Diverse neighborhoods and segregated schools

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From WBEZ, the NPR affiliate in Chicago:

In neighborhoods across Chicago where development and gentrification have taken hold, middle-income families are staying in the city and raising children. But there’s one aspect of city life many have been slow to embrace: their nearby public school. WBEZ looks at the dynamics that come into play when higher income neighbors don’t feel the neighborhood school is good enough for their kids.

Jeff Rosen thinks he lives in one of the best neighborhoods in Chicago, the area around the University of Illinois.

ROSEN: We’re a vibrant university community, a very racially and socioeconomically diverse community. We’re really a microcosm of the entire city.

And every morning, all the middle-class public schoolkids in the community scatter across the city, to more than a dozen magnet and gifted schools where they’ve won seats in the district’s lottery.

Last year, Rosen applied to all those schools for his kindergartener. He says you don’t realize how difficult the Chicago schooling situation is until you’re in it. Pretty soon, Rosen had a stack of rejection letters.

ROSEN: You know, your greatest fear takes hold, and you think to yourself, ‘My gosh. I don’t have any option for the fall.’ Other than the neighborhood school, which you don’t consider to be an acceptable environment for your child.

Ambi: Smyth school kindergarteners and first graders read details they’ve written about toads

More than 600 kids attend Rosen’s neighborhood school, Smyth. Rosen’s daughter has a guaranteed seat here, no lottery needed. But nearly all Smyth students are black, and nearly all are poor, many from public housing.

It’s essentially a segregated school, one of dozens that exist in otherwise diverse Chicago neighborhoods.

And Smyth is struggling. It posts some of the worst test scores in the city. In fact, scores here are 20 points below the district’s average for both African-American and poor students. Rosen never even considered sending his daughter here.

That stirs up a lot of emotion in Delora Scott-Wimberly, a Smyth parent who’s had to explain to her seventh grader why white people won’t send their kids to her school.

SCOTT-WIMBERLY: If you come inside and get an actual visit of the school, then maybe they’ll change their perception of the actual school and the people that’s inside of it.

Classroom ambi, 6th grade

Inside Smyth, the spacious, 100-year-old classrooms are bright and welcoming, floors polished until they gleam. Smyth’s main hallway features fish tanks and flags from around the world. Every kid here studies Mandarin and is part of the highly touted International Baccalaureate program.

Principal Ronald Whitmore was an award-winning teacher and oversaw early childhood education for the entire school district before coming to Smyth. But just about every other year since Whitmore arrived, CPS has closed a low-performing school nearby, and assigned those kids to him. Whitmore says his attention is on improving Smyth. Read more or listen to the full radio segment…

This is hard–so hard. We want public schools to thrive, but how can they thrive if the most engaged and involved parents and the best students run away from them? But then, who here doesn’t want the best for their children? And who wouldn’t choose their offspring’s best interests over those of an ailing neighborhood school? Are inner-city schools, housing mostly POC students, so associated with failure that parents are loathe to give them a chance to thrive? Were you surprised to hear that kids in a neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago are learning Mandarin?

Weigh in.

Photo Credit: nikki.jane

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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