Lydell Harris is a tall, thin man with a short graying Afro, who students call “Coach” when they see him on his porch across the street from school.
The nickname is a hold-over from the nine years he spent coaching the boys’ basketball team at Goodlow, where Harris was a regular presence, helping in the classrooms and doing whatever jobs the staff needed. Often, he was at Goodlow from 7 in the morning to late in the afternoon.
“I didn’t just do it for my sons, but for a lot of the boys who don’t have a father figure, and I became that to them,” says Harris, who lives in West Englewood, one of the poorest, most dangerous communities in the city.
But since Goodlow closed in June and its building was taken over by Earle Elementary School’s leadership and staff, Harris says he has been, essentially, barred from being active. His wife, who was on Goodlow’s local school council, and several other mothers and grandmothers also claim that they have had trouble getting involved in the new Earle.
“We are not just parents,” says Michelle Clark, who has a daughter at Earle. “We were on the LSC, the advisory board, the [parent committee] chairs.”
Darlene O’Banner says she understood that one of the schools in West Englewood would have to close. There seemed to be just too many schools in the area, for too few children. But since the closings, the principal of Earle has not been welcoming, says O’Banner, who has lived in West Englewood for 36 years.
“You cannot be in the community and not talk to us,” she says.
O’Banner, Harris and about six other parents met recently at the Lindblom Park District building to talk about their dissatisfaction with Earle, a school that, at Level 3 on the CPS academic rating scale, is no stronger than Goodlow.
Harris says that he helped out at Goodlow during the summer, packing boxes and getting the new staff situated. At some point, Harris recalls being told he could coach the basketball team. Later, he says he was told he could not, but was not given a clear explanation.
Crystal Caston, whose children have been students at Earle for several years, says she thinks the principal needed to do a better job of bringing the Goodlow and Earle communities together.
“When a merger happens, there needs to be some mediation,” Caston says. “She wasn’t accepting of the blending of the communities together. She didn’t meet them half-way.”
Yet Earle Principal Ketesha Melendez says she has been trying to bring Goodlow parents into the fold. The entire week before school started, she held what CPS called “cultural integration” events. Since then, she’s had an open house and a roundtable event for parents, though she admits they have not been particularly well-attended.
Melendez is also holding monthly “shadow days,” during which parents can follow their children through a day at school and observe their classes. She hopes that the experience will give parents a richer sense of the curriculum and help them assist their children with homework. Parents of the younger students are allowed to eat breakfast with their children.
Melendez says she wants parents to volunteer, but that they must fill out volunteer forms, which might be something that the Goodlow administration did not enforce.
“It is very important to have a strong bridge [with] parents,” Melendez says. She is hoping that as the children warm up to her, the parents will follow.
Yet Harris says his sons are having difficulty, too. They used to love school when they attended Goodlow and woke up early to get there. Now Harris says he is getting calls about his sons acting disrespectfully and not turning in homework, accusations that Harris doesn’t believe.
“My 7th-grader cried,” Harris says. “He doesn’t want to go to school. He is just so angry.”
As they prepared for the massive task of transitioning 11,000-plus students from closed schools to new ones, district officials made sweeping promises: The receiving schools would be better than the ones children left, and students would feel welcome in their new classes.
Tom Tyrrell, the ex-Marine who led the district’s transition efforts, said the first day of school would serve as his “report card,” when students arrived to see fully-stocked and renovated buildings. Tyrrell has used plans from several other cities to direct his mission and has especially relied on a plan issued by the Broad Foundation in 2009.
The Broad guide book says that it is intended to help districts that are considering closing schools determine how to solve budget challenges. It includes suggestions for many areas, such as how to decide which schools to close, how to communicate with stakeholders and how to reassign students.
But the timeline stops in September, and little is said about how to deal with the aftermath.
Yet parents like those at Earle still seem to be reeling as they try to adjust—and help their children adjust—to a difficult new reality. They also must confront a myriad of problems, some of which might seem to be small, yet loom larger because of the circumstances.
Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal in Upstate New York, was in charge of overseeing a painful consolidation. He says it is wrong to think that the transition ends on the first day of the new school year.
“This is a two-year transition,” says DeWitt, who also writes a column for Education Week. “People want the parents to get over it in October, but this is a painful loss for them and it will take longer.”
DeWitt says often the children are okay, but parents are the ones who remember the old school and have hard feelings. It’s important that the welcoming school’s principal be visible, host new events that are unique to the consolidated school and doesn’t discount the population of the shuttered school.
Keeping an eye on what is happening in the welcoming schools is imperative. The schools that closed as well as the welcoming ones are mostly in poor neighborhoods, says Eve Rips, a fellow working with The Independent School Monitoring Project, an initiative of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. and Loyola University-Chicago’s Education Law and Policy Institute. As part of the project, about 60 volunteers surveyed parents on Aug. 26 and 27. As the school year goes on, the monitoring will continue.
“They are often the schools that experience the most problems, and parents don’t always know their rights,” Rips says.
Whether or not the principals at welcoming schools have the skills to work with disgruntled parents is unclear. Fewer than 30 percent of the receiving schools had strong or very strong parent involvement, according to a 2012 survey of teachers and students.
Three schools—Faraday, Harvard and Jensen—were rated as “very weak.” Earle was rated as “weak.”
The Consortium on Chicago School Research launched the survey, now conducted each year, after Consortium researchers identified “involved families” as one of the five essential components to school improvement.
Penny Sebring, founding co-director at the Consortium, says schools with strong parent involvement are four times more likely to improve in reading and math, and those rated as weak are three times more likely to stagnate. One component of parental involvement that predicts improvement is the trust between parents and teachers, she says. “For the welcoming schools, principals need to provide the total package, and one of the best things to work on is building a sense of trust,” she says.
But principals say they are a bit unsure of how to change the attitudes of those parents who are deeply disappointed at their school’s closure.
Mollison Principal Kim Henderson knows that some parents still have not accepted that Overton is closed. She says she reminds them that the decision was not made by anyone at Mollison—and in fact, Mollison was also on the potential closing list. Both schools are in Grand Boulevard, another impoverished South Side community. Both are rated Level 3.
Henderson also says she reminds Overton parents that the Mollison parents, too, have had to make an adjustment, as enrollment ballooned from 260 students to more than 510. “So everyone has had to experience some loss and make adjustments,” she points out.
“If you have complaints about culture and climate or the educational program, then talk to me,” Henderson says. “There is nothing I can do about the other things.”
CPS officials envisioned that this past summer would be a time of healing, filled with picnics and meetings that would get children and their parents accustomed to the idea of the new school. But on the ground, that vision didn’t always materialize.
All summer, Rosalind Jackson and Torrence Shorter, two parents from Ryerson Elementary in Humboldt Park, say they tried to schedule meetings with the principal of the receiving school, Ward. They planned a meeting and invited her, but they say she didn’t show up. Many of them had basic questions, like what uniform the children should wear and what time school starts.
As involved parents at Ryerson, they wanted to know how to become involved at Ward.
“We are hoping she will have an open mind because there is so much animosity,” Shorter said during the summer.
As the school year drew closer, Jackson said her daughter fretted about her safety. “My 10-year-old daughter is so scared about going to another school that she told me she has to learn how to put her dukes up,” she said in late August. “Merging two schools that have not gotten along for over a decade is totally wrong. We don’t know what to expect.”
Two weeks after school started, Jackson reported that the situation was worse than she expected.
For one, the school is having problems serving lunch, maybe because there are so many more students, she says. Plus, the principal will only allow the students to exit from two doors, and the crunch to get out at the end of the day looks dangerous.
On the Monday of the second week, the principal held a meet-and greet. Jackson had two big issues that she wanted to discuss: One is that a teacher’s cell phone was stolen, which led to all the students on the second floor—the 4th, 5th and 6th-graders—being patted down by police and having their belongings checked.
“I don’t think that was right and a note didn’t even go home about it,” Jackson says.
Jackson’s daughter told her that one of the teachers calls the students “dumb or stupid” and tells them that he doesn’t even need the job. Jackson says that when she told the principal about the situation, the principal simply commented that sometimes the teacher “goes overboard.”
“She doesn’t feel welcome at all,” says Jackson, referring to her daughter. “It is just wrong.”
Jackson has already decided that she wants to get her daughter out of Ward and has applied to a few charter schools for admission.
The CPS communications office did not make the Ward principal available for an interview.
Some parents say that the logistical problems—with transportation and safety at the top of the list—make it tough to become comfortable with the new situation.
While picking up her grandchildren from the bus that drops them off in front of the now-desolate Overton building, Irene Robinson says that Mollison’s principal and staff seem good and have been nice. But the children from the two schools have been getting into beefs and disagreements, and the former Overton students hate having to take the bus to and from school.
Though it is barely a three-minute bus ride, the children have to get to the pickup spot well before school starts and often don’t get dropped off until 20 minutes after the end of school. One Friday afternoon, Robinson says, the students were so frustrated that they started kicking the tires of the bus.
After-school programs are about to start at Mollison, but Robinson notes that few of the Overton students will be able to go to them because the bus leaves right after school.
Henderson says she has asked the bus company if they can run a bus at 6 p.m., but she hasn’t received a response.
“The principal wants us to be one family and she is trying,” Robinson says. “But the students aren’t ready.”
Jalainea Leslie has similar complaints. The bus that takes her daughter from the shuttered Parkman Elementary to the welcoming school, Sherwood, is sometimes late and her daughter can’t go to after-school activities.
Leslie is also upset that her 4-year-old son was put in an afternoon preschool, and the district does not provide busing in the middle of the day. So Leslie has to take him on a Chicago Transit Authority bus or walk with him, which can take as long as an hour. “He is only 4,” she says. “I can’t make him hurry up.”
Leslie says she was desperate not to send her children to Sherwood, but she had no choice. Though Sherwood is almost a mile away, it is the closest school. Leslie has no car and CPS promised to provide bus service. But busing is only provided for the students who were already attending the closing school.
Leslie’s 8-year-old takes the bus, which is escorted by a police car in the morning and the afternoon. The presence of police is the only thing that calms Leslie’s fears about her children’s safety. In mid-September, a man was shot in the back yard of a house across the street from Sherwood, she says. It was at about 4 in the afternoon, just after the school bus pulled away.
“If I don’t see the police with the school bus out there every day, I am going to transfer my children or home-school them,” Leslie says.
Parkman, a Level 3 school, and Sherwood, at Level 2, are both right off the Dan Ryan Expressway in what is officially called Fuller Park, a neighborhood between Englewood and Grand Boulevard.
“I am very disappointed,” Leslie says. She graduated from Parkman, as did her parents and siblings. Now Parkman is just another vacant building in a blighted neighborhood. Already, the school’s windows have been broken out.
Parkman is one of only eight closed schools whose students received bus service to their new school. For most families, the closings resulted in a longer walk.
James Morgan says his sons are trying to get used to that. Their old school, Trumbull, is right across the street from his house in Andersonville on the North Side.
Morgan decided to enroll his sons in Peirce, though it was not one of the three designated receiving schools: McCutcheon, Chappell and McPherson. Morgan’s two boys were assigned to McCutcheon. Both Peirce and McCutcheon are Level 2 schools, higher than Trumbull at Level 3.
But Morgan says McCutcheon is in an area he considers to be worse than where he lives, and it’s also over a mile away in a different community, Uptown. Simply put, he says, “There was no way in hell my sons were going to McCutcheon.”
He was able to get his sons into Peirce, a magnet school that is a bit less than a mile away, though still about eight long blocks to walk.
Morgan says the wheels on his son’s rolling backpack have already broken. Also, his son has a learning disability and is forgetful. Before, when he left his homework or something else at home, Morgan was able to bring it to school. “Now I can’t,” he says. “He just has to do without it.”
His sons’ new school is far different from Trumbull. Peirce has more than 1,000 students, while Trumbull closed with barely 300. When Morgan left Trumbull in June, he says the staff pulled him aside and told him he would have to fight to make sure his learning-disabled son got the services he needs. Peirce has a lower-than-average percentage of students in special education, 8.5 percent compared to 13 percent for the district.
Morgan already sees evidence bearing out the prediction. He has gotten two calls from his son’s teacher and has an appointment to talk with her. But even before the call, Morgan knew there was a problem after he found a stack of undone homework underneath his son’s bed.
“He says he doesn’t understand [the lessons], and he doesn’t want to ask [questions] because there are so many children there,” Morgan says.
At Trumbull, the staff knew his son and Morgan knew them, so problems could be addressed quickly. Now, Morgan feels as though he and his child are just one of many in a big school. He hasn’t even met the principal.
Like Morgan, Irene Robinson says she’s already received a call from a teacher about her granddaughter, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. At Overton, the teachers used to know how to get her granddaughter to focus, sometimes sending her back to her previous teachers for a while to ease the situation.
One of the big fears surrounding the closings has been that special education students would get lost in the shuffle. Margie Wakelin, an attorney for the disability-rights group Equip for Equality, says that through the monitoring project, the group has been put in touch with students whose parents are concerned about their children’s Individualized Education Plans. The plans are supposed to transfer with the child.
In some cases, children were not receiving services designated on their plan, and parents had to hunt down special education staff from their child’s closed school to help get the correct services back in place.
In other instances, children were about to be screened for a possible disability when the school closed. As a result, Wakelin says, the child and parent must often start over with the lengthy process to set up a screening.
Wakelin also suspects that securing aides for displaced students might be a problem.
Parthenia Barnes is an example. Her 5th-grade son was supposed to have an aide on the bus and in the classroom as he transitioned from the shuttered Goodlow to Earle. He has hypertension, a learning disability and bipolar disorder.
He started school without a bus aide and on day 2, he got into a fight. Then, he got a bus aide, but the aide didn’t escort him on and off the bus, trusting him to find his teacher on his own.
Barnes was then told that her son had gotten a school aide and was introduced to a young lady. But Barnes didn’t trust the situation. So one day she purposely did not give her son his medicine in the morning, thinking that she could check on matters by showing up at school and going to his classroom to give it to him.
Once at the school, Barnes’ suspicions proved correct. The aide was nowhere to be found.
Barnes says she has called Central Office a number of times to try to get an aide in place, but has yet to receive a response.
“I am worried that my son or someone else is going to get hurt,” she says.
Barnes was on the local school council at Goodlow and says she wants to be involved at Earle. But she accuses the principal of not telling former Goodlow parents when the meetings are held, and only notifying the Earle parents.
“She lets her people know,” Barnes says.
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