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Once Targeted for Closing, Manierre Elementary's Fight Goes On

By Paul Biasco | October 26, 2015 8:46am
 Manierre Elementary in Old Town
Manierre Elementary
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OLD TOWN — Every morning at 7:30 a.m. principal Derrick Orr walks a lap around his Old Town elementary school.

Smiling, he waves to parents and chats up community members. But every morning he also sees 30 or so students sitting at a bus stop directly across from his school, Manierre Elementary, on their way elsewhere — to selective enrollment schools and magnets and charters.

"That's what's on my mind. The first thing I'm thinking about," Orr said of the students who are bypassing Manierre.

In March of 2012, Manierre was one of 300 schools targeted for closing by Chicago Public Schools. DNAinfo Chicago documented the fight by parents to save the underperforming, mostly African-American elementary school in the heart of a gang territory called “Sedville.” That fight helped save it in 2013 at the last minute, with officials noting the passion of the parents.

Since then, Orr has been working to turn around much of the school's culture. Test scores are improving, but still, the severely underpopulated school still struggles to attract students to its small pocket of Old Town at 1420 N. Hudson Ave.

Those students Orr sees every morning are waiting in front of Marshall Fields Gardens, less than 50 yards from his school's front door. More than 90 percent of the kids who attend Manierre live in the Gardens, one of the largest subsidized housing projects in Chicago. 

In stark contrast, the surrounding neighborhood features luxury homes and some of the city's top selective enrollment and magnet schools.

"It's like the Chicago Bulls with a lot of the selective enrollment schools," Orr said. "We build kids up and every year. [The other schools] select them [and] we have to re-build again. We are losing our top kids every year and going back to the drawing board after they are selected," he said.

Some of the kids Orr sees at the bus stop in the morning are headed off to nearby schools including Franklin Fine Arts, LaSalle Language Academy and Skinner North. 

Manierre's student body is 95 percent black and 94 percent low income. Some 19 percent of the enrollment are special education students classified as diverse learners, according to CPS.

It's an uphill battle to keep test scores on the rise when the school loses its top kids each year, but Orr is plowing ahead.

When Orr, just months into his first year as a principle, heard Manierre was going to be shut down, it had been probation for the previous eight years and was rated level 3, the lowest in CPS.

Last year the school was bumped up to level 2.

CPS is expected to release last year's ratings soon; Manierre will miss its goal of improving to a level 2+ rating by one tenth of a point, Orr said. He is greatly disappointed.

Orr looks at his students as his children. Six years ago during his first year as an assistant principal at Manierre, Orr's 19-year-old son was robbed and shot dead while pumping gas in South Holland. The memories remain fresh.

"When I look at the kids leaving here, I figure it’s a lot better to be part of the solution to help them, to work with them. Because if you are not in-depth in working with them, those could be the same kids who could rob you and shoot you later on down the line," Orr said.

Looking back over his first three tumultuous years at the helm of a ship he believes is headed in the right direction, Orr says he's now the happiest he's ever been professionally.

Still, the end goal is to raise the school to level 1 status and solidify its place in the neighborhood.

Other areas where the school has improved include attendance and discipline.

The year before Manierre was set to close, daily attendance was at 90 percent. Last year, the school had a 94.2 percent attendance rate, just below the district average of 95 percent.

The school holds monthly raffles of prizes such as X-Boxes for kids who have perfect attendance. They also give students a $20 gift card for perfect attendance each month with funds made available through a federal i3 grant. 

"We don't pay you for being here, but we want to acknowledge you and say thanks for being here," Orr said.

The year before the closing scare, the school handed out more than 154 suspensions, CPS data shows. In 2014, only 18 students received an out-of-school suspension, he said.

From the beginning of the school year through mid-September, Manierre shuts down its discipline system, also a new approach: There are no suspensions, no write-ups. After that period, educators at Manierre turn to restorative justice practices such as peace circles and mediation rather than suspending students.

"It's all about building relationships," Orr said. "I want teachers to get to know the kids they have."

One struggle after another

Earlier this year Orr came across one of his students sobbing on the Manierre playground. The principal asked the boy what was wrong and the student told him he had to leave.

"He kept crying. He wouldn't stop," Orr said. "He said 'I don't want to leave you all. I don't want to go.'"

That was the first inkling of the latest storm Orr will have to weather.

Marshall Fields Gardens, the 10-building, 628-unit apartment complex where nearly all of his students live, has changed ownership and is undergoing renovations. Those renovations are forcing 75 families to move out for two to three months into replacement housing scattered all over the city.

"That was the first time I had heard of it," Orr said. "From that student."

Manierre is an already underpopulated school with just 349 students as of the 2015 20th day enrollment figure. The school has room for 960 students.

Unless Manierre, CPS or an outside party can find a way to get those kids to Manierre, the school is going to lose a chunk of its enrollment.

"It’s something that’s very scary right now to not know if you are going to be losing 100 students or not," Orr said. "We are trying not to lose momentum even though we are going to lose students."

One of Orr's teaching assistants, 53-year-old Sherry Allen, lives in one of those apartments and so does her three-year-old grandson, Antonio.

Allen won't know where she's going to be relocated until January. She doesn't know how she's going to get Antonio to preschool at the Ferguson Child Parent Center, which is attached to Manierre.

"We are going to be losing a lot of students. Kids are going to be moving in different directions," Allen said. "They don't know how they are going to get the kids to school."

Allen said one of her co-workers was already forced to move out of Marshall Field Gardens during renovation work and ended up on the South Side with her two teenagers.

"It's like living in no man's land," Allen said of having to move.

As for the school, she said, "I love Manierre. I'd hate to see Manierre close down. I don't know what's going to happen."

The development group that purchased Marshall Field Gardens in May, Related Companies, plans to ensure the apartments remain affordable for the next three decades.

The deal was made possible through a public-private partnership with the city and Illinois Housing Development Authority.

The apartment complex was set to lose its federally-subsidized affordable designation in 2017 if the deal was not reached.

Representatives from Related Companies say they have been working with families to mitigate any negative impact the renovations might have on their children.

The company found that there were 15 families with kids who attended Manierre who lived in the first building that is currently being renovated and the majority of those families were able to find alternative housing on-site.

"We are taking it very seriously," said Jacques Sandberg, Related's head of affordable housing in the Midwest. "We don't want kids to be dislocated from their school and more specifically to Manierre, we don't want their enrollment numbers to drop."

Sandberg said the company plans to work with Manierre families far in advance of the scheduled renovations of a second building's renovation.

A place in the community

When Orr took over as principal back in 2013 the school celebrated the end of the year with a luncheon at the Rock N Roll McDonald's in River North.

It seemed like an underwhelming event.

"Why can't our kids have the same privileges and have the same exposure to the world?" he asked.

So, over the past two years, Orr, with the help of numerous community partners, has launched a program he is most excited about: class trips. Last year the school took a group middle schoolers to Washington, D.C. and to Atlanta to tour national historic black colleges.

For most of the kids, it was their first time on a plane.

This year a group of 50 students from the 7th and 8th grade will visit eight colleges and universities in four cities to see the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial; Ebenezer Baptist Church; Ford’s Theatre; Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

"Our kids need to have the exposure as the same as all the other kids in the district," Orr said.

The trip costs about $1,900 per student.

When Orr won a $5,000 stipend for reading growth at the school during his first year, he put the entire amount toward the first trip.

"I wanted the students to know it's all about them," Orr said.

A lot of teachers at the school sponsor students. Other partners in the community have also sponsored students.

Dennis Hauser, a 60-year-old former suburbanite who moved into Old Town this year, has no kids at the school but is working to help fund the trip.

"When you buy a house, what's the first thing you look at?" Hauser said. "You look at schools. I started taking a look around at schools and there's that school standing in the middle of what was a war zone and from what I can tell is starting to do great things."

Hauser, a consultant whose kids are already out of college, launched a gofundme campaign for the trip that has raised more than $5,300 from 19 donors.

He's also spreading the word to anyone who will listen.

"I'm going to lean on some of my colleagues," Hauser said. "I just know how impressionable these kinds of trips are that open the kids minds to so much possibility."


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