Chicago Public School closings point up the dangers of geography

Chicago Public School closings point up the dangers of geography
Students exit Carrie Jacobs Bond Elementary School in Englewood. The school absorbed students from Simon Guggenheim Elementary school after its closure in 2012. Photo by Jonathan Gibby

Lametrios West has made a point to separate himself from the trouble around him. Despite heavy rain and steady cracks of lightning, the 14-year-old Kershaw Elementary School student made his way on a recent afternoon to the nearby Teamwork Englewood, a community organization whose after-school programs draw boys and girls from the surrounding area. Here, he holes up to “get out of the neighborhood.”

Staying out of trouble means closing himself off from the outside world. “It’s hard but I can do it,” he says. “By staying in the house, going to school, coming here. The only areas where I go is where I know people.”

That’s going to be more difficult for young people like Lametrios next year, as neighborhoods throughout Chicago experience a massive reshuffling of students under a plan by Chicago Public Schools to shut 54 schools citywide.

In Englewood and West Englewood alone, six schools--John P. Altgeld Elementary School, Elaine O. Goodlow Elementary School, Arna Wendell Bontemps Elementary School, Elihu Yale Elementary School, Granville T. Woods Elementary School and Benjamin Banneker Elementary School--will close, meaning many students will have to travel across unfamiliar turf next year.

The danger Lametrios is trying to elude is grave. Nearly half of the 1,054 youths murdered in Chicago during the past five years were killed within census tracts where schools are closing. In all, these tracts only cover about a quarter of the city. West Englewood’s Goodlow Elementary had the highest number of young people killed within its tract of all the closing schools, with 37 overall. To the Southeast, Altgeld isn’t far behind, with 34 youth homicides.

Within this environment, young people have taken to forming cliques along neighborhood lines. The block where Lametrios lives, at West 64th Street and South Lowe Avenue, falls under the umbrella of the Black Disciples gang, but it is also run by a clique called “Lowe Life”--what his Teamwork Englewood mentor Michael Tidmore calls “a gang within a gang.”

Lametrios has some friends active in Lowe Life. “They be doing dumb stuff, so I don’t like to be around them ‘cause they do things I don’t want to do,” he says. “So if I know they’re [going] to do something, I would go in the house or something.”

But as Tidmore explains, despite his best efforts Lametrios faces the constant possibility of being indicted by geography. He lives on Lowe, meaning he represents his street, and to some degree its gang.

Tidmore presents Lametrios with a hypothetical scenario in which the youngster heads toward Paul Robeson High School, just one major block to the southeast. “Would those guys on Parnell [Avenue, one block east] connect you to Lowe Life?” Lametrios nods matter-of-factly. “Even though they might know [Lametrios is] not a part of that, just because he lives on Lowe, if they do something to him, it’s like they did something to all of Lowe,” Tidmore explains.

On a map, it seems what CPS is proposing to do is straightforward enough. The receiving schools are all nearby those that are closing--for the most part, within a mile radius. But in neighborhoods like Englewood, crossing from one block to another can mean entering enemy turf. The distance between Daniel S. Wentworth Elementary School and Altgeld is just half a mile, but it involves crossing South Halsted Street, which according to Tidmore is a major territorial dividing line.

In response to safety concerns, CPS has proposed measures to address potential issues. Its Safe Passage program, which stations adults along routes that students take to school to oversee their safety, has been budgeted a nearly $8 million increase in funding next year and will be implemented at all of the receiving schools. CPS has also said it will bus some affected students if their former school is more than 0.8 miles from the new location. But this will only be provided temporarily until current students have graduated.

Back at the Teamwork Englewood headquarters, Lametrios zips up his hoodie and prepares to leave. Like a typical teenager, he plans to spend his evening at home playing video games. But he isn’t your average middle-schooler. Fitting in with the in-crowd has no draw for him. “I don’t want to end up dead. I wanna do something positive with my life,” he says.

Next fall, Lametrios will remain at Kershaw for his eighth grade year, while elsewhere throughout Englewood, students from formerly separate schools will be merging. Lametrios says if he were one of them, he’d be worried about his safety. Again, geography is the main concern. “You could just be in the wrong place.”

--Angela Caputo helped research this article.

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  • Nice post, James and Angela! Thanks for bringing Lametrios' story to light.

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