Communities Struggle to Make Small Serve All
For the adjacent Chicago neighborhoods of Little Village and North Lawndale, two working-class, low-income communities (the former predominantly Latino/a and the latter African-American) on the southwest side of the city, the struggle to secure a new state-of-the-art high school has been bittersweet. It’s the story of how a school grew out of a hunger strike and how Renaissance 2010 has been used as a wedge to divide communities. And it reveals the competing agendas often resting beneath the banner of small school reform.
The story of the hunger strike dates back to 1998 as community members in Little Village met to address overcrowding in the local community high school. As the most densely populated community in Chicago, Little Village desperately needed a new high school. Young people in the existing neighborhood school were dropping out at a rate of almost 40 percent, noting issues of safety and the school’s inability to meet student needs and multiple problems. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) agreed to build a new high school in the Little Village neighborhood.
But instead of building the school, CPS began to develop five selective enrollment magnet schools throughout the city. While the magnet schools held press conferences and groundbreaking ceremonies, the residents of Little Village waited patiently for the announcement of their new school.
Soon after the other high schools were built, community residents from Little Village inquired about their school. CPS informed them that the funds had “dried up” and there was no money for their high school. Outraged residents of Little Village began an organizing campaign that culminated in a 19-day hunger strike, lasting from May 13 to June 2, 2001. The hunger strikers were Latino high school students, teachers, community organizers, community residents, and grandmothers. They erected a campsite at the space originally designated for the high school, which they dubbed “Camp Cesar Chavez.” And they fasted for 19 days. Their objective was to bring CPS to the negotiating table. After years of waiting/delay and several weeks of negotiating, CPS decided in early June of 2001 to build a community high school in Little Village.
Over the next three years, a committee of hunger strike veterans, concerned community members, and local organizers assembled architectural design, curriculum, and community inclusion committees to gather ideas on what the community wanted to see in their school. They eventually embraced the school-within-a-school concept, with four schools housed in a multiplex structure. Each school would operate autonomously, while sharing athletic teams, a library, and community services, including adult education programs, a health clinic, and after-school programming (services vitally important to the community that are sometimes squeezed out by the facilities and budget limitations of small school reform projects). After polling the community, the organizers decided to support the following school themes: math, science, and technology; visual and performing arts; world languages; and social justice. I joined the design team for the social justice school.
Starting a new school meant dealing with district initiatives, which pushed the local campaign in both positive and negative directions.
A School for All
Because each school in the multiplex was to be a neighborhood school with non-selective admissions criteria, central office made several important demands of the committees in Little Village. The first was a desegregation consent decree requiring that the population of each school in the multiplex be at least 30 percent African American. This required community members from the Latino community of Little Village to recruit and include African-American residents from the neighboring community of North Lawndale. The inclusion of African-American participation from North Lawndale has served as a catalyst for cultural, ethnic, and racial collaboration, an element desperately needed in a racially segregated urban area like Chicago.
Second, under the Gates-sponsored Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) guidelines, CPS required an open call for proposals for each of the high schools. The community was able to insist that the proposals could only be for the four high schools as designated by the community, and that design teams would submit proposals to a community oversight board which would work in partnership with CHSRI. But CPS required the oversight board to work though the transitional advisory council (TAC) structure that had been set up as part of the CHSRI process. In the new small schools, the TACs replaced parent and community-dominated site councils that had been established years ago in earlier rounds of Chicago school reform. The TACs were responsible for screening submitted proposals and making a recommendation to CPS. At the central office, CPS would have the final say on proposals. Shepherding the community’s school vision through this bureaucratic maze became even more complicated as the CHSRI was folded into the more ambitious, and even more problematic, Renaissance 2010.
Described more fully elsewhere in this issue [see Pauline Lipman’s article on page 54], Renaissance 2010 has sparked growing opposition from communities and neighborhoods as residents are pushed out and existing schools are closed. Despite strong denials by CPS that its small school plans have been shaped by the relocation and redevelopment ambitions of Renaissance 2010, any new project is being listed under the 2010 umbrella — even those with roots in earlier community-driven initiatives.
Members of the social justice design team were dismayed when we noticed CPS press releases claimed members from the Little Village TAC were in support of Renaissance 2010. What’s worse, a CPS official on the TAC had been contacting the principals of the new schools to be located in the multiplex about the advantages of becoming a “performance school” under the 2010 policy. Performance schools are public charter schools. They are managed and funded by the district under a five-year “performance agreement” that provides “greater autonomy” in exchange for meeting certain performance targets like test scores.Under Renaissance 2010, “performance schools” are funded under a different formula than the CHSRI small schools, resulting in a significant decrease in funding for programming and institutional support. Concerned with these pressures and their implications, we requested to meet with Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago schools.
In the Land of Double Talk
Duncan tried to tell us that we were misinformed about Renaissance 2010’s relationship to gentrification. He claimed CPS was leading the way in finally taking a stand for schools that had been historically underperforming across the city when no one else would.
After an unsatisfactory meeting, members of the TAC and the design team organized a public hearing for the communities of North Lawndale and Little Village where we expressed concerns about Renaissance 2010.
So far, CPS continues to say one thing while doing another. The community has maintained strong opposition to the policy at public hearings and events. Conceding the community’s displeasure with Renaissance 2010, it has returned the status of the multiplex to “neighborhood small school.” At the same time, it continues to claim that any new development in CPS is part of Renaissance 2010. CPS officials continue to present principals with the “option” of becoming performance schools as they develop curriculum and schedules approaching opening day in September. But the Little Village Multiplex is still listed on the CPS website and in their new schools development directory as a Renaissance 2010 project.
On the ground, the battle is far from over. This struggle to maintain our vision for a neighborhood school demonstrates the importance of using community action to hold school authorities accountable in the battle for quality, inclusive education. Despite pressures to provide cookie-cutter solutions to multifaceted school issues, the communities of Little Village and North Lawndale created a ripple in the system and offered hope to many.