two years ago, Chad Harrell invited three neighbors over to his back yard and asked them for advice about schools. He had been living in Roscoe Village for nearly 10 years—seven as a homeowner—and had spent the last few years working with a local community group, Roscoe Village Neighbors, to turn the area into the kind of place where he wanted to stay.

Now he was the father of a 10-month-old son, and in a few years he would have to figure out where to send him to school. The magnet school system didn’t appeal to him, and he didn’t want to abandon the neighborhood in which he had invested so much for the suburbs.

His preference was to send his son to a neighborhood school, but he had visited three and hadn’t been impressed.

“I was under pressure,” he says now. “I was on a schedule.”

He asked his buddies, who were officers on the Roscoe Village Neighbors board, if they would help him.

Putting their heads together that evening, the group decided to form an education committee to help Harrell and other young parents in the neighborhood. Harrell was designated co-chair along with another member of the foursome who had young children.

A year and a half later, the education committee is gaining momentum. Last month, it presented a rough draft of its vision for Jahn and Audubon elementary schools to parents, neighbors and teachers. Teachers at Jahn immediately convened two meetings to discuss the proposal.

Committee members propose to extend the school day with after-school programs to bridge the gap for working parents. Corporate and non-profit partners and parent volunteers would help pay for or run the program. The plan would also ask teachers to agree to work beyond their obligations under the union contract, possibly without extra pay.

Harrell’s education committee plans to collect feedback from all parties and present a revised plan to CEO Arne Duncan in March. Duncan and other board officials have encouraged the group, but a meeting date has not been set.

Roscoe Village Neighbors’ Education Committee began to take off shortly after it was formed. In October 2000, Harrell was invited to serve as principal-for-a-day at Audubon Elementary, which is located in the heart of Roscoe Village at Hoyne and Cornelia.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me,” says Harrell. “I came across teachers who seemed to be very passionately engaged in what they were doing—which is not what you read in the papers. So that made me think, maybe there’s something here.”

He reported back to his fellow committee members that the local school had a lot going for it. The news energized the group.

At about the same time, Principal Geraldine Haller of Jahn, which sits a block east of Damen Avenue and at Belmont, at Roscoe Village’s southern border, got wind of the education committee. She called right up, asked to join, and has been working with the group ever since.

One of Haller’s goals when she took over as principal in 1999 was enrolling more of the community’s middle-class students. Like Audubon, Jahn had been facing declining enrollment for years; as the neighborhood around them changed, becoming one of the highest-priced in the city, both schools have continued to serve student populations where more than 80 percent of the children are classified as low-income. Most now come from outside the neighborhood.

Haller was already working on board officials to get a foreign language magnet program at Jahn. Interest in foreign languages had been high among parents at her previous school, Bell, one of the rare public schools with a mostly middle-class student body.

With Haller’s cooperation, the committee stepped up its efforts. Members began attending LSC meetings, raising money for Jahn and Audubon, researching urban school success stories and creating a database on public, private and parochial schools in and around Roscoe Village.

At a street fair sponsored by Roscoe Village Neighbors last summer, Haller staffed the Jahn booth personally. By then, she had also opened a preschool program that targets middle-class families and recruited an education committee member to join Jahn’s staff as a 3rd -grade teacher.

By last October, the education committee was ready to approach Duncan. Harrell and two other members went to an education symposium at the Union League Club, where Duncan was scheduled to speak. Haller asked an acquaintance, Jack Harnedy, who oversees CPS magnet school programs, to join them, hoping he would get them some face time with Duncan. Harnedy did.

“We really got about five minutes of walking Arne out the ballroom to the door,” Harrell recalls. “He was very pleasant. He said, ‘Jack’s the man,’ and that when we had something together, we could talk again. That was incredibly energizing.”

Harnedy came to the committee’s late-October meeting, and since then a central office staffer has been in attendance at every meeting. More teachers, parents and LSC members from Jahn and Audubon have also joined.

Audubon LSC Chair Michael Lagrimas says he was inspired by the turnout for a Halloween pizza party the committee hosted at the school for neighborhood kids. “There were about 200 kids,” he recalls. “They were 2-, 3-, 4-year-olds. And I thought, well, they’re going to be going somewhere. And we need to get ’em.”

As area real estate values shot up, enrollment at Jahn and Audubon dwindled. In the late 1990s, Jahn’s enrollment fell by 80 students and Audubon lost 60. Each school now serves about 500 students, the majority living outside of the schools’ attendance areas.

At the same time, though, test scores at both schools have been going up. Audubon’s scores consistently outpace city averages, and by 1999 more than half the school’s students were scoring at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Jahn’s scores had lagged behind, but in 2001 the school posted the city’s largest gain in reading, with 40 percent scoring at or above national averages.

“We need to get the word out to the community that these are viable schools,” says Bryan Daly, board president of Roscoe Village Neighbors. “The schools right now have a reputation. It’s where people who don’t have a choice send their kids.”

The solution, he explains, is a simple formula of 75 percent marketing and 25 percent improvements to school programs.

The education committee is tackling the challenge on both fronts. Their draft plan for a “Community Based Public School Program” was presented at a Jan. 22 meeting and includes proposals that would require waivers to both the Chicago Teachers Union contract and the Chicago School Reform Act.

The document lays out a plan for an extended day that includes earlier start and end times and requires teachers to tutor students during their prep time.

Jahn teacher and education-committee member Jen Toomey says faculty meetings on the proposal have been lively. “There are teachers who are like, ‘Are we gonna get paid and what’s the union gonna say about it?'” she says. Others want to know why they had not been asked for input earlier. Some, like Toomey, welcome the idea of change. “When you have 50 people on staff, you have a lot of different ideas,” she says.

The education committee is also proposing that amendments be made to the local school council structure. It suggests removing council members who do not uphold the committee’s plan, and carving out a permanent seat for a region education office staffer. “They’ve got a lawyer looking into it,” says Toomey.

Harrell says the group will receive input from teachers, LSC members and parents before they meet with Duncan in March. Changing perceptions will be an uphill battle, Harrell concedes. Many of his newer neighbors—who have paid upwards of $700,000 for their homes—aren’t likely to give the schools a first or second look, he says.

“People who are buying now know they’re going to flip [their property] in two years and make $40,000,” he says. Some parents, he half-jokes, have already decided by “the night the kid [is] conceived, he’s going to New Trier.”

Roscoe Village includes six of the most rapidly gentrifying census tracts in the city, according to a study by the Woodstock Institute. In 1999 and 2000, nearly twice as many homes in those tracts were purchased by upper-income buyers than the two-year period between 1993 and 1994. In 2000, North Center—the community area that encompasses Roscoe Village—recorded the second-highest median price for condominiums, town-homes and lofts.

Nonetheless, the group is making this pitch: Try one of the neighborhood schools—Audubon or Jahn—for two years. If things don’t work out, send your children to another school.

Harrell is hoping to recruit enough parents so that 15 neighborhood children, including his son, Wesley, will enroll in kindergarten at Jahn in the fall of 2004. A critical mass of involved parents from the neighborhood could watch out for each other’s children, he says.

Some local parents are intrigued but cautious. Ben Meisner, who lives close to Jahn and has a 6-month-old daughter, says he has heard the mayor talk about public schools getting better. He doesn’t doubt that schools have improved.

“But are they good?” he asks. “People don’t want to roll the dice [with their children.] Would you take the most valuable thing in your life and say, ‘I hope this is a good environment?'”

Harrell is realistic that the committee’s plan may not work. “If this fails, we’ll go somewhere and educate our child like everyone else has been doing,” he says. “But that’s not really right.”

He would rather stay in Chicago. “I want to live here. I want my son to grow up in the city, to understand different types of people and multicultural situations. That’s my idea of what the world is.”

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