Three years ago, educators and activists in Hyde Park, home of the prestigious University of Chicago, set out to reconfigure their public schools to accommodate and attract more students from the neighborhood.
Overall, the public schools were not meeting the demand for high-quality education. Nearly a third of Hyde Park children were enrolled in private elementary schools, according to the most recent census. Many others vied for slots in the two top public elementary schools while other schools had to recruit from outside the neighborhood. When it came time for high school, many students left the neighborhood.
Although Hyde Park’s neighborhood high school, Kenwood Academy, is one of the best in the city, it is not highly regarded by Hyde Park’s middle-class parents. In the late 1990s, the school’s standing suffered a sharp decline with the opening of several highly selective college preparatory high schools.
Between 2000 and 2002, the percentage of public school students from the neighborhood enrolling in Kenwood dropped from 80 to 68, according to a Catalyst analysis of School Board data.
In Hyde Park, one of the city’s most integrated neighborhoods, tensions tend to be more about class than race, residents say. Not surprisingly, the school improvement plans that emerged to attract more neighborhood students aggravated that tension.
At the elementary level, several K-8 schools would convert to K-6 schools and send their 7th- and 8th-graders to a redesigned Canter Middle School, which until this year had to recruit students from outside the neighborhood to fill its seats. This move would allow one elementary school to take in more K-6 students and two others to reduce overcrowding.
The principals who pushed this plan easily won support from the University of Chicago and the alderman, who also saw a high-quality middle school program as a way to funnel more bright students into Kenwood Academy.
“The desire [was] to build a K to 12 program specifically geared to Hyde Park families and children,” says Virginia Vaske, area instructional officer for elementary schools in Hyde Park and neighboring communities.
However, the principals of the two area K-8 schools with the most low-income students, Kozminski and Reavis, decided not to participate in the middle school plan, raising eyebrows among Hyde Parkers concerned about equity.
“These kids deserve the same opportunities,” insists Judy King, chair of the Kenwood LSC. When Canter tried to pull out of the plan, the School Board overruled it, citing the best interests of the children, she says. “Why can’t you overrule Reavis and Kozminski for the benefit of the kids?” she asks.
At Kenwood, improvement is riding, in part, on an augmented magnet program and a smaller school size. To accomplish the latter, the school is admitting fewer students from outside its attendance boundary. These students come mainly from impoverished, largely black communities on the South Side
Again, this strikes a nerve with some in the liberal, politically active community.
“Whether or not a young black male gets well-educated can make the difference between whether he spends his life in a good job or in jail,” says Patricia Ashby, a former Kenwood LSC member.
Some also see a racial component to the plans, specifically an effort to raise white enrollment at Kenwood, which is 91 percent African-American. Two of the new feeder schools for Canter Middle School, Murray and Ray, have a relatively high enrollment of white students, 24 percent and 20 percent respectively. With Canter intended as a stronger bridge to Kenwood, white enrollment at Kenwood could increase.
At Kenwood, the improvement plan is unfolding without much public dissention.
However, the middle school plan has been in constant turmoil. There, ongoing conflicts have less to do with class or race than missteps in the planning. An early controversy over the restaffing of Canter, which had a closely knit faculty, set off an unexpected chain of events that included the displacement of a principal; the departure of most of the faculty, who were replaced largely by novices; and a disorganized school opening. Now a group of unhappy parents threatens to pull out of a program they helped to create.
Hyde Park has high standards for its schools, observes Cydney Fields, principal of Ray elementary. “This is not a community that has a problem speaking up.”