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‘Too much drama in the neighborhood,’ Henderson principal says

Principal Marvita Jackson-Ivy

Henderson Principal Marvis Bonita Jackson-Ivy looks over students' answers to her question: What can I do to make you feel safe? | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Around 7:45 each school-day morning, 268 children arrive on the tidy half-block of West Englewood that is the campus of Henderson Elementary. Despite the presence of a basketball court with a pair of serviceable hoops and a sprawling set of colorful playground equipment, not one of those students will set foot outside before the dismissal bell sounds at 3:30.

Henderson Principal Marvis Bonita Jackson-Ivy makes no apologies for indoor recess, nor for the security officers who shoo her students homeward after school. It’s not always like this at Henderson, but it will be for the foreseeable future.

The tidy school grounds became a murder scene when an errant bullet struck sixth-grader Kanari Gentry Bowers Feb. 11 as she played basketball with friends. Kanari, 12, died four days later at Stroger Hospital.

“We can keep them safe inside the school, and they tell me they feel safe here,” Jackson-Ivy said in a recent interview at the West Englewood school.

“What happens after school and on the weekends, unfortunately, I can do very little about.”

Grief counselors dispatched at Jackson-Ivy’s request were on hand Monday, Feb. 13, to console students, and returned on Thursday, the day after Kanari was taken off life support and died at Stroger Hospital.

The playground at Henderson Elementary School in West Englewood, where sixth-grader Kanari Gentry-Bowers was shot Feb. 11.

The playground at Henderson Elementary School in West Englewood, where sixth-grader Kanari Gentry-Bowers was shot Feb. 11. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

She’s not sure how much help they can offer her students, most of whom have seen a lifetime’s worth of violence at a tender age. A Henderson student or recent graduate has been killed every year that Jackson-Ivy has been at the school.

In 2015, eighth-grader J-Quante Riles was killed while walking with friends about four blocks from the school, also on a Saturday. A year ago, a 3-year-old was struck in the leg by a stray bullet as he played on the same block as the school.

One morning last fall, police closed off Damen Avenue for blocks while homicide investigators waited for a crew from the medical examiner’s office to collect a body. By 9 a.m., Jackson-Ivy asked that her students be allowed to cross the crime scene tape to get to school.

“And then they had to walk past the body,” Jackson-Ivy recalled. The victim was a Henderson alum.

Not that the violence in West Englewood doesn’t disrupt Henderson’s routine on a more regular basis. The school, at the corner of South Wolcott and West 57th Street, sits near the turf boundaries for at least two, and perhaps four, gang factions, Jackson-Ivy said.

Outdoor recess is canceled whenever Jackson-Ivy hears shots, and Chicago Police will also put the school on lockdown for hours after shootings in the surrounding blocks while officers search for gunmen.

“Our kids are just so resilient,” she said Wednesday, after visiting each sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classroom. “But at some point, that resiliency has got to wear out.”

In eight years as principal at Henderson, Jackson-Ivy has fought to make the building safe for her students, weeding out incipient gang members and sorting out student discipline. She budgets for two Chicago Police officers to work during school hours. Parent Patrol members started standing watch on corners as children come to and go from school. She lobbied the Area 2 Police commander to station a marked squad car at the school for recess, entry and dismissal times — whenever her students are outside the building. If there’s no squad car outside, Jackson-Ivy usually sends students to a gym on the fourth floor for recess.

Still, the surge in violence in the city over the past year has taken its toll despite the security measures. Henderson’s enrollment had been steadily above 300 for all of Jackson-Ivy’s tenure before dropping this fall. The principal said parents are leaving the neighborhood and, sometimes, the state.

“We have transfers going to Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana,” she said. “There is just too much drama in the neighborhood.”

Parent Aqusha Watkins said she planned to join the exodus from Englewood just two years after she moved to the neighborhood, taking her kindergartner daughter with her.

“She loves it here at school, but I have to move,” Watkins said as she picked up her daughter Thursday, just hours after hearing that Kanari had died.

“I grew up in the suburbs, and I can’t do the city no more. I’m going to go back to the suburbs.”

Jackson-Ivy went to each middle school classroom Wednesday to talk to students and assigned them a quick essay question: What can I do to make you feel safe? Sorting through a rumpled sheaf of loose-leaf notebook paper she’d collected, the principal scanned the middle-schooler cursive for ideas.

“’More field trips on the weekends,’” Jackson-Ivy reads aloud, nodding. “That’s one I hadn’t thought of.

“I could schedule some things for weekends or after school, trips to a museum, so they wouldn’t have to be outside.”

In the meantime, Jackson-Ivy would like to see residents go door to door to beg neighbors to come forward with what they know about Kanari’s murder. She’d also like them to ask at every house if there are guns inside, and young men or women likely to use them.

“We have to do something, you have to say ‘I am worried about my children, that they are going to do something dangerous,’” she said. “When are we as a city going to ask, ‘If our children are important, are we going to protect them at all costs?’”