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Into the War Zone

Parents can only watch as the school board moves their children into hotly contested gang territory.



By Ben Joravsky

By early afternoon the dealers are on the corner of 38th and Cottage Grove, where they peddle drugs to passing motorists only a few hundred feet from Einstein Elementary School.

This is one of the most dangerous school sites in the city, locals say, turf contested by rival gangs that show little fear of passing police cars. And now central office school officials are about to make it worse.

In September Einstein's students will report to other schools and Future Commons High School will move into the vacated building. "As bad as things are for the little kids, it will be worse for teenagers--they'll prey on our children," says Toni Taitt, whose 14-year-old son attends Future Commons. "Our kids are terrified. They won't go. I won't let them. If they move us there, it will mean the end of our school."

Future Commons is a vocational school that was created three years ago by the central office in partnership with Chicago Commons, a social service organization. Enrollment's limited to fewer than 300, giving teachers, parents, and students a greater say in creating core courses in English, history, and science, as well as vocational classes in graphic arts, manufacturing, architecture, and drafting. Students are linked with "mentors"--architects, writers, lawyers, and other professionals--who they get to "shadow" at work.

"We want to show students the wider world," says Madeleine Philbin, a Chicago Commons employee who helped design the school. "By working closely with our mentors, our students are getting prepared for the work world."

The school's a work in progress. It's had some difficulty getting mentors and students to bond, and test scores lag below the national average. But parents rave about the staff's dedication, and they boast of the ribbons students have won in architecture contests. "The advantage of a small school is that the teachers have a real stake--they know the kids and they really care," says Taitt. "My son's doing very well. He feels safe and cared for. It's been great."

Like other small, new schools, Future Commons faces chronic uncertainty over location. At the moment it's in the old Oakenwald School at 4071 S. Lake Park, which was vacated years ago when the local population dwindled.

But Oakenwald's scheduled to be demolished to make way for an ambitious mixed-income development of town houses, condos, and apartments. The project's no secret--city and CHA officials have been talking about it for years. A few months ago the CHA high-rises just south of the school were imploded--a takedown that generated national coverage--in preparation for the development. There have been years of negotiations between city officials and low-income-housing activists who want to make sure relocated CHA tenants get a place in whatever's built. Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle and other officials have promised that the new development will become a one-of-a-kind economic and racial mix. They hope to be able to solicit building plans soon and perhaps even start construction next year.

"When I came to work for Toni four years ago the decision had already been made that they would have to take down the Oakenwald School," says Rebecca Janowitz, Preckwinkle's legislative aide. "Some people may have felt we wouldn't demolish anything, but we meant it."

Future Commons staffers say they never doubted they would have to move--the question was always when and where. "In the fall of 1997 we were told that the board had voted to enter into negotiations with the CHA regarding swapping this land for some land near Cabrini-Green," says Philbin. "In May of 1998, Tim Martin [the board's chief operating officer] told us that conversations with the CHA had been going on but no deal had been worked out. He thought by the end of June 1998 we would know if we were going to be moved. We never heard again from Martin."

Instead, Future Commons staffers say they got a series of contradictory messages from different officials, as though the left hand of the central office didn't know what the right was doing. For instance, a request for computers was denied "because they said we'd be moving," says Philbin. But a few weeks ago the central office sent in a construction crew to knock down a wall and expand two classrooms into one, as Future Commons had been requesting. The roof was even repaired last year.

"Why knock down the wall if we're going to move?" says Malissa Randolph, a drafting teacher. "And if you're going to fix the roof why not give us our computers? It makes no sense."

As this school year wore on, Future Commons parents began pressing the central office for more information. "We wanted to know when we were moving and where, or if we'd be moving at all," says Taitt. "They didn't even have proposals for the housing development. It wasn't going to happen soon. What's the rush?"

In April word came: the school would be moved to Einstein. It seemed like a natural relocation to central office staffers. Einstein's only a few blocks from Future Commons, so students wouldn't have to adjust to a new neighborhood. Moreover, the move would be prudent, putting to new use a relatively modern building where the existing school's enrollment was steadily falling.

But Future Commons parents and students contend the new location is just too dangerous. According to police records, 111 crimes were reported in the 3800 block of Cottage Grove between last August and this April. Among them were batteries, robberies, thefts, sexual assaults, and two murders. Police officer James Camp was murdered in this block in March. "Officer Camp and his partner pulled the car over to investigate a possible car theft," says police spokesman Patrick Camden. "Officer Camp ordered the driver to get out, a struggle ensued, and Camp was shot with his own gun."

The motorist, who has been charged with murder, was wounded by Camp's partner. "Pupils at Einstein whose classroom windows faced Cottage Grove heard the gunfire--a couple of shots at first followed by several more shots--and some of them jumped over their desks to get to the windows. Camden said that some of the pupils witnessed the gunfight," reported the Tribune.

In the aftermath, school and police officials vowed to work to clean up the area. But a recent mid-afternoon drive along Cottage Grove and Ellis, one block east, revealed that drug dealers remain busy and bold, approaching motorists as they drive by.

Though Einstein and Future Commons are only a few blocks apart, students say those blocks make a big difference. "Einstein is right next to Ida Wells and the Madden Homes, and you have two gangs fighting for control," says Memlon Shumaker, a junior at Future Commons. "They're battling for that turf. There's always gunfights."

Shumaker, who lives in Wells, says he was jumped outside Einstein last year. "Two cars pulled up and a bunch of guys jumped out and they surrounded me," he says. "They didn't say much--they just took my coat and left. I was lucky.

"I got my own way of walking to school. I go out of my way, walking west and then coming back to avoid those guys." Shumaker says he saw a body on the sidewalk one morning as he walked to school. "The guy had been shot. I'd never seen a dead body before, except at a funeral. It shook me."

Future Commons officials say gangbangers used to come to their present school to harass students. "But we have worked hard to make this school secure," says Randolph. "We have called the police. We drive our students home after school so they don't have to walk home.

"I grew up in Robert Taylor in the 60s, but things are more dangerous than they were in my day. Our students push the point home to me. They're so afraid about moving to Einstein. When I listen to them it makes me want to cry. They tell me about what they have to put up with and I don't have an answer for them. It's bad enough to have little children going to Einstein in that environment. It's a disgrace. But it's going to be worse for our kids. Those drug dealers will leave the little ones alone. But they'll come after our students."

Despite the complaints, the move is on, say central office officials. According to Martin, the central office did a good job of keeping Future Commons leaders informed and now has provided them with almost everything they wanted. "When we originally talked to the parents of Future Commons we agreed to try and keep them in the same area," he says. "We'd concentrate on an area east of the Dan Ryan to the lakefront, from 35th to 55th. We wanted an existing school that they could have for their own--that they wouldn't have to share with anyone. And that's what we're offering them."

It's true that there's crime in the area, Martin acknowledges. But there's crime everywhere; it's an inescapable fact of life in Chicago. Martin does assure parents that every reasonable safety precaution will be taken. "We have already talked with the highest level of the police department," he says. "They work in conjunction with us. Two police officers are assigned to every high school. Can I say that an area around every one of our high schools is drug free? I wish I could say that. But we can work to make things better. They've done it around King, DuSable, and Phillips high schools in different measures of success. This would not be the only school in a high-crime area--sad to say.

"They are very concerned about the safety of their children, and I can understand that. A lot of it has to do with the fact that Officer Camp was shot out there. It's extremely tragic. But the fact is it could have happened anywhere within two square miles of that area."

Preckwinkle says she will work with police to make sure Einstein is safe. But the parents and students of Future Commons are unconvinced. "They didn't clean it up after officer Camp was killed. What makes you think they'll clean it up now?" says Taitt. "It's too dangerous over there for any child. I can't allow my son to go there."

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

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