Rich School, Poor School, Black School, White School

Chicago Public Schools is working out a plan to merge two of the city’s neighborhood elementary schools. Ogden International Elementary School serves the posh Gold Coast and its surroundings while Jenner Academy of the Arts serves the poorer Cabrini-Green neighborhood. Those in favor of the merger note that Ogden is overcrowded while Jenner is underutilized, and argue that combining the schools (with some grades on one campus and some on the other) simply makes good sense. But there is so much more than just this at play here.

Ogden has 838 students; Jenner has 246 students. At Ogden, 47% of students are white, 16% Asian, 15% Hispanic, 14% black, 8% mixed race; at Jenner, 98% of students are black. At Ogden, 21.7% of students are low income; at Jenner, 99.6% of students are low income. Given the racial and economic disparity, it’s not surprising that there is also academic disparity: only 9% of Ogden’s students did not meet expectations on the state’s PARCC assessment as compared to 60% at Jenner.

This isn’t a simple story of a poor black school and a wealthy white school. Instead, it’s a story about what kind of schools white parents are willing to send their children to—and what kind of schools they’re not. In a significant change from 50 years ago, white parents today tend to accept and even value diversity in the schools they attend. Slate notes that many parents today avoid schools they consider too white:

At the elementary-school level, white Washington parents prioritized schools where about 60 percent of the student body was white and were slightly more likely to avoid schools with larger percentages of white children.

However, this impulse has its limits. As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in a piece on school segregation in New York City:

In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes those schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children.

White parents want their children to attend schools that have some students of color, but not too many. Scholars looking at racial desegregation and resegregation often point to a tipping point of sorts—the point when a school becomes too black or too minority for white parents. Ogden is the sort of school white parents can feel proud about their children attending—it is diverse, but white children still make up around 50% of the student body. It has students of color, but not too many.

What of Jenner? The Cabrini-Green neighborhood was once synonymous with its housing projects and the gang warfare they harbored, but the last of these projects were demolished in 2011. Today, Cabrini-Green is gentrifying—the Chicago Housing Authority is replacing the high-rise projects it demolished with mixed-income housing. And yet, Jenner’s student body is still 98% black and 99% low-income.

If you look at the Facebook page run by opponents of the Ogden-Jenner merger, it comes clear that one of their primary arguments against the merger is that Jenner’s under-attendance problem would be solved if the white parents in Jenner’s attendance area should simply send their children to Jenner. Jenner’s low attendance numbers are partly explained by temporary demographic changes stemming from housing transition, it is true, but not entirely. I checked—only 42% of school-age children in Jenner’s attendance area attend the school. In contrast, 63% of students in Ogden’s attendance area attend that school.

If Jenner had the same attendance rate by its zoned students that Ogden does, the school would have 369 students rather than 246. This would not be enough to fill and effectively use the 1000-student facility that Jenner inhabits, but it would certainly be a significant increase from current attendance numbers. Where are the other students going? To magnet schools, to private schools, or to other neighborhood schools. (Parents at Ogden have long claimed that as many as one-sixth of the students there don’t live in the attendance area, adding to overcrowding.)

In some sense, Jenner is 98% black because white parents opt their children out—and white parents opt their children out because Jenner is 98% black. Why are so many parents opting out of sending their children to Jenner? The school has excellent programs, and the neighborhood is far safer than in the past. And yet.

I was fascinated by a story blogger Abby Norman wrote about her decision to send her white daughter to the black public school avoided by nearly every other white parent in her neighborhood. She described her frustrations at a meeting to create a charter school that would fill essentially the same function as the existing public school:

In July, through the neighborhood list serve I got invited to attend the charter school exploration meeting. A group of parents were attempting to start a charter school to center on diversity. They wanted a Spanish program and a principal that was very invested in the neighborhood. After inquiring I discovered the local elementary school had not even been contacted. The one with a principal who left his high profile high school job and came back to his neighborhood to an elementary school where he immediately implemented a Spanish language program. Before starting their own charter school, not one person had bothered even contacting the school already in existence.

She continued on as follows, mulling on this:

When I am able to move past the anger, the frustration that people are talking about a school they know nothing about, I listen to what they say. Behind all the test score talk, the opportunity mumbo jumbo that people lead with, I feel like what is actually being said, and what is never being said is this: That school is too black.

The people who are moving into my neighborhood want their children to have a diverse upbringing, but not too diverse. They still want a white school, just with other non-white children also participating.

White parents want the strong programs (and Jenner’s arts program is top-rated)—but they don’t want their child to be the only white child in the classroom. So they send their children elsewhere, to magnet schools or charter schools or the like. And that, in turn, keeps schools like Jenner nearly entirely black, and the cycle repeats.

Most parents at Ogden appear to be in favor of the merger. This contrasts dramatically with a recent showdown in Brooklyn. There, Public School No. 8 was overcrowded while nearby Public School No. 7 faced low attendance, but when the city proposed redrawing the attendance zone to even things out, the wealthy white parents at Public School No. 8 balked. Public School No. 7 was black and poor, and they didn’t want their children to be sent there. Why the support for the Ogden-Jenner merger, then?

Perhaps this question should be approached differently. Why not fix the Jenner-Ogden attendance issues by redrawing the school district lines, as proposed in Brooklyn? If the Ogden students in the blocks closest to the Jenner attendance zone were zoned for Jenner instead, the problem could be solved without the complications involved in having an elementary school with multiple campuses.

I suspect the response is different because the solution is different. Rather than redraw the attendance zones and send some white Ogden students to Jenner, a predominantly black school, the two schools will be combined and their student bodies mixed together in total. It likely helps that the students at Ogden significantly outnumber those at Jenner (838 to 246).

Combining the students at Ogden and Jenner results in a multi-campus elementary school that is around 33% black and 36% white, and just under 40% low income. In contrast, rezoning 20% of the children currently attending Ogden into the Jenner attendance area would relieve the overcrowding at Ogden but would also mean a Jenner that is 64% black and 21% white and 67% low income (assuming that the Ogden attendance area blocks closest to the Jenner zoned area have the same demographics as the Ogden attendance area as a whole). White parents living in those rezoned blocks would likely object, as did white parents facing rezoning in Brooklyn.

I highly doubt that white Gold Coast parents are any more altruistic or civic-minded than white Brooklyn parents. I suspect, instead, that the difference in response stems primarily (if not entirely) from the difference in solution. What can we learn from this? What does this tell us about zoning and school segregation (and desegregation and resegregation)? Is it possible that a contrast between these situations may point to positive future directions and workable solutions?

It’s tempting to judge those white parents in Jenner’s attendance area who send their children elsewhere rather than have them attend a segregated Jenner, but it’s not as though segregated schooling is good for African American students either—there is a reason Brown v. Board of Education was decided the way it was. I recently heard an African American political candidate share his story, telling those assembled about how his mother had him bussed out of their neighborhood, with its all-black schools, to a school that with more diversity, with a mixture of students and cultures and ideas and role models. It changed his life, he said—and all for the better.

There’s the practical aspect to consider. Hoping individual white parents will send their children to all-black schools and judging them if they don’t won’t end school segregation. Isn’t that true in general—that attempting to fix systemic problems with the actions of individuals is like trying to use bandaids to cure cancer? What we need are systemic solutions, and maybe, with this merger, Jenner and Ogden have found one such solution. The students at Jenner will attend a school that is more diverse (and has access to more financial resources), and the students at Ogden will have more exposure to different cultures and people—and more space in their classrooms.

School segregation today is driven by many factors, but two stick out here. First is residential segregation, which can result in vastly different zoned areas side by side. Second is white parents’ ability to opt their children out of schools with a number of students of color they find uncomfortable; vouchers, charter schools, and magnet schools contribute to this ability. Combining Jenner and Ogden has the potential to cut down on both of these problems—a larger attendance area will contain a larger variety of residential neighborhoods, and a more diverse Ogden-Jenner may mean white parents zoned for Jenner will feel less reason to look elsewhere.

Social scientists and policy wonks working to curb school segregation would likely benefit from comparing and contrasting parent responses to school zoning issues in Brooklyn and on Chicago’s Gold Coast. There may be something there.


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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.