Throughout Chicago and across the country, schools in
gentrifying neighborhoods face the same challenge: As the
neighborhood becomes wealthier and more educated, the public
schools must compete for students who often opt for higher-ranked
And because the neighborhood schools are generally not the worst
or the best in the Chicago Public School System, instead lost
somewhere in between, they're often left to their own
resources-until parents come to the rescue.
When Lauren Klayman started sending her son to pre-kindergarten
at Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in 2006, she liked what she
saw. The teachers were young and dynamic, and she felt drawn to the
school's energy and diversity.
Still, she sensed serious problems at Trumbull, starting with
the building itself. "I personally would like to see something that
looks less like a jail," she says.
Following the lead of an East Lakeview mother who transformed
her neighborhood school, Klayman sent a 25-page list of
recommendations to Trumbull's principal, suggesting ways the school
While the principal liked some of the suggestions, he said many
were not feasible. So like many parents in her gentrifying North
Side neighborhood, Klayman sent her son to kindergarten at a
higher-ranked magnet school instead.
When Principal Robert Wilkin arrived at Trumbull, which takes in
Ravenswood and Andersonville South, in 1997, enrollment was around
700. Today, the school's general education program has just 300
Enrollment figures don't tell the whole story, though, Wilkin
says. In the 12 years since he took over, test scores have more
than doubled. Still, nearly one in four Trumbull students is not
meeting the state educational standards, school data shows.
Christie Carmody, a Realtor who frequently works in
Andersonville South and Ravenswood, moved into a home a block away
from Trumbull in 2006. Her daughter is 2, and already Carmody says
she won't be sending her to Trumbull.
"It's very concerning to me that I pay a huge tax bill and I
can't send my child to the school that's only a block away,"
Carmody says. "The school system here is so competitive that if you
send your child to a lower-ranked school, then you kind of write
the ticket for the rest of her future."
If enrollment statistics are an indication, many other parents
in the neighborhood are coming to the same conclusion. Trumbull's
student body doesn't come close to mirroring its neighborhood,
partly because many of its students don't live nearby.
The school's special education program attracts families from
across the city, and a smaller number of parents are choosing to
send their kids to Trumbull over neighborhood schools that are not
making satisfactory yearly progress. Each morning, seven or eight
buses bring students to Trumbull from across the city, especially
the South Side and the West Side, Wilkin says. Since the school now
offers a literature and writing magnet program, it can also accept
families outside its attendance area that arrange their own
That helps explain why Trumbull has not gentrified to nearly the
same extent as Andersonville South and Ravenswood. In an area where
Carmody estimates the median single-family home value is more than
$600,000, 93 percent of students at the school receive free or
reduced lunch, according to school statistics.
The top magnet and private high schools in Chicago accept only
one in 10 applicants, says Alexander Russo, who writes District
299, a blog about Chicago schools. When middle-class and
upper-middle class parents consider a school like Trumbull, they
look to see how many of its students are getting into those
schools, Russo said.
"That, more than test scores, is what's important to this
community of parents," he says. "And I'm going to guess that
Trumbull's numbers in this regard are pretty low."
Wilkin says while some Trumbull graduates attend selective high
schools such as Northside College Prep, Von Steuben Metro Science
and Lane Tech, most go to the two neighborhood schools, Amundsen
and Senn high schools. As of 2008, the five-year graduation rate of
Amundsen freshmen was 54 percent; at Senn, it was 43 percent, state
When a neighborhood gentrifies, its schools usually gentrify as
well, Russo says. But it can be a slow process, and in the interim,
Russo says schools like Trumbull often feel forgotten.
"They don't yet have that SWAT team of dedicated parents to come
in and really bring the added resources and programs and ideas," he
When such a team mobilizes, it can yield striking results.
Six years ago, East Lakeview resident Jacqueline Edelberg and
another mother submitted a five-page list to the principal of
Nettelhorst Elementary School, detailing the changes they wanted to
see before they would enroll their children.
When the principal jumped on board, the mothers gathered a group
of 200 parents to spruce up the school and convince other parents
to send their children. Local businesses joined the effort, and
within a few years, the number of Nettelhorst students from the
neighborhood jumped from none to a majority.
Nettlehorst is a model for how schools like Trumbull can break
out of a gloomy cycle, says Edelberg, co-author of a new book, How
to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School
"(Schools) can't improve until they have buy-in from the
neighborhood, and the neighborhood's not going to buy in until it's
better," she says. "If the neighborhood just went, so many of these
problems would just magically solve themselves.
Lauren Klayman wanted Trumbull to be her neighborhood's
Nettelhorst. While her son was in pre-kindergarten, she worked
closely with Edelberg to replicate the Nettelhorst
"She wanted to do a lot of painting and stuff on the outside of
the building, which is architecturally impossible," Wilkin says.
"We just had a $5.5-million renovation and the specs were so tight
that even a shade different of the outside covering on the windows,
or anything else, was a no-no."
When her son got into Inter-American Elementary Magnet School,
which offers a Spanish-immersion curriculum, Klayman and her
husband decided that it was their best option. It was a tough
decision but has worked out well, she says.
Like families, school systems struggle with what to do with
schools like Trumbull, says Russo.
"Most school systems are focused on the very top schools, and on
the very bottom ones, and these schools are neither," Russo says.
"On the other hand, they're very important, because they make or
break whether people stay in the city or not."
For Klayman, that's a real consideration. As she waits to hear
whether her 4-year-old daughter will be able to attend
Inter-American, Klayman's also house hunting-and school hunting-in
two northern suburbs.
Adam Sege is a student at Northwestern University's Medill
School of Journalism.
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