How To Walk To School
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More from Cecil Adams: the Straight Dope Chicago, Part Two.

June 3rd, 2010 by jacqueline

Should we just dump the worthless Chicago public schools and start over?
June 3, 2010 – part 2 of 2 parts

To the Teeming Millions:

In last week’s column we established that (a) contrary to popular opinion, not all Chicago public schools sucked, and (b) to the extent that a given school did suck, getting it turned around was far from impossible, provided middle-class resources could be brought to bear. This week we take up the logical followup question: what happens when a Chicago public school in a largely white, middle-class neighborhood becomes successful and all the local parents send their kids there, crowding out minorities who live farther away? (You’ll excuse me for using the same photo, but it nicely illustrates the issue, and if ever a picture were worth running twice, this one is it.)

Cecil Adams

I purposely raised the subject of urban diversity with Jacqueline Edelberg over martinis at a sidewalk cafe down the street from Nettelhorst school, which she had been instrumental in helping revive. I knew what I’d see. It was a pleasant night and the East Lake View neighborhood was out in force — gay couples, parents with strollers, people walking their dogs. (And yes, if I’d studied the passersby assiduously enough, no doubt I’d have seen some gay parents with dogs.) City neighborhoods don’t get much livelier than this, nor, from a certain of view, more diverse. Nettelhorst school reflects that diversity — at least it does now. The question I spent a couple hours debating with Edelberg was whether it always would. I was skeptical. History suggested city diversity was ephemeral, the sign of a neighborhood in transition, and that the school’s delightful mix was only a lucky accident, destined soon to evaporate, as had happened everywhere else.

Whether any substantial number of people would care I don’t know. Some certainly would, including most of the parents I spoke to who were trying to improve their local schools. For them the diversity of the big city was one of its great attractions. A few days earlier Edelberg and I had watched the variously hued collection of kids playing kickball in the schoolyard at Nettelhorst. We had essentially the same take on the scene: this is the future, or one possible future. This is what the world ought to be like.

But you can make the case that by our very presence we were ensuring it wouldn’t be. Benjamin Schwarz writes about this in the current Atlantic. His subject is a couple recent books claiming New York has lost its soul: once it was a vibrant mix of working class folk, bohemians, and creative strivers; now it was a wasteland of yuppies sipping lattes at Starbucks. Schwarz was scornful of such talk. His contention, brutally simplified: New York’s golden age lasted from the time the first proto-gentrifier moved in till the last working-class family moved out.

Chicagoans have fewer illusions on that score, I venture to say. You hear occasional complaints that Michigan Avenue has been ruined and that kind of thing. But I think most would agree that to the extent Chicago has ever had a golden age, we’re in it now. Fifty years ago the city was provincial, segregated, and frankly pretty dull; today it’s more cosmopolitan.

You see this in the schools. Fifty years ago a Chicago kid might get through grade school without ever laying eyes on a student of a different race. Today, although neither the city nor the schools are models of integration, CPS students are likelier to encounter a range of cultures, languages and ethnicities. It’s tempting to believe the kaleidoscope of backgrounds at schools like Nettelhorst or Blaine is the steady state, the natural result of the mixing that occurs in a crossroads city.

But that may be wishful thinking. Diversity in the magnet and selective enrollment schools is maintained by a conscious policy of differential admissions (this is now based on things like geography rather than race). The enrollment process in neighborhood schools for the most part is simpler — they accept any student living within their attendance boundaries. The rich ethnic and economic mix seen in some schools today is a consequence of rising middle-class participation. At all four public elementary schools I looked at in my first column — Blaine, Nettelhorst, Ravenswood, and Waters — the number of white students has gone up while the number of minority and low-income students has gone down. But the transition isn’t complete. These schools are in neighborhoods that are mostly affluent and white. It’s not unreasonable to think eventually their students may be too.

To be sure, that hasn’t happened yet, and perhaps it won’t. At Blaine, an excellent school that from all signs has been embraced by its middle-class community, the low-income rate is 25 percent, which most suburbanites would consider shockingly high. More than half the students are minorities. Yet the percentage meeting or exceeding state standards is routinely in the 90s and sometimes is 100. Two lessons may be drawn from this. First, while middle-class participation is undoubtedly an asset, the quality of a school, as evidenced by test scores, isn’t strictly related to affluence. Second, while it’d be naive to think all middle-class city parents prize diversity in the schools, experience suggests they’ll at least tolerate it if their kids get a good education.

But school diversity may be fleeting. The high percentage of low-income students in schools in middle-class neighborhoods stems from the fact that an underenrolled magnet cluster school may draw students from outside its attendance boundaries in order to fill the seats, and poor minorities account for the bulk of the students in the pool. As the locals return, there’s less room for outsiders.

And of course you want more locals. Edelberg’s book is entitled How to Walk to School — a throwback concept in the age of the SUV, but nonetheless every city parent’s dream. No more driving to school! No more driving to play dates! Put it this way: if you’re a big-city mayor and you get the neighborhood school thing working, your town’s future is secure.

But a school’s success may make it less diverse over the long run. Middle-class parents (or prospective parents) move into the neighborhood because of the school, pushing up rents and home prices; eventually low-income residents are forced out. Chances are the school will never become as homogenous as a suburban school, because city neighborhoods generally have a wider range of housing types and prices and in some cases more affluent minorities. Lincoln Park today remains 15 percent minority and Lake View 20 percent, compared to less than 4 percent for Winnetka. The fact remains that these mostly gentrified communities are overwhelmingly white. Who’s to say the diversity in their schools will last?

Jacqueline Edelberg didn’t have much patience with this concern, and I suppose I can’t blame her. It’s a little perverse to fret about a possible Caucasian skew at a time when the CPS student population is only 9 percent white. Nonetheless, if you think diversity is worth having, it’s something to think about — I’m not sure the engaging mix in schools like Nettelhorst and Blaine will survive without some cultivation. I have no advice at the moment on how that might be accomplished. But I’d hate it to be said, a generation from now, that we had the opportunity, and we let it slip away.

— Cecil Adams

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