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 magnet schools.
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 could improve.
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 students.
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 transportation.
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 statistics show.
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 says.
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 Renaissance.
“(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 transformation.
“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.