The Negative Effects of a Neighborhood Institution
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the factors that have triggered the black flight of pioneers by focusing on the role of schools in Parkmont's decline. It considers how pioneer parents, children, and teens cope with Lombard, the failing school in Parkmont. More specifically, it explores how parents' perceptions of Lombard influenced their decisions to move to the neighborhood and how their observations of the school continue to shape migration patterns. It shows that black pioneers blame school decline on a host of factors, including the inferior values and parenting of black second wavers. It also explains how the second wave children who largely attend Lombard fail to benefit from the presence of pioneer children in the classroom, because the latter are sent by their families to schools in other parts of the city due to the shortcomings in educational and behavioral control at Lombard.
You know what? Lombard, back in the day, when I was in school, it was the school to go to. That was one of the premier high schools. You could look at [the black students at Lombard], and you could tell that they came from a different environment. Lombard was the school. In our minds, we were like, “Wow. Lombard. That must be the thing.”
—Ramell Worthy, second wave, aged thirty-eight
Lombard used to be the fourth or fifth best school in the city, but now it’s horrible. The education is lousy. Everything’s just horrible over there. Like, they don’t care anymore. Well, the neighborhood changed, so all the stuff that it did have and offered to them then? When people migrated out of here, the education migrated, too. How can you go from being one of the best schools in the city to where the people in Parkmont don’t even want to send their children there?
—Anne Jackson, pioneer, aged fifty-five
Families often decide to move when there is a mismatch between their real living situation and the neighborhood and housing scenario that they desire.1 Age, family structure, housing space, and budget all factor into residents’ views of their residential status as they plan to move. However, another important factor that drives families’ mobility choices is their perceptions of the local schools. Such heavy attention to neighborhood school quality is merited since public schools are a key way in which neighborhoods indirectly affect children.2
The role of schools in blacks’ residential satisfaction and mobility decisions is understudied. Much of the research on black mobility patterns emphasizes economic constraints and the limits of economic models for explaining black mobility in the face of housing discrimination.3 In Parkmont, parents’ (p.193) perceptions of Lombard played a major part in their decisions to move to the neighborhood, and their observations of the school continue to influence migration patterns.
This chapter examines change in Parkmont through the lens of Lombard, its local school. I begin with pioneer families, many of whom continue to live in Parkmont, but send their children to schools in other parts of the city to avoid the shortcomings in educational and behavioral control at Lombard. I then turn to the second wave residents and their children. Because pioneer children have effectively migrated out of Parkmont for schooling, the second wave children who largely attend Lombard fail to benefit from the presence of pioneer children in the classroom. Aggravating this problem, many parents who reside in the city’s worst neighborhoods still believe that Lombard is a relatively good school and often make special efforts to send their children there, either through legitimate transfer programs or by providing school administrators with fake Parkmont addresses. As a result, Parkmont’s second wave children miss out on the positive cultural influences of the neighboring pioneer children while continuing to have most of their peer contact with children further down the cultural and economic hierarchies—children who may, in many cases, be from the very neighborhoods that Parkmont’s black residents sought to escape when they moved here.
Going On Reputation: Choosing Parkmont for Its School
On the last day of school before the summer of 2006, Lombard experienced an incident that, to many Parkmont pioneers, epitomizes the problems with the local school. As luck would have it, I happened to visit the school on this day. In the hallway were the metal detectors that are required at all city schools because of the district’s numerous incidents of gun violence against principals, teachers, and students. Next to the detectors, just outside of Lombard’s auditorium, were large, beautiful statues depicting children playing and reading. I had seen and admired these statues many times, but on this day they were splattered with red and blue paint. And in case there was any hope that the vandalism was just a harmless prank, smashed and broken pieces of plastic and hardware were scattered on the hallway floor in a trail leading to the computer lab. I later learned that, just days before, teachers had unpacked brand-new Mac computers, and on that day, they had all been destroyed beyond repair.
Even in the midst of this drama, the school year was coming to a close, and much work remained to be done. I watched Lombard’s teachers clean their classrooms and conduct inventories of school supplies. Students wandered in and (p.194) out of the front office, and I listened to their anxious conversations as they talked about what had happened to their school. In the front office, Dana Steinberg, an administrator, handled numerous interruptions from phone calls, PA announcements, staff, and students while she explained the vandalism incident to me:
We believe it was some students. We have an after-school program that uses our facilities, but is not really a part of Lombard. It’s a federally funded after-school program called “Lighthouse.” We’re assuming it was some kids who came through the door that they use, which is at the side of the lunchroom. There is a guard there, but only until 6:00, and the program runs ’til 8:00. I definitely think they were students—middle school, anywhere from sixth or seventh grade. And they took paint from Lighthouse, and they threw it all over figures that we had here of students, all over the walls and the floors, the auditorium. They went down into the lunchroom area, and they busted the refrigerator. We have an idea who did it from the kids. Kids talk about stuff like that. I’m not surprised because the student that would have initiated it is a pretty angry individual. We have a lot of those students here.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics data for 2008–09, Lombard, Parkmont’s only school, has once again become segregated (94% of the students are black in elementary grades and 97% are for the high school grades), and it is now largely low-income (with more than 66% of elementary school students eligible for the city’s free lunch program). Lombard, a nonmagnet public school, may also be labeled an academic failure. In the 2009 school year, 49 percent of third graders scored “proficient” on state standardized tests for reading (57% for math). By high school, the situation becomes far worse. For eleventh graders, 21 percent were proficient in reading (7% for math).
As Dana Steinberg mentioned above, conduct problems are also prevalent at Lombard. Even with an all-day police presence of three officers as well as metal detectors at the school entrance, student misbehavior incidents are frequent. Lombard’s environment is also less than ideal because students spend their days in chaotic and crowded classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards. Since Lombard serves students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, it offers very few extracurricular and recreational activities, especially for its high school students. Additionally, many of Lombard’s students come from outside neighborhoods all over the city, as evidenced by the noisy clusters of students who wait for city buses to depart from Parkmont after the last bells ring for the day.
Like whites, African Americans move both because of “push” factors that drive them away from their current residences and “pull” factors that draw them into certain communities. Though whites in large metropolitan areas tend to live in (p.195) suburban neighborhoods,4 which often have satisfactory schools, the situation is quite different for African Americans who reside in metropolitan areas. They are about twice as likely as whites to live in the central city,5 and they often reside in segregated black neighborhoods6 where their local schools are at risk.7 Such neighborhood disparities are especially severe in Northeastern cities like the one in which Parkmont is located, which has a large black population and a high degree of black-white segregation.8 Given that school characteristics are especially important to parents of school-aged children,9 it makes sense that many of Parkmont’s pioneers give great weight to this aspect of the neighborhood environment and self-selected into a community with a school that they deemed worthy of their children.
In general, pioneers selected Parkmont under the impression that they were buying in to a neighborhood with a highly reputable public school, but most have since concluded that Lombard’s students and staff are suffering difficulties. Making matters worse, in August of 2008 Lombard changed principals for the third time in a decade. The problems at Lombard are especially alarming since it was considered one of the best public schools in the city from the 1970s on through the early 1990s. Its students often went on to college, and its faculty positions were highly coveted among city teachers who were looking for a safe environment with motivated, prepared students and involved parents. Back when it was first built, Lombard parents especially appreciated that their children attended a true neighborhood school.
Many pioneers told me that they specifically moved to Parkmont for its school and that the importance of education in their choice of community was second only to their insistence on a neighborhood that was safe from violence and drugs. Despite trying their best to find a safe neighborhood with a good school, many pioneers admitted that they possessed incorrect information or relied upon faulty assumptions in conducting their search. When I asked what gave them the impression that Lombard was a desirable school for their children, there were three common answers: (1) they took it for granted that a school in a recently white neighborhood would be of high quality; (2) they accepted as valid the outdated reports about Lombard’s reputation, often based on their own memories or the advice and distant childhood experiences of friends, family, and acquaintances; or (3) they followed recommendations from realtors and school district officials who told them that Lombard was relatively good for a city school.
(p.196) Sam Wilson, Parkmont’s civic association president, places an extremely high value on education and said that he chose the neighborhood with that in mind, under the impression that Lombard was a high quality school. Sam told me that, unlike many pioneers, he had been personally familiar with Parkmont from his teenage years working as a pizza deliveryman. He had largely assumed that the school had maintained its good reputation. Still, he asked around, even seeking the advice of the principal of his alma mater, a magnet high school:
The principal thought that Lombard was still a great elementary school, and when I got here it was. My oldest daughter really liked her second-grade teacher, and it was a good school, a very good program. And the same with her third-grade teacher. She loved her third-grade teacher. And fourth grade.
Like Sam, Sonya McCall, a pioneer and single mother, relied on word of mouth and was impressed by Parkmont’s reputation, but she has since changed her mind. She explained that her initial opinion of Lombard was based on stories from her adult friends who were bused in years ago:
Quite a few of the people I work with, co-workers at the post office, they told me they went to Lombard. I was shocked. That was back when there wasn’t that many blacks that was there. One of them said her mom fought to get her in there, so that’s how she went. So I was like, “Oh, okay.” But, no more. I don’t think nobody really wants their child to go to Lombard. Maybe someone do, but I don’t. When I first went to Lombard to register, there was somebody that told me, “Don’t put her in that school.” And then I called the school district, and they was telling me, “Do you know how many parents would want their child to go to Lombard? ’Cause they had just built the addition—the schoolhouse. So I went and checked it out, and I liked the part that was the schoolhouse. It was separated, but as soon as she got out of third grade, they told me she was going to the big building, and I didn’t want that.
A few pioneer parents reported that they went forward with the move to Park-mont even though they had already become aware that Lombard’s respectable reputation was fading. However, pioneer Nina Jones justified her decision by saying that, at the time, she was a single woman with no children, so she was not as concerned about the school. Even so, Nina remembered that when she purchased her home, the couple selling the house to her warned Nina about the school:
The people here before us had a daughter and didn’t want her to go to Lombard High School, so they moved out ’cause the school started to (p.197) change. The school definitely started changing by then. Everything. The demographics of it has changed. The city school system just wasn’t what they wanted. They weren’t going to offer her daughter all the things they wanted her to have, so that’s why they moved.
Pioneers Clarice and Lamar Nellis moved to Parkmont because family members recommended Lombard to them, but now they send their young son to an elementary magnet school, and they intend to send him outside of the neighborhood when he is old enough to attend middle school: “Our parents told us that Lombard was good. We knew Lombard was a pretty good school, but Clarice’s concern was that it might go down over time. Just now, Clarice was telling me about their test scores. She was saying that they are really bad.”
Negative Evaluations of Lombard: Blaming White Flight
From the perspective of someone standing outside of the main building, Lombard appears to be a good school. Aside from the remains of some empty bags of potato chips and a few crushed soda cans on the front lawn, the property is free of the typical signs of urban decay. Instead of the graffiti that is seen on the outside walls of many city schools, Lombard’s main building features a very moving and colorful mural depicting African American students studying. Lombard has one of the largest school sites in the city, with the main building (grades four through twelve), the adjacent “schoolhouse” for younger children (kindergarten through third grade), and a spacious recess yard all taking up an entire block.
Janice O’Neill, a pioneer, explained that Lombard “was part of the reason why I moved here,” but told me that she has removed both of her children from Lombard. She said that the profile of students and families has changed and has hindered teaching effectiveness:
Lombard’s horrible. Lombard was an excellent school, ’cause I believe they built it specifically for Parkmont. And it was K to 12, and there’s only maybe one other one in the whole city. I don’t know if it was a combination of such a vast amount of people moving and the exodus of people that moved up into this area with children, but the school is really not able to accommodate them. And unfortunately, for some reason, black parents tend not to participate as much. I don’t know if it’s because we got to work more or whatever to make the same salary as, perhaps, someone else, for various reasons. So there was less participation, and it also seems like the quality of the children is deteriorating. (p.198) Not to blow my own horn, but I have raised good kids, not like these bad kids that want to cuss you and act inappropriate towards teachers in class and not have respect for others and all that. There’s a lot of that up there. If you have to work in that environment, over time you don’t teach as effectively. People getting stressed. Anybody working in a stressful environment, their work is going to deteriorate.
Janice, who is a nurse, explained that she is required to live in the city because she is an emergency worker. In fact, she moved to Parkmont as a part of her hospital’s housing incentive program, which geographically expanded in the 1990s to include Parkmont. However, other pioneers, such as Margaret Meadows, who is a school nurse, recently have been released from residency requirements and now want to move away from Parkmont to provide better schooling for their children. Unfortunately, Margaret’s husband’s EMT job still restricts their housing search to the first-ring suburbs where homes tend to be too expensive for them, but she still aspires to find a community with a better school than Lombard:
Now, I want to live somewhere close, but that borders the city. The school district dropped their residency requirement about seven or eight years ago. In the suburbs, the school districts are better, and that’s what I want for my kids. My two youngest children are eleven and nine, and I don’t like the city school district and the education that they’re receiving.
For the majority of pioneer parents who cannot afford private schools, Lombard is often the main factor that provokes black flight.
Another recurring theme reported by pioneers was that racial segregation is to blame for Parkmont’s school problems. Pioneers reported that they did not notice Lombard’s decline until after white flight was complete and black flight had already begun. For instance, pioneer Margaret Meadows argued that Lombard is no longer well funded, and she attributes the disinvestment in the school to white out-migration and the associated loss of white students:
I believe my son’s school [outside of Parkmont] is a little bit better because he’s in a smaller school, and he gets mentally gifted services, so he gets a little bit extra. My daughter goes to Lombard. The school’s changed. That school had more resources when the neighborhood was white than it does now because the school has gone downhill. As a matter of fact, my husband and I are looking to take my daughter out. If I could leave in the next three to five years, I would leave, because of the school district. That is the main thing for me, especially with my kids, because I would love it if I could afford to send both of them to private school. If I could send the both of them there, I would feel a lot better.
(p.199) Another pioneer, Kenny Washington, a mechanic, lives on one of the blocks facing Lombard. He too, blames white flight for the change in the character of the student body, but his main complaint is that the loss of white residents has interfered with accountability and social control at the school. He said that crowds of students routinely hang around Parkmont for hours after classes end, acting “very rowdy.” According to Kenny, back when Parkmont was racially integrated, police officers would come to the schoolyard at the close of the day to usher the students, many of whom lived in other neighborhoods at that time, to the bus stop. However, with Parkmont now dominated by working black families, few residents remain at home during the day to call the police. Kenny said that even when black residents are around to call, police are unable to distinguish between the students who live in Parkmont and those who are bused in because the whole neighborhood population is now black.
Student Body Composition: Black Flight in the School
When speculating about the causes of Lombard’s downfall, the pioneers were just as likely to blame the second wave blacks as they were to blame white flight. After all, white flight had come and gone, and the pioneers’ most proximate and daily concerns have been with the people now living next to them. The pioneers reported that Lombard’s students are of low quality in terms of behavior, attitude, and preparation, reflecting the black-flight pattern in Parkmont as a whole. Lack of parental involvement, poor behavioral control, and problems with classroom management were most frequently cited as evidence that Parkmont’s second wave families produce poor students and undesirable peers. Nina Jones, a pioneer parent who is also a teacher at Lombard, believes that she has an especially credible perspective on the children who now form the core of Lombard’s student body:
They’re not taught to value education. They’re not taught to respect their teachers. If you don’t have classroom management, you can’t teach anything. This is even at kindergarten. This is how they come into school. You have kids who you’ll call the parent and say, “They didn’t do their homework,” and “I need you to come up for a meeting.” Or we have something where when children are really failing or having difficulties, and you write them up and put them in this special program. And you have these meetings where the parents come in. It’s like a team, you know? You all sit down and talk. But parents will not come. I could (p.200) scream. I have a little girl in my class. She’s seven. She sat in second grade for half the year, and then the mother realized she shouldn’t have been in second grade. She should have been in first grade. What’s up with that? And the mother did not come for the meeting. I could’ve strangled her because of all the help that we could’ve set up for her. If we don’t have the parental consent, we can’t do anything. These are the people that live up here. You see their attitude?
Pioneer Janice O’Neill expressed similar concerns about the ways in which the cultural values of second wave parents and children affect the school environment at Lombard. Like many pioneers, Janice has tried to keep her children away from Lombard students. She suggested that the affordability of Parkmont has attracted a different class of residents whose children largely contribute to problems at Lombard:
I think it’s because people that are moving in are worse. Now, everybody just movin’ in. This neighborhood is cheap compared to a lot of places. The children, they just not good kids, and that’s what happened up at Lombard. Just out of control. That’s why my son had to get out of there. The kids were evil. They were really giving him a hard time. Find another victim. I had to get him out of there.
In response to my questions about the “bad kids” of second wave parents, one school official provided a unique perspective and told me about recent violent incidents involving Lombard’s students and their families. James Herman, a forty-nine-year-old Lombard police officer, gave me a tour of the school grounds, and then we talked in front of the metal detector area where he signs in the many late-arriving students. I was interested to learn that Officer Herman actually graduated from Lombard and participated in the city’s busing program. After marrying at age nineteen, he served in the U.S. Air Force and now works as a police officer as well as a marriage counselor, a Baptist minister, and a deacon.
Officer Herman informed me of a recent news story about Lombard students who were arrested for robbing several pizza deliverymen and for robbing college students who were attempting to withdraw money from ATMs. We also discussed a 2005 incident in which a Lombard student’s mother and older brother violently attacked the principal. In addition, I asked Officer Herman about a story that Amber Miller, a nineteen-year-old graduate of Lombard, told me. I met Amber at the Park-mont hair salon owned by Billy Gordon’s stepmother. Amber had already moved away from Parkmont as part of the wave of black flight, but she said that she was afraid of groups of young men who loiter in front of the bus stop and the “gangs” of girls who would harass her in the bathroom at Lombard. Officer Herman grumbled (p.201) about exaggerated rumors and assured me that Lombard is relatively safe. He reminded me that the youngest children are safely isolated from the teenagers in the “schoolhouse” building, which does not even have metal detectors. He also expressed optimism about the fact that he “mostly finds knives and maybe a few guns” via the metal detector at the main school.
However, the problems that parents complain of at Lombard can even be found at Parkmont’s nearby preschool, which none of my informants’ children have attended, despite its convenient location a half block away from Lombard. In the mid-1990s, when younger whites still lived in Parkmont and the preschool had a different owner, neighborhood children filled every available vacancy. I talked to preschool staff members about the types of children who are now enrolled there. Katie Kress, the head teacher, said that none of the children are white and all receive low-income subsidies. She described the challenges of teaching the kinds of children who attend Parkmont’s preschool:
They just seem to have a hard edge to them, even the really small ones. It’s like they’ve already lived a life before. They’re two and three years old, and the things they described that they’ve seen and they’ve heard! A lot of them come from single mom families, so they’ll come in, and they’ll tell us about mom’s boyfriends or say, “We stayed at grandmother’s house because Mom went out.” I’m thinking these are three and four-year-olds. They shouldn’t be exposed to this. A few of them have come in and said “My dad’s in jail.” I’m like, “Okay.” I just leave it. I don’t ask why. I just let it go. And the mother will come in when they fill out our paperwork, and I’ll say something about the father. And they’ll be like, “He’s incarcerated.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s fine, okay.”
Although some residents in Parkmont are concerned about the practice of busing in students from other neighborhoods, most pioneers seem to think that the “problem students” at Lombard are not the outsiders, but the children of second wave parents. As a teacher, pioneer Nina Jones knows the students and where they live, and as a resident she has observed that the problems that are usually found in other parts of the city have recently crept into Parkmont. She described the time she witnessed police conducting a street-level drug sweep to take dealers off of a corner on the strip:
I think it’s [serious crime] here. Even though there a few that kinda come up from other neighborhoods, still most of them are from up here. On the strip one day, there were kids up there, and [the police] blocked off all of the strip. And when I finally got around, and maneuvered my way up, I saw it was boys who went to Lombard. They were laying on the floor, like (p.202) laying on the ground, handcuffed and everything. I was like, “Those are the kids that I knew from Lombard.” They were like ninth, tenth grade.
Lamar and Clarice Nellis explained that they, like many pioneers, want their preschool-aged son to attend a racially integrated school, but they also emphasized that behavioral standards are especially important to them. They have been searching for a school with a safe environment that promotes learning, as well as one that advances assimilationist cultural values. Although the family is not Catholic, the couple has been sending their son to a Catholic preschool, and they reported that they are reluctant to allow him to play with Parkmont children. Lamar explained the way his views about second wave residents have influenced his decisions about their son’s education and contact with peers:
What I see is there’s no ownership, and when there’s no ownership, there’s no real values. Where’s the values? My son has one friend that he plays with here, but a lot of his friends are from outside of the neighborhood because of his school. He didn’t go to the daycare here, whatever that place is. Clarice was in the educational field. There were certain things we require. Early foundation is very key to us. The way the children are, the way the teacher speaks, the way the individuals go about certain things were very important to us because that’s what the child mimics. The school that he goes to currently has maybe 5 percent blacks. It’s a predominantly white school and Asian. He feels comfortable. I want him to feel comfortable, but yet he can fit in well going to his cousin’s house and playing on their block, you follow me? Now, we’re at the point that he’s six, and so his vocabulary is very important to us, the way he speaks. He has a lazy tongue [a speech impediment], so we’re working with him on certain things, but they tease him in certain environments, you know? We tell him, “You live in America. Standard English is what you are supposed to speak.” Because in a different environment, they may speak broken English.
Though Lombard’s flaws are many, the pioneer parents seemed most concerned about behavioral problems, or as one parent said, “The tone. When we go up there, there’s kids running around, all outta control. And just, it’s not in order.” I was able to witness the classroom environment firsthand when Lombard administrators allowed me to observe a seventh-grade math class one day. I was surprised to see most of the children repeatedly leaving their seats and walking around the classroom without permission, playing games with calculators, and sleeping with their heads on their desks, as the teacher yelled at the students, and wrote the worst offenders’ names on the board as part of a list of (p.203) students to be punished. However, what really shocked me was the fight that broke out between two boys, with one threatening to dislocate the jaw of the other as he loudly called him a “motherfucker.” Many of the students looked at me with embarrassment, but the teacher seemed unfazed by the outburst and by the end of class had written down the names of six children whose parents she planned to call because of disciplinary problems. When I told Nina Jones, the pioneer and teacher at Lombard, she said, “Oh, I’m used to that, and I teach first grade. That happens. It even happens in kindergarten.” Later, after the classroom confrontation, I began to feel more optimistic about Parkmont’s learning environment because the heavyset boy sitting next to me in class kept raising his hand and providing the correct answers to math problems, but then he told me: “I was left back from last year. I already did this all before.”
Pioneer Sam Wilson said that Lombard is not well-equipped for educating children, but he maintained that behavior problems were the key factor that led him to remove his daughters from Lombard:
It started to go downhill. My father would come back and report to me what he witnessed in the school, but I thought he was just overreacting. Then, my wife would do the same, talking about the behavior in the schoolyard, the behavior in the classrooms. Yeah, and for a while they didn’t have the appropriate textbooks. They didn’t have enough supplies in the school. So then I went there one day, and we quickly decided that we would send them to Catholic school for the next academic year. And since we’re Catholic, it was fine for us to do that.
Pioneers take great pains to improve the educational lot of their children. Their stories show the specific motivations and strategies of the most informed, involved, organized, and able segment of Parkmont’s parents. Many have placed their children in a wide range of schools in the city and suburbs, such as charter schools, elite private schools, Catholic schools, and magnet schools. Although originally the convenience of a good neighborhood school was central to their decision to move to Parkmont, the pioneers’ children now travel across the city on buses and trains to attend higher quality schools, sometimes in more dangerous, high-poverty neighborhoods. Pioneer Sonya McCall explained her daughter’s time at Lombard and the decision to remove her:
She went there until the third grade, but I snatched her out of there! That school was horrible! Kids fightin’, beatin’ up the teachers, and I was talking to my next-door neighbor, and she was like, “Try a magnet school.” Okay, so I said that I’m going to try to get her in there, and they accepted her. So she goes there now. She’s went there since fourth grade.
(p.204) Sonya seemed unsure about where her daughter would eventually attend high school. It was especially sad to listen to her young daughter confide that she often worries about where she will attend school. She struggles with math and fears that the city’s magnet high schools will be too selective for her to gain admittance.
Janice O’Neill was among the many pioneer parents who also removed their children from Lombard after her high hopes for the school were shattered:
I think when we first came up here it was nice, but then there was like a rapid deterioration. ’Cause I was like, “Oh, the school’s good. I’ll move here.” I knew, given my income, what I could afford as far as not paying for a private school. So I said, “Okay. If I’m going to send my child to a public school, let me send them to the best one available to them.” And that’s what I thought I was doing, but it turned out it wasn’t that way. My daughter, she did go there ’til the eighth grade, but I immediately got her out, and my son is being home-schooled now because he’s special ed.
Michelle Mitchell, a pioneer and single mother of two, explained that her daughter is now enrolled at a charter school after a brief time at Lombard. Less than a year after I interviewed her, I learned that Michelle had moved away from Parkmont. Before the move, she described the complicated and stressful arrangements involved in transporting her daughter from Parkmont to the charter school, which was located across the city:
Did my daughter tell you she takes the bus? She takes the bus in the afternoon because there’s a forty-five-minute difference from the time she gets out of school until the time I get off work. So now she has a cell phone, and it’s just for emergencies, and when she’s on the bus she turns it on. I take a bus to work. But yeah, she takes the bus, which runs to my sister’s house, and I’ve established a relationship with the bus driver. She knows where to sit and everything. I mean, at first I was a nervous wreck, but it’s okay now.
For many residents, the only alternative for a high-quality residential neighborhood with a good school is to move to the suburbs, but this option is usually out of reach. Pioneers Lamar and Clarice Nellis want more for themselves and their son and now plan to move, though Lamar still feels conflicted about the suburbs:
I have mixed feelings. If I was married with no children, I would want to live in the city, because you’re able to get to everything. I like the diversity. I like different types of people. I like to entertain. I like to socialize. I like good people, and I don’t want to drive everywhere I go. (p.205) But I have a son, and the school is important, and the social life for him is important. He needs a different mind-set. I’d prefer suburban life, but the economy sorta gets to me, because you gotta drive everywhere now, and that’s gas and things of that nature. Clarice wants to move up. I think she wants to start teaching college. She wants to get into that, so she has goals for herself, and I really feel it makes sense for us to say good-bye to Parkmont.
Outsiders: Busing and Fake Addresses
Busing is a common complaint among Parkmont residents. In the late 1970s, the city adopted a school desegregation policy that honored parents’ requests to transfer their children to schools that are located outside of their home neighborhood. This policy was similar to those in many cities with court rulings that forced integration by busing black children into white neighborhoods to attend schools that had lower percentages of blacks. Often, the receiving schools’ student bodies were completely white, as was the case with Lombard.
The city has three main types of high schools: special admission (e.g., magnet schools), citywide admission (e.g., students from other neighborhoods may attend), and neighborhood high schools. Most of the city’s schools have a “feeder area” or neighborhood boundary for students who are below the high school grades, although it is possible for younger students to request a transfer. In eighth grade, all students fill out high school application forms to apply to a maximum of five schools in any combination. On these forms, students must inform the district if they plan to attend their neighborhood or “feeder” school, or they must rank their school preference list. These requests for transfer out of the feeder school are ordered according to school space and a lottery system. Students who are not accepted to their preferred schools are eligible to attend their local feeder school. Once in high school, students seeking a transfer may select up to five schools, but no single school is guaranteed.
The city policy is that only local children may attend Lombard unless they officially apply for a transfer and are accepted. Thus, parents in nearby neighborhoods sometimes use fake addresses to ensure that their children are in safe schools, usually conveniently located near their homes. Parkmont residents have long been concerned about the outside students who commute to Lombard, whether they attend legitimately or not. I asked Dana Steinberg, the Lombard official, about this, and she told me that Lombard’s principal is aware of residents’ concerns about outside students coming in, overcrowding the school, and hanging around the neighborhood. Dana said that the principal has cracked down on (p.206) the use of fake addresses, but she told me that the fraudulent use of addresses at Lombard is not a new phenomenon. Even when Lombard was a predominantly white school, white students from nearby integrating neighborhoods would use fake addresses to attend Lombard. She elaborated the pioneers’ concerns about Lombard and the long history of “outsiders” at the school:
Parents were upset that they came to this neighborhood for a better school and hopefully, a better education, and what happened was kids were using relatives’ addresses—grandparents, aunts that live in the neighborhood. They were coming in with fake IDs, fake address information, and the classrooms were overcrowded. We’ve always had this situation. We’ve always had the problem because what happened was white kids that lived down the hill should have gone to their neighborhood school, but it was kind of changing, so they wanted their kids up here. They would come here, and how they would come here is they would use somebody’s address. This was not an African American thing. This was done before. And the principal—maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I believe that the principal at the time did it to keep this neighborhood white and to keep the school white by having more whites come here. Back then, you couldn’t just go to other schools. There had to be space. And so, there was never space because we were full with other white kids.
Thus, the interplay between school and neighborhood predates the integration of Parkmont, as does the intraracial conflict. When Parkmont was a Jewish community with a smattering of Italian and Irish families, whites from other neighborhoods used fake addresses to attend Lombard and were a source of tension. Soon, non-Jewish white ethnics moved into the community en masse. When blacks began attending Lombard, white families removed their children from the school and moved away, and soon black students dominated the school and black families began to integrate Parkmont. Today, Parkmont is a black neighborhood, and its parents are concerned about children from other communities attending Lombard, spending time in the neighborhood, and possibly moving in. However, like the whites before them who worried about “outsider” whites invading their local school, Parkmont’s black parents are worried about outsider students who are also black.
“I wish the school was better,” Carla Jackson, a twenty-four-year-old pioneer, said to me. On a wall in her living room was her framed college degree. Carla’s son’s education, meanwhile, remains uncertain. Like many pioneers, Carla thinks the busing is a major cause of Lombard’s problems:
Parkmont is real small. I think it’s only about four blocks long either way. It’s not big. If you stand in the middle of Parkmont, you might have (p.207) four blocks to the north, four blocks to the south. Two blocks east and west. So it’s not that big. You have the school right in the center. Like I said, Lombard was excellent, but you know, the problem with Lombard is very easy to solve. If you’re not from this neighborhood, you can’t go to this school. If you would stand where the bus stops, every child that gets off this bus to go to Lombard is not from the neighborhood.
Many residents described the use of fake addresses by “outsiders” at Lombard. However, I noticed that outsider students often had some kind of connection to a Parkmont family. For instance, on several occasions second wave residents told me that the children who I would often see in their homes did not live there. These children were family members who attended Lombard by using the addresses of their aunts, cousins, and grandmothers.
Some residents blame the outsider students for the neighborhood problems that spill over from the school. Stayer Sadie Underwood was pessimistic about the futures of Parkmont and Lombard. She provided her view of the causes of the decline:
It’s going downhill, definitely. When I walk on the strip I see the difference. The strip is filthy because the kids, they buy the drinks, bottles, cups, and paper goods. Oh, it’s dirty. It’s absolutely filthy. And there’s a lot of kids who are bused in to Lombard, and they’re the ones who leave the mess.
Again, the topic of the school is one on which pioneers and stayers often agree. Pioneer Margaret Meadows echoed Sadie’s sentiment that students from outside neighborhoods have ruined Lombard and tend to disrespect Parkmont and its residents:
The school tries to tell us that they’re trying to get everybody [nonParkmont children] out of Lombard, but it’s not true. I stand there and watch the kids get off the bus. Sometimes, they get off the bus, and they throw things down. I ask them to pick it up. And then, they might cuss me out. But I told them, “Look, the trash can is right here. Why do you get off the bus and throw things down?”
Pioneer Michelle Mitchell said that the parents she knows are fed up with the school system, and they view Lombard as representative of the failure of city schools. She believes that one can tell that Lombard’s students are out of control from the way they dress and carry themselves:
People are sick of public schools, whether it’s Lombard or another school. They’re just sick of public schools. You know who sends their kids here? A lot of people that don’t live in Parkmont, and they think (p.208) Lombard is better than other public schools. They really do, and it surprises me. I just feel that you’re missing out when you’re not exposed to other people and other things. Oh my god! That school’s changed a lot. I see the kids that go there. I look at the way they dress when they go to school. It’s like, “Don’t you guys have a dress code when you go to school? Is there somebody checkin’ you before you come in?” Like sayin’, “Girl, that skirt is a little too short.”
As she told this story, I remembered that Lombard students are required to wear a “uniform” consisting of a white polo shirt and khaki bottoms, but very few students adhere to the dress code and many even wear clothing that offends teachers. For instance, one day while I was waiting for an interviewee, two tenth-grade boys talked to me about Lombard, but neither was wearing his uniform despite the fact that school had just let out. One boy was an honor roll student who politely asked me for advice about financial aid for college; he was clearly worried about his mother’s ability to afford his education. The other boy, his classmate, wore a necklace with a pendant depicting a marijuana leaf. He was not trying to be rude, but as we talked he did not make eye contact and he habitually spat on the ground.
Officer Herman believes that outside students and Parkmont families are both to blame for the behavior problems at Lombard. He verified for me what many Parkmont residents suspect, which is that many Lombard students are from other communities, and their parents commit address fraud to gain admittance. At the same time, like most people I interviewed, Officer Herman said that Parkmont’s own parents share some of the blame for students’ conduct problems. Although he empathizes with Parkmont’s working-class parents who have long hours and cannot supervise their children at home, this did not change his assessment that neighborhood parents are a large part of the problem in the school and community:
Many parents work two jobs and overtime to make ends meet. They can’t always keep up homes and watch kids. A lot of kids are latchkey. Lots of kids use fake addresses to be here or they live with aunts and grandmothers. Also, a lot of kids are relocated [for their own safety] to Lombard because they were witnesses in [criminal] cases involving peers at a local school. Kids from other areas are not supposed to be at Lombard, but when a problem occurs, we often find out that the kid’s info doesn’t match up, and he’s from another area.
Pioneer Sam Wilson took an even stronger stance than Officer Herman on the local nature of the problems at Lombard. He said that most Lombard students (p.209) are from the neighborhood and cited a recent Parkmont baby boom as a cause of school struggles:
There’s overcrowding. That’s a major part of it. There’s just too many students there, and they’re primarily from here. There’s just been a population boom here. The people who have moved in have a lot of families with small children, so it’s just a lot of kids here, and everybody’s in that one building. That, coupled with a lack of resources. It’s just not an optimum situation for anybody. That’s part of it. It just devolved. Everybody isn’t as able as we are to send our kids to private school.
Many Parkmont parents are incredulous that parents from other neighborhoods would want to send their children to Lombard. As pioneer Nina Jones said, “A lot of kids come from where I used to live and farther down. I don’t know what the parents see is so great about Lombard, because I wouldn’t send my dog there.” Even though Nina teaches at Lombard, she thinks that the “decent” parents send their children elsewhere, and she plans to do whatever it takes to do the same:
Especially the parents that have it together. They’re on the ball. My son’s not going to Lombard. If we’re still living here, which I hope that we’re not, but if we’re still living here, he won’t go there. We wouldn’t send him there. He would go somewhere in the suburbs. I would figure out a way. I have people. I know people over there. I have a lot of friends from college, and I made a lot of friends over on the suburbs side.
To many whites, when a neighborhood shifts from white to black, it symbolizes inevitable decline. However, this is not always the case for the pioneers, who consider themselves to be successful, hard-working, and responsible parents who are proud of being African American. Many pioneers in Parkmont, whether by choice or because of the limitations placed on their residential mobility options, have taken a more nuanced “wait and see” attitude about neighborhood racial change than the whites before them. Unfortunately, now that some time has passed, many do not like what they are seeing. The intragroup dynamics at Lombard reflect the ways in which Parkmont has changed and provide a glimpse into how it may look in the future.
When Intraracial Means Invisible: Shifts within Black Communities
Busing introduced racial change at Lombard in the 1970s and was intended to create a more diverse school environment and provide greater educational (p.210) equality. In 1985, Lombard was formally praised for its integration policy when it was presented with a letter that remains prominently displayed in a trophy case in front of the auditorium, right across from the main office. The letter offers Lombard “commendation for being one of 71 desegregated public schools” and for providing an “integrated learning experience” and a “desegregated environment” for learning. It closes by saying that the “lives of these students will forever be enhanced … by the racial, ethnic, and religious harmony” experienced at Lombard. When I was reading it, I could not help but notice that oddly juxtaposed next to the letter in the trophy case was a framed photo of Lombard’s most recent class of high school graduates. Every student in the photo was African American. This change from white to integrated to black is obvious because of the visibility of the students’ skin color. Less visible, but still important, are the shifting dynamics within black communities that continue to affect the composition of Lombard’s study body, and ultimately, Parkmont as a whole.
Within Parkmont are two subgroups of blacks, each of whom has had to adapt to the reality of urban schools. The pioneers have made do by working multiple jobs and long shifts to send their children to expensive schools, homeschool their children, place them in magnet schools, or use fake addresses in suburban areas so their children may attend the public schools in the wealthy first-ring suburbs. Their children travel long distances, leaving early in the morning and returning home just as it gets dark outside. Parents must constantly arrange networks of friends, family, and after-school programs to help with transportation and caregiving. Second wave families often opt for Lombard, at least in part because their children are younger and because these families are less knowledgeable or engaged in their children’s education. Many black residents eventually decide to leave Parkmont altogether, only to once again search for a better place for their families to meet some basic needs: safety, effective education, and positive social influences.
Further complicating matters is the introduction of a third group who is engaged in educational pursuits in Parkmont: the children who are bused in to Lombard but who still live in the ghetto. Well-intentioned parents across the city, rightly or wrongly, believe that Parkmont has more to offer their children than their own communities do, and they go to extreme lengths to improve their lot. These families rarely have the means to provide their children with a home in a community as safe as Parkmont, so sending them to the school there is the next best thing.
Lombard is increasingly composed of second wave students and outsider students from low-income communities. As far as the pioneers are concerned, these two groups share more in common than do the pioneers and the second wave, so pioneer parents have withdrawn their children from the school. Although (p.211) seemingly a benign development at first glance, the withdrawal of pioneer children from Lombard has, in fact, altered the pattern of neighborhood cultural influences on second wave children. Specifically, second wave children are deprived of the positive influences of the pioneer children who do not attend Lombard and are away from the neighborhood much of the time. At the same time, second wave children remain exposed to the cultural influences of outsider students from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Thus, simply residing in Parkmont fails to pull the second wave toward the culture of the pioneers, as expected. Instead, second wave children are guided toward the values and behaviors of children who live in far worse communities and often come from more disadvantaged family circumstances. In fact, some behavior problems exhibited by second wave children may not be blamed solely on their parents, as the pioneers claim, but may be attributable to the hidden influence of their social networks at school.
Thus, pioneer and second wave adults’ conflicts over cultural scripts are exacerbated by what goes on with Parkmont children who attend school at Lombard. The second wave students at Lombard contend with peer socialization that discourages them from identifying with Parkmont and from adopting more assimilationist and prosocial community attitudes, norms, and behaviors. All of this affects the Parkmont environment by further igniting pioneers’ grievances against their neighbors, discord that does not bode well for the future of the community in terms of the metrics that originally made the neighborhood attractive to pioneers. For pioneers and second wave residents alike, the story of Lombard furthers our understanding of the difficulty of escaping high-poverty communities and the far-reaching effects of schools on neighborhood life.
School migration patterns have affected Parkmont throughout its history. The problems that recently have emerged at Lombard overlap with the timing of the neighborhood’s massive population change, but they also serve as a leading indicator of future changes in Parkmont’s composition. The main reason that Parkmont residents first lobbied to build a local school was so that parents could avoid sending their children to an integrating school that was located nearby. When Parkmont was still a Jewish neighborhood, residents became concerned about the Italians “from down the hill” sneaking into the school by using fraudulent addresses. Shortly after their children began attending Lombard, Italian families began to buy homes in Parkmont. Simultaneously, busing for integration was implemented, so white parents’ concerns about Lombard were then diverted to the black children who were coming into Parkmont for a better education. After Lombard integrated, it began to resegregate and become predominantly black, triggering white flight. The final chapter in this story is that of black flight as pioneers prefer that their daughters and sons attend schools outside of their own community and away from the influence of the children of second wave (p.212) residents. At the same time, children from worse neighborhoods across the city now compete to gain entry to Lombard, creating an unexpected and unwanted community presence.
It is striking that so many pioneers entered Parkmont with misleading impressions of Lombard, heavily relying on reputation and advice from others. They have had to lower their expectations and rethink their plans, but they retain their high aspirations. Though Parkmont’s black families are diverse, all embarked on their moves with a shared hope that their children would live and learn in a safe, enriching environment. Like immigrants in search of a better life in a new country, these parents used the best of their knowledge and abilities when they selected Parkmont as their destination. Packing up their lives and leaving familiar places was difficult, both financially and socially, but many arrived with a sense of enthusiasm and possibility that was shattered when they confronted the reality of the school that awaited their children.
Contrary to popular images of parents of urban students as passive or un-involved, many of Parkmont’s parents can be seen as innovators. Unlike many upwardly mobile whites who simply relocate to suburban communities with more desirable school districts, black urban residents must contend with rigid constraints on their residential choices. Few can move to the neighborhoods that contain the schools they seek, either because of finances, city job requirements and incentives, or family obligations. Thus, the parents who are most committed to their children’s education are constantly engaged in a quest to find an appropriate school. There is no question that families’ efforts to gain access to schools outside of Parkmont demonstrate a high level of awareness about Lombard and a commitment to education. What their neighborhood cannot provide, they will.