At their first meeting, a new School Board that had promised a new day stood by a controversial old deal that keeps severely overcrowded schools in the West Ridge community from using the old Green Elementary School.
Green has long been rented to the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago for a branch of its Ida Crown Jewish Academy Girls High School.
The deal, negotiated by the old School Board, calls for selling Green to Talmud Torahs for $900,000 and for spending $15 million to build additions at the three schools that had complained most loudly about Green being off limits to them.
Ben Reyes, the school system’s new chief operating officer, maintains it’s a good deal all around. “The community gets 36 classrooms, as opposed to 13 at Green School,” he notes.
Asked about the imbalance between the sales price for Green and the cost of the additions, Reyes notes that Green needs substantial rehabilitation. “Besides,” he adds, “that group has been there for what, 16 years? If they’d been squatting the property, they’d probably own it by now.”
However, Ald. Joe Moore (49th) and a number of parent activists maintain that the deal has more to do with ward politics.
“That decision was not so much the result of the School Board’s response to the needs of parents and children but the need of politicians to get out of a tight situation,” Moore says.
Under the School Board’s 1990 Capital Development Plan, the three schools were to have a new school built nearby to relieve their overcrowding. However, when school officials chose Warren Park as the site, nearby residents and park advocates protested.
As a result, says Moore, Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) and state Sen. Howard Carroll (also 50th Ward Democratic committeeman) were caught between a community that didn’t want a school in their park and an important part of their political base that wanted to hold on to Green School. Constructing additions became a way out, which state Sen. Arthur Berman, Democratic spokesperson on the Senate Education Committee, helped negotiate, according to Moore.
Asked whether the new School Board had simply ratified a political deal, Reyes says he heard nothing about the politics.
Additions not enough
“The bottom line is, if you look at overcrowding at just [Clinton, Hayt and Kilmer], we need 1,700 spaces for children,” says Mike Radzilowsky, LSC chair at Hayt. “So even with additions, we’ll still be overcrowded. Green can hold 350 students, and there is room for an addition, which could mean 500 to 600 students could go there. [Now] only 80 to 90 girls are at Green.
“A school in Warren Park was a good idea and would have served three schools,” he grouses. “But it got shot down because little old ladies and other groups didn’t want the park space touched.”
“It’s all about money and votes,” says Lou Berkman, an LSC member at Clinton, where enrollment exceeds the building’s capacity by 350 students. “Our school is an immigrant school. We have 30 different languages, a high transient rate, and most of our parents are not voters. People don’t give a damn about them.”
Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the reform group Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), says the Green deal represents a net loss for the system as a whole. “We are losing 13 classroom spaces by giving up that building. . . . Someone is getting shortchanged.”
For example, McPherson Elementary, the most overcrowded school in the area, has received only vague promises of help. “We have room on our playground for an addition, and we have been promised by every board that we’d get a new building,” Principal Camille Chase recounts wearily. “We don’t even have room for our state-mandated programs. We’re going to have to go on a split shift in the fall, but we’ll still keep pushing for our building.”
McPherson’s prospects brightened somewhat recently, when school officials announced their intention to build six to eight new schools in each of the next four years.
Meanwhile, the Green flap has served as a lesson for other schools in the area. “Those that scream the loudest, get heard,” says Principal Emil DeJulio of Swift Elementary, which had to send its 7th- and 8th-graders to Senn High, and which uses its auditorium and the balcony for classes. “That’s why I and the principal at Peirce School have started screaming about a new addition, too.”
When it came to school closings, the new School Board didn’t let the old board determine its course. It immediately rescinded decisions to close Lindblom Technical High School as well as Dumas, Howland, Medill, Schiller and Suder elementary schools.
And Lynn St. James, the school system’s new chief educational officer, announced that the quality of a school’s educational program will now be the first consideration in school closing decisions. Under the old board, program quality was not even a factor. St. James said other considerations will be whether the building is safe, and whether a school is needed in that particular location.
Two schools closed by the old board—the Industrial Skills Center and Cregier Vocational High School—will stay closed. The Skills Center will move to Phillips High, whose dwindling enrollment had brought closure threats in the past. And Cregier, which posted some of the worst educational statistics in the city, will be disbanded; its building will be used to help relieve elementary school overcrowding. The Small Schools Workshop, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been asked to help with the redesign.
A team of Chicago teachers and professors from National-Louis University would like to use part of the Cregier building for a small “Best Practice” high school. “It would be a place that could be visited by teachers, principals, parents and others interested in improving high schools,” says Steve Zemelman, director of the university’s Center for City Schools. “We have not been provided space for our program yet, but we’ll keep at it.”