Residents of the Old Town neighborhood in Chicago cross busy North Avenue every day. If you live north of North, you might cross the street to grab a Happy Meal for your son at the local McDonald’s. Or maybe you’d meet a friend for a pint at the Old Town Ale House, which is on the southeastern corner of Wieland and North.
If you live to the south, you might cross North Avenue to see a show at the world-famous Second City Comedy Club or to grab a bite at the Sedgwick Stop gastropub. Or maybe you pass North Avenue every Sunday when you take your family to the 11 a.m. choir service at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, which is just one block north of North on Cleveland.
If you need medical care in Old Town, no matter which side of North Avenue you live on, you have your choice of Family Urgent Care on the north or Physicians Immediate Care on the south. Both receive excellent ratings from patients, 4.6 and 4.8 stars on Google Maps.[i]
Like many neighborhoods in America, there is no official definition of Old Town, no legal entity that can claim that name. But the former art critic for the Chicago Tribune Alan J. Artner, who lives in the neighborhood, once wrote, “This neighborhood is supposed to be as much a sound as a place, and it's from the bells of St. Michael's Church. The story goes you only really live in Old Town if you can hear them.”[ii]
Old Town has become one of the most attractive neighborhoods on the North Side of Chicago, just a couple of miles from downtown. The streets are lined with trees and townhomes, many of the units having been built in the first half of the twentieth century, but also some that have gone up in one of the two housing booms since 2000. Drugstores and grocery markets and pubs and gyms—all are within walking distance of the neighborhood’s main drag, North Avenue. And the Brown Line of the “el” train cuts right through the neighborhood on a diagonal, dropping passengers off just a block south of North Avenue at the Sedgwick station.
Nothing about North Avenue in Old Town feels like a political barrier or a sociological fault line. But that’s what it is. In one extremely important way.
If you stand in front of the recently closed Marcello’s Restaurant at the corner of Larrabee and North, there are two public elementary schools within a mile. Both schools are operated by the Chicago Public Schools. Both are governed by the decisions of the Board of Education. Both are funded by Chicago residents, who pay property taxes directly into the Chicago Public Schools General Fund. So residents living north and south of North Avenue share the burden of funding the two schools.
But neighborhood families do not share equal access to the two local schools. When it comes to public education, North Avenue separates the residents of Old Town into two very different groups.
Let’s look at the two schools.
Turn north on Larrabee Street and walk seven blocks to Lincoln Elementary School, one of the crown jewels of the Chicago Public Schools. Lincoln gets a “1+” rating from the district, the highest possible rating.[iii] And the school operates the prestigious French American School of Chicago, officially recognized by the French Ministry of Education and open only to students of Lincoln Elementary. Here’s how Lincoln Elementary describes itself:
The Lincoln School is recognized as a model school within the Chicago Public Schools. We set the highest standards for our students in academic achievement, intellectual growth and rigor, ethical awareness and behavior, and exceptional sportsmanship. Our balance of tradition and innovation continue to provide excellent opportunities to deserving students from diverse social, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Come join the traditions we hold true and experience the best in public education.[iv]
Now walk back to Larrabee and North. Turn south this time, and walk five blocks to Manierre Elementary School. Manierre receives a “3” rating from the district, the lowest possible rating. It probably doesn’t surprise you that Manierre’s performance falls short of Lincoln’s. Most public schools fall short of the Lincoln standard. But Manierre doesn’t just lag Lincoln. Manierre, by any objective standard, is a failing school.
Compare the reading proficiency of students at the two schools: At Lincoln, 80% of students are proficient in reading for their grade level, compared to 11% at Manierre. The state average is 38%.[v]
I know that we’ve all seen this kind of data before, and it’s easy to let our eyes glaze over. But take a moment to let these numbers sink in. The difference between the two schools is staggering. At the end of the 2018–19 school year, not a single eighth grader from Manierre was proficient in reading, compared to 81% of Lincoln eighth graders. These two schools serve the same neighborhood and are a mere 1.3 miles away from each other.
And this is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.
I don’t know why the kids from Manierre can’t read. That would require a deep look inside the school. Some of those kids appear to be extremely impoverished and may come from troubled families. And one can imagine that the teachers, no matter how skilled and how caring, have a very difficult task. Concentrating all of the most troubled students in one school building would not seem to be the best strategy for helping those children. But, absent severe disabilities, any child is capable of learning to read proficiently by the end of eighth grade. The one thing I know for sure? The children are not to blame.
How does one child from Old Town end up at Lincoln, while another ends up at Manierre? Is it merit? Say, a test? Is it chance? Like a lottery? What does the application process look like?
Well, the Chicago Public Schools has split the community into two groups based on whether you live north or south of North Avenue. If you live north, you go to Lincoln. If you live south, then you’re assigned to Manierre.
If these were health clinics or restaurants, there’s no chance that such stark differences in performance would persist in establishments within walking distance of one another. If the families living south of North Avenue were allowed equal access to Lincoln, certainly some of them would apply to enroll their children there. For who can deny that a child will be better off at a school where 81% of the graduating students can read at grade level versus a school where none can?
But the children south of North Avenue aren’t even allowed to apply to Lincoln.
Randall Blakey is the executive pastor of the diverse LaSalle Street Church just a few blocks south of Manierre. “If the Manierre parents had the same choices as every other parent north of North Avenue,” he says, “I’m sure they’d take advantage of the choices.”
“We fell in love with a townhome in Old Town,” says Angela Mota, the parent of a four-year-old who will enroll in elementary school next year. She and her husband found out too late that their home is on the wrong side of the line. “We had to sell our old place as quickly as possible. We didn’t do our due diligence.”
“I thought Old Town had good schools,” Angela remembers. “And then we got here, and it’s like ‘Oh, crap.’” It’s clear that Manierre won’t prepare their daughter to be successful in high school and beyond. The Motas still don’t know what they’re going to do, but they are determined to find another option. They are looking into magnet schools and other selective schools that have a very competitive application process in Chicago.
Lincoln Elementary, a public school little more than a mile from their house, isn’t an option. “I don’t think Lincoln takes anybody off the waitlist,” says Angela. “They have a huge population.”
Brian Speck lives just a few blocks north of the Motas and is the father of two boys who have attended Lincoln. “There’s a barrier to entry to Lincoln Elementary,” he says, “And that’s both good and bad.” Brian says that he and his wife had their eye on one home that was south of North Avenue. “We really liked it, and it was $250,000 cheaper than the house we ended up buying,” he remembers. “But private school in Chicago can run up to $40,000 a year.” So they paid the extra $250,000 so that their kids could attend a “free” public school.
Even though Old Town residents cross back and forth over North Avenue every day, the school district does not allow them to traverse that magical boundary when they walk their child to school. The sorting and separating start when the local children are just five years old, as local families start enrolling their children in public school kindergarten. At this early age, the Manierre kids are trapped in failure. For a child growing up in Old Town, everything depends on whether you live on one side of the street or the other.
Is Lincoln Elementary a Public School?
There’s a theory that says all of this is necessary. We need public schools, and it’s important that families have access to neighborhood schools. So school districts draw school boundaries to make sure that each child can go to the school nearest her home. And the district adjusts the school boundaries over time based on where the kids are and which schools have extra room.
Under this theory, the differences between Lincoln and Manierre are merely accidental. One neighborhood school turned out better than the other. That’s just the breaks. Or maybe it just so happened that the smarter kids all lived north of North Avenue. What could the school district do about that?
But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that wealthier residents of Chicago, working with elected politicians and top school officials, have used the school boundaries to capture Lincoln Elementary—nominally a public school—for their private benefit.
Let’s zip back in time to 2013.
In 2013, the schools in Old Town were at a tipping point. Lincoln was 129% overcrowded,[vi] partially due to young families moving into the school boundaries in order to gain access to the elite public school. Informed families assigned to Manierre, black or white, would seek out private schools or find another public option, such as a charter or a magnet school. This left Manierre less than half full, with lots of empty classrooms. Indeed, Chicago Public Schools as a whole was facing an underutilization crisis, and the district was planning on closing many schools.
The logical solution in Old Town would have been to redraw the attendance boundaries so that some of the Lincoln families would have been redirected to Manierre. Many Lincoln families in Old Town actually live closer to Manierre. If those families have a “neighborhood school,” that school is Manierre, not Lincoln. Such a plan also would have been consistent with state law, which requires districts in Illinois to periodically redraw attendance zones for the “prevention of segregation and the elimination of separation of children in public schools because of color, race or nationality.”[vii]
But that’s not what happened. Instead, top district officials proposed to close Manierre down and invest $19 million in a renovation of Lincoln that would increase the school’s capacity. Would the additional space allow any of Manierre’s children to transfer to Lincoln and finally escape their failing school? No, the addition would simply allow Lincoln to serve students in the existing attendance zone, but more comfortably.
Manierre’s students would have been reassigned to Jenner Elementary, another failing school with excess capacity. A huge political fight followed. The Chicago Teachers Union filed a lawsuit to block the closure.[viii] The lawsuit was dismissed, but eventually Manierre was allowed to stay open, partially because the Manierre students would have had to cross gang lines in order to get to Jenner, possibly putting them in physical danger.[ix]
Meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had no problem pushing through the unnecessary $19 million renovation of Lincoln Elementary in order to avoid sending some kids across North Avenue to fill the empty seats at Manierre. One insider told me, off the record, that politically powerful parents in the attendance zone went to Illinois Senate president John Cullerton, who cut a deal with Mayor Emanuel and sent state funds to the Chicago Public Schools in order to ensure that the zone lines would not be redrawn.
Now Lincoln has a larger, updated building that is at 94% capacity.[x] According to the facilities data published by the Chicago Public Schools, the newly renovated building at Lincoln has a capacity of 1,080 students, but only 956 were enrolled as of the twentieth day of school in 2018. That meant there were 124 open seats at the school. Yet Lincoln still refuses to admit any students who live south of North Avenue.
Brian Speck, the Lincoln parent, was surprised at how it all went down. “The city is broke. The state is broke,” he says. “And suddenly $20 million lands in your lap.”
In a deposition in 2013, the chief administrative officer of Chicago Public Schools, Tim Cawley, insisted that families in Old Town couldn’t be reassigned to Manierre “because it is highly disruptive to relocate people from their existing school to another school.”[xi] But he expressed no such concern about asking Manierre children to cross gang lines to attend Jenner.
The same lawsuit produced internal district documents in which officials imagined that, once Manierre was shut down, its building could be “leveraged” to create a second campus for Lincoln. For that to work, Manierre would have to be “emptied” of the existing Manierre students.[xii]
As noted in Chapter One, the original idea of a “public school” is that it’s a place where everyone in a community can send their kids, a place where all the races and classes mix, and a place where less privileged kids have the same chances as anyone else. But that’s not what Lincoln Elementary is.
You can’t talk about Lincoln and Manierre without talking about race and income. Lincoln is 63% white, and only 14% of the students are low income.[xiii] Manierre’s kids are 96% black and 4% Hispanic—and 93% low income.[xiv] Many Manierre kids come from the Marshall Field Garden Apartments, a subsidized housing development just south of North Avenue. Pastor Blakey says that many of the Manierre families are experiencing extreme poverty. As a result, schools like Manierre have been “under-resourced and under-enrolled.”
Politically, Old Town leans left, like most of Chicago. I’ll bet that the vast majority of Lincoln parents consider themselves liberal and abhor racism. Is there a chance that some of them have unconscious, or even overt, racial biases that would lead them to be reluctant to see their kids share a school with the kids from Manierre? Could be.
But race is not the core issue here. Race is not what’s keeping kids out of Lincoln Elementary. What keeps Old Town kids out of Lincoln Elementary is geography—the artificial boundary of North Avenue.
There are lots of white families living south of North Avenue. The 60610 zip code, covering that portion of Old Town south of North Avenue, is 72% white. We can assume, based on the heavily black demographics of Manierre Elementary, that those white families are figuring out other options for their children. Indeed, the neighborhood’s black alderman Walter Burnett told the Chicago Tribune back in 2013 that middle-class black residents of Old Town will not send their kids to Manierre, opting instead to pay for private school.[xv]
“If you’re a middle class parent in the Manierre zone,” confirms Pastor Blakey, “you end up paying for private education, or you work your political connections to get your kid into a Selective Enrollment school.”
Lincoln Elementary, though nominally public, appears to have been captured by a small group of private citizens and powerful officials who use attendance-zone boundaries to keep out most Chicago children. These politically powerful citizens are not the wealthiest of the wealthy, not the 1%. These are upper-middle-class families who are willing to pay extra to live within that section of Old Town that is assigned to Lincoln. During the controversy over Manierre’s potential closure and Lincoln’s renovation, one Lincoln parent admitted that those north of North Avenue feared that their property values “would plummet should the attendance boundaries be redrawn.”[xvi]
Of course, these parents are just doing what they think is best for their kids—both the Lincoln parents who buy into the zone and the Manierre parents who look to escape a failing school. They’re all working within the system that exists now, and we shouldn’t shame them for that. We should applaud them for their willingness to do what is necessary for their kids to get a good education. Certainly if I lived in Old Town, there is no way that I would send my children to Manierre. No child should go to a school in which none of the graduating eighth graders show proficiency in reading.
Those Lincoln parents didn’t get together and illegally conspire to take over Lincoln Elementary for privileged kids, keeping out families who could have benefited from access to the Lincoln education. Those parents probably didn’t cut a corrupt backroom deal with Mayor Emanuel. But we all need to acknowledge that the school district has policies in place that allowed, and even encouraged, the school to be captured. Chicago Public Schools divides the Old Town neighborhood into two groups—those north of North and those south of North. Lincoln Elementary is empowered to discriminate against one group when they decide who is allowed to enroll. Savvy parents—rightly—do not want to be on the wrong side of that discrimination.
If only this was a problem unique to Chicago!
There are at least two other examples of school districts paying $15 million or more to renovate a school facility to add more seats, even though there was a public school just down the road with plenty of room. In Atlanta, residents of the Inman Park neighborhood convinced the school board to spend $18 million to build additional capacity at Mary Lin Elementary, so that the district wouldn’t reassign their kids to another public school that had plenty of open seats and was within walking distance of Inman Park.[xvii] In Dallas, Lakewood Elementary got a $12.6 million renovation for the same reason.[xviii]
In each case, the school district caved to pressure from wealthy parents, who opposed changes to the school boundaries that would have reassigned their children from a high-performing school to a struggling school. Presumably, they also didn’t want their property values to go down.
There are always eager parents, like those at Lincoln, willing to overpay for a house to get their child access to a high-performing, free public school. There are always bureaucrats who justify drawing their lines on maps in pursuit of the higher goal of “neighborhood schools,” but who cave to political pressure in the end and draw the lines in a way that pleases wealthier parents. And there are always opportunistic politicians like Rahm Emanuel who will come to the rescue of an overcrowded school like Lincoln because it gives him an important education success story for speeches and elections.
It’s a pattern that plays out every year in thousands of American neighborhoods.
[i]“Family Urgent Care” and "Physicians Immediate Care - Old Town," Google Maps, accessed September 16, 2019.
[ii]Alan G. Artner, “Old Town,” Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2008.
[iii] Chicago Public Schools, “CPS : Schools : LINCOLN,” accessed September 16, 2019, https://www.cps.edu/Schools/Pages/school.aspx?SchoolId=610038.
[iv] “About the School,” Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, accessed September 16, 2019, http://www.lincolnelementary.org/about-the-school1.html.
[v] Illinois State Board of Education, “Illinois Report Card,” 2018, https://www.illinoisreportcard.com/.
[vi] Paul Biasco, “Lincoln Park School Annex Meeting Ends in Fist Fight,” DNAinfo Chicago (blog), November 21, 2013, https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20131121/lincoln-park/lincoln-park-school-annex-meeting-ends-parent-fist-fight.
[vii] Chapter 105 Illinois Compiled Statutes § 10–21.3a (2009).
[viii] Ted Cox, “CTU Files Suit to Stop 10 School Closings, Citing Hearing Officers’ Reports,” DNAinfo Chicago (blog), May 29, 2013, https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20130529/chicago/ctu-files-suit-stop-10-school-closings-citing-hearing-officers-reports.
[ix] Mark Konkol and Paul Biasco, “Parents Win Battle, Manierre Elementary Won’t Close,” My Chicago–DNAinfo Chicago (blog), May 21, 2013, https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20130521/old-town/parents-win-battle-manierre-elementary-wont-close.
[x] Matt Masterson, “CPS Space Utilization Data Shows More Underutilized Schools,” WTTW News, accessed September 16, 2019, https://news.wttw.com/2018/12/31/cps-space-utilization-data-shows-more-underutilized-schools.
[xi] Sarah Carp, “Race ‘Elephant in the Room’ with Lincoln Overcrowding,” Chicago Reporter, November 20, 2013, https://www.chicagoreporter.com/race-elephant-in-room-lincoln-overcrowding/.
[xii] Carp, "Race.”
[xiii] Chicago Public Schools, “CPS : Schools : LINCOLN,” accessed September 16, 2019, https://www.cps.edu/Schools/Pages/school.aspx?SchoolId=610038.
[xiv] Chicago Public Schools, “CPS : Schools : Manierre,” accessed September 16, 2019, https://cps.edu/Schools/Pages/school.aspx?SchoolID=610048.
[xv] Mary Schmich, “With Last-Minute Reprieve, School Gets Chance to Mend Divided Neighborhood,” Chicago Tribune, May 24, 2013, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2013-05-24-ct-met-schmich-0524-20130524-story.html.
[xvi] Carp, “Race.”
[xvii] Eric Celeste, “Will APS Redistricting Destroy Candler Park?” Creative Loafing, February 23, 2012, https://creativeloafing.com/content-185613-cover-story-will-aps-redistricting-destroy-candler.
[xviii] Keri Mitchell, “Dallas ISD Board Vote Pours Millions into East Dallas Schools,” Lakewood/East Dallas (blog), March 27, 2015, https://lakewood.advocatemag.com/2015/03/27/dallas-isd-board-vote-pours-millions-into-east-dallas-schools/.