One school digs in to stay alive

Jenner survived Cabrini days, but can it remain standing?

Last Tuesday Tara Stamps gave her students at Jenner Academy of the Arts an assignment, to write a letter home.

The letter would be a good writing exercise. Could they marshal facts? Find their own voice? Spell and punctuate?

It would also serve another purpose.

After class, Stamps' sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders went home with one-page compositions that contained passages like these:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know that you guys might be busy or occupied with something else but tomorrow at 9:00 am I need one of you to attend this meeting about CPS closing Jenner down. There will be breakfast there with other parents ...

Sincerely,

Your Loving Son

 

Dear Grandma,

Its me Simeon. I need you to help protest against the closing of my school. ... The system is all rigged up, everything that happens is something trying to get the lower and middle class to scamper away.

 

And so it came to pass that on Wednesday morning, 50 or so adults got together in the Jenner parents' room, which had just been given a new name.

"This is the Save Our School Center now," LaTonya Boykin, the assistant principal, told the assembly.

Here in the S.O.S. Center, parents could sit at the long tables and make signs. Here they could pick up petitions.

Pass them around at the Jewel, they were told, at Dominick's, at church. Don't crumple them. They need to look nice when they're presented to the board.

Here was a phone for making calls, and a list of numbers. Call the mayor, the alderman, the congressman, the senator, the Board of Education.

And call other parents.

"We had the kids write down their mama's phone numbers," Boykin told the group. "The real phone numbers."

Parents were told to come to the S.O.S. room at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28. Dinner would be served, followed by rides to the community meeting to testify in front of school officials on why Jenner should stay open.

"Not going to be steak," Boykin said, "but there will be chicken."

This was the strategy. Letters, petitions, emails, calls, signs, food.

At a previous meeting on school closings, only three Jenner parents had shown up to make the case to school officials, while another school had rallied busloads.

Jenner would have to play harder and smarter this time.

The save-our-school drama is unfolding in schools all over Chicago right now, and in many ways, Jenner is like the rest.

Its scores are low. Its rooms are not full. Its students are poor. Parents, teachers and students are scared.

But in some ways, Jenner is unique.

Stand just outside its orange brick walls and look around. To the south, the Chicago skyline looms so close you can almost count the high-rise windows. Just west and north stand new town houses, apartments and condos. Many of the new residents are single professionals and childless couples too young to have witnessed the vast, teeming housing project that once claimed this prime property.

Then step inside Jenner.

Time shifts.

The vanished community of Cabrini-Green lives on.

When the old Jenner School closed and this new building opened a dozen years ago, the fantasy was of a mixed-income utopia. There were 29 classrooms. Rooms for art and music. A math lab, a science lab, a gym.

Students of all kinds — there was space for more than 1,000 — would come from the happy, diverse community that would rise on the old Cabrini land.

It would be nothing like the old Jenner, made briefly famous in 1992 when one of its students, 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, was killed by a sniper's bullet as he walked to school with his mother.

As of Friday, Jenner's enrollment was 329. Almost a third of the students are classified as homeless. All but two are black; those two are Hispanic.

Some Jenner students come from the few remaining Cabrini row houses, others from the new developments where some former Cabrini residents have qualified to live.

Yolanda Dampier's kids are among the ones who come far to get here, back to the neighborhood that still feels like home.

Dampier rides a bus and a train every weekday morning to bring her kids back to where she went to school. It's a better education, in a safer part of town, than what she can find near her new place on the South Side.

"You close restaurants," she said. "But a school? Why should they kick these kids out to put somebody else in?"

In Cabrini's heyday, nearby schools were also packed with Cabrini kids. One is now a Catholic school. One is a magnet school. Another is a charter. They have new names.

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

More