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Opportunities Lost

A snap decision extinguishes one of the Public Schools' brightest lights.

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By Ben Joravsky

For 60 years Jones Commercial High School has been a unique bridge linking working-class kids from the neighborhoods to the downtown corporate world they might otherwise never know.

Jones has placed so many thousands of students in so many clerical and secretarial jobs that Redbook magazine recently ranked it as the third best business school in the country. Corporate leaders throughout Chicago lauded it as a model that should be replicated. So what's the central office doing as a sign of appreciation? They're closing Jones at the end of the school year, the word coming in the form of a pronouncement from Paul Vallas, the system's CEO.

If you're confused, imagine how Jones's students and staffers feel, particularly its teachers, whose lives have been thrown into turmoil as they're forced to reapply for jobs they may not get. "It's a callous and demeaning way to treat people who have done such a good job," says Sharon Schmidt, an English teacher at Jones. "I don't understand it. There has to be a place for a school like Jones in a city as big as Chicago."

The decision to close Jones has more to do with the changing demographics of the South Loop than with anything happening at the school. Even a casual one-day visit demonstrates that it's living up to its reputation. It's a two-year school for juniors and seniors, who transfer in from all over the city. There are no academic requirements or entrance exams--it's open to all. The curriculum has few liberal arts courses beyond the basics like history and English; students concentrate on such subjects as marketing and banking. There's a rigorously enforced dress code--ties, slacks, and jackets for boys, dresses or skirts for girls. Students are taught the proper way to sit, stand, and walk, and after a morning of classes, they head off to $6-an-hour jobs in the Loop.

The school may be too rigid for some--indeed, many educational experts believe all students should be exposed to a much more rounded high school education. But Jones's backers contend that many of its students had given up on traditional education by the time they reached their junior year. And when the school moved to Harrison and State in 1967, it was considered a boon to the area, which was largely a bowery. Jones officials were happy to be only a few blocks from the heart of corporate Chicago. "Our location makes it easier for students to get to their jobs," says Schmidt. "They come to feel as though the downtown is their work world."

According to Jones boosters, the school's greatest achievement was surmounting the barriers that divide the Loop from the surrounding working-class neighborhoods. "We get our kids out and expose them to the world," says Sandra Reed, an English teacher. "I have them attend dance and opera and theater performances. So many kids never leave their neighborhood--they can live in Chicago all their lives and never come downtown."

In addition, the school works with downtown retailers to put on an annual student fashion show. "It's a major production," says Eutha Davis, a business teacher who oversees the show. "The students model the clothes. They give up a lot of time preparing for it. A lot of people come to watch it. We think we're well connected with the surrounding Loop."

Indeed, the school is a pleasure to visit, particularly for a jaded observer of the high school scene who's used to the grumpier, more sullen species of teenager one finds in many city and suburban schools, public or private. It's not just that Jones students are so well dressed, it's that they're also friendly and polite. "We'll look you in the eye, we'll shake your hands. We know how to get along with adults--we work with them every day," says Lynette Linnae Knox, a senior. "Our teachers prepare us for the world. We have confidence to go anywhere."

In January Vallas announced to the staff that the school would be "reconstituted" come fall. From now on it would be Jones Academic Magnet High School, with enrollment limited to the highest-scoring students, who would attend a full day of classes.

If the new Jones had a model, it would be Whitney Young, one of the finest public schools in the state. But unlike Whitney, which is open to students from throughout the city, the new Jones would concentrate on serving the population of upper-income residents moving into and near the South Loop. It would advance a strategy promoted by Mayor Daley to create schools that would keep this generation of middle-class parents from fleeing the city, as their parents did.

Vallas's decision caught Jones off guard. For one thing, administrators had thought they had a central-office ally who would protect them from the tumultuous brainstorms for which Vallas is known. Cozette Buckney, Vallas's top education aide, was once the principal at Jones.

For another, the announcement came so quickly, without discussion, without even an attempt to elicit the views of the staff. The staff was sure Vallas had no idea what Jones was all about. "As far as he knew, we were nothing," says Schmidt. "It was as though he said, 'Oh, I have a great idea. I'll just get rid of Jones.'"

Vallas named a "transition coordinator" who told the staff that they could reapply for their old jobs, though there was no guarantee that any of them would be hired. There would be no need for so many business teachers, if for any at all. Furthermore, the staff was told not to waste the board's time pleading to Vallas--minds were made up, there was no going back. "They made their decision and that was that," says Schmidt. "They never consider the lives of the students or teachers who get in their way."

The changes caused a stir in the larger world after Schmidt, writing under her former name, Sharon Griffin, described them in Substance, an alternative newspaper on education published by her new husband, George Schmidt, an English teacher at Bowen High School. "Board decimates Jones," asserted the Substance headline; a follow-up story, headlined "Jones tragedy continues," quoted Vallas as saying, "Those [student] jobs at Jones don't amount to anything."

Jones students, teachers, alumni, local school council members, and business allies then began to call and write the board, pleading for it to reconsider. Though Vallas did not return calls for this story, it's clear that the pressure has forced him at least to put a new spin on the change. According to an essay by Buckney in Chicago Educator, the board's in-house newspaper, Jones is being expanded, not closed. "Jones' fine reputation is not being marred by its conversion into a four-year magnet school," Buckney wrote. "On the contrary, the new William Jones Academic Magnet High School is more inclusive, expanding its enrollment to freshmen and sophomores....The school's scholastic program will include rigorous academic courses, internships and more importantly, greater opportunities for youngsters to attend college."

Students interested in a vocational curriculum could enroll at one of 11 "career academies" opening in neighborhood high schools throughout the city, wrote Buckney. She added: "Jones, which laid the foundation upon which many of these new programs are built, will itself be restructured to become more in line with the needs of the community. The downtown and south loop areas of the city have blossomed into heavily populated residential belts and understandably, parents want to send their children to neighborhood schools. It is our responsibility as a school district to meet the educational needs of this city's residents."

Buckney's essay did not reassure Jones's students or staff. "A lot of kids who go here now don't have the test scores to get into the new Jones," says Schmidt. "They may be changing the school, but they certainly aren't expanding it."

In addition, to move commercial training courses away from the Loop is self-defeating. "The whole point is to have that downtown location so students feel part of the larger world," says Reed. "They have to be able to get to their jobs quickly. Look, none of us have any problem with building a new school for the neighborhood kids. None of us have any problem with building another Whitney Young. But why do they have to do it at the expense of Jones? Why can't they have both?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sharon Schmidt, Sandra Reed, Eutha Davis photo by Jon Randolph.

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