Like many Chicago Public Schools, Melody elementary, in West Garfield Park, is racially segregated and struggling with problems stemming from the poverty of its students.
Like many Chicago Public Schools, Melody elementary, in West Garfield Park, is racially segregated and struggling with problems stemming from the poverty of its students. Credit: Ryan Lowry

This is the first in an occasional series on poverty and segregation in Chicago’s schools.

On June 15, 1863—exactly 150 years ago this coming Saturday—a “Colored School” opened in Chicago. The city’s black residents hadn’t asked for it.

Six months earlier, a state representative from Chicago named Melville Fuller had proposed that Chicago be required to provide a separate school for Negro and mulatto children, and prohibited from allowing “colored” children to attend schools with whites. The bill soon passed and was signed into law, the City Council and the Board of Education quickly complied, and the Colored School opened in a building rented from a church. The Chicago Times exulted that the city’s white children would henceforth be spared “the degrading necessity of associating with the negro.”

Black parents held mass meetings and wrote letters to newspapers protesting the school. Segregated education was “uncharitable in its purpose,” they said, and designed to “retard the moral and intellectual progress” of Negro youth. The General Assembly repealed the separate-school law two years later. It’s not clear whether this was due mainly to the pressure from black parents or to the Union’s triumph in the Civil War.

A century and a half later, Chicago does not have a separate school for black children, of course. It has scores of them. Forty-one percent of the city’s public schools—277 of 681—are at least 90 percent black. Sixty-eight percent of the black students enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools are in these schools. The vast majority of these students are from low-income families; many are living below the poverty line. Non-Hispanic whites account for 32 percent of the city’s population, but only 9 percent of CPS’s enrollment.

Melville Fuller went on to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1888, and three years later, a south-side elementary school was named in his honor. Today, the school named for the sponsor of the Colored School law is 98 percent black.

The yearlong school-closing battle, which culminated in the Board of Education’s vote last month to close 50 “underutilized” schools, understandably consumed the attention of parents, teachers, and education officials. But the fight sidestepped CPS’s most significant problem—a problem that will persist next year in a system somewhat smaller, as it would have persisted had no schools been closed. The problem is racial segregation, and especially the way it concentrates poverty.

Chicago is one of many cities afflicted with this ailment. In February, a federal advisory committee, the Equity and Excellence Commission, blasted the “appalling inequities” in schools nationwide. “Some young Americans—most of them white and affluent—are getting a truly world-class education,” the commission said, while students in high-poverty neighborhoods “are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations.”

A massive 1963 boycott targeted schools superintendent Benjamin Willis and policies that protesters said fostered segregation.
A massive 1963 boycott targeted schools superintendent Benjamin Willis and policies that protesters said fostered segregation.Credit: Gordon Quinn/’63 Boycott/Kartemquin Films

Fifty years ago, black parents and civil rights leaders were pushing hard for school desegregation in Chicago and other northern cities. They were emboldened by the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board in 1954 that separate schooling was inherently unequal, and that legally mandated school segregation was therefore unconstitutional. They wanted to extend that ruling to the de facto segregation that was widespread in northern schools.

In 1961, 22 black parents sued Chicago’s school board, contending that it was maintaining a segregated system. Federal district judge Julius Hoffman dismissed the suit on procedural grounds the following year, but not before expressing his sympathy for the cause. “By one means or another, our schools will be integrated,” Judge Hoffman predicted, “not only because segregation has been banned by law, but also as a result of the growing realization that our country cannot afford to suffer the losses incurred through racial separation in educational institutions.”

Segregation, Judge Hoffman said, “deprives both the white and the Negro child of the rich experience of working together, learning from one another, and acquiring habits of good citizenship.” It also wasted the abilities of black kids, he said: “It is painful to speculate on the amount of talent that the nation loses through failure to provide Negro children with sufficient opportunity and incentive to develop that talent.”

Judge Hoffman’s prediction about school integration proved to be wishful. De facto segregation endured. And its opponents long ago threw in the towel.

Now we’re in a new—and perhaps more promising—era. Young whites and middle-class blacks started moving back into the city in the 2000s, and those who bought homes may be stuck here awhile because of the stagnant housing market. They may also be more accustomed to and interested in diversity than their parents were.

But if CPS is pursuing desegregation, it’s not talking about it. When I asked Annette Gurley, chief officer of teaching and learning, if CPS was trying to decrease the racial and economic segregation in the system, she gave the answer school officials have been giving for years: “We’re trying to provide quality opportunities across the city.” I asked if CPS would like to increase its middle-class enrollment, given that 87 percent of its students are from low-income families. “I don’t know that that’s one of our ultimate goals,” Gurley said. “Our goal is to provide the highest quality experience for whoever comes through those doors. If our programs are quality enough, the middle-class will come back.”

Credit: Courtesy Chicago Public Schools
Annette Gurley, chief officer of teaching and learning for CPS, says racial integration is a laudable idea, but the district’s focus is quality for all students.

Concepts and setbacks for desegregating schools

The Chicago Teachers Union has charged CPS with abandoning desegregation efforts and intensifying segregation through its policies. “CPS does not even have a semblance of a plan for integration and equity in learning conditions and opportunities that those who fought for desegregation hoped to ensure,” the union asserted in a report last month.

The union didn’t offer a desegregation plan of its own in the report. But CTU researcher Pavlyn Jankov, the report’s author, told me that CPS should work with the Chicago Housing Authority and housing advocacy groups toward developing racially and economically integrated neighborhood schools in areas of the city where they seem feasible; he mentioned the Near West Side, the Near North Side (in the vicinity of the former Cabrini-Green housing project), Uptown, Rogers Park, and northwest Lincoln Park (near the Lathrop Homes housing project). That would be a long-term project, and wouldn’t address the south side or most of the west side, where Chicago’s segregation is pervasive.

Jankov also thinks Mayor Emanuel and the school board should be studying metro areas where cities and suburbs have cooperated on interdistrict school integration. Such efforts typically use magnet schools near a city’s borders to attract a diverse enrollment of city and suburban students.

A spokesperson for CPS said the board is not looking into such magnet schools. CPS has instead supported the development of charter schools during the last decade, saying they give parents more choice. The choice is between yet more racially isolated schools: the combined enrollment of Chicago’s 96 charters is 95 percent African-American and Hispanic, and less than 2 percent white.

While Jankov and others in the CTU believe school desegregation still should be a goal here, their union’s president seems less interested. “I haven’t given it much thought,” Karen Lewis told me in April when I asked her about desegregation. She was in the middle of the school-closing fight then. “I’ve been focused on trying to stay above water as opposed to looking at some big-picture kind of idea. You have to not be at war in order to sit and be philosophical.” But Lewis didn’t give the impression that she was merely too swamped to consider such a big-picture idea. “It would be great if we could have integrated schools, but I don’t see a way of legislating it,” she said.

Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times
CTU president Karen Lewis says the gap between white and black students won’t be closed if poverty is ignored.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court made school desegregation yet more difficult. In a case involving the Seattle school district, the court ruled, 5 to 4, that a school system cannot use racial classifications as part of a desegregation effort, even if the plan is voluntary. School systems can still use student socioeconomic profiles in making such plans.

Given what a thorny issue desegregation is, and how difficult it would be to achieve in Chicago’s schools, it’s understandable that education activists and officials, black and white, have resigned themselves instead to trying to make separate equal. But that’s not working, either.

A 2011 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago analyzed elementary and high school test scores, and high school graduation rates, in Chicago between 1990 and 2009. High school graduation rates improved dramatically over the two decades, but the vast majority of CPS students were still at academic achievement levels far below what was needed to be ready for college. Moreover, racial gaps in achievement steadily increased. White students made more progress than Latino students; African-American students fell further behind all other groups. White, Asian, and Latino students improved modestly in reading, but there were “virtually no improvements” among African-American students, at the elementary or high school levels.

In Chicago’s many racially isolated schools, teachers and other staff keep working away at their formidable task.

One school’s uphill battle

At 412 S. Keeler, brightly colored placards across an iron fence cheerfully spell out Welcome to Melody. Behind the fence, in the three-story brick building housing Melody elementary, an energetic young principal has helped nudge test scores upward.

The picture at Melody, however, isn’t rosy. The school is in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, an area of high unemployment and much crime. Like its neighborhood, Melody is virtually all black—99.3 percent African-American, .7 percent Hispanic. Eighty-three percent of its 300 students are from low-income families. The school is on probation because of its low test scores. In 2012, just 5 percent of Melody’s eighth graders exceeded state standards on the ISAT. That was an improvement on 2011, when only 3 percent exceeded standards.

Melody was built in 1963 and ’64, at a time when Chicago’s black neighborhoods were teeming with children. The black schools were overcrowded, but the schools superintendent, Benjamin Willis, put their students on double shifts and in mobile units next to their schools rather than send them to nearby white schools that had space. Melody was built to relieve overcrowding at Hefferan, another black school in the neighborhood. At Hefferan in 1964, there were ten mobile classrooms on the playground, and classes were being held in the library, the lunchroom, and on the auditorium stage.

Hefferan parents welcomed the idea of a new school, but took issue with its location. Melody should have been situated farther west, they said, near the border of black and white neighborhoods, and its boundaries set in a way that resulted in an integrated enrollment. They picketed the school as it was being built. The school wasn’t completed on time—in the summer of 1964, its contractor skipped town with $37,000 allocated to finish the job. Three classes of Hefferan first graders were sent to mobile classrooms on the Melody site. A picketing parent told a reporter the mobile units were a “subterfuge” to maintain segregation. The parents said Melody would become all black as soon as it opened.

That’s indeed what happened. In Melody’s 48 years, almost all of its students have been African-American, and poverty has been predominant. The school’s reading scores have lagged far behind national averages.

Next year Melody will be consolidated with Delano, a school a few blocks away, at Pulaski and Wilcox. The Melody building will be closed, and Melody’s 300 students will join Delano’s 400 students in the Delano building. The school will carry on under the Melody name and with Melody’s administrative staff, since Melody has performed slightly better than Delano recently on tests, according to CPS officials. Delano is 98.7 percent African-American and 1.3 percent Hispanic, and 95 percent of its students are from low-income families. In 2012, none of its eighth graders exceeded standards on the ISAT.

Melody’s principal, 31-year-old Nancy Hanks, is personable and self-assured. Born and raised on the west side, she’s a product of the public schools. The first school she attended—Lewis, in the Austin neighborhood—was all black and largely poor. When she did well in the early grades she was teased and bullied because “it wasn’t cool.” In sixth grade she got into Thorp, a scholastic academy on the northwest side with a racially diverse enrollment, and the year she graduated from that school, she tested into Whitney Young, one of Chicago’s highest-achieving and most racially diverse high schools. She thinks the diversity at both Thorp and Young helped prepare her for college. She got her bachelor’s at Southern Illinois University and a master’s at Harvard as part of a principal-training program.

Credit: Ryan Lowry
Nancy Hanks, who’d previously taught in Atlanta, knew Chicago schools would be more challenging.

When Hanks took the job at Melody three years ago, “I knew what I was signing up for,” she says. Academically, the school was “deplorable.” The problems “were deep and long lasting, and there’d been very little progress. The staff was very discouraged. If for ten years a school is on probation, you have to consider what that does for teachers’ sense of belief about their own ability. It also tends to wear on their belief about what the kids are able to do.”

That’s why she knew year one was critical. “You change people’s experiences, and their beliefs change,” she says. When teachers told her that parents just wouldn’t come to pick up report cards, Hanks decided to organize a dance. Students could only get a ticket to the dance if their parents picked up their report card. Turnout for report card pickup was heavy, “and the teachers were like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen so many parents!’ That challenged the notion that parents won’t come out.”

Hanks says she had to work on many cultural issues. There were problems not just with student behavior, but also with hostility in the community over how discipline problems had previously been resolved. “We had to let parents know, ‘Hey, you really can talk to us if you have a problem, and we really will hear you, and beyond just hear you, we’ll try to come up with a reasonable solution.'”

She spends much of her time addressing needs that are taken care of at home in more affluent neighborhoods. Melody students get trips to a vision clinic and visits by a dentist. “We make sure they’re receiving counseling if something’s going on in the home. If you remove the barriers to a child being able to perform at their highest level, you start to get a more realistic picture of what potential a kid has. I don’t need a kid underperforming because he can’t see.”

There have been setbacks since Hanks arrived. The kindergarten through third grade classes at Melody average 28 children. “The first year I was here we were able to have smaller primary classes, but with budget restraints, we had to combine some of those classes and make them bigger in the second and third year. Would you want 15, 18 kids instead of 28? Sure. Especially when you’re dealing with kids who are behind or need more attention, having a smaller class definitely makes a more ideal situation.”

The consolidation with Delano next year will be difficult, Hanks says. “But it’s doable. We’re talking about kids who live a couple of blocks away and have the same needs. The challenges are going to be very much the same: making sure everybody’s warm, dry, fed. It’ll just be 200 kids getting their teeth cleaned next year instead of 100.”

Desegregation activists maintained that inequities would continue until the interests of white and black parents were aligned, because their kids were in the same schools.
Desegregation activists maintained that inequities would continue until the interests of white and black parents were aligned, because their kids were in the same schools.Credit: Gordon Quinn/’63 Boycott/Kartemquin Films

Among disadvantaged schools, some are worse off than others

In 1967, more than 200 Chicago public schools were at least 90 percent white. For years now, there have been no such schools. Today, the school with the whitest enrollment, Mount Greenwood Elementary, is 80 percent white; only four other schools are at least 70 percent white; and only 26 schools in all, out of 681, are at least 50 percent white. Gone are the days when the glaring disparities were between Chicago’s white, middle-class schools and its poor black schools; now they’re between Chicago and suburban districts. As the Consortium on Chicago School Research points out, if one of the city’s more affluent schools was moved to almost any other district in the state, “it would immediately rank as that district’s most disadvantaged school.”

But within Chicago, some schools are still clearly worse off than others. In 2010, the consortium published an important book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, that studied the effects of decentralization, the school reform of the late 1980s that succeeded desegregation. Decentralization shifted some CPS power from the central office to new local school councils, made up mostly of parents. The consortium found that decentralization improved many schools, but that schools in poor African-American neighborhoods were “disproportionately left behind.”

The consortium’s researchers looked beyond the “low-income” label, which represents kids eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch because they’re from families within 185 percent of the poverty line. The researchers made note of how many kids in a school were actually living in poverty. They compared integrated elementary schools—schools with at least 30 percent white and Asian students—with the group of elementary schools with the poorest enrollments. Only 7 percent of the students in the integrated schools were below the poverty line, compared with 70 percent in the “truly disadvantaged” schools.

All of the 46 truly disadvantaged schools were at least 90 percent African-American; most were 100 percent African-American. Another 95 African-American schools were not quite as poor but still high in poverty.

The consortium measured student improvement on reading and math tests between 1990 and 1996. In the truly disadvantaged schools, only 15 percent of the students improved significantly in reading; in the integrated schools, 42 percent did. In math, 17 percent improved significantly in the disadvantaged schools, compared with more than four times that—60 percent—in the integrated schools. Students in predominantly Hispanic schools did much better than those in the truly disadvantaged schools, and better than the “high-poverty” African-American schools as well.

The authors of Organizing Schools observed that a special concern for urban schoolteachers are students “with extraordinary personal and social needs”—children living “under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect.” Such children “can make extraordinary demands on teachers,” and “even extraordinary teachers can be quickly overwhelmed,” the authors wrote.

They went on, “One begins to develop a sobering picture of the magnitude of the overall personal and social needs facing some schools. . . . While it is still possible for schools to improve” under such circumstances, “the barriers appear almost insurmountable.”

I asked Gurley, the chief officer of teaching and learning for CPS, whether she agreed with the view that sustained improvement in some schools was nearly impossible given the intensity of their poverty. “There’s no way we can make progress with students if that’s what we feel,” she said. “Yeah, it’s tougher, because there are a lot of social issues that have to be addressed before you can get to the academics. If you don’t acknowledge those things, then yeah, they can be insurmountable.

“Teachers and administrators at those schools are doing multiple things,” Gurley said, “and a lot of those things aren’t in the lesson plan. Like stepping in where parents can’t. Teaching students how to behave. If you don’t do those things, we will continue to see negative statistics about these children.”

Gurley mentioned Michele Clark Academic Prep, a magnet high school in the Austin neighborhood. She began teaching at Clark in 1985 and worked her way up to principal, winning a national award for programs she developed. Gurley told me that by providing “quality programming” and by “training and investing in our teachers” and “treating teachers like professionals,” she helped transform Clark from a middle school that families avoided to a high school with a waiting list.

But can such improvement be sustained? Clark this year is 98.5 percent black, 1.3 percent Hispanic, and 88 percent low-income. According to its motto, the school is “a place where minds soar, and eagles take flight.” But Gurley left in 2008, and since then Clark has been on academic probation, with test scores below CPS averages and well below national averages.

The making of a segregated school district

Hanks and Gurley have done admirable work, as have many teachers and principals in racially isolated schools. They refuse to give up on poor kids who are fighting long odds.

But how did we get in a situation where so many children—so many black children—have the deck stacked against them to begin with, in schools where poverty is concentrated?

After the Colored School closed in 1865, integrated schools were common in Chicago for a few decades. But as Chicago’s black population began to rise during and after World War I, school segregation began to set in. Some of it was merely an extension of neighborhood segregation. But school officials also rigged boundaries and feeder patterns in border neighborhoods to keep white schools white.

New schools were greatly needed in the 1920s and ’30s, but it was mainly black children who needed them, and the board decided it couldn’t afford to build them. Excess black students were put in portable wooden classrooms that were hard to heat or cool and became rat infested. By 1940, three-quarters of the city’s black elementary school students (and students from only a single white school) were on double shifts. Some black schools were on triple shifts. Students on double shifts went to school for four hours instead of five. The shifts made truancy easy: youths playing hooky in the afternoon could claim they’d gone to school in the morning.

New teachers started in black schools, and moved on to the white ones when they’d gained a few months’ experience.

Briefly in the 1940s, “some change in this pattern of segregation and inequality appeared possible,” Columbia University professor Kathryn Neckerman noted in her book Schools Betrayed, about Chicago’s schools from 1900 through 1960. Herold Hunt, a liberal on race issues, became superintendent in 1947. He implemented a redistricting plan that was mainly designed to alleviate overcrowding, but that also modestly desegregated the schools. In 1953, however, Hunt left for a position at Harvard, and Willis became superintendent.

Willis’s 14 years as schools chief spanned a period of rapid racial change in Chicago. The suburbs were growing, thanks largely to new expressways, and affluent white families were departing for them. Their departure was hastened by a second large wave of blacks flowing into Chicago from Mississippi and other southern states. It was a racially volatile period, the friction between blacks and whites in “changing” neighborhoods exacerbated by panic-peddling realtors.

In 1957, classes were 25 percent larger in black schools. Per-pupil spending in black schools was two-thirds what it was in white schools. More than a third of the teachers in the black schools were subs. The regular teachers in black schools had a median four years’ experience, compared with more than 12 years for the teachers in the white schools.

Desegregation advocates believed such inequities would continue until the interests of white and black parents were aligned, because their kids were in the same schools. They protested and sued, to no avail. Willis maintained he had no wish to prop up segregated schooling, he just believed in neighborhood schools. It wasn’t the school system’s fault that neighborhoods were segregated, nor was it the schools’ role to fix that problem, he said.

In 1977, Chicago Urban League president James Compton derided the “Chicago Black School System”—nearly 87 percent of black students were still in schools that were at least 90 percent black. The following year, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare charged Chicago’s school board with “intentionally creating and maintaining a racially discriminatory school system.” HEW asserted that for 20 years, the board had fostered segregation in the schools through such practices as building new schools for black children only in black neighborhoods, instead of on the boundaries of black and white neighborhoods—exactly what the parents who’d picketed Melody elementary had accused the board of doing 14 years earlier.

HEW pushed for mandatory busing of white as well as black students. City officials staunchly resisted, figuring that mandatory busing would cause white families to flee the city even faster.

Finally, in 1980, Chicago entered into a vague desegregation agreement with the Justice Department. It called for “the establishment of the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools, considering all the circumstances in Chicago.” The circumstances in Chicago precluded many such schools—by this time only 18 percent of the students were white. Magnet schools and other select districtwide schools were established, and many of them today are racially and economically integrated, and their students are excelling academically. After white Chicagoans resisted school integration for decades, the few white kids still in the city’s schools benefit disproportionately from these special integrated schools. The consent decree also called for compensatory programs in the racially isolated minority schools that most African-American students attend. Those programs haven’t been adequately funded, and have proved no match for the gap in achievement between white and black students. The decree required the board to pursue city-suburban transfers as part of its desegregation attempts, but the board never did. A Chicago Black School System endured despite the decree, and the mission has become making the best of it.

The case for optimism

When I talked with CTU president Lewis in April, she listed problem after problem in Chicago’s schools. Rising inequality, and a lack of public concern for the common good. Inadequate funding, and little prospect for more. Corporate reforms that fail to address root causes such as poverty. School officials issuing edicts instead of working collaboratively. Mayoral interference.

Given all that, how did she feel about the future of schooling in Chicago? “I’m always optimistic,” she said. “That’s just my nature. I have to be optimistic. If I was a pessimist, I just would not do this work.”

What reasons did she have for optimism? “I think most people do care about educating children,” she said. The current corporate-reform model was “so wrongheaded that the pendulum will shift” toward better approaches. The “voices of parents and teachers and paraprofessionals and clinicians are starting to be heard, and to be much more valued.”

Gurley voiced optimism as well. She noted that she’d grown up in a housing project—the ABLA Homes—and that neither of her parents had graduated high school. “I know what it feels like to put some cardboard in the bottom of my shoe until my mother got her paycheck at the end of the week,” she said. “I think my experience is why I’m so passionate about this work I do. I have to believe that regardless of their zipcode, children are children, and that if we provide the support for them, yes, those children can and they will succeed.”

Penny Sebring, founding codirector of the Consortium for Chicago School Research and one of the authors of Organizing Schools, was cautiously optimistic. She pointed to improvement in graduation rates in Chicago, though she added that the improvement for African-Americans was “probably not as good as for everybody else.” She allowed that the bottom line in recent years in Chicago schools “has not been so attractive.” But “there’s quite a large group of people working very hard on the problem,” she said. “And these are talented people.”

Sebring and her coauthors observe on the last page of Organizing Schools that the consortium’s work is “motivated by a deep belief that our schools can and must do much better if we are to revitalize for the next generation the American dream of opportunity for all.” But then they add: “A belief in the power of schooling and in our ability to improve this institution must also coexist with a modicum of doubt. . . . Virtually every reform involves at least some zone of wishful thinking.”

For decades now, Chicago’s education officials and activists, believing they have no alternative, have wishfully strained to make separate schools equal. If there are reasons to believe this is achievable, history isn’t one of them.

Hannah Gold, Janey Lee, and Jena Cutie helped research this story.

Further reading on Chicago school segregation and poverty

Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons From Chicago
Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, John Q. Easton
University of Chicago Press, 2010

This meticulous study of how decentralization worked in Chicago illuminates the vast gap between the city’s integrated and segregated schools.

Schools Betrayed: Roots of Failure in Inner-City Education
Kathryn M. Neckerman
University of Chicago Press, 2007

Traces Chicago’s schools from 1900 through 1960, during which time they became intensely segregated. “The history of Chicago’s inner-city schools is a story of damage done by ordinary people taking the path of least resistance,” Neckerman writes.

Down From Equality: Black Chicagoans and the Public Schools, 1920-41
Michael W. Homel
University of Illinois Press, 1984

Homel zooms in on the pivotal two decades, and the decisions that segregated the schools and soured black parents on them: “By the 1930s, black Chicagoans had shed much of their traditional optimism about education and had begun to realize that the schools were simply part of the problem.”

So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools
Charles M. Payne
Harvard Education Press, 2008

Advocates of one reform or another often don’t seem to realize how “demoralized” inner-city schools tend to be, writes Payne, a professor in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. “Just bringing good ideas into schools with severely damaged social infrastructure is tantamount to bringing a lighted candle into a wind tunnel.”