If all had gone according to plan, there would have been a ground-breaking ceremony last month for an addition to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. The first ceremonial shovel of dirt would have been tossed by the local alderman and civic leaders from the surrounding southwest-side community of Mount Greenwood, who might have praised the school for being one of the city’s best.
But the expansion plan is on hold because of vehement opposition from 19th Ward Alderman Ginger Rugai and nearby residents, who say expanding the ag school would flood Mount Greenwood with more noisy, littering, grass-stomping students. Such fears are unfounded, the school’s principal says. But for the moment it seems the addition can’t be built without a zoning change that Rugai opposes. (Rugai wouldn’t return repeated phone calls.) Making the dispute even more difficult to resolve is the issue of race. Mount Greenwood is almost all white, and roughly 70 percent of the ag students are black.
“There are many irrational fears about our school which have no bearing in truth,” says principal Barbara Valerious. “I wish the people who oppose us would visit us. Then they could see what a good job we are doing and why we need new facilities. Our students aren’t criminals. They’re good kids.”
The ag school is located in a former grade school on 111th Street just east of Pulaski Road. It’s a fitting location, adjoining 52 acres of farmland–the last remaining farm in the city of Chicago. “The students are required to spend time working on that farm,” says Valerious. “We grow produce there–squash, tomatoes, and peppers.”
About 88 percent of the school’s students graduate (compared to a system-wide graduation rate of 43 percent). They score below the national average on standardized reading and math exams, but well above citywide averages.
A magnet school, it draws students from across the city. They’re selected by lottery, and the competition is tough. There were 571 applications last year for 110 freshman spots, school officials say. The racial breakdown is about 70 percent black, 18 percent white, and 10 percent Hispanic.
“We offer a special curriculum you can’t get elsewhere,” says Marcia Watman, who teaches science at the school. “Our interest is in getting students in the upper echelon of agriculture. We’re helping to prepare kids for a future on the commodities exchange or as a veterinarian or as a quality inspector for the USDA. These are just some of the jobs that our kids are prepared for.”
Graduation requirements include four years of English, three years of social studies, three years of math (including algebra, geometry, and trigonometry), two years of a foreign language, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as a variety of courses related to agriculture.
Parents of incoming students are required to sign an enrollment contract in which they pledge to “see to it that the students attend school on a prompt, regular basis and to abide by the rules of attendance and discipline.”
“We give city kids contact with a different world,” says Lynn Hnetkovsky, who teaches animal science. “I grew up in a small town outside of Joliet. My grandmother had a farm. I was used to these things. But for our students it’s a first, learning about plants and animals.”
Lining the hallways are photos of graduates who won state and local honors in a variety of academic contests. “Sheldon Lyke finished second in the nation last year in an agriculture contest, in which competitors have to identify different types of plants. He’s at Princeton now,” says Valerious. “Last year John Valachovic, who’s a senior, won first place in the citywide bridge-break contest–that’s a contest where high school students build model bridges out of wood and compete to see which one will sustain the most weight without breaking. John’s bridge withstood 350 pounds. By the way, he’s a local boy from Mount Greenwood.
“We’re very proud of the fact that many of our students go on to college. We keep track of the scholarship money they earn. This year it was $1,141,700. That was up from $882,450 in 1991.”
Despite the triumphs the school has clearly outgrown its building. At break time there’s barely enough room to squeeze through the hallways. “You can’t get to your classes on time ’cause there are so many people in the hall,” says Hawanya Atterberry, a senior. “It’s too crowded.”
The school has also run out of lockers. And there’s no gym, no lunchroom, no teachers’ lounge. The school band practices in the hallway, the volleyball team on the tennis courts at a nearby park. “They try to play by raising the nets,” says Valerious.
In 1989 the Board of Education set aside about $20 million in state capital-improvement money to build an addition that would include a gym, swimming pool, cafeteria, greenhouse, and several new classrooms. After two years of bureaucratic wrangling the final building plan was set for approval. But it needed a zoning change, which generally requires the local alderman’s approval. On September 4, 1991, Rugai held a public meeting on the plan.
“We were caught off guard by that meeting,” says Valerious. “We weren’t invited. We only found out about it a few days before it happened. We had to invite ourselves. I don’t blame Rugai. There was no planning by the Board of Education. The Public Building Commission, which oversees the project, had sent out a letter saying the new facility will hold 1,200 kids. That was a complete misunderstanding. Our enrollment is capped at 600.”
By Valerious’s own account, the meeting was a public-relations disaster. “There were 150 people there, and a lot of them were howling mad. I admit I came off as so dumb–I wasn’t prepared. Someone asked how many kids from the 19th Ward attend the school, and I didn’t know the answer. I never thought of it like that. Another guy said, ‘You have felons in that school–you have arrests every day.’ I said, ‘That isn’t true.’ He said, ‘I’m a policeman at the Morgan Park station, and I see the reports.’ How can you argue with that? It was verbally very violent, like a lynch mob. With very deep-rooted resentment toward us. No one spoke in our defense. The board’s presentation was terrible. You couldn’t see or hear the architect’s report, and his pictures kept falling down.”
In the following months several other meetings were held between school and local officials. Many residents wondered how the expansion would benefit them, since so few Mount Greenwood students attend the ag school.
Valerious, who by this time had the numbers, pointed out that roughly 12 percent of the school’s population comes from Mount Greenwood. “The teenagers from Mount Greenwood by and large go to one of three outstanding Catholic schools,” says Valerious. “Many residents see us as a school for outsiders. I know what it means when people start talking about outsiders. These are code words. All I can say is that our students are responsible and law-abiding. When I ask Alderman Rugai for specific examples of bad behavior by our students, she cites one involving our track team. Supposedly they knocked down a little old lady on the running track. If it happened, I take full responsibility and I apologize. But nobody has been able to give me the date the incident happened or the name of the lady involved. So far there’s been no substantiation of that claim.”
The Beverly Review, a local paper, has been much more direct about the nature of opposition. “Publicly, residents pick out minor details in explaining their opposition to the school’s expansion plan,” read a recent editorial. “But privately, they admit race is a major reason they don’t want the school to increase in size. In [a recent newspaper article], though, Rugai refused to address this issue. She claimed that racism is not a factor. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all walk around with blinders on? She is either naive about the situation, or she has turned her head and pretended not to see the real problem. . . . Rugai now has a choice: Give these students a facility they deserve, or succumb to the whims of a few bigots.”
Most residents deny that race lies at the heart of their opposition. “I am totally fed up with individuals who label the Mount Greenwood Community as all racist because of opposition to the expansion of the Agricultural High School,” a resident named Tom Ryan wrote to the Southtown Economist. “The same old cliche of being racist is being thrown around time and time again. Aren’t we all getting a little tired of hearing it? With all that knowledge being obtained at the Ag School can’t they come up with something a little bit more innovative than racists? The expansion has nothing to do with racism. The simple fact is we do not want a high school there. Why? Take a survey of residents living in the immediate area of a high school, any high school. Morgan Park, Fenger, Julian, Bogan, Eisenhower, Oak Lawn, take your pick. Ask these residents if they enjoy cleaning up the debris left in their yards from the students. Ask them if they enjoy watching the students putting on sex shows in front of their windows. Ask them if they enjoy the noise from the students coming and going each day, and the after-school extracurricular activities that bring on added problems. Ask them if they enjoy their property values decreased because of the school.”
Valerious and others are investigating to see whether they can begin the construction project without a zoning change. Until that question is answered, the project remains on hold. “This school opens us up to new worlds of learning,” says Brenda Pryor, a senior. “I wish our opponents would open their minds about us.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.