NEAR NORTH SIDE — At lunchtime on Wednesday, more than half of the tables in Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts' lunch room sat empty.
That ratio is better than the school as a whole: Jenner, 1119 N. Cleveland Ave., with a capacity for more than 1,000 kids, has just 240.
The result is half-empty lunchrooms and quiet, easy-to-navigate hallways — even between classes, when most school corridors are crowded and chaotic.
"I feel as if no one's giving us a chance. They're overlooking Jenner, as if we're not here anymore, saying that our school is strictly for all black, poor people," said Rosa Rodriguez, Jenner's Local School Council chairwoman.
But that could change if a plan to merge Jenner — which draws mostly low-income kids from the old Cabrini-Green housing projects — with Ogden International School's overcrowded elementary school, 24 W. Walton St., which draws kids from affluent families on the Gold Coast, Streeterville and River North, gets approved by Chicago's Board of Education.
The unprecedented, community-driven plan is gaining momentum, with Ogden's Local School Council voting unanimously in favor of it earlier this week.
Rodriguez, who grew up in one of the Cabrini-Green row houses, has collected signatures of 60 Jenner parents who support the merger so far. She said the merger could "save" Jenner.
"It would definitely save our school. Jenner is reaching out for help. Help us to help you," she said, referring to Ogden.
"Closed mouths don't get fed. If you don't ask for what you need, you're never going to get it. We're asking. This will be a great move for both schools."
Rodriguez fears low enrollment could cause Jenner to close, especially since it was named as one of more than 100 schools "under consideration" to be closed a couple of years ago. Ultimately, Jenner was spared because nearby Manierre Elementary was also in line to be closed, and parents and public officials worried about students being forced to cross gang lines to attend Jenner.
The 1992 murder of a Jenner student is widely credited as the catalyst that motivated city officials to demolish most of the former Cabrini-Green public housing projects. The demolition forced Cabrini tenants to scatter across the city, which contributed to Jenner's low enrollment problem.
Yet the school continues to improve under the new leadership of Principal Robert E. Croston, Rodriguez said.
Last year, Jenner averaged 92 percent in attendance, which is under the district average of 95 percent but a three-year high for the school. From 2012 to 2014, the number of Jenner kids who are considered "on track" — meaning the student has a 95 percent attendance rate, C or higher in math and reading and fewer than three misconducts — has gone up 11 percent, Croston said.
While the school is not anywhere near capacity, the school exceeded the district's enrollment projection this year. The district expected it to have 207 students, but it brought in about 240.
Prior to Croston becoming head of the school, Rodriguez said kids didn't know the names of any administrators — they thought the front desk clerk was the principal. Now they interact with administrators on a daily basis.
Also under Croston the school has a new brand that is proudly emblazoned on school uniforms: The Jenner N.E.S.T., which stands for "Be neighborly. Stay engaged. Be scholarly. Use teamwork."
"We've stepped up with the new principal. He's striving for better. I'm loving that. He's doing such a wonderful job on trying to get the school to do a 360," Rodriguez said.
Croston landed at Jenner two years ago after teaching on the Far South Side and obtaining master's degrees from Harvard University and University of Chicago.
Both he and Ogden Principal Michael Beyer believe the merger would be advantageous.
"There's too much division in our city. There are too many boundaries. We need to work together to break those down. As educators, we should be the ones leading the charge. We're the ones saying, 'Let's try this,'" Croston previously told DNAinfo Chicago.
If the schools merge, Rodriguez expects there will be bumps in the road. But she said it's "about the kids, not the adults."
"They fear we have no control, that the kids do whatever they want, they fear the name Cabrini-Green," she said, referring to Ogden parents who don't support the merger.
Even though Rodriguez isn't a Chicago Public Schools employee, she works at the school every day with students, who affectionately refer to her as "Titi Rosa." Walking through the halls on a recent afternoon, she stops to ask kids to get up or get in line and they respond immediately with a smile.
For Rodriguez, merging the schools isn't just about solving enrollment problems — it's about breaking down segregation.
"We're reaching out, reach back out to us. We need change. This community here needs to realize not all black people are violent, and not all black people are ignorant," she said.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: