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SPECIAL REPORT: If Marconi closes, students will have to walk past drug dealers on way to Tilton

Updated: June 21, 2013 6:37AM



The side doors of Tilton Elementary School burst open, spilling children into the school’s playground for recess. Big girls turn double Dutch ropes; boys chase one another around the schoolyard; small children take turns on the playground’s swings on a recent Friday afternoon.

Diagonally across from the towering brick school at West End and Keeler, four young men loiter at the lunch hour, standing on the corner with their hands jammed in their pockets, about 75 yards from where the children are playing.

The Rev. Marshall Hatch, in front of Tilton, can’t believe what he is seeing, even after 20 years of ministering in this part of West Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side.

“That was a cartel, right on the side of the school. . . . This is where the folks know how to find them,” he says.

After they realize the minister sees them, the pack slumps around the corner. They remain there until Hatch has finished talking to a parent at the school and walks toward his church. They shuffle back, returning to their post.

“When it comes to a drug-sale corner, the buyers need to be able to find you all the time. I’m just very surprised that could happen right across the street from a public school,” Hatch says. “I don’t know that it has been well-thought through that you’re basically going to send elementary school kids through a regional drug cartel.”

This outdoor drug market isn’t just across from any elementary school.

It’s across the street from what Chicago Public Schools officials call a welcoming school — one that is going to be the new home to students as CPS plans to close 54 schools. The school board will vote on the closures on Wednesday.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says her schools have more space than kids, and she wants to shift the money saved from closing schools to improving kids’ education.

She wants Marconi Community Academy School kids to go to Tilton, about half a mile away on West End. She says Tilton’s academics are stronger, ranking Tilton a whole level above Marconi, though both schools are on academic probation. As a school designated to receive displaced kids, Tilton also is about to get a new STEM program that’ll focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

There’s only one problem, Marconi parent say: First, their kids have to get to Tilton.

The area around Marconi is hardly an oasis of safety. But there’s no drug market next door, like at Tilton, and between the two schools, cars with plates from Midwestern neighboring states exit the Eisenhower Expy., cruising for crack cocaine, heroin and Ecstasy.

Marconi’s already a bit scary

Marconi’s enclosed playground bustled with recess at West End and Kolmar one April morning. Footballs fly through the air; a little boy leaps to grab one and charges the playground’s length. Girls chatter about their ambitions: Who wants to become a nurse, who wants to model, who wants to teach just like her teacher.

The Marconi end of West End already scares families a little. At least three armed attacks have been reported outside the school in 2012 and 2013, including a battery involving a weapon in a nearby yard and a robbery at gunpoint on the sidewalk. Tilton, with robberies at gunpoint in the street and an assault with a handgun across from the school, scares them more.

“I have to walk past gangways to come in from my house down here to the school, pass by abandoned buildings and drug dealers standing out on the corner out there,” says Breanna Stanciel, a fifth-grader at Marconi.“If I had to walk to Tilton, I just wouldn’t go because it means I would have to walk past more abandoned buildings, more drug dealers, more gangways, more corners people are standing on.”

People on corners make her jittery.

“I just don’t know what they’re going to do when I walk past,” Breanna says. “But if I’m just walking with my mom, holding her hand, I’m OK.”

Bridget Stanciel still holds her daughter’s hand during the two-block walk to Marconi. She will not send her child alone. She doesn’t trust the neighborhood.

Traveling farther won’t happen, the mother says.

“She don’t have to walk to Tilton. She ain’t going. . . . I’m not sure what school, but it won’t be Tilton.”

An ugly divide

Within a block or two east of Marconi, West End Avenue turns shoddy. The lawn sprinklers and tidy gardens disappear. Instead, the buildings have plywood covering their openings, and city-issued red X’s hang on their fronts, warning about unstable interiors. Trash litters the grass and chokes the gutters. Grocery bags flutter in the breeze; booze bottles pockmark the parkways. And the tiny plastic zip bags in rainbow colors pop out of the grass. They held drugs, each color or design identifying a different pill or powder.

West End and Kostner marks the worst of the trip, signaling an important dividing line, neighbors say, between the two school communities and the neighborhoods each calls home.

All four of its corners are wrecked. Two host abandoned buildings, one a mammoth in yellow brick, the other reeking so badly of natural gas that the reverend reported it to the city. The other two corners are vacant lots, the filthier one flanked by an empty house. Traffic streams along Kostner, pausing at the four-way stop.

“The problem with Kostner, of course, is it’s right off the expressway,” Hatch says, providing a natural path for addicts driving in for drugs.

The minister gazes at the yellow brick building, recalling when it fell apart. A dingy man approaches, pushing a shopping cart and declaring he’s a “homeless alcoholic.” Hatch offers him a fist bump.

“I got to go make a hustle,” the man tells Hatch. “I’m a little high right now.”

Hatch has been pastor for more than two decades at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church at Washington and Kildare, a former Catholic church with soaring ceilings and giant stained-glass windows. As he walks between the two schools, Hatch dons a sweatshirt reading “Faith.”

The neighborhood shares Hatch’s fears about sending kids farther away from home. Community groups, including parishioners, also tried the walk to the new school on Good Friday afternoon, chanting, “Save our schools” as they marched.

At West End and Kilbourn, an elderly church member raises her voice in the street, bellowing upward, praying for peace in the neighborhood. On the southeast corner, just a block from Marconi, some teenagers shoot dice.

Friends plop onto a car hood eyeing the game, the street, the praying woman as she begs God to keep children safe. The dice shooters raise their volume, matched by the prayer leader’s cries. Other churchgoers join their voices with the woman’s, reaching a crescendo before falling off.

The game never misses a beat. The only time the teens look up is when Hatch approaches them to invite them to Easter services.

Tilton’s on a rough block

There’s a midpoint between Marconi and Tilton that feels cared for. Eastward from Kostner, small children play outside on the vast lawns in front of the set-back houses along a few blocks. Houses, easy on the eyes, have brightly painted trim and doors.

But the Tilton school building faces a dodgy block of West End. Pairs of abandoned homes dot the street in plain sight of school windows and the playground. Kids step around empty bottles so they can order from the yellow ice-cream truck that pulls up at dismissal.

Three young men hang around the truck one Monday afternoon, then plant themselves across Keeler from the school, on a corner where there’s no crossing guard. A stream of apparent addicts pull up, buy small packages and quickly speed off. The routine repeats until 5 p.m., when the men hop into a car of their own and drive off.

As 7-year-old Kanyia Owens waits outside the playground for her ride home, an older gentleman in a ski hat lumbers past her, dipping a white tube into an envelope then into his nose repeatedly, until he throws the empty paper into a yard next to the school.

CPS’ chief of safety and security, Jadine Chou, calls the situation “not acceptable,” but something the district deals with every day.

“It is our duty, school closings or not, to make sure none of our children have to witness that or be in the presence of that,” Chou told the Chicago Sun-Times last week. “We cannot have that happening to our children.”

CPS plans to keep children safe

With help from Chicago Police and feedback from community hearings, Chou has drafted a detailed safety plan for each school, including a “safe passage” route between the schools manned with adults, though CPS hasn’t presented the Marconi-Tilton details to the schools’ principals or parents. That’s expected to happen June 6, though Chou says she’ll continue to listen to parents and police and change safety plans as needed.

The district says its existing safe-passage program at 35 high schools and four elementary schools has boosted attendance and vastly reduced crime in the immediate vicinity of those schools as well as serious student incidents at school.

Community watchers who will provide safe passage for students will be on their posts an hour before the morning bell and an hour afterward, Chou says. CPS wouldn’t provide after-school specifics for Tilton, saying the hours will depend on each school’s programs. And the safe passage workers’ posts and exact schedules will be finalized in early August, in time for Aug. 26, the first day of school, Chou says. Streets and Sanitation also will help, cleaning empty lots; the city’s Buildings department will secure vacant buildings.

CPS will offer some busing between schools at least four-fifths of a mile apart and may add more schools depending on conditions.

But Tilton and Marconi aren’t yet on the list.

Busing wouldn’t help all of Marconi’s children anyway, teacher LaVita Buckner says in the schoolyard, because several typically arrive late, some coming only after she calls their homes.

“I get some kids at 10:30,” Buckner says. “What’s going to be the safe passage for the kids who lag behind?”

“A lot of our students are afraid to go to Tilton,” she says. Kids have been sharing their families’ plans with her: “‘We’re going to move to Maywood. We’re going to move to Bolingbrook.’ ”

Contributing: Art Golab



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