Parents and teachers at Wilson Occupational High School had begged central office officials for almost two years to buy them a new building–their current quarters were the third floor of a northwest-side grade school.

Earlier this year they got their wish: a building was purchased, architectural plans were made, and funding was secured from various corporations to expand the curriculum at the school, which serves mentally handicapped children. “A lot was coming together,” says principal Jay Mulberry. “Expectations were high.”

Then came the bombshell of April 25: Wilson officials learned that Wilson was on a list of schools to be closed. The list’s drafters, general superintendent Ted Kimbrough and his chief financial aide, Robert Sampieri, announced that the system was broke and needed to save money somewhere. As for Wilson’s 128 students, they would be dumped into whatever vacant classroom space could be found at Taft High School.

Well, that was how things appeared at the time. Since then there’s been such a great outcry against the list that Kimbrough has backed off, denying that any decisions about closing schools are final. As a result, Wilson’s proponents–particularly Mulberry, whose job would be eliminated if the school were closed–have been left in limbo.

“In one day, they blotted out all the hard work of two years, and they didn’t have the decency to tell us–we still don’t know what our future is,” says Marlene Curylo, president of Wilson’s local school council. “Taft doesn’t want us, and we don’t want to go there. We’re being treated like dirt, and what’s worse is that no one–not the bureaucrats or the politicians–really gives a damn.”

Wilson opened in 1970, the result of a state law requiring special facilities for children who, in the parlance of experts, have an “educable mental handicap.”

Years ago, when such information was kept, Wilson students were known to have IQs in the range of 50 to 65. “They are educable,” says Mulberry, “in that they can achieve mastery of a job so they can work and live independently.” Few students at Wilson read above the third-grade level, but almost all hold regular jobs. The school takes pride in its programs, which foster independence.

“We teach children how to count money and make change, we teach them how to get along with others,” says Pamela McFalls, a teacher at Wilson. “It’s like a family in here. It’s very sheltered and safe, but we try to give them skills that they will need after graduation.”

Despite their efforts, teachers say that Wilson is treated as the system’s “unwanted stepchild.” Over the last 20 years the school has had two names and three locations. Since 1981 it’s operated out of the Beaubien elementary school, at 5025 N. Laramie. “The attitude stinks,” says David Burke, a Wilson teacher. “It’s ‘Oh, you’ve got the EMH kids–well, shove ’em in the basement.'”

In the last few years Beaubien’s enrollment has grown, and Wilson might have been unceremoniously moved to yet another school if not for the school reform law of 1988. That law created the local school council (an 11-member body of parents, teachers, and community residents) and allowed Wilson to hire its own principal. (Before that, Wilson had been run by the principal of whatever school it was housed in.)

“The new law enabled us to become more of a community,” says Curylo. “It gave us the power to do things for ourselves.”

One of their first decisions was to hire Mulberry, a former history teacher at Hyde Park High School. Another early decision was to look for their own building. “We wanted more room to offer more individualized training and to initiate new programs,” says Mulberry. “We didn’t want to be dependent on others, and we didn’t want to have to move from year to year.”

In early 1990, Curylo spotted a for-sale sign outside an Illinois Bell billing facility at 4355 N. Linders.

“Jay [Mulberry] came to us and wanted us to give them the building,” says John McDermott, director of urban affairs for Illinois Bell. “We can’t do that. But we were ready to sell the building to the Board of Education with the understanding–although there were no guarantees–that they would use it for Wilson.”

It took about a year for the sale to be completed. In the meantime, Mulberry lined up an architect who designed plans for the new Wilson facility. Mulberry also got McDonald’s to agree to donate nearly $150,000 in kitchen equipment to the new school.

“We want our students to run their own cafeteria, so they can get practical kitchen experience,” says Mulberry. “Many lunchrooms who hire our students don’t really train them. They’ll say ‘Go wash that table,’ and then washing tables will become the student’s job. That’s not good enough. The students should also know how to cut vegetables, operate a dishwasher, set the table, handle change, or wait on people.”

Wilson’s relocation plans suffered a slight setback last winter when Thomas Hehir was hired to run the central office’s special education department.

“Hehir is committed to mainstreaming EMH students,” says Mulberry. “That means he’s not necessarily supportive of schools like ours. Had he taken the job in October 1989, he might have put the kibosh on our plan altogether.”

As it was, Hehir endorsed the project only after he and Wilson’s LSC had negotiated a unique arrangement under which the school agreed to accept about 100 “at risk” students.

“These are nonhandicapped students who, based on their low reading or math scores, would be expected to drop out,” says Mulberry. “We would put them in smaller classes and give them more individualized attention. We were very excited about this program. These are the supposed unreachable students, and we were trying to reach them.”

The new program won the support of Senator Paul Simon and south-side congressman Charles Hayes; and Mulberry applied for a $630,000 federal grant to help fund it. Their central office sources told them in April that they could move to the old Illinois Bell building by September, Wilson officials say. That’s when they got the bad word.

“I remember it was April 25, and I was talking to a friend who works at the central office,” says Mulberry. “He said, ‘There’s something you should know. I don’t know why they won’t tell you this, but it looks as though they are going to put an elementary school in the Illinois Bell building!'”

After that, Mulberry and Curylo made a few more phone calls and discovered that Wilson was one of 20 “underutilized” schools Kimbrough was proposing to close. Supposedly the system could save $114,000 by eliminating Mulberry’s salary and moving Wilson to Taft.

What’s not clear is whether those savings take into account the extra thousands of dollars in architectural fees it will cost to redesign the Illinois Bell building for another school. And at this point Kimbrough has put such a clamp on information about school closings that no one knows which schools will be closed, let alone the money that would be saved and how.

“We’re lost–we have no way to obtain the truth,” say Curylo. “If you ask a school official how they intend to save money by closing the schools on their list, they say, ‘There’s no list.’ If you say, ‘Well, I read about the list in the Sun-Times,’ they say, ‘Well, that’s only one list. There are several lists, but we can’t show you them now.'”

To clear up the confusion, Mulberry tried to make an appointment with Sampieri, but the financial manager failed to return his calls. (Sampieri would not respond for comment for this article either.)

So Mulberry went to Sampieri’s office and announced he would not leave unless the financial chief met with him. “Eventually I got to see him and we had a nice conversation–Sampieri’s a very intelligent man,” says Mulberry. “He told us we were on a list, but that there were several lists and that nothing was official–which is the general refrain, if not the truth.”

To the Wilson leaders, the sudden change in plans seemed a little preposterous. After all, they had been planning the move with various central office officials for months. And yet no one had even told them that a big shortfall might frustrate their efforts.

“They either didn’t know or they knew and didn’t tell us–either way, it’s bad,” says Curylo. “I have the feeling that Kimbrough and Sampieri had no idea of all the plans we had been making with our school officials. It’s another case of one bureaucrat not knowing what the other one is doing.”

In the last few weeks a chorus of activists have joined Wilson’s leaders in protesting the proposed closings–a chorus that should grow, now that Kimbrough has released another list of schools to be closed (those schools housed in buildings leased by the board to alleviate overcrowding). Amid all this ruckus, however, no one knows if the voices from Wilson will be heard.

“We’re just one little school in a big system,” says Curylo. “Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if they just gave us our money and left us on our own.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.