Six months into the rocky marriage of two schools, parents at Ogden International School in the Near North Side community are struggling to steer the partnership onto the right track. A Monday night meeting about an opening on the school’s guiding body illustrates the friction they face.
Seven parents seek to fill a pending vacancy on the Local School Council that’s technically still occupied by Kizzy McCray, the sole council member with ties to the former Jenner Academy for the Arts.
Jenner and Ogden’s hopeful merger last year was touted as an example of racial and class integration — in a mostly black and brown district that has long wrestled with inequity and struggled to attract white families to neighborhood schools with large populations of students of color.
McCray did not attend Monday’s special council meeting and could not be reached for her side of the story. Council Secretary Debora Land said that McCray hasn’t attended a meeting since September, and council chair David Ramos denied that the council’s makeup — a common criticism from candidates Monday — had anything to do with McCray’s absence.
“When you take on a job, you take on a responsibility,” Ramos said. “We have reached out to her, not just by email but by letter, asking her to appear. For some reason she’s decided not to show up.”
The move to fill a pending council vacancy has highlighted other issues that have been brewing since the merger. Ogden was a relatively diverse neighborhood school with a large white population and many middle-class families from the Gold Coast and River North. Jenner was a predominantly black school that served mostly low-income families from the Cabrini-Green area, many whom still live in the renovated rowhouses left behind when the city demolished the last of Cabrini’s high-rise buildings in 2011. The union was proposed as an alternative to closing underenrolled Jenner and a way to alleviate overcrowding at Ogden, a K-12 school that gained a third campus with the Jenner merger.
Not everything has gone smoothly.
Six parents campaigning for the council seat spoke Monday, including one who opposed the merger. Another candidate, Kelvin Cannon, sent in a statement. In one way or another, they all emphasized the need to improve culture, climate and relationships at Ogden, where some parents have threatened to remove their children because of frequent fighting at the middle school Jenner campus.
Ashley Linzey, a parent who had been at Jenner before the merger, emphasized that the school has to double down on bridging the cultural divide between the schools and fostering more cohesion. She said students from Jenner were used to more emphasis on discipline and a different approach to classroom management than what some of them found at Ogden.
“It was two different schools and two different cultures,” she said.
She said that she already notices her child’s academic performance has improved and that Jenner students are benefitting from the rigorous curriculum and instruction at Ogden. She said she’s confident the two communities can eventually achieve more cohesion.
The meeting to field McCray’s replacement came the day before a scheduled parents meeting related to fighting, and after Principal Rebecca Bancroft issued an internal report on the school’s “fractured” community at previous LSC meetings.
Bancroft said the school has tried many community building efforts, including hiring a new director of school climate, adding a counselor at the Jenner campus, hiring an assistant principal, coordinating activities to help students engage one another and partnering with organizations to provide extra social and emotional learning supports.
Council candidate Jaleesa Smith, whose son is in pre-kindergarten, said that she wants Ogden to foster a more inclusive environment for former Jenner parents, and that many feel like the merger was more of a takeover of Jenner. She suggested tweaking the more stringent districtwide security policies to enable more parents to volunteer at the school, and find ways to involve them without hurting their wallets.
“You see a lot of negative feedback from parents that come from the Jenner campus, the African-American families, because they don’t feel included in a lot of activities, Smith said. “It can be something as small as a fundraiser — a lot of those families might not have 30-40-45 dollars to spend on a fundraiser to help the school.”
Some parents at Ogden had opposed the merger before the school board approved it last year, worried that the school’s test scores would suffer. Others were fearful of sending their students into the Jenner building, which is near the now-barren site of the Cabrini-Green projects and other subsidized housing nearby. Jenner parents, meanwhile, feared a loss of voice and identity.
Council candidate Ngozi Okorafor lamented a loss of leaders from both communities as well as turnover and bickering among parents, teachers and administrators and other problems she said have troubled the merger. She said parents she’s talked to perceive that the local school council isn’t responsive or inclusive enough of former Jenner parents.
The community, Okorafor said, has fractured.
Before the merger, Jenner suffered the loss of popular Principal Robert Croston, who died of illness after overseeing improvements at the school and helping plan the merger. In November, the district placed Ogden Principal Michael Beyer on leave after allegations of falsified attendance records. Seven of the 12 council members joined Beyer in a lawsuit against the school district disputing the allegations, all of them members of the Ogden community before the merger. Kizzy McCray was not one of them.
The council postponed plans to vote on ousting McCray Monday, because the district ordered it to initiate the process in writing.
Chicago Public Schools rules permit Local School Councils to remove a member who has missed three consecutive meetings. The Ogden council says that McCray last attended only part of one meeting — by phone in October. The council meets monthly.
If they oust McCray, the 12 council members are empowered to appoint a replacement to serve until her term expires in June 2020.
The council scheduled a March 19 vote on McCray and her seat at the next LSC meeting.
Here’s a full list of LSC candidates vying to replace her:
- Jaleesa Smith
- Ashley Linzey
- Ngozi Okorafor
- Jacqueline Martinez
- Anthony Martorina
- Kelvin Cannon
- Michael Arnold
Council chair Ramos said the community will have the chance to fill another vacancy when he steps down from the council in June, after his son graduates from Ogden High School. Despite the challenges at Ogden, LSC candidates, current LSC members, the school’s principal and other parents say that there are still strong relationships being made at the school and efforts to bridge the gap between the Ogden and Jenner communities.