In a public school system that’s mostly black and Latino and just 9 percent white, achieving integration seems as likely as a 90-degree January day in Chicago. Conventional wisdom says schools can’t fix what housing segregation started. If our neighborhoods are segregated, our schools will reflect the same patterns.
That observation is too simple. A lack of imagination prevents integration in Chicago Public Schools because district officials and politicians allow and enable segregation. It’s accepted as part of the city’s fabric, just as we accept political corruption or beautiful lakefront views. Segregation doesn’t have to define our schools. When we don’t look beyond the demographics or take a closer look at migration shifts, students of all races lose out.
Often, my WBEZ colleagues and I discuss missed opportunities in CPS. We noticed integrated neighborhoods yet segregated schools. And we wondered why. Instead of using population shifts as a chance to change the makeup of our schools, CPS caters to white middle-class and affluent parents, flouting the prospect of creating more diverse schools.
WBEZ found that under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS has spent millions on new schools and annexes when nearby schools have space. The new construction disproportionately goes to schools that serve a white middle class while the neighboring schools with space are black and brown.
A WBEZ analysis of the $650 million in new school construction shows:
- 73 percent of all money went to schools where white students make up more than a quarter of the student body. Only 12 percent of Chicago’s schools have more than 25 percent white students.
- More than one-third of the recent and proposed projects intended to relieve overcrowding at schools share a border with a school that has space for additional students.
- $193 million is for magnet and selective high schools, which disproportionately serve white, middle-class families.
Many of the missed opportunities are on the old footprint of Chicago Housing Authority developments. For example, Jenner Academy of the Arts is an under-enrolled school that low-income black Cabrini Green residents attend. The new white residents don’t send their children there. A mile away is Ogden International School, which is overcrowded. The two neighborhood school principals came up with a plan to merge. CPS failed to act on it. A merger would’ve been more than symbolic — Gold Coast meets Cabrini. Poor black students would’ve had the chance to receive the resources and social capital of a well-heeled Ogden. This could’ve been a feather in the city’s cap on integration. Research consistently shows that children of all races benefit from integration while school segregation perpetuates inequity.
None of this should be surprising. CPS is a story of missed opportunities or a cycle of repetition. When a substantial number of white students attended public schools back then, Mayor Richard J. Daley thumbed his nose at integration. In the 1960s, CPS sent black students at overcrowded schools to other black overcrowded schools as opposed to integrating closer white schools. The district routinely ignored desegregation mandates without suffering financial repercussions. Daley used his political clout to snub state and federal officials.
In 1980, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit alleging a segregated dual school system in Chicago. The allegations included altering attendance boundaries that created segregated schools. Magnet schools were a key piece of a decree but the decree ended in 2009. CPS favors a class-based system, which ignores the city’s deep racial divide.
I know what integration can accomplish. My siblings and I were part of that consent decree that allowed for voluntary busing. We left our black Chatham neighborhood for a white Beverly elementary school. Sutherland was a wonderful and nurturing environment in a changing neighborhood that decided to embrace integration by the 1980s.
Integrating schools won’t solve all of the challenges facing many CPS students. But so much research touts the benefits. Segregation of race and income afflict so many of our neighborhood schools. It’s odd that neither CPS nor the mayor will even consider ways to promote integration. Especially when opportunities stare them in the face.
Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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