A high-performing, predominantly white elementary school located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Chicago is trying to merge with a predominantly black school that has close to a 99 percent poverty rate and has been on intensive academic support for the past nine years.
This is not a plot twist from some cheesy Hollywood flick about a selfless white teacher going through heroic lengths to save the poor, black children.
No, this is real life.
It’s the kind of racial reconciliation story that, if all goes well, might make Steven Spielberg come a-calling. If it works, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might shout hallelujah from his dusty grave. If the adults in both communities resolve to look out for each other’s children, then God himself might be proud.
In this story, the wealthy and the poor need each other mutually. Each school realizes that it would be much better off together than apart.
Ogden International Elementary School, located in the swanky Gold Coast community, is currently at 103 percent capacity with an annual enrollment growth rate of 6.5 percent. Next year, this Level 1+ school, the highest quality ranking a Chicago public school can get, projects it will need to convert a closet and its art, music, and science rooms into homerooms, and it will probably have to line its hallways with desks and chairs in four years.
Ogden desperately needs real estate.
At the same time, Jenner Academy of the Arts, located just eight blocks away in the now-gentrified neighborhood that once served children from the old Cabrini-Green housing projects, is woefully under-enrolled. In a building that can house up to 1,000 students, Jenner has only 240 despite being surrounded by hundreds of white families with school-aged children who bought up the high-priced, luxury condos that were built after the high-rise projects came down.
Jenner’s low enrollment cost the school $310,000 in funding this year, the equivalent of three teachers. This Level 2 school, the second lowest ranking CPS can give, escaped closure three years ago when the district closed 50 schools, but it might not be so lucky the next time.
Jenner desperately needs students.
Eureka! In a community-led effort, Ogden and Jenner decided to create a consolidation proposal that they will present to the district on December 1.
For decades, Chicago government leaders redlined people of color into housing projects and isolated sections of the city, as well as starved them of city jobs and access to a high quality education. What better attempt at redemption and social justice than for the school district to approve the merger of a school with stacked wealth with a school in stacked poverty?
The racial and socioeconomic differences between the two schools are stark.
Ogden asked CPS to build an annex to ease the overcrowding and got a resounding no. (You know things have gotten bad in CPS when even the wealthiest schools can’t cajole extra money from the district.) CPS is short $480 million to fund the current school year, and may end up running out of money in February and laying off up to 5,000 teachers.
When it comes to social justice, opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration among the powerful and powerless don’t come often. White people, for example, are regularly asked to lay aside their privilege and power at the expense of their own comfort, while black people are often asked to be forgiving, calm, and patient as they experience exclusion and unfair treatment.
The Ogden-Jenner school combo is a potential win-win for all. It could be a model of urban school integration for the nation since it allows kids to stay inside their own communities rather than being bussed out of them.
A wise person once told me that the definition of multiculturalism isn’t just having mixed races in a place, it’s when each one of those races owns the space. This merger would make every child feel like they are at home in their school, and not an unwanted visitor.
Moreover, kids of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds will learn how to work together and accept each other’s differences—and realize just how much they have in common.
My hunch is that adults involved will learn the biggest lesson.
If families from the Gold Coast, Streeterville and River North choose to enroll their kids at Ogden International School at the Jenner Campus, I hope they work to create Beloved Community.
That’s what Dr. King called it when people decide that racism, poverty, and violence will not be tolerated; where there are no power dynamics or class distinctions, and deeper understanding resolves all conflicts. Dr. King thought Beloved Community would be achievable if people treated each other as brothers and sisters, realizing that everybody has something valuable to offer.
The black parents at Jenner must play a major role in achieving Beloved Community, too. They have to display cultural pride and dignity despite their lack of material wealth and social status, while also embracing well-to-do families from Ogden.
The scarred, blood-baked soil of the infamously brutal Cabrini-Green ghetto still cries out for justice and racial reconciliation. And the new Whole Foods, million dollar condos, and Apple store can’t silence it.
CPS needs to make this merger happen for the fall of 2016. It’s a climactic teachable moment for Chicago, and Hollywood could not have produced a better script.