Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will soon make a decision that will either allow it to leverage itself as a true champion for racial integration or affirm its dogged reputation as a racially biased institution whose policies promote segregation.
By December 1, the CPS Board of Education will rule on whether to allow an Ogden International School of Chicago—an overcrowded, middle and upper middle class school that is 60 percent White and Asian in the city’s affluent Gold Coast neighborhood—to merge with Jenner Academy for the Arts—a nearby school on the site of the old Cabrini Green housing projects that is grossly under-enrolled with 99 percent low-income and African-American students.
The area surrounding Jenner has experienced rapid gentrification, yet the well-off White families who have moved into the high-priced condos around Jenner do not send their children there.
The school administrators, local school councils, and a large bloc of parents at both Jenner and Ogden support the merger. Last year, the schools jointly developed a 47-page report that showed how consolidating the schools would benefit both sets of students. Last June, the Jenner-Ogden Community Steering Committee secured a Chicago Community Trust grant to hire NextLevel NPO, LLC to conduct an independent research study to prove the feasibility of a merger. The committee created a website and passed around an online petition that has garnered more than 1,200 signatures. They are also asking signees to email Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CEO of CPS Forrest Claypool, and the entire mayor-appointed school board messages of support for the merger.
A small but vocal group of parents at Ogden, however, oppose the consolidation plan. They are less interested in the social justice and educational equity implications of an Ogden-Jenner merger and chiefly concerned with finding alternative long-term solutions to solve Ogden’s overcrowding problem.
As such, these parents have publicly voiced fear that the merger could put their children’s physical safety at risk by forcing them to integrate into a community with such concentrated poverty. They also angrily argued that the quality of their children’s education will be compromised by such integration.
In fairness, Black parents on the South and West Sides of Chicago had similar concerns three years ago, when CPS closed 49 schools and displaced 14,000 mostly Black children, many who now walk upwards of 10 blocks to get to school, crossing into numerous dangerous new gang territories. Despite massive outrage and parent protests, CPS made the pragmatic decision to close the schools based on under-enrollment. The parents just had to deal with it.
Now the facts present a similar dilemma: Ogden, just a K-5 school, is at 107 percent capacity and Jenner as a K-8 school is 65 percent under-capacity. With enrollment trajectories expected to worsen for both schools over the next four years, CPS has a 49x precedence to merge the schools.
Just like the Black parents of the massive school closings, the affluent mostly White and Asian parents of Ogden who oppose the proposed merger should be forced to deal with it. These parents should not have the political clout to defy a district-wide practice of merging schools which, unlike some of the closures, is more than justified in the case of Ogden and Jenner.
The Ogden parents who oppose the Odgen-Jenner merger have launched their own petition and website to politically correctly assert their rationale.
Saying, “I don’t want my privileged kids going to school with poor Black kids” is not an acceptable reason to block a merger.
Saying, “I don’t want my child to have to walk eight blocks to get to school” shouldn’t work either. Thousands of Black children in Chicago walk further than that.
Saying, “My kids won’t be safe,” doesn’t make sense because the Gold Coast and the surrounding neighborhoods are among the safest areas of Chicago. (Plus, the district can install the same yellow “Safe Passage” signs on light poles. It was supposed to make the little Black kids’ walk across gang territories to their new schools feel safer).
Some opponents argue that the Ogden-Jenner merger, where one campus serves the primary grades and the other serves the upper elementary grades, will only ease overcrowding for a few years because of the area’s current population boom. They are hinting towards building an expensive annex, which the district, now nearly bankrupt, has done for neighboring schools.
Over the summer, CPS completed a $19 million annex for Lincoln Elementary School, which has mostly high-income White students, while the low-income Black children at Manierre Elementary School—just a few blocks away from Lincoln—learn in a 1,000 student-building that’s only 35 percent occupied. Redrawing the attendance map for Lincoln students to attend Manierre would have incited a firestorm.
The bottom line is this: The Ogden-Jenner school merger should happen. Period.
This may be CPS’s last chance to prove to the nation that it values school integration. Since it permanently reinforced the racial segregation of students at Lincoln and Manierre, a “no” vote on an Ogden-Jenner merger would officially signal to the world that Jim Crow is alive and well in Chicago.