Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lab School, Shoesmith Elementary, and Educational Inequality

posted by chicago pop

A couple of weeks ago the amazing blog CPS Obsessed touched on a topic dear to us all but not much covered at HPP: education. Specifically, public education, the free kind, the stuff that is supposed to come with taxes and an address here in the neighborhood. I'll get straight to the remark that got me thinking:
#50. UC Lab gets a $5 million donation from an alum to build a new arts wing. Yes, Lab is an amazing school, I’m sure, and yes, they do offer some scholarships, but, but, but. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Shoesmith received a $5 million donation? Or heck, even $500,000? I wonder what the arts program at the average CPS school is like in Hyde Park? The rich get richer…
As some of you may know (or maybe not, since when most non-Lab financing Hyde Parkers think of their public elementary school, they think "Ray" or "Murray," note that these schools are halfway decent, and that they therefore will not have to move to the suburbs), there has been a moderate bit of buzz in the northern edge of the hood arising from the selection of a new principal at Shoesmith Elementary in beautiful Kenwood.

An inspiring group of parents from the Shoesmith district have formed a Friends of Shoesmith Elementary group with the aim of supporting the school's new and energetic principal in her efforts to turn the school around. It's a tall order, however. As lovely as are the old mansions and brownstones that surround Shoesmith on every side, the school does not fill to capacity and of necessity takes in children from outside the neighborhood. Scores have improved, but the school is still on probation with the CPS. The enrollment is almost uniformly African-American and low-income. Most of the white middle class parents who live in the district  don't send their kids there. Full disclosure: this includes me.

Meanwhile, as everyone has heard, the Lab School, in addition to its other expansions and projects, has just landed a $5 million grant for a new arts wing.

We seriously thought about enrolling our charge at Shoesmith, did our due diligence, and have done our small bit to help out. We'd love to see it turn around. But I wonder even if all the tall hurdles facing Shoesmith and other inner city public schools could be overcome, would it be possible to overcome one hurdle particular to Hyde Park: the existence of the Lab School and a few other private options like it? Does the Lab school inevitably skim off the cohort that would, all things being equal, attend the local schools and thereby help to correct some of the problems that stem from lack of social and economic diversity? Does the channeling of resources to an elite institution like Lab only deepen the gulf of local educational inequality?

The comment on the above-linked CPS post gets at this. It's part of the broader dynamic city-wide, in which people who have the resources or wherewithal can opt-out of a public system, thereby exacerbating many of the problems that keep public schools in a cycle of under performance. 

Another very candid comment laid out the situation in Shoesmith's district as it breaks down along class and racial lines:
#58 .There is a huge money gap in the Shoesmith area. there is a significant number of people who are very wealty, a significant number who live on the edges of the Shoesmith area that are low income/in subsidized housing, and a small number of middle/upper middle class families.

In my opinion, the vast majority very rich probably wouldn’t consider Shoesmith, even if it was a great CPS school b/c they are Lab/Ancona/Latin/Parker families.

The low income families have no other choice by Shoesmith and don’t have the connections/political weight/etc.. to make Nettlehorst happen.

The middle/upper middle class families (of which I’m one) could be the difference makers in turning Shoesmith but the questons for them, is seems to me, are (1) are there enough of them to make a difference at the school, (2) is the school going to be responsive, (3) is it worth the risk for their kids, (4) do any of them have the Nettlehorst-type connections, (5) and is it worth the effort knowing you’ll have to do it all over again for middle school b/c Canter MS is not a good option?

Not long ago, I had to think through these issues about Shoesmith, and decided it was better for my family to do the CPS magnet/RGC/classical lottery, or pay for Catholic school because Shoesmith seemed too much of a risk.

I still wonder what it would be like to try & make it appealing to the neighborhood, wonder if I made the wrong deicision and should have fought for Shoesmith instead of finding another school outside our neighborhood, and can’t tell you how many of my neighors who made the same decision I did say how they wish we could have our kids all the same school, right down the street.
Painful truths. As with retail, safety, sustainability, and so much else, it all comes down to head count. Are there enough middle class families and children in the district to turn Shoesmith around? In raw numbers, perhaps, but how many of them will inevitably be drawn to Lab? How much larger would the local population therefore have to be for Shoesmith to reliably enroll a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body within its own district boundaries?

As one of our  neighborhood's preeminent educational institutions lands a multi-million dollar windfall, while another struggles to fill its classrooms with local kids, these are questions worth pondering.

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