It was roughly one year ago that activists first sounded the alarm about overcrowded schools in Edgewater, West Rogers Park, and other neighborhoods on the far north side. Since then, parents, teachers, and principals have formed coalitions, petitioned politicians, and pleaded with school-board officials for relief. They’ve scouted the area, looking to rent classrooms in synagogues, churches, and armories. One school–Gale–will soon go on a year- round schedule so all of its students won’t attend school at the same time.

Despite their efforts, the schools remain overcrowded. The average class size in most of these schools is 35–a number few suburban or private schools would tolerate. Schools designed for 700 children have more than 1,000 enrolled. Classes are conducted in hallways, auditoriums, and converted teacher lounges–straining the staff and making it more difficult to keep order, let alone teach. “It’s a basic problem we absolutely have to solve,” says Lou Berkman, a member of the council at Clinton Elementary School in West Rogers Park. “Overcrowding makes it harder for teachers to teach and students to learn. It’s so frustrating that we can’t seem to get at it.”

As always, the problem is money. The interim school board did borrow $396 million this year to build 14 new schools–including one on the north side. But these schools won’t be completed for at least three years. And even when they open, the average class size in Chicago will remain far higher than the suburban average.

Creating more classrooms means raising taxes and possibly alienating taxpayers–a risk few politicians or school-board members are willing to take. For all the rhetoric about reform, the children of Chicago’s north-side schools remain relegated to second-class status. “The bottom line on school reform is that it brought democracy to the local schools,” says Berkman. “And democracy is a great thing. But democracy without money means nothing.”

The north side’s crowded conditions are the result of a decade of demographic changes. Since the early 1980s new immigrants–Koreans, Assyrians, Russian Jews, and Haitians among them–as well as professional and working-class blacks, whites, and Hispanics have been migrating to the north side. With them have come their school-age children. “Just a few years ago we had empty classrooms on the north side,” says Tee Galley, a longtime school activist and resident of West Rogers Park. “It’s a stable community. My husband and I have had our building for 34 years. Our kids graduated years ago. But now there’s new families with children on the block. It’s a recent demographic phenomenon.”

The rapid increase in the school-age population certainly surprised school officials. Until recently, they thought of overcrowding as a “Hispanic” issue, because so many of Chicago’s crowded schools are in the Mexican American communities on the near south and west sides. Indeed, the first and most aggressive group to organize around the issue was the United Neighborhood Organization–a Hispanic group with branches in Little Village, Pilsen, and South Chicago.

“In a lot of ways, we were late to the issue,” says Marybeth Schroeder, a West Rogers Park resident. “A lot of our organizing work began last fall.” That’s when several north-side community groups and local school councils formed the Greater Rogers Park Association for the Development of Education (GRADE), figuring strength in numbers would win more resources for their schools. They quickly discovered that they were just one of several coalitions, even on the north side. Two other groups–the Organization of the NorthEast and Comite Latino–were also rallying residents in Edgewater and Uptown. But rather than compete for the hard- to-win attention of school officials, the three groups formed another alliance. By February this large coalition had convinced school-board member Joe Reed to attend one of its public meetings, where he heard horror stories of classrooms held in basements and stairwells.

Soon after that meeting the interim board approved its $396 million capital-improvement project, which included a new school in Rogers Park. But since that school will not be completed for at least three years, the activists asked the board to supply their schools with what central-office bureaucrats call “on-site temporary classrooms.”

“I call them demountables–basically they’re temporary additions to the school building,” says Michael Radzilowsky, president of the local council at Hayt School in Edgewater. “We have 850 kids in a school designed for 650–we can’t wait for a new school. We need at least a temporary solution by September; that would be an eight-room demountable built on the playground as close as you can get to the main school entrance. Demountables are used in some of the suburbs, like Winnetka and Evanston. Basically, the company which installs the demountable leases it for about $8,000 a year per unit. If you have eight units, that’s $64,000 a year. It’s not perfect, but it’s a relatively inexpensive way to relieve the conditions while new schools are constructed.”

Almost every north-side activist agrees, but the school board has hesitated to provide the demountables. Some board members seem to associate them with the infamous mobile units used in the 1960s by school superintendent Benjamin Willis to keep blacks in overcrowded black schools and out of underused white ones. Though the north-side activists say they’re an integrated bunch who wouldn’t use the demountables to promote segregation, board officials still haven’t relented.

In an attempt to influence the board, the north-siders sought the assistance of Arthur Berman and Howard Carroll, two influential state senators. But that only pulled the coalition into the dispute over the Green School.

The school board closed the Green School, on Devon Avenue near the intersection of Sacramento, about ten years ago because of declining enrollment. Then it was rented to an Orthodox Jewish group called the Associated Talmud Torahs to house a private school for girls. That arrangement was fine as long as the public schools weren’t too crowded. But eventually local residents began pressing the board to end its lease with the Jewish group and convert the school into a science academy that would draw public-school students from throughout Rogers Park.

“The parochial school’s lease was set to expire in 1989, and plans were definitely drawn up to convert the Green School to public use,” says a north-side principal. “I had up to 100 kids committed to go there. Then something happened.” The school board ditched its plans for a science academy and extended the Jewish school’s lease through 1991.

Few people are willing to talk publicly about the matter, but almost all observers agree that Carroll and Berman used their influence on behalf of the Jewish school. “I think it was a matter of political clout,” says Lou Berkman. “I believe that Howie Carroll and Art Berman got school officials to extend the lease.”

Berkman was outraged. “I see it as a taxpayers’ issue. We’re so overcrowded at Clinton we have to rent space from a little private Greek school down the street. Meanwhile the Green School–which is public property–is being rented for about $25,000 a year to a parochial school. Isn’t that bizarre? People say, ‘Well, it’s only 14 classrooms.’ But we need those classrooms. Symbolically, it stinks.”

Berkman had wanted the coalition of north-side school activists to raise the issue with Carroll and Berman, but other members resisted. “Some of us were worried about being called anti-Semitic, and most of us don’t want to alienate Berman,” says one coalition member. “It’s a touchy issue. Shortly after the Jewish school got its lease extended, Berman and Carroll used their clout to get $10 million in state funds appropriated for overcrowding. The school board still hasn’t spent this money, but that’s not Berman’s fault. He did his job. That money can be used for the demountables. I can understand where Berman and Carroll are coming from. The Orthodox Jews are a very important part of the West Rogers Park community. If we make this a big issue, we only put Berman in a bad spot. And why should we do that to a guy who has been good to us?”

Carroll would not comment. Berman says the issue is moot. “The decision to lease the Green School was made by the board, not by me. That lease runs to 1991. Meanwhile, we have an immediate overcrowding problem. I want to deal with the problems of 1990, not 1991.”

For a while the coalition struggled with how much they should press Carroll, Berman, school-board members, and school superintendent Ted Kimbrough on the matter. In the end they decided to let the matter rest–in the hope that Berman will use his clout to convince the board to approve the demountables.

All the activists agree that the crowded schools demand immediate attention. “We have a diverse community, but we’re in danger of seeing our schools become increasingly poor,” says Marybeth Schroeder. “My older boy is an energetic kid. You can channel his energy into useful activities. But if you put him in a class with 37 kids, that teacher will just tell him to shut up. I can’t really blame her. With all the other kids in the class she won’t have the time or energy to look out for my kid. It’s the kind of thing that would force a lot of middle-class parents to move to the suburbs.”

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