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Old and Out of the Way

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When he was a student at Simeon High School back in the mid-1970s, Ronald Harris figured it was only a matter of time, maybe a year or two, before he and his classmates got the new school the Board of Education had promised. The existing building, at 82nd and Vincennes, had a leaky roof, peeling paint, crumbling walls, and lots of mildew. "This was a converted factory--it was never supposed to be a permanent school," says Harris. "I figured if our class didn't get the new school, then it would be a class right after us."

Well, 24 years have passed since Harris graduated from the south-side school, now officially known as Simeon Career Academy, and the board still hasn't built a new facility--which just may be the school board's oldest unkept promise. "If anything, the situation's even worse than when I was a student, because the building's that much older," says Harris, whose daughter is now a student at Simeon. "You have to ask yourself why they would allow such an outrage to continue. I mean, it's not like this is a secret."

Quite the contrary. Hoping to build support for a new school, Simeon's staff have been giving tours to central-office officials and reporters--even Diane Sawyer paid a visit a few years ago--almost since the school opened in a converted Kroger warehouse back in 1964. Every teacher can tell horror stories. The windows in the band's storage room won't close, so band director Larry Polk is always worried that the instruments will get damaged. The windows in the biology room won't stay open, so James English's classes bake in the spring and early summer. The window in the room where Marc Jeanty teaches math has a hole large enough for a bird to fly through. "It's been broken since I was a freshman," says one student who's now a junior.

Jeanty says he doesn't remember how the window broke. "At some point, what difference does it make?" he says. "I'm immune to it. In the winter the snow blows in. I cover it with plastic, but sometimes it gets so hot the kids rip the plastic off."

It gets hot because there's no proper ventilation in the building, and there's no proper ventilation because the ventilation system routinely breaks down. It breaks down because the roof leaks on it, and the roof leaks because, well, it's been leaking since the school opened. "That's probably the single biggest problem we have," says Polk. "Everything starts with the leaky roof."

OK, not everything. The wood shop is filled with dust so thick it makes kids cough because the vacuum exhaust system, installed a few years ago, is broken. "It used to blow the fuse all the time, so we'd have to run down to the basement to flip on the switch," says wood shop teacher James Parker. "Then the motor broke, so it doesn't work at all." But the leaks have caused lots of damage. The ventilation system in the machine shop doesn't work because it's been damaged by rain. "It's supposed to suck up the fumes, but all it does is let in a draft," says Van Wells, the machine-shop teacher. And there are soiled carpets, water-soaked ceiling tiles, rotting wood, standing pools of water in the basement, and the pervasive smell of mold and mildew. "I have mold growing along the windows," says physics teacher Edward Wambugu. "You can wipe it away, but every time it rains the mold grows back. I tell the kids, don't touch it. They moved everybody out of that high school in [suburban] Saint Charles when they discovered mold there, but here in Chicago they allow this to exist. Maybe it's making me sick. I don't know."

Al Scott, the school's veteran football coach, estimates that 20 of his colleagues in the last two decades have died of cancer. Scott's recovering from throat cancer. "We've had a lot of sickness in this building, a lot of cancer," he says. "You wonder about the correlation." His team does its off-season workouts in the basement, running beneath pipes that are coated with asbestos. The wrestling team also practices in the basement, where the mats are covered with dust.

Why do the teachers stay? Partly because Simeon is a highly regarded school, particularly on the south side. Its basketball and football champions are legends, and the student body is relatively well behaved, moving through the hallways calmly, being generally respectful to the adults they meet. And there's a sense of community that inspires many Simeon graduates, such as Harris, to send their children there. "Why have I stayed? You know how it goes--one year just leads to the next," says Scott. "Once you get attached to the kids, you want to stay. You keep saying, I'll leave after this class graduates. Then you realize you've become attached to the junior class. Besides, the board kept promising to build a new school. I've seen the plans."

And why hasn't the school board made good on its promise? Partly because enrollment at Simeon has never been limited to kids from the neighborhood, so parents who might have pushed for change were scattered all over the city. And partly because the school has never had a strong connection to any local political organization that could lobby for it in City Hall or at the board's central office. As a result, Simeon has been relatively easy to overlook ever since board officials went on a building binge back in the 1970s. "I've seen new schools go up all over the city--Corliss, Julian, Robeson, Clemente, Curie, Young, the new Englewood," says Scott. "All of these high schools were built while we were waiting for ours. I'm not saying those communities didn't need those schools. Obviously they did. I'm just saying that we got passed over."

By the time parents and staffers decided to speak up it was the early 1980s and the building binge was over. The system was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and there was barely enough money to pay teachers, let alone build new schools.

Then in the mid-90s the situation changed drastically again. The state turned the system over to Mayor Daley and freed up millions of dollars for him to spend. And millions more were spilling into the board's coffers thanks to surging property taxes, the consequence of the housing and commercial boom. By the end of the decade Daley's chief educational appointees--CEO Paul Vallas and board president Gery Chico--were acting like a couple of big spenders. They went from school to school, looking at overcrowded classrooms and dilapidated buildings, then rode to the rescue with money for repairs, renovation, and new construction.

Since 1995 the board has spent about $2.3 billion on various capital projects, doing everything from installing new windows and wrought-iron fences to building new schools, according to Andrea Lee, of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a not-for-profit watchdog organization. How and why they spent what they did is hotly debated, and many critics contend there has never been enough oversight. "The board does have a lot to be proud of," says Lee. "The problem is that the process hasn't always been open."

Vallas and Chico always insisted that they put money where there was the most pressing need, but Simeon parents feel they've been unfairly overlooked. After all, the board has spent about $100 million building not one but two new limited-enrollment high schools on the north side--Walter Payton and Northside College Prep. It's also spent several million converting Jones, a perfectly good vocational high school just south of the Loop, into a college-prep school. "You start to wonder--why them and not us?" says Harris. "For me it's just been a situation of promises made, promises not kept. It's almost like saying our children don't count. Why else would you build one group of kids a brand-new high school when you have another going to school in a dump?"

In January 1998, Chico came to Simeon to take the tour. "Afterwards he told us, 'This dog's got to go,'" Scott recalls.

In 2000 the board had a new set of building plans for Simeon drafted. They bought, then demolished several houses north of the school. Earlier this year a work crew came in and dug a large hole, apparently preparing to pour the new school's foundation. But the hole sat empty until the summer, and then another work crew came in and filled it. The site's now covered with gravel and used for parking. "We have the world's largest parking lot," says Veatrice Watson, a member of the West Chatham Improvement Association, a local community group.

Many parents now think they may have been bamboozled by Vallas and Chico. Simeon is an overwhelmingly black school, yet the black community has been surprisingly silent on educational issues over the last few years, in part because Vallas so cunningly co-opted its leaders. Almost every Saturday morning he was onstage at Operation PUSH praising Reverend Jesse Jackson. He was also a regular on black talk shows, telling listeners whatever they wanted to hear--usually that he wasn't afraid to go after lazy teachers with low expectations of black children. "Vallas was everywhere," says Harris. "Not just at PUSH, but you'd see him at things like Kwanza celebrations. He was a master politician, creating the image that 'I'm with you.' And in the meantime we didn't get our school."

It was only after Vallas stepped down last spring (at Daley's insistence) that black elected officials openly came to Simeon's aid. In September a delegation of about 60 parents and residents, including Simeon local school council chairman Lawrence Rodgers, raised their concerns at a school board meeting. On October 17 the board's new president, Michael Scott, went to Simeon and met with more than 150 parents and community leaders. He promised to start construction this year, and the board officials who'd come with him said the new school should be finished by June 2003.

"I was at a board meeting, and I heard your representative say to me that you, in fact, weren't treated fairly, that you, in fact, were promised things that you didn't get," Michael Scott told the crowd. "And so for myself I wanted to come and look into the faces of the residents of this community and tell you as earnestly and honestly as I know how...I didn't come here to blow smoke. If I tell you that you've got your school, you've got your school. If it doesn't happen, you can call me back down here and I will come here. I will not run from you. I will not lie to you. I will make sure you get your school. That fight is over."

When he was finished, Scott received a rousing ovation. "I trust him from knowing him from the west side, working on different political ventures," says Rodgers. "I trust him to be true and do the best he possibly can."

Other observers remain skeptical. "It sounds good, but we've heard it before," says Watson. As she notes, nothing has changed since Scott made his promise. The football teams still run in the dusty basement, mold still grows in the physics class, and rain still seeps through the walls. And the window in Marc Jeanty's classroom still has a hole.

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

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