[Op-Ed] Why One Affluent Chicago School Desperately Wants to Merge With a Poor One

This post was written by Marilyn Rhames and originally appeared at EducationPost.org. It is reprinted here with permission. For more about the author, scroll down to the end of the post.

A high-performing, predominantly white elementary school located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Chicago is trying to merge with a predominantly black school that has close to a 99% poverty rate and has been on intensive academic support for the past nine years.

This is not a plot twist from some cheesy Hollywood flick about a selfless white teacher going through heroic lengths to save the poor, black children.

[Related: Black Like Them: Why a ‘Surge’ of Color Could Change the Face of Ed Reform]

No, this is real life.

It’s the kind of racial reconciliation story that, if all goes well, might make Steven Spielberg come a-calling. If it works, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might shout hallelujah from his dusty grave. If the adults in both communities resolve to look out for each other’s children, then God himself might be proud.

In this story, the wealthy and the poor need each other mutually. Each school realizes that it would be much better off together than apart.

Ogden International Elementary School, located in the swanky Gold Coast community, is currently at 103% capacity with an annual enrollment growth rate of 6.5%. Next year, this Level 1+ school, the highest quality ranking a Chicago public school can get, projects that it will need to convert a closet and its art, music, and science rooms into homerooms; in four years it will probably have to line its hallways with desks and chairs.

Ogden desperately needs real estate.

At the same time, Jenner Academy of the Arts, located just eight blocks away in the now-gentrified neighborhood that once served children from the old Cabrini-Green housing projects, is woefully under-enrolled. In a building that can house up to 1,000 students, Jenner has only 240 despite being surrounded by hundreds of white families with school-aged children who bought up the high-priced, luxury condos that were built after the high-rise projects came down.

Jenner’s low enrollment cost the school $310,000 in funding this year, the equivalent of three teachers. This Level 2 school, the second lowest ranking Chicago Public Schools can give, escaped closure three years ago when the district closed 50 schools, but it might not be so lucky the next time.

Jenner desperately needs students.

Eureka! In a community-led effort, Ogden and Jenner decided to create a consolidation proposal to present to the district on Dec. 1. However, they postponed their presentation to let the tide of uncertainty in the district pass first. On Dec. 9, the Chicago Teachers Union had its members vote on whether to strike as the district threatens to lay off 5,000 teachers in February to mitigate CPS’s $480 million budget deficit for this school year. The mock strike vote in November yielded 97% willing to walk out.

In spite of CPS’s many difficulties, it should vote for this merger. While there is a group of parents at Ogden who oppose the plan, many others readily admit that  Ogden needs Jenner–and not just for the space.

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