Public education and the public trust

Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, in the first of a series of extensive Special Reports on public secondary education in Chicago, mentioned C4C’s efforts with the West Central Association to obtain a high school for our rapidly growing area of Chicago. C4C, and WCA have formed a public education task force that includes representatives from the West Loop Community Organization, Neighbors of the West Loop, and other residents with skill sets in education to advance this effort. The Tribune’s report gets at underlying issues with which our community has been dealing since the mid-1990’s, and they’re ones of institutional corruption, and ineffectiveness in planning.

In 1996 the University of Illinois at Chicago issued a request for proposals for a master developer to develop the UIC South Campus. That same year HUD awarded a planning grant to the Chicago Housing Authority to plan the redevelopment of the CHA’s ABLA Homes. We asked UIC to help our community plan for the impact of big demographic transformations these two large developments would have on public education, but UIC refused. Not surprisingly, one of the South Campus developers, and the former Chief of Staff for then Illinois House Majority Leader, Lee Daniels, who UIC hired to oversea the UIC South Campus development, were later convicted of felonies. It seems nearly criminally negligent that the largest public urban university in Illinois would not care one iota about public education in its own backyard or the impact these large developments would have on the children who would live in them.

Similarly, UIC, CPS, the CHA, and even legendary civil rights attorneys who were all engaged at various levels in the ABLA plan ignored public education planning choosing instead to continue to perpetuate racial segregation in public education in our community by closing four miserably failing public elementary schools to consolidate them into Smyth Elementary. This was contrary to both the Gautreaux, et. al. v. the CHA case filed in August, 1966, an important underpinning of which was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case, and the ideals of HUD’s HOPE VI Program, and enabling federal legislation, one of the largest changes in U.S. federal housing policy in our nation’s history which funded the ABLA transformation.

In the intervening two decades since these large developments began, our community has been left to clean up the mess made by poorly managed, often corrupt, large publicly funded institutions. We have worked collaboratively with Smyth School leadership to help transform Smyth from a failing level 3 school to a level 1 school, and organized, and led the effort to open Chicago’s first STEM School, the STEM Magnet Academy in our community.

I’ll never forget the first conversation I had with formed Mayor Richard Daley about opening what became STEM Magnet Academy. I explained to him the issues that UIC’s South Campus, and ABLA’s redevelopment posed for access to high quality public primary education, and asked that we open a new school, while our community worked with Smyth to help it excel. About the new school I proposed he asked, “You want to do that through CPS?” When I replied yes he rolled his eyes, and said “good luck.”

Working with the convicted felon, Barbara Byrd Bennett, who helped to continue to run CPS as its former CEO into the ground by essentially stealing public money, on our efforts to engage UIC more deeply in Smyth School was an enormous challenge for C4C, but we have had some success. Getting CPS to address the issues with lack of access to high quality high schools in our rapidly growing area likewise will not be easy, but I believe CPS CEO Forrest Claypool is a skilled, professional administrator who will not ignore the needs of the rapidly growing West Loop, and our community which is also rapidly growing with exciting new developments, both on the CHA ABLA site, and elsewhere. We’ll see if Mayor Emanuel can rectify poor planning decisions by CPS in our community the way former Mayor Richard Daley was able to.