Rob Croston was new in town, and so was I.
He was the newly appointed principal of the Jenner Academy of the Arts, a public school in the heart of Cabrini-Green. I was the newly installed senior rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation in the heart of what some call the cathedral district, others the Gold Coast.
Even though our institutions are separated by just six blocks, when Rob and I met in 2014, most people thought our communities were worlds apart.
But our communities had been connected for nearly a decade through a partnership between our institutions. And it was Sinai’s efforts to work with Jenner that helped me make my decision to move from New York to take this pulpit.
I was excited to meet Rob and his wonderful wife Sheena.
One Sunday morning, Rob to came Sinai to talk about his “N.E.S.T.” philosophy at Jenner: Be Neighborly. Stay Engaged. Be Scholarly. Use Teamwork.
I was quickly impressed by the intelligence of this Ivy League-educated public servant and his passion for cultivating the joy of learning in his students.
I was hardly surprised to learn that Rob was also a pastor at Crusaders Church since his messages about education were bedrock principals of his Christian faith: “Love is not often used to describe a public institution; however, I believe love is the lifeblood of effective classrooms and schools. A group of disinterested people never made history, a difference or a community. These achievements are the result of love. What I call love, others would consider passion. Expect to see from me a passion for learning, growing and excelling.”
Over the next few months, I saw how infectious Rob’s spirit was. I wasn’t alone. The news media noted it, too, and Chicago Public Schools officials were rightfully proud of their brilliant hire. But barely after a first successful year, Rob noticed a looming threat: under-enrollment.
In 2013, the predominantly African-American Jenner was “under consideration” to be closed. It was saved only by a moratorium later that year on school closings. Two years later, that moratorium was lifted, and Jenner supporters knew they had another battle on their hands.
Soon, Rob came up with a solution to keep Jenner alive by connecting with Michael Beyer, principal of the nearby, overcrowded, mostly white Ogden International School: Unite the schools.
But not everyone was on board. Some expressed concerns about finance, and others used coded language to stoke fears of racial and socioeconomic integration. When the consolidation issue came before CPS, officials demurred and called for more time to evaluate community support.
Around this time, the Rev. Cornell William Brooks, then-CEO of the NAACP, was in town to learn about justice efforts in our city. So I put together a meeting of the principals, parents and my colleague Rev. Randall Blakey, executive pastor of LaSalle Street Church and executive director of the Near North Unity Project.
Rev. Blakey, it became clear, understood that what began as a simple math equation of balancing one school’s overcrowding with another’s under-enrollment had turned into an opportunity for educational equity and racial justice. And with that supportive nudge, we planted a seed that sprouted into Jenner Ogden Community Steering Committee.
Through the committee and other individuals, we aligned ourselves around the goal of inclusive, equitable and high quality education. And through investments from the Chicago Community Trust, we were able to bring in Next Level NPO to do the door-to-door work of testing community appetites for engagement, as well as academic research on the benefits of integrated education.
Most importantly, we learned there was a tremendous opportunity on the Near North Side to no longer cast the area as two separate neighborhoods: the impoverished Cabrini-Green and the wealthy Gold Coast. We also learned that racially and economically integrated schools enhance the educational achievement of all students.
As our dreams veered toward reality, Rob developed symptoms of Marfan syndrome — a connective-tissue disorder — and underwent multiple heart surgeries. Rev. Blakey and I would divide our days praying with Sheena in Rob’s hospital room and then working with CPS officials. As Rob’s prognosis became more difficult, the outlook for a mutually supported merger improved.
By May, CPS officials were on board to recommend the Jenner and Ogden merger.
While the plan still awaits official board approval, it is a major victory that CPS is now on the side of integrated education.
Our inspiration — my friend Rob — might remain sidelined by illness, but we plan to carry the torch and never leave the “N.E.S.T.” as we move forward.
Seth M. Limmer is senior rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. Sun-Times CEO Edwin Eisendrath is a member of Limmer’s congregation.