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Debate Over New School Underscores Class Conflict in Chicago

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CHICAGO--A few blocks south of the Loop here, at the end of a vast vacant lot, a framework of steel girders is slowly being shaped into a structure that some local residents say could determine the fate of the surrounding neighborhood.

The site will be home to an elementary school--one of the first built by the Chicago Public Schools since its slide toward near-bankruptcy several years ago--and it represents a hard-won victory for the middle-class parents, both black and white, who have settled in a newly created urban enclave nearby called Dearborn Park.

But having fought successfully to secure the school, the parents of Dearborn Park now face a far more acrimonious conflict: deciding whose children have the right to attend.

Situated at the north end of the vacant lot, the new school is across the street from the fashionable shops and condominiums of Dearborn Park. But at the lot's south end, where the terrain tapers into scattered junkyards, the view is dominated by the twin towers of Hilliard Homes, a high-rise public-housing project occupied primarily by low-income blacks.

Parents who live in Hilliard Homes and other nearby federally subsidized developments have mounted a rear-guard action to upset plans that would keep most of their children out of the new school. And their arguments, which have received a more favorable hearing as the number of school-board appointments made by Mayor Harold Washington has increased, have produced a stalemate in planning.

Before the 540-pupil school opens next fall, the Chicago Board of Education will have to make the hard choices of what grades the school will serve; what its attendance boundaries will be; and whether it will be a magnet school, a neighborhood school, or some combination of the two.

But for now, the board is delaying a final decision, giving both sides a chance to settle their differences at the negotiating table.

"The board is going to the limit in trying to create a compromise that will satisfactorily resolve this problem,'' said Ken Moses, a school spokesman. He said the board's desegregation committee would probably make a recommendation to the full board after its next scheduled meeting on May 14.

Until then, however, the two groups of parents will continue to be locked in a bitter debate that underscores the class divisions and fiscal stakes involved in what many are calling the new "urban pioneer'' movement in the inner city. (See accompanying story on this page.)

Judy Hoch, president of the Dearborn Park school-improvement council, mirrors the concerns of many of the middle-class "pioneers'' here and elsewhere, when she says that the prospect of having a large number of seats in the new school given to children from the public-housing projects has "frightened us to death.''

"It's really hurting our neighborhood,'' she said. "People are so upset they've made plans to move to suburbs or transfer their children to private or parochial schools.''

In her view, the dispute boils down to a single issue: "Can the board of education accommodate the growing black middle class and white middle class, or must they move to the suburbs?''

But Jacqueline Russell, president of the Hilliard Homes school-improvement council, bridles at this interpretation.

"They're trying to deal with it like it's a private school,'' she said, "but it's a public school, built with public funds, and our children have the right to go there.''

Stakes of Redevelopment

The Dearborn Park development is described as a model urban-revitalization project. Some 1,250 new townhouses and condominiums have been built in the past decade on land that has stood vacant since the abandonment of a Santa Fe Railroad station that once served as a famous gateway to this city.

Residents here are quick to point out that the neighborhood is both racially and economically integrated. Some 20 percent of the public-school students there live insubsidized housing, and nearly 50 percent of the residents are minorities, they say.

The creation of Dearborn Park has also helped spark the development of new housing in the surrounding area.

New shops and restaurants are thriving in the area, giving the neighborhood a reputation that has sent prices for homes soaring.

It is, thus far, a thriving example of what many urban areas are trying to create: an attractive residential neighborhood that will attract middle-class families back to the city, shoring up a depleted tax base.

But officials here acknowledge that a key factor in the continued success of their revitalization efforts will be how the quality of the school system is perceived.

"Good schools play a very important part when families are judging the quality of a community,'' said Elizabeth Hollander, the city's commissioner of planning.

Dearborn Park residents agree, and argue that the eventual fate of the new school may mark a turning point for the neighborhood.

If the Board of Education chooses to designate the new building as a neighborhood school drawing heavily from the public housing, Ms. Hoch said, "The practical reality is that our parents will bolt--they will make alternative plans for schooling and/or residence.''

She said she had surveyed parents in the community and found that most will not send their children to the new school if more than 20 percent of its enrollment is public-housing students.

"They're willing to have a mix of students,'' she said, "but they can't deal with overwhelming numbers from the projects.''

The primary fear expressed by the Dearborn parents at hearings and caucuses, Ms. Hoch said, is that "their children's education would suffer'' because teachers would be too busy dealing with peripheral problems, primarily discipline.

"Whether or not [such problems] in truth exist is quite immaterial,'' she said. "It is the perception that matters. When you try to market an inner-city area, particularly on the south side of Chicago, perceptions run amok.''

The prospect that they may lose the school makes the Dearborn residents "fighting mad,'' Ms. Hoch added. The community has invested a lot of time and energy working to get the school built, she said, and has met repeatedly with architects, city planners, businessmen, and civic leaders throughout the planning stages.

About 62 students from the redevelopment area now attend a K-3 school located in several Dearborn Park townhouses owned by the Chicago Board of Education. Their parents have drawn on resources available from a number of downtown museums to develop a fine-arts program that they say they will transfer to the new school when it is completed.

"We've built this community,'' Ms. Hoch said. "The first people here were pretty hearty urban pioneers. It was wild and wooly--most of the surrounding buildings were boarded up, and there were vagrants on the streets.''

The board of education has promised to build a school since the community was first conceived, she noted. But the school system's brush with bankruptcy in the late 1970's prevented it from floating the bonds needed for school construction.

Then, in 1985, the system's bond rating was restored, and the board made plans to begin building 10 schools. The long years of planning by the Dearborn Park parents seemed finally about to bear fruit.

Parents in the subsidized-housing projects, too, were excited by news of the new school, according to their leaders. But their hopes were soon dampened, they said, when it became clear that they would not be made welcome by their new neighbors.

In Ms. Russell's view, the Dearborn Park parents "thought they were going to have the whole school to themselves.''

'Simple Equality'

"But that's the new school in the neighborhood, and our kids have a right by law to go there,'' she said. "It's simple equality of education.''

It is also, others say, a "badly needed'' development.

Currently, about 170 Hilliard Homes children attend grades K-2 in temporary structures parked amid several auto-salvage yards.

"Some of the classrooms face out into the junkyard, and the kids can sit there and watch cars and tires burn,'' said Shirley Woodard, a teacher who has taught in the area since she was first assigned there 20 years ago.

The six temporary classrooms are branch extensions of the Haines School, where the rest of the elementary students from the projects are assigned. Students walk to the school by routes that the parents consider "hazardous.'' Some students must cross high-speed entrance and exit ramps from a nearby expressway, and others have to walk through a dark, damp tunnel where a few have been accosted or robbed.

The poorer children, Ms. Woodard said, "have always had to go to a makeshift school for the first years of their school life.''

"Why should that brunt be put on them?'' she asked. "Every educator knows you set the foundation for education in the primary grades.''

'Bungled' Planning

Some observers say that the acrimony between the groups of competing parents might have been avoided had past and current boards of education been more sensitive and creative in their planning.

"The basic problem is that the school system has bungled the planning process for the school and exacerbated the potential conflicts between parents,'' said Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago-based nonprofit research and advocacy group for children's issues.

"They built a school that was too small to serve all of the kids in the area,'' he said, "thereby creating competition over who was going to get into the school.''

Furthermore, he said, "there has been no effective effort to bring the two sides together over the last several years, and no work on a program for the school that would focus on how it could best serve a diverse group of kids.''

The possibility that the school would need to accommodate students from the subsidized housing "was never discussed or thought of or planned,'' said Dearborn's Ms. Hoch. "They had their own schools.''

Mr. Moore said that the intent of past boards of education to keep the two neighborhoods separated is indicated both by the size of the new school and by the fact that they replaced the "wretched, filthy'' mobile classrooms that the disadvantaged students were attending with new portable structures at the same time that construction for the new school got under way.

"They used the same techniques that have been used to keep the races separated, only the issue now is segregation based on income instead of race,'' he stated.

"The board did not see fit to build a school for these four [housing project] buildings,'' said Edna Harp, head teacher at the Haines branch school. "I'm talking about 21 years of children here without a school of their own.''

The 1983 election of Mayor Washington, with his expressed commitment to helping the disadvantaged, has improved the board's receptiveness to their cause, the Hilliard Homes parents say. They have found support among some of the mayor's new appointments to the 11-member board of education.

But even the middle-class parents remain critical of the board. "They've never even provided a trained mediator for our meetings,'' Ms. Hoch said. "We're not at all optimistic that they will accommodate our needs.''

Negotiating Positions

The board has encouraged the parents' groups to work out a compromise among themselves and to present it to the board. But, according to those involved, the two sides appear to be growing further apart in their negotiating positions.

The Dearborn Park parents have developed their fifth compromise proposal, which would call for the new school to become a fine-arts magnet, open on a lottery basis to students citywide. Haines School, where the Hilliard Homes students are currently enrolled, would become the neighborhood school for the entire South Loop area, which encompasses Dearborn Park.

The middle-class parents strongly favor a magnet because of the additional teachers and resources that would become available to the school.

Previously, they had asked that their school-age children be allowed first preference at such a magnet school, with the remaining seats filled by an admissions system aimed at attracting an integrated student population. They have also dropped a demand that admission to the school be limited to those with average or above-average basic skills.

The public-housing parents, meanwhile, are clinging to the position that the new building be designated as a neighborhood school with an attendance boundary that would include Dearborn Park, the Hilliard Homes, and the Long Grove apartments.

The school should have a fine-arts magnet program, they agree, to attract a greater proportion of nonminority students.

'Worlds Apart'

The conflict here has attracted considerable media attention, as both groups of parents have become adept at using the biweekly board of education meetings as a forum to present their views.

Though no side, as yet, appears to have a clear advantage, most observers note that, by acknowledging the public-housing families' right to help decide what becomes of the new school, the board has already upset the plans of the Dearborn Park parents.

At its meeting late last month, the board's desegregation committee did not vote on any of the proposals before it, in order to give the parents' groups another opportunity to reach a compromise. But, the committee members warned the groups that, should their negotiations fail, they will impose their own solution.

The latest plan developed by school officials would designate the new school as a neighborhood school for both Dearborn Park and the public-housing projects. The public-housing students would continue, however, to attend the Haines temporary classrooms for grades K-3.

The negotiations are made more difficult, said Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, by the fact that the two groups of parents are "worlds apart in terms of world view and rhetorical style.''

"They do not talk the same language,'' he said.

Gary Orfield, director of the University of Chicago's National School Desegregation Project, urged deliberation and careful planning. "You can't solve the whole problem of educating children from the housing project if you open up that school in a really thoughtless way,'' he said.

The board will have to make some concessions, Mr. Orfield argues, "if they want black and white middle-class families to move into the community.'' Without new families, he said, the city's schools will almost inevitably remain segregated on the basis of race.

"If you lose the middle-class families,'' he said, "you would just have yet another housing-project school in a different location.''

"The ideal solution,'' according to Mr. Orfield, "is to get the middle class committed to the public schools, but not in a way that would segregate kids on the basis of race.''

If the board can create enough places where there are sound schools, he said, "it makes redevelopment on a larger scale more feasible.''

'Class Prejudice'

Others insist that the dispute must be settled on the basis of fairness. "The board can't base policies on the self-interest of the middle-class advantaged,'' Mr. Hess said.

He calls the conflict a "classic case of class prejudice: The advantaged parents don't want their kids to go to school with the disadvantaged kids.''

The revitalization of the downtown neighborhood, Mr. Hess argued, "does not depend on having a middle-class school.''

That is strictly a threat, he said, proffered by "short-sighted, parochial, self-concerned people who know how to manipulate the system for their own benefit.''

"There's no excuse for their implication that, if the project kids are included, the school won't be a good school,'' he asserted. "If the administration and staff comes in there and says all kids can learn well, and we're going to see that they do, you'll have a good school.''

"The perceptions that the middle-class parents have about the poor are only going to get dealt with when they have to work together,'' he said.

If they do not, he added, "it will just entrench the prejudice.''

Agreed Mr. Moore of Designs for Change: "There ought to be an equal opportunity for kids from Hilliard and Dearborn Park to attend the new school on an equal footing.''

"So many errors have been made,'' he concluded, "that what we're facing is a very narrow set of choices, none of which is completely satisfactory.''

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