Equity & Diversity

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By Mary Ann Zehr — March 10, 2004 13 min read
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In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the South Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side was home primarily to Polish and Czech immigrants.

In the decades since then, South Lawndale has undergone dramatic change. Eastern Europeans moved out, and people of Mexican descent settled in its two- story homes of brown brick. Known as Little Village, or La Villita, since the late 1960s, the neighborhood reflects demographic shifts that have changed the face of the nation in the 50 years since the historic court decision struck down racially segregated schooling.

Most adults in Little Village are first-generation Mexican immigrants, but many of their children were born in the United States. Chicago is home to the nation’s second-largest community of people of Mexican origin, next only to Los Angeles.

Today, in fact, more than one-third of the 439,000 students attending the Chicago public schools are Hispanic. The enrollment of the nation’s third-largest school district—in a Northern industrial city where Martin Luther King Jr. once marched to demand equal justice for black Americans—is now 51 percent black, 36 percent Hispanic, 9 percent white, 3 percent Asian-American, and less than 1 percent Native American.

Nationwide, Hispanic students have outnumbered African-American children in public schools since 1998. That trend has heightened the complexity of American education’s demographic profile, after decades in which integration— in most people’s eyes—was literally an issue of black and white. In Little Village, Latinos attend schools enrolling mostly minority students from poor families, reflecting a national pattern. Hispanic students are, “by most measures, the most segregated by both race and poverty,” according to a recent report by Gary Orfield, a researcher at Harvard University.

King’s last great community campaign was in Chicago, where the civil rights leader “hoped to change the racial inequities of the great urban complexes of the North,” Orfield notes in his report. King led demonstrations against segregated schools and housing in the city, Orfield writes, but “there were no real triumphs and the basic patterns did not change.”

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Little Village’s affordable housing—if not its schools—continues to attract new immigrants. Early waves of Mexican arrivals worked in factories making General Electric appliances and Brach’s candy. Some immigrants still toil in factories, but many others board the No. 60 public bus for a 45-minute ride downtown to work in service jobs in Chicago’s hotels and restaurants.

Signs of Mexican culture are everywhere in La Villita. A man belts out a Spanish love song while walking outside in subzero temperatures. Piñatas hang from the ceiling in a grocery store. Vendors at a “discount mall,” set up like an indoor Mexican market, sell frilly pillows to carry the crown for a quinceañera, the 15th-birthday party customary for Mexican girls. Clocks are adorned with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary as she is said to have appeared as an indigenous Mexican woman in a 16th-century vision. A street vendor roasts elotes, or corn on the cob Mexican- style, over an open grill, while several kinds of steamed tamales, which melt in one’s mouth, are available from Little Village’s many restaurants.

But in this neighborhood, when residents wanted a new high school to relieve overcrowding and provide strong academics, they held a hunger strike to get one. Residents here believe Latinos have gotten short shrift when it comes to educational opportunities in Chicago.

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Read the accompanying story, “A Long Struggle for Equality.”

Linda Sarate, a Texas-born Mexican- American who moved to Little Village at age 9 and is now a homemaker and mother of three, says she joined the 2001 hunger strike because she was angry that the district had promised a new high school for Little Village but never built it. What’s more, the system had gone ahead and built two selective- enrollment high schools, which had also been promised in 1998, in wealthier neighborhoods.

“It was a slap in the face to the community, what they did,” says Sarate, 46. “It was like they were saying, ‘Your kids aren’t worth it and my kids are.’ ”

But Arne Duncan, who became the chief executive officer of the Chicago school system only weeks after the hunger strike ended, says he would have made sure Little Village got a new high school even if there hadn’t been a hunger strike.

Led by the Little Village Community Development Corp., residents struck for 19 days in the spring of 2001, until organizers called the protest off because of concerns for the strikers’ health. Two months later, after Duncan succeeded Paul G. Vallas, the new district chief pledged to renew the 1998 promise.

“It was the right thing to do,” Duncan says. “It’s a community with a growing population. I saw tremendous need.”

At long last, the new high school is going up. Expected to cost $61 million—more than any other public school in the city’s history—it is scheduled to open in the fall of 2005 with a swimming pool, two gymnasiums, a health clinic, and a rooftop auditorium sheltered by a cone-shaped structure.

Duncan doesn’t agree with the prevalent view in Little Village that the school system has discriminated against Latinos. Rather, he says, the district constantly faces the challenge of providing new schools in areas of the city where there is overcrowding, and “that is frequently in the Latino community.”

The Little Village CDC has organized a committee to advise the district on the new high school to ensure that the facility will meet residents’ needs. “Students in this neighborhood shouldn’t have to go 10 miles to the North Side to go to a good high school,” says Jaime de Leon, the coordinator of the effort by the Little Village CDC to help plan the new school. “We went to visit the North Side magnet schools and they had all these facilities. We said that we want what they’ve got.”

Latino activists seem to view the city’s long-standing patterns of segregation by race, ethnicity, and income level as difficult to change and outside their control.

“Kids are segregated in schools because housing is segregated,” says Linda G. Coronado, a former Chicago school board member and a member of the Little Village CDC’s advisory committee for the new high school. “The only people who can do anything about that are elected officials.”

Of the 1,400 students expected to attend the new school, as many as 75 percent likely will be Latinos; the remainder will be African-Americans from neighboring North Lawndale. At least 90 percent of the students are expected to be from families living in poverty.

Meanwhile, district officials are trying to address the city’s burgeoning Latino population in a revision of a 1981 consent decree settling a complaint of racial discrimination. Since 1990, the population of Hispanic children in the city has grown by 35 percent, reaching more than 290,000 by 2000. The consent decree requires the district to desegregate its schools by race, integrate its faculty, and make sure that all students have equal educational opportunity, says Joi M. Mecks, a spokeswoman for the school system.

In January 2003, U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras said the consent decree was no longer viable—particularly given how the demographics of the schools had changed. He asked the school system to craft a new desegregation plan, and in November, the district and the U.S. Department of Justice did so. The court approved the plan last week.

The modifications to the 1981 consent decree that focus on Latinos include the expansion and increased monitoring of bilingual education programs, according to M. Beatriz Arias, an associate professor of education at Arizona State University in Tempe. She was a consultant for the plan.

‘Students in this neighborhood shouldn't have to go 10 miles to the North Side to go to a good high school.’

As Chicago’s Latino population has grown, Latinos have gradually moved into important political positions. In 1983, the City Council had only one alderman who was Latino; today, eight of the 50 aldermen are Latino. Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Gery Chico, a Mexican-American who was then a top aide, as the president of the board of education when the mayor assumed control of the school system in 1995. Chico stepped down in 2001.

Latino politicians have helped to improve educational opportunities for Latino children, says Ricardo Muñoz, a Mexican-American who since 1993 has been the alderman for Little Village and North Lawndale. “As Latinos began to have more influence and power,” he says, “it framed the debate differently, from ‘Where are my children being bused?’ to ‘Why don’t I have buildings in my neighborhood?’ ”

Muñoz says that Latino politicians urged the city to come up with ways to raise the money to build five elementary schools in Little Village in the mid-1990s. Still on the agenda for improving the schooling of Latinos in Chicago is an effort to pressure Illinois legislators to reduce the district’s dependence on property taxes, says Muñoz.

Little Village residents are concentrating on how to make their new high school more successful than the comprehensive high schools now serving large numbers of Hispanic students. Their hopes are riding on a plan to design four separate small schools within the building. Each will have its own principal and academic theme: social justice; world languages; fine and performing arts; and mathematics, science, and technology.

The Little Village CDC has been promised a four-year, $400,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, channeled through the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, to help carry out the small-schools concept. The Gates Foundation largely has paid for an additional $75,000 that will be channeled to the community-development corporation through an initiative of the Chicago Community Trust.

Residents want the school to provide a sharp contrast to Little Village’s only existing high school, 2,500-student David G. Farragut Career Academy High School. Students who attend Farragut say frequent fistfights in the school are a problem. African-Americans clash with Mexican-American students, and members of Mexican-American gangs also fight with each other, the students say.

Luis Reyes, a 17-year-old who attends Farragut High, says the school has a police substation and lots of security guards, but fights still break out. On a recent winter day, for instance, when classes were scheduled for only a half- day, some students started a fight. A classroom lockdown was ordered, Reyes says, and all students were stuck for an hour and a half.

Farragut offers some good academic programs, such as calculus and physics for college credit, says Reyes. But at the same time, he says, the school is crowded and suffers from high teacher turnover.

More than a quarter of the teachers at Farragut have emergency or provisional credentials; on average, schools in Chicago have 8.2 percent of teachers in the same situation, according to the Illinois School Report Card.

Edward Guerra, Farragut’s principal, doesn’t think the school is overcrowded, and he says he’s had to fire a lot of teachers “for not doing their job.”

He names numerous programs he believes are top-notch, including carpentry and a Junior ROTC program with 350 students that operates as a self-contained school. Since he became the principal in the 1994-95 school year, the proportion of students at Farragut who are proficient in reading has tripled, from 7 percent to 21 percent, the student-attendance rate has increased from 70 percent to 92 percent, and enrollment has doubled, says Guerra. He also asserts that safety has improved.

The belief that Latino youths in Chicago will be better served by small schools is growing.

Carlos Azcoitia, a Cuban-American who was for the past few years a central-office administrator for the district, returned this school year to his former job as the principal of John Spry Elementary School in Little Village. Under Azcoitia’s leadership, the 1,000-student preK-8 school will add high school grades drawing students from the attendance area around it. This school year, Azcoitia added a 9th grade of 32 students. Eventually, the high school will include 100 students, he says.

The belief that latino youths in Chicago will be better served by small schools is growing.

Already, the results are encouraging, in that the 9th graders have a 98 percent attendance rate, Azcoitia says. He attributes the high rate to the special attention that students receive in small schools, and he hopes the model will catch on with other K-8 schools serving Latinos in Chicago and nationwide. “We lose so many of our students after 8th grade,” he says. “We have to do something.”

Diego Galeana, 17, who dropped out of Farragut High, says that in his case, attending such a large school was a disaster. He says he was expelled because he had too many absences and tended to get into trouble. Galeana landed a factory job, but he quit after only three weeks. “I was lifting heavy stuff and I’m puny. I said, ‘F—- this, I don’t like being treated like a Mexican.’”

He joined an activist youth group and became friends with an adult who helped him get placed at the Instituto del Progreso Latino, an alternative public charter school with 60 students in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, just east of Little Village. Galeana is still in the 9th grade, which he says is really discouraging, but he’s managing much better than he did at Farragut.

“I’m able to solve my problems and not wait a long time,” he says.

Some students and parents in Little Village are reluctant to criticize the schools in the neighborhood. “There are no bad schools if the students want to learn,” says Rosa Marina in Spanish after dropping off her 6th grade daughter at Spry on a recent winter day. Like many immigrants to Little Village, she and her husband, a factory worker, received only a primary education in Mexico.

But others are critical of the schools, noting that the achievement levels at Farragut and the elementary schools in Little Village are low. In fact, while the test scores of each of the neighborhood’s 17 schools, including Farragut, are lower than the average scores for schools in Illinois, five elementary schools in Little Village have test scores that are above- average for the Chicago district. Juan Carlos Alvizar, 18, who lives in Little Village and now goes to the same alternative school as Galeana, recalls that his elementary school in Little Village often got textbooks and computers handed down from other schools. It gave him the feeling that “they’re putting you down—like you’re not going to be anything,” he says.

Residents of Little Village say they want their children to get a good education so they can do well in American society.

“Education is everything,” says Sarate, the hunger- striker. “I didn’t have a good one.” She attended a school in Chicago for students with disabilities because she had polio as a child. During the hunger strike, she fasted until she could barely hold her head up. Sarate expects to enroll her son Lorenzo Infante, now a 7th grader, in the new high school, and is confident he’ll get a good education there.

De Leon of the Little Village CDC believes that community involvement is going to make the difference in the new high school’s effectiveness for Latino students. But as a middle-class Mexican-American resident of Little Village and a college graduate who went to Roman Catholic schools, he acknowledges that he isn’t yet confident that Little Village’s public schools will be good enough for his own daughter, Lucia, who is now an infant.

“I would like to be able to send her to a public school,” he says. “I’m conflicted.”

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.


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