Pulliing on a rope

Bumbling through CPS Transfer, Part IV: Safety Transfer vs. Pulling Strings

This is the fourth post in a series about trying to transfer a student from a struggling school to a better school outside of the annual school selection process in Chicago Public Schools. You can find parts one, two and three of this series by clicking the hyperlinks. 

At this point, I had been working on making this transfer happen for a couple of weeks. I had also put out a few phone calls and emails about standby guardianship. I thought I had done all I could do for the weekend, but of course I was still obsessing about it and finding it hard to concentrate. 

I forced myself to take a day off and spend time with my daughter. We went to a book reading in Hyde Park and got her a new pair of sneakers. Back at the house, we took a break and I checked my email. Great Neighborhood Principal had emailed back, asking, “Can you please let me know what the immigration situation is that requires temporary custodianship? The enrollment policy specifies that for temporary custodian enrollment: “Students may not, for the sole purpose of enrolling in a particular school, live with adults who are not their parents or guardians.”

Woot! We got a bite! I wrote a long email back explaining two key points:

1. The purpose of temporary guardianship is to ensure stability for Youngest if his dad gets deported and his mom accompanies him.

2. Without removing him from his home unnecessarily, he has a place at our house whenever he needs it.

Then my daughter and I got in the car to drive to meet friends in Pilsen. No sooner had I shut the car door than the phone rang with Great Neighborhood School’s number. I answered.

“Am I catching you at a bad time?” GN Principal asked.

“Unfortunately, yes. I’m driving. But let’s talk.” So, we talked. Our conversation was a bit rushed on my end and I wasn’t at my best. We seemed to be talking past each other at a few points.

But I took away two key messages:

1. Like many Southwest (and Northwest) Side schools, Great Neighborhood School is so large it takes up multiple buildings. While the building housing younger kids is only about 25 years old, the building for the older students is antiquated. My daughter, who had spent some time in there, didn’t think it was well-ventilated. 

“If we were talking about kindergarten, I’d say ‘come on in,’” Principal told me. But he’s really worried about Covid. I can’t blame him for that.

2. Upswing Elementary gets mentioned as a school that has space and could be a better choice than Not-So-Great Elementary.. Great Neighborhood Principal was shocked when he heard the story about how long it took to get the computer. “What? That’s a shame,” he said. In the moment, I blew by this but afterwards it came back to haunt me. I recall Great Neighborhood Principal saying something about “best interest of the child” in a way that suggested he was giving that line of argument some thought, but then he drifted off,  and I was still hung up on the question of whether Youngest actually has to live in my home for this guardianship to count.

3. For the guardianship to count for enrollment, Youngest would have to come and stay with me.  At least that was what I gathered was Great Neighborhood Principal’s interpretation.  “I’ll talk to the family,” I said.

Hours later, that last part was not sitting well with me. Why force a kid out of his family’s home when it’s unclear how long his parents can stay in the country? Plenty of families with divorced or separated parents have two residences. Why can’t he?

Questioning Myself Led to Greater Resolve

By now, I was kind of ready to give up and just ask Principal Nice Guy if Youngest could go to Upswing Elementary. It’s not in Youngest’s best interest to be in a building where kids are jam-packed. It’s also not in his best interest to be the kid who is freaking out the principal and teachers just because he’s one more kid exhaling in their presence.

[An aside: just for the record, Youngest and everyone in his family—except the new baby—are all vaccinated. Mamá made sure of that!]

In my interaction with Upswing’s principal, Mr. Nice Guy, he seemed far more relaxed about Covid. Not that he wasn’t taking precautions, but just that his level of anxiety about it seemed much lower. And his building has a lot more space.

But then, I thought a little more. If I’m treating Youngest like my own kid, I thought to myself, why am I not trying to put him in the same school where my own daughter is—besides the fact that it’s a private school and I can’t afford a second tuition? I’m ready to fundraise for Catholic school? This is more, but not that much more.

The answer: because I don’t want Youngest to be a brand-new kid somewhere this year. Sure, he would know my daughter, but he’d be like a fish out of water trying to get acclimated. (My daughter concurred. Her take: “He’d be the only eighth-grader in the class. He’s like three times taller than the rest of us.” Which is funny, but she had a point—he would feel super-awkward.)

So, where’s the only place in town he wouldn’t be a brand-new kid? You got it: Great Neighborhood School. 

This tipped the scale. I decided to push for that squishy “best interest of the child” argument. So, I did, in a long, impassioned email, with the subject line, “the positive case for Great Neighborhood School in particular.” Here’s the last paragraph:

If Youngest went to San Miguel or Upswing, or anywhere else in the neighborhood, it would solve the problem of getting him out of his current situation, but it wouldn’t fully be in his best interest. It wouldn’t put him in the school where he would have the best chances of thriving. It wouldn’t put him in a school where he has deep roots and the level of trust and comfort he is going to need to come back from the difficult experiences he has been through. There is only one school in the city that meets his best interests, and that school is Great Neighborhood School.

Then I waited. Sunday, all was quiet. Monday morning, still quiet. I had my Com Ed bill printed out and was waiting to take a break after a work meeting to run it over to school. My cell phone rang and I fumbled for it. Missed the call—checked the number. It was Great Neighborhood School. Forget calling them back. I ran out of the house, clutching my Com Ed bill.

Flipping Out the Unflappable Principal

Just as I walked in the front foyer, Great Neighborhood Principal walked out of the main office.

This normally unflappable man flipped out. “You can’t be in here!” he cried. Calming down, he added, “Let’s go outside.”

Then we got down to business about Youngest and the transfer. “You don’t have to convince me,” he said. 

“OK. Then what do I have to do?” I asked. “ How does this process work? We have multiple grounds to request a transfer. A safety transfer does seem applicable. I’ve hesitated to use it because…” and I explain about my friend whose first—grade daughter was harassed for three months.

Great Neighborhood Principal’s jaw drops. “That happened in CPS?” he asked, his voice nearly squealing. 

“Yep. North Side,” I added. The side of town where schools supposedly work better.

“I’m familiar with safety transfers,” Principal told me. Great Neighborhood School has been on both ends of these transfers. They have received kids who needed a refuge and, at least once during Principal’s time, I gather, had to send a kid elsewhere because he was jeopardizing other students’ safety. Sounded like these situations tend to be gang-related. That might also apply to what’s going on with Youngest—he did tell me he thinks the kid intimidating him is deep in a gang.

In short, Great Neighborhood Principal advised I advocate for Youngest’s safety at Not-So-Great Elementary, and if that didn’t work out, to call their network chief and request a transfer. I made the requisite polite and grateful noises to him and walked away.

I have no patience for this. There is no way on earth I’m going to leave Youngest hanging at Not-So-Great Elementary, while people who have already proven their incompetence prove it again to a network chief, possibly risking Youngest’s physical safety in the process.

I reluctantly decided it was time to pull my one big string downtown.  I sent a private message to Way-Up-There Central Office Contact, whom I haven’t spoken with in a year. “Hey, sorry to bug you at this time. A kid in Back of the Yards needs a school transfer in a hurry and I want to cut the red tape on his behalf. Could we discuss this evening?”

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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