One school digs in to stay alive

Rumors float around that Jenner, too, might be privatized, or become an exclusive public school, too exclusive for the current kids, and that only when that happens will the vacant lots next door finally fill up with homes.

Strangers show up at the school from time to time to measure things — doorways, hallways, classrooms — leaving people to wonder what decisions are already made.

"Six minutes? That's all?"

Inside the S.O.S. Center, murmurs rippled through the room at the news that on Thursday each school would have only six minutes to make its case at the community meeting.

"Can we practice stuff to make sure we can articulate?" someone said.

They made a plan. Divide the six minutes up three ways.

A student, dressed nicely in a school uniform, would speak.

Then a parent. Antoinette Jackson, an elegant accounting student, was appointed.

For their third speaker, they'd recruit someone from one of the organizations that helps the school, one of the affluent and educated volunteers who tutor, or bring turkeys at Thanksgiving and gifts at Christmas, people who see how much good goes on at the school.

And remember, very important: They would plead facts, not emotion.

They would point out how hard it was on Jenner when students from two other closed Cabrini schools were channeled there. They'd note how they'd worked through the tension of rival gangs, how far they built the test scores up afterward, how they'd finally returned to a sense of peace and family.

They might mention how their enrollment would be higher if the housing promised to displaced Cabrini families had been built.

A woman stood up. She'd been to a schools closing meeting in Englewood, she said, and a lot of those parents had shirts.

"If y'all just ante in," she said, "we can get everybody a shirt." Ten dollars each.

"I'll put in $20," one woman called, knowing that not everyone could afford $10.

"This school has deep roots," Tara Stamps said.

It was Friday, and her writing students were posting their save-our-school letters on the hallway bulletin boards.

She quickly added, "I'm not saying others don't."

Stamps has roots here too. Her mother, Marion, was a famous Cabrini activist whose passion she inherited.

One thing that bothers her, and others at Jenner, is the possibility that their school will merge with another poor, African-American school, Manierre Elementary. It's only half a mile away, but it's across gang lines.

As distressing as the thought of the merger is, it also distresses Stamps to see schools with common problems and shared hopes pitted against each other. She thinks it's part of the official strategy.

"They want to create this kind of chaos in the city, this furor," she said. "They want poor people going to these hearings pitted against each other. Last man standing."

It will be hard, come Thursday, for the people at Jenner to argue facts, not emotion. But they'll try.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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