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How A Cabrini-Green School Went From 'Out Of Control' To Feeling Like Home

By Mina Bloom | May 23, 2016 5:55am
 Principal Robert Croston talking to a student at Jenner Elementary.
Principal Robert Croston talking to a student at Jenner Elementary.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

NEAR NORTH SIDE — When 13-year-old Ashanti Haywood reflects on her early years at Jenner Elementary, one memory sticks out.

She distinctly remembers an after-school program that turned ugly when a couple of gang members busted into the school and hit one of the school's longtime teachers.

As Ashanti describes it, "Everyone was fighting in the street. The gang members were [running] around upstairs. Nobody knew where the principal was at."

"It was shocking that they would even come to our school to do that," said Ashanti, who described the school as "out of control."

Now an eighth-grader, Ashanti said there's no way any of that would happen today. 

"Not since [Principal Robert] Croston has been here," she said. "And they tore the neighborhood down, so most of the gang members moved away. There's no problems with gangs now ... not in this school."

After decades of being known for gang violence and tragedies, Jenner, 1119 N. Cleveland Ave., is finally turning around thanks to a young Harvard-educated principal with fresh ideas and a changing neighborhood. Attendance is up, more students are on track and violence is down.

But it might be too late.

Not enough families are sending their students to Jenner, which enrolls mostly black, low-income children from the old Cabrini-Green housing projects. The school building has room for more than 1,000 students, but only enrolls about 240. The demolition of Cabrini-Green is widely to blame for the huge drop in enrollment.

Mina Bloom talks about the uphill battle facing Jenner Elementary.

If the school doesn't boost enrollment, it could be in danger of closing once the moratorium on CPS closures is lifted.

Plus, major budget cuts are on the horizon. Even low-income schools like Jenner are expected to see an unprecedented 26 percent budget cut next year, which would result in a loss of staff.

"It's a trickle-down effect," said Debbie Sheriff, a teacher of 11 years. "If the budget's going the way it is, we're not going to be in a position to draw families in here."

Jenner has been down this road before. It was one of more than 100 CPS schools "under consideration" to be closed by City Hall in 2013, but when nearby Manierre Elementary was in line to be closed, parents and public officials worried about students having to cross gang lines to attend Jenner. 

"The choices we are being forced to make as a district are morally reprehensible," Croston said. 

"In the balance is my third-grader who runs up and says, 'Mr. Croston, I moved up three levels.' He doesn't know that the Titanic hit an iceberg and we're slowly sinking."

To cope, Croston said he often thinks of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: "Even if I knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."

"For that little guy, no matter what happens, he's one year closer to doing great stuff."

A changing neighborhood 

Jenner sits in the middle of the city's most notorious former housing projects, Cabrini-Green.

Long before Croston or Ashanti arrived, the school made national headlines for gang violence.

The 1992 murder of a Jenner student is widely credited as the catalyst that motivated city officials to demolish most of the housing projects. And a 9-year-old, known as Girl X, who was raped and assaulted in one of the high-rises, was a Jenner student.

In 2000, Jenner moved to a new building down the block from the original location. Then in 2004, Jenner merged with Byrd Elementary, followed by another consolidation with Schiller Elementary. Each consolidation was marred by escalating conflicts and violence. 

"It was bad. Very bad. It was one of the worst schools in the city," said Shemar Howell, an eighth-grader who has gone to Jenner since kindergarten. 

That's because as Jenner welcomed students from shuttered schools, it meant more kids from warring gangs under one roof.

"It was a different time. Those kids were really rough kids," said Shinda Tripp, school counselor since 2007.

Looking around the school today, it's hard to remember how bad the neighborhood was.

Folks walk their dogs on tree-lined streets against a backdrop of modern mixed-income housing. Everywhere you look there's a construction crane, signaling the continued redevelopment of the area. Almost all remnants of Cabrini-Green, as it was known, are gone.

Sheriff said for the first time she's seeing enrollment growth that's "consistent and steady." Her class gained one kid in April and two in March, and that's just an example of how it's been going. 

CPS "needs to pay attention to what's happening in the neighborhood and allow it to happen," Sheriff said, referring to the imminent redevelopment of Cabrini-Green.

Inside Jenner, kids are getting in trouble for kid stuff — not gang violence.

On a recent afternoon, Croston meets with a teacher and four students who are in trouble for causing a ruckus in class. One of the students talked back to the teacher and had her cellphone out, which violates two of the school's rules.

"I'm going to be fair. I'm going to tell [your mom] what we talked about," Croston told the student. "I promise you: If you work on you, your world will get better."

In the hallway, Croston sees students trying to sneak out of their classroom. "You're out of bounds," he tells them, and they ask questions before scurrying back in.

In between moments of discipline, kids excitedly run up to Croston to tell him their scores have improved in various courses. He grins, gives them high-fives and sends them on their way. 

New leadership

Croston brought a "youthful vibe" to the school when he took the job two years ago, Tripp said. 

He's younger and more approachable than past principals, who, according to interviews with staff and students, either spent most of their time in the office or were too "scared" to handle the school's issues.

Croston landed at Jenner by way of the South Side. He was a teacher and then an assistant principal at two charter schools before getting a master's degree from Harvard University.

Under Croston the school has a new brand that is emblazoned on school uniforms: The Jenner N.E.S.T., which stands for "Be neighborly. Stay engaged. Be scholarly. Use teamwork." 

"It's a better school now because we have a principal who cares more. He's on it. He really means his words," Shemar said. 

That opinion was shared by Ashanti, who said the school has more "order" and "direction" now. 

"We got somebody to tell us that they actually care about our education," she said.

Croston has high standards for both students and teachers alike, according to Sheriff.

"The first year he was here, there wasn't a day that went by that he wasn't visiting each and every classroom at least once and checking in and giving feedback," Sheriff said. 

Before he came to Jenner, the school didn't allow parents to come into the building for any reason due to problems in the past, Sheriff said. Principal Croston promptly changed the policy so the community felt more included in the school. 

"That was a big change," Sheriff said.

Croston is up for an "Educator of the Year" award through Chicago State University's chapter of Phi Delta Kappa International. Previously, he won a community advocacy award through the Near North Unity Program.

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.

He's also one of the driving forces behind a plan to merge with Ogden International School. While the plan didn't come to fruition last year, community leaders are holding out hope for next year.

Croston's impact isn't all quantifiable. 

For example, the principal traveled to Rockford on a weekend to visit Shemar when he went there for rehab a few months ago. Shemar said Croston has become his "role model" and a father figure in his life. 

Almost all of the students interviewed by DNAinfo Chicago had a personal story to tell about Croston.

A few of the students said Jenner now feels like home, which is a far cry from "the worst" school in the city.

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