School Climate & Safety

A Question of Scale

By John Gehring — December 03, 2003 10 min read
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A brand-new Chicago-area junior high, built for 4,000 students, flies in the face of the small-schools movement.

They just keep coming.

It’s a few minutes before 8 a.m., and waves of sleepy-eyed 7th and 8th graders, bundled in baggy sweatshirts and lugging bulging bookbags, appear from every direction. Rows of 12- and 13-year-olds, many chatting in Spanish, a few listening to music on headphones, quickly fill the sidewalk that runs the length of two football fields in front of their school.

“Let’s go, the doors are open!” a teacher shouts, and students slowly file inside Unity Junior High School.

The four-story brick building has been open only a few months, but before the first sneaker hit its hallways, Unity’s prolific proportions became the subject of intense debates in this Chicago suburb.

Designed to hold 4,000 students, the school spreads over 17 acres. It boasts six full-size, hardwood-floor basketball courts, two “cafetoriums” for lunch and school productions, 88 restrooms, eight faculty lounges, and a locker room that can hold 360 students. The place resembles an airport terminal more than a school.

The size of Unity Junior High offers a not-so-subtle rejection of the current theory and trend—promoted by everyone from academic researchers to Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates—that smaller schools are the answer to many of education’s thorniest problems.

“Cicero’s crown jewel,” the school district’s Web site proudly calls the $78 million project.

“A disaster waiting to happen,” counters Mike Klonsky, the director of the Smalls Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which helps districts plan small schools or break big schools down into smaller units.

Klonsky and other critics—some of them parents of Unity students—worry that mixing so many adolescents will inflame gang tensions. The school is also Cicero’s first junior high, a dramatic change for students who previously would have attended mainly K-8 schools.

“To build a school with 4,000 kids in a predominantly low-income community shows that the interest of those kids was not put in first place,” Klonsky says. “It seems like in communities like Cicero, the education research that is out there is not taken seriously.”

At full capacity, Unity will be the largest junior high in the nation, according to Judy Marks, the associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, a Washington-based group that provides information on the design of precollegiate schools. This year, the school enrolls 2,742 students.

Teachers and administrators here know all about the small-school trend. But they speak in glowing terms about a state-of-the-art school that offers students—97 percent of whom are Latino—an environment usually found only in wealthier suburban communities. One of Chicago’s oldest suburbs, Cicero attracts 500 new students a year, many of them Mexican immigrants. From fewer than 5,000 students in 1983, the Cicero School District 99 has grown to serve 13,000 students. In that context, supporters argue, Unity has been a godsend.

Superintendent Edward Aksamit says a lack of available land in Cicero meant that building several smaller schools was not feasible. When a large swath of space on the site of a former factory that manufactured car parts became available, the district jumped. Construction began after a $12 million cleanup of industrial toxins and final approval from the state Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’ve had parents stop me and say, ‘I’m glad my child is going to the school,’ ” the superintendent says. “We will invite our critics out here.”

Once defined by its bustling factories where immigrants from Lithuania, Poland, and Italy climbed the ladder to a middle-class American dream, Cicero has seen its white ethnic population largely move away. Mexican immigrants make up a majority of the town’s 85,000 residents now, and the large factories that closed have given way to smaller taquerias and lavanderias that line the streets. In many cases, more than one family lives in the small brick bunglows that give this working-class area a 1950s feel. Many immigrants are day laborers or try to make ends meet in service-economy jobs.

Cicero has a rich—and notorious—political tradition. Al Capone once ruled here, and the taint of organized-crime influence and political corruption has not gone away. Betty Loren-Maltese, the Republican former town president known for her hardball political style, pompadour hair, and thick black mascara, was indicted in January and found guilty of siphoning $12 million in town funds through a Mafia-controlled insurance company.

Martin Luther King Jr. had plans to march here in 1967, but decided against the idea after town officials couldn’t guarantee his safety. King referred to the town as the Selma of the North. Cicero’s reputation for insularity and opposition to change has not completely gone away, either.

Critics worry that mixing so many adolescents will inflame gang tensions in the area.

Cristine Pope, the director of a Cicero community group called the Interfaith Leadership Project, says that because of language and cultural barriers, many in the Latino community feel intimidated and disconnected from the town’s entrenched power structure.

“A small number of people here control the local government and schools,” Pope says. “It’s been pretty effective in keeping people out of decisionmaking.”

Alicia Barajas, a youth organizer in Cicero, said that when she turned 18, a voting-precinct captain showed up at her house. He was there to encourage her to vote Republican, the party that has dominated politics here for decades. Other residents say such political overtures are not uncommon. Barajas moved out of Cicero to Chicago, in part because she wasn’t happy with the Cicero public schools.

Catherine Aguilera, a longtime resident whose son attends 7th grade at Unity, says she is generally happy with his experience at the junior high. She believes that the building is safe, and likes that class sizes are relatively small. But she just learned that the school site underwent a major environmental cleanup before opening.

“A lot of parents didn’t know that,” she says. “It’s a concern for me now that I know.” Aguilera would also like to see school district officials be more responsive to parents’ concerns. “The district,” she says, “has a way of quieting people down.”

Denise Boyle is never far from a walkie-talkie that squawks at her every few minutes on this Monday morning. The school clocks have not been changed for daylight-saving time, but otherwise, it’s a smooth start to the day. Buses have arrived on time. Students are in one of the 120 homerooms, preparing for classes. The 8th grade principal spreads a map of the school out on a table in her office. It looks like a floor plan for a shopping mall.

“It’s a cheery place, and everything is bright and new,” Boyle says. “We realize it’s a big school, but we have tried hard to create a small-school atmosphere. They have turned out a beautiful facility, and the teachers are upbeat about it.”

While the physical space of the building is mammoth, administrators here say class sizes are relatively small, with approximately 20 pupils. Students are separated by grade, with 7th graders in the east wing and 8th graders in the west. The wings have their own principals and every hall has an administrative aide.

A “cluster” concept allows students to spend most of their days on one hall, rather than having to schlep around the 332,235-square-foot building. They also will stay with the same teachers for their two years at Unity. “We were burdened with finding a space, so we went with a small-school concept in a large building,” Superintendent Aksamit says. “We included teacher input. We traveled around with models of the school and talked to parents.”

While he applauds the school’s effort to create a feeling of greater intimacy, Klonsky isn’t convinced that’s enough. “I’m glad they’re doing those things, but you create these conditions to make up for poor design,” the University of Illinois scholar says. “They are trying every trick to counter a horrible environment.”

Administrators hope the school will lead to academic improvement in the district, where 10 of the 15 schools appear on a state “watch list” because of low test scores.

Educators are striving to give Unity students a small-school experience.

One of the concerns about Unity is that local gang problems could more easily spill into a school with so many students. District officials spent months coming up with neutral colors for the security badges that all students wear, so as not to inflame any feuds.

James Woods, one of the school’s architects, said Unity was carefully designed with a large common-space area and extra-wide hallways to make it easier for students to move about and to reduce the likelihood of hallway scuffles. Three Cicero police officers monitor the school, backed up by 96 discreetly placed security cameras.

Ismael Vargas, the parent of a 7th grader at Unity and a community activist with a well-known Chicago advocacy group called Parents United for Responsible Education, still worries about the size of the building.

The school reminds him of a “correctional facility,” he says, and is intimidating to parents. He also worries that with the town’s quickly growing population, Unity Junior High will soon be overcrowded. Most importantly, Vargas wants to empower parents.

“I’m looking forward to when parents have more of a say in their schools,” Vargas says. “They are hungry to know what is going on. They are asking for the tools. There needs to be an open channel of communication with parents and friendly faces so they know they are welcome.”

But Larry Polk, a Cicero police officer who has been the president of the district school board for the past 10 years, said the district has made efforts to involve the immigrant community.

“Any time change comes, change is difficult for everyone,” Polk acknowledges. “But I believe we have gone to great lengths to get input from the community.” Board meetings, he says, are held in schools, and an interpreter is present at all meetings.

“I have never in my 10 years as president ever closed a board meeting without answering every question on the floor,” Polks says.

Later in the afternoon at Unity, students are sitting at round tables during the start of a lunch period in one of the cafetoriums.

Because of the school’s size, the first lunch hour starts at 9:30 a.m. But it’s noon now, a more reasonable hour to munch on hot dogs and chug chocolate milk, and Cinthia Zabala, a 12-year-old 7th grader, says she likes the fact that Unity is different from any other school she has attended.

“I know it’s big,” she says, “but they have separated the 7th and 8th grade.” She’s thought a lot about this and knows just what would happen if the two grades were mixed together: “There would be too many problems with 8th graders thinking they were better than the 7th graders.”

Juan Villarreal says he likes having a large school where he can meet a lot of different friends. But the 7th grader admits he was taken aback when he first arrived at the school. “It’s weird having so many people,” he says. “I was surprised to see how big it was.”

‘We know we are being watched. We need to prove this can work.’

Erika Jaramillo, 12, agrees. “It’s really big,” she says. “I have never seen a school this big.”

Emptying a lunchroom can be a logistical nightmare at almost any school, but Donata Heppner is up to the job. With patience and a bullhorn, Heppner dismisses small groups until the room is empty. An administrative assistant on the school’s third floor’s east wing, she’s impressed with what she’s seen at Unity so far.

“I love it,” says Heppner. “We have created a positive, warm climate for the kids. The kids want to come here. I want to come here. Today, I was here at 5:30 a.m.”

After lunch, the beats of hip-hop music pulse in the gym. It’s the 7th graders’ first “mixer,” and a disc jockey is being barraged with requests as groups of boys and girls work it out underneath basketball hoops.

When a popular song comes on, a cheer goes up, and the dancers shake and shimmy with even more energy. Teachers mingle though the crowd, trying their best not to look hopelessly out of place.

Maria McCarthy, a “Cuban married to an Irishman,” she says with a laugh, dances as she watches the students. Asked what she likes most about Unity, the administrative assistant smiles. “We’re having fun,” she shouts over the music. “Everyone is always smiling and enjoying it.”

Out in the hall, music teacher Ed Warble wants the school’s critics to know that educators here are out to prove naysayers wrong. “We all feel like we have a mission here,” he says. “We know we are being watched. We need to prove this can work.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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