firm who plays in a rock 'n' roll band on the side and rarely gets involved in local politics. But since the Chicago Public Schools kicked his kindergarten daughter in the teeth, he's been an activist unleashed, sending snarky e-mails to reporters, school officials, and parents on the northwest side. The issue on his mind is Arne Duncan's plan to move the Edison Regional Gifted Center out of its longtime home at 6220 N. Olcott and into the same building that houses Albany Park Multicultural Academy, at 4910 N. Sawyer, about five miles down the road.

It's not just the move that bothers him—it's the way the news was delivered. He and the other parents of students at Edison, a selective-enrollment elementary school with 270 students, were on the receiving end of the sort of top-down marching orders CPS generally reserves for poor and the cloutless on the west and south sides.

Moving Edison isn't necessarily a bad idea. In fact, as CPS ultimatums go, this one makes some sense. Edison's enrollment is limited to students who score well on a standardized test. As a result kids from all over the city are bused to the far northwest side. Meanwhile, other schools on the far northwest side are overcrowded, while the newish Albany Park Multicultural is only at a third of its capacity. Move Edison's students and you kill a few birds with one stone, making the gifted program closer to the city center, opening up a space that can be used as a neighborhood school, and making better use of an underused facility.

But at what cost? Over the years staff and parents at Edison have fixed up their school with money they raised at auctions and other fund-raisers, and the students have grown comfy in their cozy confines. Albany Park Multicultural is a middle school, and while the CPS tries to keep schools that share a building as physically separate as possible, some question the wisdom and safety of combining kindergartners with 12-to-14-year-olds.

Plus, up till now Edison parents had good reason to think the central office would leave them alone. Edison's students serve a political purpose: they're the brainiacs the school board needs to help drive up test scores so Mayor Daley can claim he's fixing the system.

The current bind the board's in stems from the complexities of keeping pace with the city's fluid demographics. In the mid-90s folks from Albany Park filled up meeting rooms to beg for new schools, pointing out that the old ones were so hopelessly overcrowded that classes were being held in hallways and broom closets. Albany Park Multicultural was housed in the basement of Von Steuben high school. Thirty-ninth Ward alderman Margaret Laurino demanded that the board give the school its own building. Laurino also wanted the board to build a second junior high just up the road from Haugan elementary, with the idea that the middle school could be an extension of Haugan. She supported a plan that would have had Haugan teachers running it.

To complicate matters, state senators Miguel del Valle (now the city clerk) and Iris Martinez were arguing for a charter school run by Aspira, a largely Puerto Rican social service organization, to be installed at Haugan. Black and Mexican-American groups got to run charter schools, they said; it was the Puerto Ricans' turn to get a piece of the pie.

Laurino finally got at least part of what she wanted: the Haugan middle school opened in 2005, Albany Park Multicultural in 2006. And Duncan also came up with a bone for del Valle and Martinez, turning Haugan over to Aspira. The board spent more than $60 million total on the two schools. Unfortunately, though, it had taken so long to build them that they weren't really needed anymore—as Albany Park gentrified, its population of school-age children plummeted. Now Haugan Aspira is 44 percent occupied, Albany Park Multicultural 31 percent. Meanwhile the overcrowding on the far northwest side has had 41st Ward alderman Brian Doherty up in arms, demanding that CEO Duncan turn Edison's building over to neighborhood kids.

And that's what Duncan decided to do. But, in typical board style, he and his aides neglected to tell Edison's parents about it. Why? Board officials say they hadn't finalized the plan (and that it's still not, as they always insist, a done deal). But Edison parents say the board sat on the information because Duncan didn't want to give them time to organize opposition.

After Farmer heard about the proposed move—from a reporter—he and other parents mobilized. In addition to whether Edison would retain its cozy feel if transplanted to a larger school, they're worried about other plans the board might have in store. Built to hold 800, Albany Park Multicultural currently houses only 250 kids. So even after Edison's moved there, it will still have room for another 280 children or so. "If you're a parent thinking about your child's educational future—and I assume the board wants parents who are involved in their children's educational futures—you have to ask the logical question: What school is the board thinking about moving there next?" asks Farmer. "You have to assume that something's going there. It's reasonable to request a say in planning these things. You don't want year after year of surprises from the board."

On January 23 Farmer and scores of other Edison parents showed up at a board meeting to protest the move, generating sympathetic write-ups in the Sun-Times and the Tribune. In the aftermath, board officials said they were sorry if they'd alarmed Farmer and other Edison parents by not giving them earlier notice—they'd planned to tell them all in good time. But, they say, in reality, parental notification isn't what really matters. "I feel that people get off issue," says Peter Cunningham, a central office spokesman for the CPS. "Are you pissed off how we rolled it out? Fine. But to make a big issue out of who knew what when is silly. The real issue is whether this is right for the kids."

As Cunningham sees things, the move is a no-brainer. "We're doing it because we're overcrowded at schools on the far northwest side," he says. "Essentially, busing students in from all over the city to one of our most overcrowded communities as a practice is not very intelligent."

According to Cunningham, Duncan arrived at his decision after careful analysis of demographic trends. Perhaps, but there are political realities that can't be discounted. Ultimately the decision to turn Edison over to the locals was Duncan's sop to Doherty, just as the decision to turn Haugan's middle school over to Aspira was his gift to Martinez and del Valle and his decision to build Albany Park Multicultural was a gift to Laurino. All involved are loyal subjects of Mayor Daley, and that has its perks.

The larger problem is that the public school system is pretty much broke. There's hardly enough money to repair leaky roofs or repaint peeling classrooms, much less build new schools. By the time the board gets around to scraping up the cash, the old schools aren't overcrowded anymore. And so instead of busing kids out of overcrowded old schools in Albany Park, they'll be busing in kids to fill up the new ones. As school officials have put it to me, when you're busted, you're always going to be at least a step behind.

And we're just talking about the system's most pressing needs. We haven't even begun to address the everyday inadequacies most parents take for granted. Talk to Matt Robertson, who's on the local school council at the overcrowded Palmer Elementary in North Mayfair, and he'll lay it on the line for you: no art, no music, no drama. "Palmer has been underserved by CPS for so long parents don't know how to place value on the things we don't have," says Robertson. "For me, the fact my kids don't have a science lab is unacceptable. The fact my kids don't have a computer lab or a music room or an art room is unacceptable."

Meanwhile Duncan and other school officials look the other way as Mayor Daley forks over millions of property tax dollars to well-connected developers who build condos and shopping malls in gentrifying neighborhoods. There may be a less effective way to finance and run a public school system, but I don't know what it is.

A final word of warning to Edison's parents: Smaller schools that get moved out of their buildings are dispensable—as folks at the old Metro High School can tell you. In 1991 the board moved Metro into Crane High School, and that was pretty much the end of Metro. Because they come from all over the city, Edison's students have no local alderman or state senator to watch their backs. The best they can hope for is a sympathetic paragraph or two in the dailies. And in Chicago that's just not enough.   

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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