Dearborn Park residents turned out by the hundreds to install a virtually all-new local school council at South Loop Elementary School. Of 621 votes cast, 512, or 82 percent, were community members. “We had a record number of voters,” says Lynda Young, a poll watcher. “We had to order more ballots from the board. It’s been very encouraging.”

The winners include the five parents and two community members who ran on a slate organized by a recently formed community group, the South Loop Education Alliance.

“Parents on our slate … represent a diverse group: Three blacks, one Hispanic and one white, which we’d like to think truly reflects what the neighborhood here in Dearborn Park is,” says community representative Larry Young, the only incumbent seeking re-election who won. Young is an Alliance member and the father of two children who attend Andrew Jackson Magnet School.

Alliance representatives say that getting parents involved in the election was a primary focus. However, only 109 parents voted even though the election was held on report card pickup day. About 600 students are enrolled in the school.

LSC Chair Sheila Garrett, defeated after 10 years on the council, says parents were no-shows at the polls because they were not properly informed of a candidate forum, and election materials were not sent home with students. She acknowledges, however, that her slate could have done a better job on voter turnout.

“They [the Alliance] had the organizational skills and the money to get people out. We didn’t have that,” she says, adding, “I spent my mortgage money on the election.”

Garrett has filed a challenge, alleging irregularities including electioneering in the school during the election and improper use of campaign funds by the Alliance. “There should be a new election,” she says. “If we had another election tomorrow, and the results would be the same, I’d be OK with it as long as I know the parents’ rights were not violated.”

The Alliance received a $1,100 grant from the School Leadership Development Cooperative, an umbrella group that promoted community participation in the LSC elections this year. “They are a very good example of good, sophisticated organizing,” says cooperative executive director Andy Wade. “Their follow-through is good, they have a powerful e-mail list, and they host events with good, mixed attendance.”

The Alliance worked for months to mobilize area residents, holding meetings, compiling an e-mail thread and recruiting “precinct captains” to distribute information.

Wade says the Cooperative does not take sides in contested elections and that it made a grant to the Alliance because it had demonstrated it could get people involved in the election. According to Wade, Garrett did not ask for help from the Cooperative until the day before the election. “That was way past our February deadline,” he notes.

“We didn’t have a lot of situations with different voices from one neighborhood, each asking for support,” he says. “It that were to happen, we would generally support both.”

South Loop School has been at the center of controversy since it was a gleam in the eye of urban pioneers who launched the residential development of the Near South Side. They, as well as public housing residents just north of Chinatown, had been promised new schools. When the Board of Education drew the attendance area of South Loop School, opened in 1988, to encompass both groups, most parents in the less populated middle-income community chose other schools for their children. In recent years, gentrification has all but overwhelmed the area’s public housing.

After casting his vote in the April 6 LSC election, community resident Paul McGrath said he was troubled by the way Dearborn Park residents have been portrayed in the media. “The parents of the children who read this stuff may logically think that we don’t like them or like their kids, and that’s not true, that’s not true at all,” he said. “That’s a very terrible thing to perpetrate on those parents. I wish there was some way that we could reverse that concept.”

“We plan to reach out and make ourselves known to every parent,” says Johnnie Mae Smith, a parent elected on the Alliance slate. She believes more parents will get more involved once they are educated on the process and function of the local school council.

Alliance President Lauren Rhone says the Alliance already has to begun to work to bring all parts of the community together. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this will happen,” she says.

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