Some question phasing-in at new Skinner SchoolAugust 7, 2009
By Sarah Severson | August 2009
The West Loop continues to transform from warehouses and industrial spaces to more residential areas. The Chicago Public School (CPS) system is responding by turning Skinner School, formerly a “classical school” open only to students who tested into its classical program, into an “attendance area” school—that is, a neighborhood school with a Magnet Cluster Program—to be called Skinner West Classical Fine Arts and Technology School.
This September, the neighborhood component begins when Skinner West, located at 1260 W. Adams St., adds a kindergarten class; it will add another kindergarten class each year through 2017, when the school will have neighborhood students in all grades, kindergarten through eight.
Some families living near Skinner West wanting to send their children to a neighborhood school must travel more than a mile away and object to this phase-in, however. Although this plan will benefit families with young children, it offers no help for neighborhood children already beyond kindergarten, some neighborhood residents said.
Such is the case for Demetria Davis, whose nine-year-old and seven-year-old often take public transportation to get to school. During the messy winter months, it can take as much as 30 minutes each way for her children to travel the ten blocks from home to school. If Davis’s children walked to Skinner, it would take two minutes because Skinner lies only two blocks from their home.
Among Davis’s friends in the neighborhood, none of their children attend Skinner. Their CPS designated school is Brown Elementary at 54 N. Hermitage Ave., northeast of the United Center. Davis lives in Academy Square Apartments, so her children have to cross Ogden and Ashland Avenues — both of which see heavy traffic — to get to school.
“My kids are around a lot of fighting at the school,” Davis said of Brown Elementary. “The kids there are rougher. I know they would get a better education across the street at Skinner.”
Davis’s neighbor, Elese Dennard, also voiced frustration with the school system.
“In the last election, both neighborhood aldermen boasted of their support for neighborhood children to attend the new Skinner School,” she said. “Does forcing a first grader to walk ten blocks count as keeping their political promise? A good solid education is needed in every neighborhood; every child has a right to it. This is truly a case where the system is a failure.”
According to the Neighborhood Association for Neighborhood Schools, children attending schools out of their immediate neighborhoods harms an area’s sense of community and decreases parental input and interest in the schools.
CPS recently rebuilt and modernized Skinner; its 108,000 square feet can accommodate up to 750 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The City provided $25 million in tax increment financing for the project, but some families who contributed tax dollars will not be able to benefit from the improvements because their children are older than kindergarten age.
When asked why the neighborhood component is starting only with the class of kindergartners, Malon Edwards, spokesperson for the CPS, said a slow, grade-by-grade increase leads to the greatest success over the long term when new tracks or new schools are initiated. Officials will make no exceptions for older children in families who have kindergartners who can attend Skinner under the new program; those older students still must attend another school even if a younger brother or sister goes to Skinner.
Also, “Only students who are of age and who live in the boundary can be enrolled into a neighborhood kindergarten program,” Edwards said. “But the neighborhood students still have the opportunity to test in to the classical program.”
Edwards said CPS must strike a balance between incorporating the neighborhood component and keeping the integrity of the high quality education intact. “We did not in any way want to jeopardize what Skinner had traditionally set up in years past,” he said.
When Arne Duncan was CPS chief executive officer, he was one of the main proponents for the neighborhood component at Skinner.
“Duncan believed if a child lived across the street or around the corner of the school, he should have the opportunity to attend this school,” Edwards said. When asked if it was fair that taxpayers had so much of their tax dollars put into a school that was starting only with kindergartners from the neighborhood, Alderman Walter Burnett, 27th Ward, said it is common practice for new schools to start out with the lower grades first so they can incorporate the children into the culture of the school.
“In addition, this will provide a way for existing kids who go to Skinner, who are already filling the upper grade classes, to gradually graduate out and then provide openings for the neighborhood kids in the lower grades,” Burnett said.
The CPS usually phases in grades when transforming the culture of schools, as studies have shown that children who spend all their primary school years in one school tend to do better than children who transfer. Despite the phase-in, no classrooms will sit unoccupied because students from the Skinner classical program still will attend as the neighborhood component grows each year.
While Skinner’s gifted and neighborhood tracks will use separate core curricula, students from different tracks will have opportunities to mix during ancillary classes such as physical education and art. Officials do not know how many children will participate in the first neighborhood kindergarten class because parents may register students throughout the summer up until the first day of school.
Other Chicago schools running both neighborhood and gifted tracks include Carnegie, Bell, Beaubien, South Loop, Beasley, Coonley, and Pritzker Schools.
Skinner Principal Deborah Clark did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
Editor’s note: Susan Fong also contributed to this article.