This summer, Fahima and Jerry McGee and their five children left Chicago for a new house in far south suburban Park Forest. After seven years in the city, they are happy to be out of it and its school system.
“The kids had no social life,” says Fahima McGee. “They could not ride their bikes or go to the candy store. I think that my children lost part of their childhood in Chicago.”
Through a series of unhappy circumstances, the family moved from Joliet to Chicago in the early 1990s. For a while, Fahima had to support herself and her children alone. In 1991, she sent the children to live with her mother in Chicago’s Roseland community.
Fahima sent her two eldest children, Sateria and Tuscanne, to Langston Hughes, the elementary school in Roseland she had attended in the 1970s. But the school had changed, and discipline had become a problem. “Some-where along the line, something went wrong with our school system,” she says. “I found it really hard to believe once the school bell would ring, [the students] would come out fighting.”
Plus, Hughes was in dire need of structural repairs. “The classrooms were in bad shape,” recalls Sateria. “We had to meet in the gymnasium because big chunks of plaster were falling from the ceiling.”
The following year, Sateria was accepted into a magnet program at Clay Elementary in Hegewisch. Fahima visited the school and talked to the principal, who approved entry for all three of her school-age children. By then, 1994, the family moved into a house next door to Fahima’s mother.
“Clay was an improvement,” Sateria recalls. “It was on the outskirts of the city, more like a suburban school.”
For the most part, Fahima was satisfied with Clay, too. The school had many activities for students, such as bake sales and a school newspaper, she recalls. “It was well-rounded.” Still, a glitch in the school bus route cost her children a month’s worth of tardies on their attendance records.
Then, Jerry got a job with Commonwealth Edison, and the family made plans to buy a house. Initially, they looked in city neighborhoods, but when they happened upon a house they liked in Park Forest, where Jerry grew up, they moved there instead. Sateria is now a sophomore at Rich East High School, Tuscanne attends Forest Trail Junior High, and Scalia goes to Blackhawk Elementary.
“Park Forest is like coming home,” Fahima says. “My kids can go out the door, and I don’t panic. The schools are excellent. In suburban schools, when your child has a problem, they say, ‘What can we do?’… In [Chicago] public schools, they’re losing kids, and they don’t even know it. They just act like they don’t care.”
If the family had not moved out of the city, Fahima says there’s “no way” her children would have attended public high schools. When Sateria graduated from Clay in 1996, the McGees sent her to Madonna High School, a Chicago Catholic school for girls. With four more to follow, Fahima says she told her husband to get ready for high tuition bills.
“I told him we were headed for the poor house,” she says.