By Ben Joravsky

It’s become common for public schools to stick a marquee sign out front that proclaims good news–honors won, test scores raised. But at South Loop School at Roosevelt and State, such a sign is the subject of a bitter battle between school leaders, whose students come from the CHA’s Hillard Homes, and residents of the relatively upscale surrounding community. About the only thing both sides can agree on is that the dispute goes much deeper than the sign.

“The sign’s a symbol of something else,” says South Loop principal Shirley Woodard. “The something else has to do with the separation between school and community.”

The conflict goes back to the 1980s, when Dearborn Park was built on a large tract of land just north of Roosevelt. To satisfy the educational needs of the new neighborhood’s residents and keep them from fleeing to the suburbs, the city decided to build a new school.

There was only one problem. Parents at Hillard, a series of high-rises near 23rd and State, had been pressing the board for a new school for their children. “The Hillard parents had been promised a school by the board,” says Woodard, who has been working in local schools for over 30 years. “They deserved it, they needed it. Their children were in old, substandard mobile units.”

The battle over who would use South Loop School–there wasn’t enough space in the building for all the Hillard Homes and Dearborn Park children–made national news. It wasn’t so much a racial issue, since many Dearborn Park residents are black, as a class one. “The challenge has always been to keep an economic mix of children in the same school,” says Woodard. In 1989 the central office attempted to forge a compromise by sending local kindergartners and first-graders to a recently built modular unit near the Hillard Homes and limiting the newly built South Loop School to second through eighth grade. It didn’t work; the parents of Dearborn Park made it clear that their children would not be bused to any school near Hillard.

In the last few years, middle-class development has spread south to 16th Street. South Loop School is now surrounded by town houses and condos, but few if any of their owners send their children to it. About 80 percent of the students come from Hillard; the rest are bused in from other neighborhoods.

Woodard is proud to take visitors on tours of the school, showing off fourth-graders who can recite poems by Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks and third-graders who play Beethoven on the clarinet. Kids call out good morning, and she stops to offer hugs to some and gently admonish others who aren’t complying with the dress code (white shirt and blue pants). A sign in the gym celebrates the achievements of Jamale Tidwell, the star of the eighth-grade basketball team. “I taught Jamale’s father years ago,” says Woodard.

The school has been making great strides, she says. The Small Schools Workshop, a not-for-profit consulting firm associated with the University of Illinois that was brought in by schools CEO Paul Vallas, divided South Loop into more workable units. A local resident, Bob O’Neill, helped forge links with the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium.

If Woodard has a problem, it’s with a “small but vocal minority” of nearby residents “who have their own agenda,” she says. “Many of the residents are very supportive of the school. I think we want many of the same things. I would like to see more diversity in the classroom. I think children should be exposed to children from different backgrounds. You can’t raise your children in a vacuum. I wish more of the residents would send their children to our school. But I don’t think we should shut out the kids from Hillard. We could be the model to show that kids from different classes can work together.”

Her critics–most notably Larry Young and Cora Hudik, the two community reps on the local school council–feel Woodard misrepresents their position. They describe themselves as community-minded citizens, the sort of people who organize Little League teams and Boy Scout troops, and they want what’s best for the school and the neighborhood. As they see it, Woodard and Sheila Garrett, the LSC president, run the school with strong-arm tactics. They don’t give proper notice of LSC meetings or allow people with conflicting viewpoints to speak up.

As for the school itself, they say it’s underachieving. In 1998, about 78 and 65 percent of its students scored below national norms in reading and math, respectively, on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. “I ran for the local school council because I live a hundred yards from the school,” says Young. “I’ve lived in the community for ten years. I send my children to public schools. But I don’t send them to South Loop. Many of my black neighbors, whose kids all play on my baseball team–none of them send their kids to South Loop either.”

South Loop is poorly run, says Young. “At South Loop, the kids are not allowed to enter the front door–all students must enter through a side door,” he says. “It’s bedlam on the playground as seventh- and eighth-graders play on equipment meant for little children.”

Young says Woodard and Garrett have rebuffed his attempts to integrate the school with the community, going so far as to keep his Boy Scout troop out by charging an exorbitant fee to meet there. Woodard says Young wouldn’t gurantee slots in his troop for South Loop students.

Woodard says she didn’t expect any opposition to hanging the sign. “Every school has one,” she says. “It would be no different than any of those, about eight feet off the ground, with our name–South Loop School–in blue and white and enough white space for special announcements, like when we’re having an LSC meeting or which student won which award. It’s a sign of pride for a school, a way to say we’re here.”

But Young says the sign Woodard wants to install is too big and “luminous” for a quiet residential community. Worse, South Loop can’t afford it, he says, noting that it would cost $5,800 to install at a time when the school already owes the Small Schools Workshop several thousand dollars.

“You have to consider priorities,” says Young. Besides, on November 18 the school system’s central office issued a memo “requesting that all plans for marquee sign orders and installations [be] put on hold effective immediately.” Before any more signs appeared the school board wanted to set design standards.

“We didn’t even have the authority to put up the sign,” says Young. “There was a moratorium.”

Nonetheless, on January 20 workers showed up in a flatbed truck and started to install the sign. Residents called the central office chieftains, who called Woodard and told her to stop the installation. Within a few days, a letter signed by officers of 12 separate home-owners groups in the area was sent to planning commissioner Christopher Hill, asking him to “take whatever necessary and appropriate actions are required in the future against anyone should they install, or attempt to install, such a sign without the requisite permit.”

Hill notified Woodard by letter that she couldn’t install a sign without a city permit. “I thought I had the discretionary authority to install the sign, but I guess I didn’t,” she says. “I’m not going to get into a big public fight. I’m a positive person. I’m going to meet with Mr. Hill and make our case. All the other schools have a sign. Why can’t we?”

If there’s a neutral party it’s Mike Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop, who takes pride in his ability to chat amiably with Young and other home owners while maintaining a close alliance with Woodard and Garrett. Klonsky has high praise for Woodard, noting that last year’s poor test scores didn’t occur on her watch because she just took over as principal in November.

“In some ways this is not that unusual. There’s always a natural conflict between schools and community, whether it’s over parking spaces or whatever,” he says. “I think the school is really improving. I think Shirley Woodard is a good principal, a real leader. It’s incumbent on her to build a bridge to the middle class and bring them into the school to take advantage of their resources. Bring in mentors, open the school at night. I mean, there needs to be a lot of bringing people together here. There’s a bridge that’s got to be built.”

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