For decades, students and teachers at Jenner Elementary on the Near North Side faced repeated tragedies due to the gang and drug-related violence in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Assaults on two Jenner students made national news and embodied the toll that the violence took on children: Dantrell Davis, who was shot and killed in 1992 while walking to school, holding his mother’s hand ; and Girl X, who in 1997 was raped and choked nearly to death in a high-rise before the school day started.
But for many families, Jenner was a solid anchor. Veteran art teacher Matias Schergen created his alter ego, “Mr. Spider,” on his first day at Jenner in 1993, and used both his carefully crafted classroom persona and his genuine respect for students to build strong relationships with them and their families.
When the Chicago Housing Authority began demolishing Cabrini-Green to make way for new, mixed-income housing, Schergen invited students and families to create shadowboxes showcasing their drawings and photos of the neighborhood and its people. More than 100 of the boxes became part of a citywide exhibition. “People cried who didn’t know us,” Schergen recalled. “We really said something.” (Schergen retired this past June, after 23 years of teaching art at Jenner. A National Public Radio story captured his last day.)
When the high-rises came down, some displaced families chose long commutes back to Jenner over enrolling their kids in new schools. In 2001, Kimberly Scott and her six children were spending two hours a day commuting from Englewood back to Jenner via the Halsted bus. At the time, Scott’s daughter, who struggled with reading, was getting extra help from her 3rd-grade teacher at Jenner, plus tutoring at the nearby New City YMCA. “I like how she’s progressing since they’ve been with her,” Scott said. “I don’t want to take her away from that.”
In 2000, Jenner moved into a brand-new building at 1119 N. Cleveland, on the same block as its prior location. That new facility has played an important role in the Chicago Public Schools closings and consolidations that accompanied the Cabrini-Green transformation over the last six years. In 2009, when nearby Schiller Elementary was closed for low enrollment, Jenner took in the displaced students. (Schiller later reopened as Skinner North, a selective enrollment elementary school.)
In 2013, the Board of Education put Jenner on one of the early lists of possible school closures but quickly shifted gears and proposed that it become the welcoming school for children displaced by the closing of Manierre Elementary.
In response, Manierre parents mounted a strong and ultimately successful campaign to save their school.
They questioned the merits of sending their children to Jenner, which like Manierre is a predominantly African-American, lower-performing school. (Research supported their skepticism.) Manierre parents also pointed to high-performing, racially diverse schools nearby that had space. They argued that closing Manierre and sending its students to Jenner would present serious safety issues, due to deep-seated school rivalries and the need for Manierre students to cross a gang boundary to reach Jenner.
In a deposition for a federal lawsuit over the 2013 school closings, then-Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said CPS officials didn’t consider the possibility of sending Manierre students to higher-performing schools because of Jenner’s “terrific facility that had a lot of room for Manierre kids.”
See “As school closings vote nears, questions remain on money, safety,” Catalyst May 2013 and “Race ‘elephant in the room’ with Lincoln overcrowding,” Catalyst November 2013
After the plan to close Manierre was scuttled, Jenner parents and neighborhood residents began considering the idea of merging with a higher-performing school in the area to bring more students to their underutilized building.
More recently and independently, Michael Beyer, the new principal of Ogden Elementary on the Gold Coast formed a committee of parents to look for solutions to reduce their school’s overcrowding. Eventually, they decided that a merger with Jenner could be their best option. This week, Ogden’s local school council voted to continue exploring that option. According to DNAinfo, Jenner’s LSC chair has collected 60 parent signatures supporting the merger.
The two schools serve vastly different populations, as this CPS data from last fall show.
Meanwhile, as Jenner’s neighborhood has gentrified, safety has become less of a concern. “We have had no significant incidents since I’ve been here,” said Keith Muhammad, a Safe Passage worker with the Alliance for Community Peace, who has been at the school for the last two years.
His daily supervision of arrival and dismissal has involved nothing more serious than keeping kids away from cars or toning down excessive horseplay. Asked about the potential merger, he said, “I think diversity is key. I wish Chicago would push that diversity.”
While some Ogden parents have expressed concerns about the level of academic performance at Jenner, the school’s arts programs could be an asset in a merged school. Jenner is top-ranked—above Ogden—on the Creative Arts Certification scale, launched in the 2014 school year to measure how well schools meet the goals outlined in the CPS Arts Education Plan. (Ogden is one level below the top ranking.)
See “Take 5: Ogden-Jenner merger,” Catalyst September 2015 and “Merger of Gold Coast school with Cabrini-Green school would mean first integrated neighborhood school in a former public housing area,” WBEZ September 2015