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Can A Little Rebranding Save Struggling Public Schools In Chicago?

By Ted Cox | July 13, 2016 7:59am
 Can simple rebranding fix issues of segregation and resource disparities in Chicago Public Schools? 
Can simple rebranding fix issues of segregation and resource disparities in Chicago Public Schools? 
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Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

CITY HALL — Can a simple rebranding resolve such issues as segregation and resource disparities in Chicago Public Schools? 

It can't hurt, some alderman say.

WBEZ reported last week that new schools and additions tend to be built in well-to-do white areas, while overcrowded or underused schools in minority areas have to soldier on. That finding was nothing new to members of the City Council.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) acknowledged "disparities right now that are pretty apparent," saying, "When there's an outcry from more affluent communities, we seem to react quicker," as with the annex granted Lincoln Elementary, while "the Southwest [Side] is still overcrowded." 

 Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. says
Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. says "branding" underused schools after more-Successful programs can spur enrollment.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

The lack of resources also keeps schools segregated

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), whose ward spans well-to-do Old Town and poorer areas on the Near West Side, agreed. But he responded to another WBEZ report Tuesday comparing Lincoln with underused Manniere Elementary by saying solutions are at hand: Manniere just needs a new name. 

"Quite frankly, what I would like to do is make Manniere 'Franklin II,'" Burnett said. "Franklin is right down the street. Franklin has a long waiting list to get in there.

"Franklin has a community component," he added. "So does Manniere. Make it Franklin II, and I guarantee you we'll fill the school up. Everybody benefits. It's a no-brainer to me."

Good schools can attract students in troubled areas, Burnett said.

"Skinner I used to be in a bad neighborhood," he said. "Whitney Young used to be in a bad neighborhood, but they had the most exceptional grades in schools in the area. So it's not where the area is, it's the brand. If you can use the brand and the curriculum to go to the underused schools, you solve the problem."

Burnett acknowledged that rebranding a school, including imposing a new curriculum, would require an investment, but said the costs pale in comparison to building a new school or an addition.

"You need a little money. But what's wrong with a little money?" Burnett said. "You're going to get the money back because you're going to get it through the pupil head count."

In Burnett's equation, a little investment in curriculum lures students, which earns the school more funding through student-based budgeting, and he pointed to the new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum coming to Brown Elementary as an example.

"I guarantee you those chairs are going to get filled in, and it's going to start paying for itself," he added.

While Cardenas lauded the $96 million CPS investment in the new Back of the Yards High School in his area, he, too, said a little investment in school programs can balance out overcrowded and underused schools.

"We could've made arrangements for folks to attend other schools that aren't that far away with maybe improved programming to satisfy both ends. We've got to do that, instead of adding to this affluency," he said.

"That works," Cardenas added, pointing to schools in the McKinley Park area. "We need to build that in the African-American community as well."

CPS officials declined to comment, saying they were busy preparing individual school budgets for release this week.

Cardenas was philosophical overall, saying, "Look, in this city there's always going to be this unevenness."

But, like Burnett, Cardenas insisted that things can be balanced out even in a district with limited resources like CPS.

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