Robert Croston has died, CPS principal who helped engineer N. Side school merger

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Robert Croston, principal at Jenner Academy of the Arts, inspired his students and helped engineer a merger with nearby Ogden International School. | Facebook photo

Robert “Rob” Croston, a Chicago Public Schools principal whose resourcefulness, energy and leadership inspired his students and helped engineer a school merger, has died.

Mr. Croston, 34, suffered from Marfan syndrome, a connective-tissue disorder, and had undergone multiple heart surgeries. He died in hospice care on Monday, according to his wife Sheena Davis Croston.

He was called a visionary for helping to bring about a merger between Jenner Academy of the Arts — a grade school at 1119 N. Cleveland with a largely African-American student population in the old Cabrini-Green neighborhood — and Ogden International School, which draws from a wealthier and largely white population.

As Mr. Croston put it in a 2016 blog post: “The school I lead, Jenner, is located in the shadows of gentrifying cranes ‘redeveloping’ the 70 acres of what used to be known as the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Although the neighborhood is 50 percent white, my student body is nearly 100 percent black. Our beautiful building, which is less than 20 years old, has room for 680 students but an enrollment of only 247. One mile away, overcrowded Ogden Elementary enrolls 882 students. Nearly half are white and only one-fifth are low-income. While the ‘whites only’ signs of the 1960s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures.”

Jenner School principal Rob Croston. | Facebook photo

Jenner School principal Rob Croston. | Facebook photo

Michael Beyer, the principal at Ogden, said Mr. Croston was able to overcome parental misgivings about the plan — which takes effect this fall — because “He was a dedicated educator and a selfless leader, whose personal mission was to ensure every student had access to an equitable and quality education.”

“He was an inspiration to me and to so many others,” Beyer said, “because he fought for the merger, even though he knew it would lead to the loss of his own position as the principal of Jenner.”

Author Eve Ewing, who tweets as Wikipedia Brown, said that “Rob was one of those few people that made me feel really [hopeful] about the future of Chicago schools. He was such a bright star.”

“He really believed that he and his colleague at Ogden could create a racially and economically diverse, inclusive school if they worked at it and fought for it,” she wrote on Twitter. “Whether or not he even got to work there.”

CPS CEO Janice Jackson also offered condolences on Twitter to Mr. Croston’s family, calling him “a dynamic school leader.”

“He had vision, compassion, and was an inspiration,” Jackson said. “He will be missed.”

Educator Rob Croston. | Facebook photo

Educator Rob Croston. | Facebook photo

Bow-tied, dapper and Ivy League-educated, Mr. Croston spoke often about the importance of African-American children, especially boys, seeing educators who looked like themselves.

Under his leadership at Jenner, “test scores, student performance, culture and climate improved,” Beyer said.

He and his wife lived in West Pullman and were pastors at Crusaders Church.  He met Sheena, a Chicagoan, at a church function in his native Milwaukee. They married in 2005. Their wedding song was “Friend” by Israel Houghton.

She said they often attended the Goodman and other theaters because “He wanted to make sure he was taking me out on dates.”

Rob Croston and his wife, Sheena, who is a counselor at Chicago’s Morell grade school. | Provided photo

Rob Croston and his wife, Sheena, who is a counselor at Chicago’s Morell grade school. | Provided photo

He also liked spending time with their mini-bulldog, “Scooter,” and she said he enjoyed “conscious rap” by Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Common and Jay-Z.

And, he loved to watch the Green Bay Packers.

His office at Jenner was decorated in the Packers’ colors of green and gold, said Katie Welsh, his former assistant principal. Now a staffer at Ravenswood Elementary School, Welsh left his school under a plan they hatched to benefit students. “We ended up cutting my position so we could save music” programs at Jenner, she said.

Mr. Croston attended Milwaukee’s Bay View High School and Marquette University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science and government, his wife said. He earned a master’s degree from the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a master’s in social science from the University of Chicago and a master’s in teaching from Dominican University, she said.

He is also survived by his sisters Tiffany Lawrence Nash and Brandy and Celeste Croston; his brother Deon, and his father, who is also named Robert Croston. Services are being planned in Chicago and Milwaukee, his wife said.

Though he lived to only 34, she said: “He accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish in life. He fulfilled his purpose, his calling . . . he was alive to see the merger go through. That was his dream.”

“I feel he leaves behind a great legacy.”

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

RELATED: Just Relations: North Side principal inspired justice in school-merger plan

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