It’s so crowded at the Gale grade school in Rogers Park that three classes have to meet in the cafeteria. At the Clinton grade school in West Rogers Park two classes are housed in a converted teachers’ lounge. Some students at the George Armstrong grade school in Rogers Park have to take their lessons in the hallways or under the stairs. And at the Hayt school in Edgewater, several classes must meet in the basement near the boiler.

“We’ve got a Spanish bilingual class that meets in the office of the gym,” says Bob Gallagher, principal of the Clinton School. “There’s a class on the stage. And then there are the kids in the old teachers’ lounge. We’ve got 25 desks in there. There are also two toilets, but we closed them off.”

All told, about ten schools in Rogers Park, West Rogers Park, and Edgewater are overcrowded. Clinton, Field, and Gale–each built for about 700 students–have more than 1,000 enrolled. Ask teachers and principals and they’ll tell you: overcrowding cripples education and makes a mockery of reform.

“All the local-school-council elections in the world don’t mean a thing if you’ve got 40 kids to a classroom,” says one veteran grade school teacher. “You’ve got to cut class size down if you’re serious about teaching kids to read and write. And we can’t reduce class size if we don’t have the room.”

Nonetheless, school officials have been slow to acknowledge the problem, which can only get worse with the archdiocese planning to close more Catholic schools. “We’re built for about 700 children, and my last count had us at 890 and rising,” says Arline Hersh, principal at George Armstrong. “Education is going on–our teachers are doing a great job. But imagine how much better it would be if we weren’t so crowded.”

Ironically, it wasn’t long ago that many north-side schools were underused. Until the last decade the area was populated by older whites whose children had graduated. In the early 80s, in fact, the Board of Education was under court order to desegregate several north-side schools by busing in black students.

There’s no need to bus students today, as nearly every community north of Lawrence Avenue is undergoing a minority population boom. Rogers Park’s black population grew from roughly 5,000 to 9,000 between 1980 and 1985, according to the city’s Department of Planning. At the same time the black population in Edgewater rose from 6,500 to 11,000.

Many of these residents came from such poor south- and west-side neighborhoods as Englewood and North Lawndale. Schools there–once overcrowded–are now underused. “We’ve seen kids moving here from other parts of the city–that’s one reason for the overcrowding,” says Ede Snyder, principal of the Gale school. “Now we see black youngsters moving around the north side. Many of our new children come from sections of Uptown which are undergoing gentrification.”

In addition, the north side remains a port of entry for Asian, European, and Hispanic immigrants–Assyrians, Koreans, Mexicans, Russians, Vietnamese, and Greeks among them –many of whom have school-age children. “The area has always been attractive to new immigrants,” says Sonja Pacana-Fremon, a community organizer for the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. “It’s diverse. I think that’s part of its appeal and strength.”

The school system has demographers who keep track of these trends. But the north side’s problems have been overshadowed by overcrowded conditions in Little Village, West Town, and other near south- and west-side Hispanic communities. For years activists in these communities–led by the United Neighborhood Organization, a group based in Pilsen–lobbied for new schools. Recently their efforts began to pay off.

In 1985 the board borrowed about $28 million to build eight new schools–almost all of them in Hispanic areas. Two years ago a subcommittee of the board designated 50 schools for relief. None were north of Uptown.

“I give UNO a lot of credit. They have a lot of clout,” says Pacana-Fremon. “They understand that these things come down to politics. Whoever screams the loudest gets the best service. Up until now I guess we haven’t been screaming loud enough.”

The problem is complicated by the fact that the north-side schools serve a diverse population of foreign students. “Once you have more than 20 students who speak a language other than English, state law requires you put them in a special class,” explains Gallagher. “We have classes in Urdu, Korean, Spanish, Assyrian, and Russian. The problem is where do you find the space to put all these classes? That’s one of the reasons we’re running out of room.”

The situation at Armstrong has gotten so bad that they have a classroom in which lessons are taught in three different languages at once. “It sounds like the Tower of Babel,” says Hersh, “but there’s nothing we can do.”

Under such conditions it’s harder for teachers to maintain order or offer individualized instruction. Few schools can use their lunchrooms. And all must adhere to the “closed campus” schedule–a torturous arrangement in which teachers and students remain confined to their classrooms all day without break, not even for recess.

For the most part the schools have had to search for solutions on their own. Those few high-ranking officials who got involved seemed only to get in the way. “We might have had a break if the old district superintendent didn’t have an office in our school,” says a resident familiar with Clinton’s situation. “He didn’t want to give up his office. Every time we asked him for help, he’d say, ‘I’ll look into it.’ He retired last year, and we were able to use his space for classrooms.”

As it now stands, Clinton may open a branch in space rented from a nearby private Greek school. What’s frustrating is that the board owns a school building not far from Clinton that it currently leases to a private Jewish school.

Other schools–such as Armstrong–can’t find nearby facilities for rent. Their leaders want the board to build “demountables,” prefab additions to the main school. “A demountable gives you enough space for seven or eight classrooms, and it only costs about $250,000,” says one north-side principal. “You could put them up within weeks. Every school wants one. But when we ask, the board says, ‘We’re not going to spend that kind of money for a temporary solution.’ So we stay jammed.”

Another proposal is to build a new junior high that would draw sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from Rogers Park and Edgewater. This idea, however, requires more public hearings and planning than time permits.

A few low-ranking school bureaucrats have suggested that Rogers Park youngsters be bused to underused schools in Uptown or Lincoln Park. It’s an idea no community supports. “I didn’t run for the local council at Armstrong to have my daughter bused to Lincoln Park,” says Hank Rubin, a community representative at Armstrong. “Busing goes against the whole spirit of local school reform, which was to put schools under the control of people who use them.”

In desperation, council members from different schools have made personal appeals to influential officials such as board president James Compton and vice president William Singer–with poor results.

Helen Helfgott, a member of Hayt’s council, got ACLU director Jay Miller to write Singer on her school’s behalf. “I’ve been a volunteer at the ACLU for years, and I know that Miller and Singer know each other,” Helfgott explains, adding with a sigh, “Only in Chicago do you have to know someone to get a school official to respond to your complaint.”

Singer responded, but he didn’t promise relief. “Our need to relieve overcrowding will outstrip our ability to do so in the short term,” he wrote to Helfgott. “Therefore, what we need is a long-term plan to solve all of our problems.”

The Hayt council members shouldn’t complain–at least they got a reply. Neither Singer nor Compton responded to a plea from the Armstrong school council, and they had 50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone write on their behalf.

It’s reached the point where local councils waste their limited time devising strategies that might get board officials to return their phone calls. “It’s unusual for a board member to respond to calls from us,” says one north-side principal. “Why should Jim Compton return my phone call? I’m just a principal.”

Some schools are forming coalitions–including GRADE, the Greater Rogers Park Association for the Development of Education–to press for relief on a community-wide basis. “GRADE was originally put together to guarantee a cadre of strong local-school-council candidates for last year’s elections,” says Rubin. “Soon after the election we had a brainstorming session, and the biggest concern was overcrowding. That’s our chief concern.”

After weeks of prodding, the board created a subcommittee on overcrowding and named Joe Reed its chair. “We haven’t started to address the detailed questions that are associated with overcrowding,” Reed says. “We have a situation that’s deplorable. It’s frustrating, because the councils are bringing problems to our attention. But we just don’t have a gung-ho organization that’s ready to respond. With [new school superintendent] Ted Kimbrough coming in, it will get better, I assure you.”

In addition, the board has announced plans to build and rebuild schools sometime in the summer. It’s uncertain, however, how much construction will be done in Rogers Park or Edgewater. Besides, even if the board promises more classrooms for the north side, local school leaders must remember that this is only an interim board. A new one will be appointed in May, and no one can say for certain whether it will keep the old board’s promises.

“It’s a struggle,” says Rubin. “Overcrowding is the most difficult issue we face. But we have to keep at it. This is one issue that just won’t go away.”

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