The adults around her worried about what and how they would teach. Kiara Caref had a simpler concern: Would she connect with the new kids?
At Ogden International School, which merged last fall with nearby Jenner Academy for the Arts, Kiara’s friends mostly were white and from middle-income families like her. Jenner students were mostly black and from low-income families.
But the seventh-grader says she thought: “I’m not going to grow up only being friends with people who grew up like me.”
Ka’Mayra Boyd, another seventh-grader, worried that the sense of community at Jenner wouldn’t survive the merger.
A year later, she says she’s disappointed there wasn’t a Black History Month celebration at the merged school. “But it’s getting better,” she says, like social science classes in which she’s learned about civil rights and qualitative research methods.
Kiara and Ka’Mayra were two of 1,340 students from the Near North Side involved in an unusual, high-stakes initiative this school year: a community-driven effort to meld two racially, economically and culturally distinct schools into one. The merger came as Chicago grapples with education challenges including declining enrollments and racial and socioeconomic segregation.
Chalkbeat Chicago followed Ogden students and teachers throughout the year. They felt the merger was headed in the right direction. Then, the last week of school, Rebecca Bancroft, the acting principal, announced she was leaving.
“Ending the year in this way is a blow,” says Jezail Jackson, a first-grade teacher who’s also on the council that helps govern the school. “It feels like two steps forward and one step back for the school community.”
Merger talks began in 2015. Ogden, with an international focus and diverse, largely affluent student population, was too crowded. Jenner, 98 percent black and predominantly low-income, faced an enrollment decline that nearly saw it closed in 2013.
In part, this resulted from the schools’ adjacent but very different attendance zones. Ogden’s spanned much of the Near North Side, including a swath of mostly affluent families. Jenner’s much smaller zone was the area around where the old Cabrini-Green public housing project stood and where many low-income black families continued to live, now in row homes. The demolition of the Cabrini-Green high-rises left far fewer kids in Jenner’s enrollment area.
Chicago Public Schools officials, parents and community leaders made plans to bring the schools together, using both campuses.
The proposal was something new for Chicago, which over the previous 20 years closed or merged more than 170 schools, often abruptly and despite community opposition, in dealing with falling enrollment and under-performance.
“This was more of a community-driven merger than CPS saying, ‘We’re closing this school and moving it into that school,’ ” says first-grade teacher Deborah Sheriff, who has been through three CPS campus mergers. “And this is the first merger that CPS has really been involved in two or three years before the merger happened.”
There was some opposition from both school communities. But, in February 2018, the Chicago Board of Education approved merger plans. Students would go to one building together until fourth grade, then another for middle school. Students from both zones would be able to go on to Ogden’s well-regarded high school.
Before the merger, the schools shared field trips, a parent diversity committee and training to help teachers work with students from different backgrounds, funded by $1.8 million from CPS.
The merged school that opened last September is among the 10 percent of Chicago schools with no racial majority. In a city where most schools are segregated, 37% of Ogden students are black, 30% white, 16% Asian and 15% Latino. Kids’ families span the economic spectrum, from Gold Coast to public housing residents.
When 12-year-old Jacari Brown arrived at his new school in September, he says he found “nice new teachers, wonderful kids. I even made some new friends right off the bat.”
And his classes? “Compared to last year, I’m not even going to lie — they are way better.”
Ngozi Okorafor chose the school so that her son would be surrounded by students from different backgrounds. On his first day of kindergarten, the Nigerian-American lawyer says, she was pleased to see he had Indian, Chinese, Nigerian, African American, Latino and white classmates. “They will appreciate diversity if it is celebrated,” she says.
A ‘fractured’ community
Still, there were challenges and missteps. The problems began when Robert Croston, the Jenner principal who had helped engineer the merger, died at 34 in March 2018, just after the plan was approved.
That fall, soon after the school year began, CPS suspended Ogden principal Michael Beyer over accusations of falsifying attendance records.
In December, Rebecca Bancroft, the acting principal, wrote in her monthly leadership report that Ogden was a “fractured” community.
Also, the Jenner name wasn’t added to the merged school.
And sheer numbers gave Ogden more influence: It had four times as many students as Jenner in elementary school. That meant most teachers in the merged school were from Ogden. And most of them were white, in contrast with Jenner’s largely African American staff.
Tara Stamps, a popular black teacher at Jenner whose family had a long history of activism and organizing around Cabrini-Green, had applied to be an assistant principal but didn’t get the job.
Ogden voices were foremost in the new Local School Council, too. The one representative from Jenner, Kizzy McCray, began having doubts about participating. Accustomed to Jenner meetings where people would speak freely, she says she wasn’t used to the tightly run Ogden LSC meetings.
“I got tired and overwhelmed,” says McCray, who is Ka’Mayra Boyd’s mother.
She stopped going to meetings, leaving the former Jenner community without an official voice until she was voted off the council for absences.
Inside the school, despite the training teachers received, black students were being disciplined far more often than other students. First semester, the school issued 41 suspensions, 35 for black students: They were being suspended at more than twice the rate expected given their share of the student population.
The divide became even clearer — at least for former Jenner students — in February, when Jenner had traditionally organized an extravagant Black History Month assembly and held a black history fair with student presentations about African American leaders, inventors and famous former Cabrini-Green residents.
There was no fair this year, which left Jenner families feeling left out.
“To me, it matters more that you’re telling me that a parent felt like it was a closure or a takeover,” says LaTanya McDade, CPS’ chief academic officer. “And if they felt that way, then that means there was something that was lost in this process.”
McDade says a coming parent-engagement plan is meant to help ensure that former Jenner parents have opportunities to volunteer and participate in school events.
Another move that pleased Jenner families: The school recently hired Sheena Croston, Robert Croston’s widow, as a counselor.
Learning from Ogden-Jenner merger
CPS enrollment is forecast to keep shrinking, which means fewer families for schools to draw from, which has prompted closings and mergers.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she wants alternatives to closing schools but that, if schools need to be closed or merged, those decisions should be community-driven, as happened at Ogden.
Bancroft’s recent, abrupt resignation, which is as of Sunday, was announced in a letter to families.
Whoever takes over managing Ogden’s three campuses will have a long to-do list. The school has 18 vacancies to fill, including positions added to support the merger such as an instructional coach, business manager and a family and community communications liaison.
“It is very important to the district and me that Ogden’s next principal continues the progress your community has made over the past two years,” McDade wrote to Ogden families, promising to “collaborate with your elected Local School Council over the summer to identify an acting principal who reflects your values and priorities and is ready to support the continued growth of your school community.”
Earlier this month, the city of Chicago honored the Ogden-Jenner Student Voice Committee for promoting a positive campus culture. The committee designed and built a room where students can go for a break from stress and find support.
Eighth-grader Dajae Allen spoke at a recent at a civic honors ceremony, saying that, at the beginning of the school year, there was “an unsaid wall between the two school communities.” Bit by bit, she said, students worked to break down that barrier.
“We were experts on what it means to be students at our school,” Allen said, “so we needed to lead the way to advance the health of our new school community.”
Such efforts left Jackson, the first-grade teacher, optimistic.
“We are all very very hard workers, and our hearts are in it,” Jackson says. “We have to work harder to ensure this success. These obstacles that keep coming, they cannot be the end all be all for us. They just can’t be because we all just deserve more.”