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SPECIAL REPORT: CPS closings create school zone, danger zone

Updated: June 20, 2013 6:02AM



Tall and beaming, Diana Carr guards the vacant lot at 70th and Stewart, presiding over her own personal version of safe passage to school.

“C’mon, babies!” she beckons the children walking past her the few blocks to Yale Elementary, watching them all the way, until they make it to the edge of the playground, and to the safety of school.

One tiny girl in a red coat sprints the three blocks from her mother’s stoop to Yale, running by profanity, gang taunts and Lil JoJo lyrics scribbled on a filthy underpass.

A little boy trudges along with other children.

“Good morning, Ms. Carr,” he says.

“Hurry up,” she replies, all business. It’s just minutes before the school’s 7:45 a.m. bell.

“You’re almost late!”

After watching her only child, 13-year-old Jaleel, cross safely onto school grounds, Carr waits to shepherd other children who pick their way to Yale. A little after 8, she’ll walk the rest of the way to the school herself, where she’s volunteered in classrooms since her 7th-grader started school there.

Like his classmates, Jaleel isn’t expected to finish 8th grade at Yale. CPS plans on shuttering the school, one of a record 54 the district says are under enrolled. On Wednesday the Board of Education will vote on the proposal. CPS would send Jaleel and his 200 classmates more than five blocks south to the Harvard School of Excellence.

The difference between going to Harvard and Yale — and between other schools shutting down and the ones opening their doors to those students — is more than a matter of yards or blocks or a few minutes extra commute.

It may be the difference between a safe child and one in peril, parents fear.

It may be the difference between remaining in one gang turf and crossing the ever-shifting border between two — something most adults would avoid, much less children.

It may be the difference between a young mother facing enough challenges getting her children to school on time — and not getting them there at all, as some teachers worry.

Earlier this month, a group of hearing officers, all retired judges, raised safety concerns for some of the moves. Retired federal Judge David H. Coar wrote in his report for Mahalia Jackson Elementary: “The safety of the youngest and most vulnerable children in the school system is a very serious thing, not to be addressed with generalities and vague promises.”

CPS officials have reiterated they have a detailed plan ready to ensure students’ safety in each case. They have shown drafts of each school’s safety specifics to the six Board of Education members who will cast votes Wednesday. They will also share those details with principals and parents, too, though not in time for Wednesday.

They insist: Schoolchildren will be safe.

“We believe the plan in place will do that,” CPS chief safety and security officer Jadine Chou told the Sun-Times last week. “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here.”

The dangers children will pass

Still, Carr is terrified. Jaleel is her only remaining child. The 44-year-old lost two children, one before he was born, one after.

Jaleel is her world.

His current school, Yale, is enveloped by homes and an adjoining playground.

At Harvard, though, the neighborhood near the school boasts a liquor store attracting the sort of men early in the morning that no parent wants children to encounter while walking to school.

Lately, parents and a crossing guard say, there’s been a man exposing himself to students across from Harvard school.

With all that, Carr wonders, why the need for the move?

Both schools have CPS’ lowest ranking and are on academic probation, though Harvard has higher scores.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has repeatedly said over the past six months of the closing process that children in some parts of Chicago have been cheated out of an education she hopes to give them by consolidating schools and resources. That’s why some schools with more space than children need to close.

“What I have proposed to the Board of Education will give Chicago’s children opportunities that they simply did not have previously,” she wrote shortly after announcing her 54 recommendations. “Each ‘welcoming school’ will have the things that parents, teachers and community agree students need.”

As CPS seeks to close the schools, the Sun-Times closely examined three schools in different neighborhoods, and what closing them would mean for the children in communities where safety is everyone’s primary concern.

If the school board approves the recommended closings on Wednesday, Yale Elementary School will close into Harvard School of Excellence in Englewood on the South Side.

On the Far South Side, Kohn Elementary School will close, and students will head to Lavizzo Elementary, Cullen Elementary and Langston Hughes Elementary in Roseland, depending on where they live.

And on the West Side, Marconi Community Academy will close into Tilton Elementary in West Garfield Park.

The Sun-Times will explore what those changes mean for students at Kohn and Marconi in stories in the coming week.

Potential routes to the schools that are taking students in show a range of dangers that the children could encounter in the next school year.

Walking the few blocks from Yale south to Harvard offers its own worries, Carr said, as she traveled the route one recent morning to show what children might face. Nor has Carr kept her worries to herself. She told CPS officials of the dangers at several hearings on school closings.

Carr takes one possible route along Princeton Avenue south from Yale toward Harvard. It’s seemingly the calmest, most direct way to connect the two schools and it has the least amount of trouble on it. As it turns out, it’s one of the streets CPS and the Chicago Police Department also believe children should follow, along with neighboring Harvard Avenue, according to a draft proposal.

A block west, though, and there’s the home of a registered sex offender. A block east and there are two, including one whose victim was under 18 when, the registry shows, he sexually assaulted her.

A light blue house in the 7100 block has been burned out for years, its siding melted and charred. Nobody bothers to fix houses up around here. Nobody has the money, Carr said.

Heading west through a dilapidated viaduct lies Hamilton Park, where teens fight, and gunshots are a common sound.

“They have no consideration of other kids when they’re out here,” Carr said. “Bullets don’t have names and they definitely don’t have eyes.”

A once majestic red brick apartment building at the 73rd Street intersection with Princeton has bright yellow boards covering all its doors and weathered ones over its windows. A faded “For Sale” sign clings to the front; the property has been on and off the market since 2006, according to public records. Red X’s — what the city uses to tell first responders a structure is unstable — mark its facade and many other nearby buildings.

Next comes a long vacant lot where houses have been knocked down, full of empty whiskey bottles and broken glass.

Carr prefers empty lots to abandoned homes: “Once you tear these buildings down, you can see a lot. Parents could look out their windows and watch their kids going to school.”

Inside the vacant buildings, though, who knows what’s going on. And farther down the block sit two more empty houses, one after the other.

Carr arrives at 75th Street, a throughway students will have to cross. Harvard is just on the other side. She crosses.

Once this busy stretch of 75th Street was lined with businesses: a barber shop, a candy store, an old cleaners, a Mr. Tips BBQ joint. They’re all gone now, their signs fading in their windows.

This is what it’s like to go to Harvard, she says in front of the school. All of a sudden she bolts.

“This is dangerous,” Carr said, hustling off school grounds and making her way north. “This is really dangerous territory up in here.”

Drug deals go down at 75th and Stewart, while old men, standing in front of the liquor store, guzzle their booze of choice covered in brown paper bags. Young guys carry on, shrieking when a comrade pulls up to greet them.

Carr picks up the pace to hurry past the crew outside the liquor store at 75th and Stewart and around the corner. She doesn’t speak again until the men are out of sight.

“Ok, I can breathe now,” she said. “I’m fine. What I’m doing is helping my babies, that’s what I’m doing it for.”

“I got two angels in heaven got their wings wrapped around me, so I’m good,”

But then it hits her: If she’s scared as a grown woman, one just under 6 feet tall, how are small children going to feel?

Menace at 75th and Stewart

A Sun-Times review of crime data shows
at least eight violent crimes at or near 75th and Stewart in 2012 and 2013, among the highest number at a single intersection in the entire neighborhood: Two aggravated batteries with a handgun, two more with a knife,
an aggravated assault with a knife, two strong-arm robberies, an armed robbery
and 13 drug arrests.

Families with kids already at Harvard call the corner a menace. The liquor store opens at 8 a.m.; school starts at 8:45. Folks sell loose cigarettes outside the store. They drink at all hours, and older guys prey on the bigger schoolboys, enticing them to join gangs.

“The only problem we have,” Willie Nash says pointing, after dropping his 8-year-old granddaughter off for 2nd grade at Harvard, “is down there.”

“They shouldn’t be down there when the kids go to school.”

Another Harvard mother too scared of the neighborhood thugs to give her last name still walks her 7th-grader to school each day. She won’t let him walk alone, even the few blocks from their home.

“I don’t want no guys pressuring him to be in a gang or anything like that,” says Tasha G.

As Carr rounds the corner north onto Stewart Avenue to head back, it becomes clear there’s no way kids could use Stewart to get to Yale, though for Carr’s son, it’d be more direct than Princeton from his home on Eggleston. The board-ups come in rows, not one at a time anymore. Booze bottles line the parkways. Metra tracks form the western border of the street — all kinds of dangers and generally a more ominous vibe than on Princeton where folks tend daffodils, repair their homes and mostly keep their fences mended.

Yale kids don’t qualify for a bus, according to CPS. Their walk is just a shade under the four-fifths of a mile radius to get busing to their new school. The ones that follow CPS’ plans to Harvard are going to have to mooch rides, or carpool, or walk.

Chou, the CPS’ chief safety officer, has drafted — with help from the Chicago Police Department and feedback from dozens of community meetings — safe passage plans for all the schools. But they haven’t yet been presented to administrators at Harvard or Yale, or to those schools’ parents. Meetings with affected parents at other schools began Thursday; CPS scheduled Yale’s and Harvard’s for early June.

The district says that the 35 high schools and four elementary schools that already have a safe passage program in place have seen a 7 percent rise in attendance, a 20 percent decrease in crime in the immediate vicinity of those schools, and a 27 percent decrease in serious student incidents.

CPS also has enlisted city agencies — police, fire, buildings, streets and sanitation — to help along the safe passage routes; the city’s 311 operators have been given the routes, as well.

The city’s department of Consumer Affairs will deal with problematic businesses, and act where they need to, Chou said.

‘Not in Englewood’

Carr doesn’t fool herself that Yale sits in paradise.

It has its own boarded-up homes surrounding the school.

The house where Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson’s family was murdered lies just east of it.

Just north, the rapper Lil JoJo was fatally shot, possibly by a rival.

The school’s jungle gym is covered in gang scrawls and obscenities.

A young man pushing a broom along 70th Street toward the school brushes off Carr’s cheery, “Smile! It’s a beautiful morning.”

He shakes his head. “Not in Englewood.”

Despite its problems, though, Yale is close, and it’s familiar, Carr explains. Parents know what’s around and they can watch their children go back and forth.

She sent her son to Harvard for a few
grades, but a 2011 shooting near there made her move him back. A gunman opened fire on 75th Street, causing a car to speed through a red light and slam into a CTA bus. Bullets hit parked cars, 11 people were hospitalized, but no one died.

“It took me a good minute to get down there,” she said of her trip to Harvard. She doesn’t have a car.

But as for Yale: “If anything happened I could get here on time.”

If anything happens to a single child who has to travel farther to get to Harvard, Carr knows whom she will blame: Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Heaven help him if it’s Jaleel.

Jaleel already won’t go to the park alone, or to school, or out back to shoot hoops. At 10, he witnessed a gang shooting.

It doesn’t matter how much bigger than the average 13-year-old he is, he doesn’t want to go so far from his mother.

“If something went wrong,” he said, “my mom couldn’t get there.”

Contributing: Art Golab



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