School Climate & Safety

Size Matters

By John Gehring — March 01, 2004 8 min read
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A new junior high school flies in the face of the small-school movement—big time.

It’s a few minutes before 8 a.m., and a tidal wave is gathering. Sleepy-eyed 7th and 8th graders, bundled in baggy sweatshirts and lugging bulging book bags, stream from every direction, forming a restless sea. The 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 pour into a building big enough to be an airport terminal.

In a way, you could say that Unity Junior High School in Cicero, Illinois, is all about numbers: More than 2,700 students. Seventeen acres. Eight faculty lounges. Eighty-eight restrooms. Ninety-six security cameras. Seventy-eight million dollars. Just what those numbers add up to has been the subject of debate: “Horrible.” “Cicero’s crown jewel.” “A disaster waiting to happen.” But at the center of this swirl of words and numbers is the school’s sheer size.

When it reaches its full capacity of 4,000 students, Unity will be the largest junior high in the nation, according to Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. But teachers and administrators say that’s not necessarily a bad thing—especially given the lack of alternatives. From fewer than 5,000 students in 1983, Cicero School District 99 has grown to serve 13,000 students. School officials have to find space for 500 new students a year in a town with precious little buildable space. In that context, supporters argue, Unity has been a godsend. They speak in glowing terms about a state-of-the-art school that offers kids—97 percent of whom are Latino—an environment usually found only in wealthier, whiter suburban communities.

Administrators hope the school—"Cicero’s crown jewel,” as the school district’s Web site proudly calls it—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. “I’ve had parents stop me and say, ‘I’m glad my child is going to the school,’” says superintendent Edward Aksamit. “We will invite our critics out here.”

The campus does offer a less-than-subtle retort to the notion that big schools are dinosaurs, but teachers and administrators at Unity say the most capacious junior high school in the nation functions more like a bunch of smaller schools that all happen to share the same roof.

“We realize it’s a big school, but we have tried hard to create a small-school atmosphere,” says Denise Boyle, the school’s 8th grade principal, in between squawks from her walkie-talkie on a fall Monday morning. On a table in her office, she spreads out the school map, which looks like a floor plan for a shopping mall. While the building itself is gargantuan, administrators say class sizes are relatively small, with approximately 20 pupils to each teacher. 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.

The school, which opened this past August, is also organized into “clusters,” allowing students to spend most of their days in one part of the complex, rather than having to schlep all over 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,” says Aksamit. He says the 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 car-parts factory became available, the district jumped at the chance to buy it, even though it turned out the land was heavily polluted. Contaminants left from the factory delayed construction of the school for more than a year, and $12 million had to be spent to clean up industrial toxins and get final approval from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. But it’s an entirely different set of issues that most worries critics, including some parents of Unity students.

Mike Klonsky calls the school “a disaster waiting to happen.” Klonsky directs the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which helps districts plan small schools or break big schools down into smaller units. While he applauds the school’s effort to create a feeling of greater intimacy, Klonsky isn’t convinced that it’s enough. “I’m glad they’re doing those things, but you create these conditions to make up for poor design,” he says. “They are trying every trick to counter a horrible environment.” Moreover, he adds, building such a large school in Cicero ignores the context of the town and the wishes of its citizens. “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.”

The size of the school puts off some parents, community activists argue, and the town has a long history of a corrupt elite keeping the public out of the loop.

The size of the school puts off some parents, community activists argue, and the town has a long history of a corrupt elite keeping the public out of the loop. Al Capone once ruled the region, 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 tactics, pompadour hair, and thick black mascara, was indicted this past year and found guilty of siphoning $12 million in town funds through a Mafia-controlled insurance company. The fact that there’s a language barrier between the school district’s leadership and the town’s Mexican immigrant majority hasn’t made communication any easier.

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, agrees. The school reminds him of a correctional facility, he says, and its size intimidates parents. He also worries that with the town’s quickly growing population, Unity will soon be overcrowded. “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. There needs to be an open channel of communication with parents and friendly faces so they know they are welcome.”

“A small number of people here control the local government and schools,” adds Cristine Pope, the director of a Cicero community group called the Interfaith Leadership Project. “It’s been pretty effective in keeping people out of decision making.” She says that because of language and cultural barriers, many in the Latino community feel threatened by and disconnected from the town’s entrenched power structure.

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 school district officials to be more responsive to parents’ concerns. “The district,” she says, “has a way of quieting people down.”

But Larry Polk, a Cicero police officer who has been president of the district school board for the past 10 years, says administrators have made efforts to involve the immigrant community. “Anytime 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 are held at schools, he notes, and an interpreter is always present. “I have never, in my 10 years as president, ever closed a board meeting without answering every question on the floor,” Polk adds.

Klonsky and other critics, including some Unity parents, also worry that mixing so many adolescents together will inevitably inflame gang tensions. One of the concerns about Unity is that local gang problems could more easily spill into a school with so many students. To avoid making gang feuds worse, district officials spent months coming up with neutral colors for the security badges that all students wear. James Woods, one of the school’s architects, says Unity was also carefully designed with a large common 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 nearly 100 discreetly placed security cameras.

Later in the day at Unity, students are sitting at round tables during the start of a lunch period in one of the so-called cafetoriums—cafeterias so cavernous, they double as auditoriums. 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 hot dogs and sip chocolate milk, and Cinthia Zabala, a 12-year-old 7th grader, says she likes how different Unity is from any other school she has attended.

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

Ed Warble,
Unity Junior High School

“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 the7th graders.”

Juan Villarreal says he likes having a large school where he can make 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.”

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 east wing’s third floor, she’s impressed with what she’s seen. “I love it,” she says. “We have created a positive, warm climate for the kids. The kids want to come here. I want to come here.”

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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