Sade Smooth Operator

Not-So-Smooth Operator, Or How I’m Bumbling Through the School Transfer Process, Part I

So, I’ve been reporting on Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years. I’ve been a CPS parent and I’ve navigated my own daughter through 5 transfers among CPS schools. But I’ve never dealt with a situation like the one I hope to wrap up soon. Here’s the story.

I have neighbors who are like close family. To protect their privacy and safety, we won’t use Neighbor Family’s names or the names of the schools involved, since they could be identifying. The dad of Neighbor Family has been embroiled in an immigration case for many years. I have written letters to the judge testifying to his character and begging to let him stay. In one of these letters I said, “If our block had 10 more men like Neighbor Family Dad, I’d be delighted–he’s a hard worker, home owner and is raising three sons who are working hard in school.”

Kid Troubles: ‘I Don’t Feel Safe and I Don’t Feel Like I Belong’

Unfortunately, Neighbor Family Dad’s case took a scary turn in the spring, and he sold his business (he continues to work) because he expected to be told he had to leave the country. Neighbor Family Mom has been very upset over this for months. Two of her sons are grown men with wives–one just had a baby. Her youngest is 13. Would she leave the country with her husband, or stay here to raise her son and be a present abuela to her new grandson? She’s torn. For months, it has been on my mind to offer to serve as guardian for Youngest if his parents have to go. I had read a bit about it in Loyola Child Law Clinic’s guidance for undocumented parents.

Meanwhile, Neighbor Family’s Youngest has been having some school troubles. When I first moved here, 17 years ago, Neighbor Family was renting in a house across the street from me. We all lived on the same block, which happened to be assigned to one of the best elementary schools in the neighborhood. As my daughter says, “If they had just had Spanish dual language, I would have gone there starting in kindergarten, and I’d still be there now.” As it is, I put her there in fourth grade after discovering her previous dual-language school hadn’t taught her math very well. At Great Neighborhood School, she grew three grade levels in a year. That’s the kind of place Neighborhood School is.

Neighbors’ Youngest went to school at Great Neighborhood School from kindergarten through fifth grade. But, because his family bought a fixer-upper on the block south of us, he was no longer in the zone and had to transfer to Not-So-Great School. During the pandemic, Not-So-Great School revealed its full not-so-greatness.

Sometime in the fall or maybe early winter of 2020, Neighbor Family asked me to help them figure out how to get Not-So-Great School to get Youngest a computer for remote learning. It took weeks and repeated calls to get it to happen. Then, I think it was in February that Youngest was texting me to ask for math resources, because he knew he was falling behind. Nobody had told him about Khan Academy. I texted him the link. He tried it and said it was helpful. But I didn’t stay on him about it–we couldn’t be together because this was pre-vaccines–and I still have no idea how dedicated he was to it.

This fall, Neighbors’ Youngest went back to Not-So-Great School and immediately another kid tried to start trouble with him. I will let Youngest tell us the story in his own words–I asked him to write up a summary of what has been happening. I can’t verify all the specifics, so we won’t get into them. Here are his key messages: “I do not want to get in no gang problems. I am afraid that one day [other people will] get in trouble and bring me in and I will get involved in it and it won’t be my fault.” His bottom line about Not-So-Great School: “I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel like I belong.”

At this point, the family called me and asked if I could help. I helped both his older brothers navigate the tricky waters to get from 8th grade through high school graduation, and we all agree now it’s my turn to help Youngest through it. My first thought: “He needs to get out of Not-So-Great School.” As you can imagine, what we’d all like most–especially Youngest–is for him to go back to his former Great Neighborhood School.

Can We Transfer the Right Way?

Youngest’s first idea was a very common ploy in Chicago–write up a lease agreement saying his family was renting from me so he could register at Neighborhood School using my address. Neither his mom nor I wanted to do that. We didn’t want to lie, and we were pretty sure we’d get found out anyway. Neighborhood School is very popular. Lots of people try to use fake addresses or fake leases to get in, and the school works hard to find fraudsters. I also personally didn’t want to poison my relationship with Neighborhood School’s principal, who is someone I have known for a long time and think highly of.

So I turned to the CPS Enrollment and Transfer Policy for guidance on what to do. The opening sentence sums up the tensions that policy must address: “Enrollment decisions should be made in the best interests of the child and to promote equitable and fair enrollment across the district.” What this doesn’t mention is that not every school is equitable and fair to every child. So there’s always a tension between what is in a child’s best interest and filling up school spaces, because some school spaces are far, far better than others.

Here are the avenues I saw that seemed to fit the situation:

Safety transfer. In theory, it’s obvious, right? Kid feels unsafe; adults aren’t doing much. Get the kid out to a safer place. In practice, documenting the incidents leading to feeling unsafe, plus persuading a network chief to get involved, can be a lot of work. And I’m sure Youngest wasn’t telling adults in school about what was going on. His mom works 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. and his dad doesn’t get off work until 6, making it hard for his parents to talk with school staff. With the computer issue, his older sister-in-law was connecting with school because she had the most daytime availability and the best English. Discipline issues don’t get solved over the phone.

Plus, a parent I knew who had a child in a longer-running, more urgently dangerous situation (a first-grader being severely and repeatedly bullied, including physical stuff like trying to put her head in a toilet bowl!), had to bring in help from state government and the whole drama took three months. An 8th-grader trying to get into a decent high school doesn’t have three months to wait to get out of a Not-So-Great elementary school.

Best interest of the child. Most accurate. Least specific. Seems like a door through which all kinds of clout and Chicago Way stuff happens. Thank you, next.

Temporary custodianship. Here’s the paragraph:

  1. Proof of Temporary Custodianship Adults acting in the role of temporary custodian to a child due to circumstances involving the parents, legal guardians or child, may enroll a student with applicable documentation of residency and status as temporary custodian, which may include a notarized letter from the parent authorizing the temporary custody and the reason. Enrollment by a temporary guardian is subject to the limitations provided in Section I.H. of this Policy.

In conjunction with this:

  1. Proof of Guardianship or Custodianship Adults acting in the role of guardian or custodian may enroll a child upon providing proof of guardianship or custodianship which may include the following:
    1. A valid court order;
    2. The most recent tax return naming the child as a dependent;
    3. Health insurance coverage for the child;
    4. Any public aid documents covering the child; or
    5. Appropriate documents authorizing or establishing custodianship.Any other form of proof must be presented to the appropriate Network Chief or other designated oversight office for review.

And, importantly, this: Students may not, for the sole purpose of enrolling in a particular school, live with adults who are not their parents or legal guardians.

My thinking: Well, we’re in the process of developing some kind of guardianship agreement to ensure Youngest is safe if his parents get deported. Is that good enough? I live here in the attendance area. If Youngest needs to sleep over here during the school week, sure, why not?

Stay tuned for the next installment.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?
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Maureen Kelleher

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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