School district enforcing zones of enrollment

Reassignment: Some city schools are ordering pupils to attend class in different places, in some cases years after they enrolled.

September 05, 2000|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

After educating 8-year-old Joshua Trett at General Wolfe Elementary School for the past four years, city school officials say it's time for him to move on - to another school nearly twice the distance from his family's rowhouse.

With crowding an issue at General Wolfe, city school officials say they have to move those pupils who don't belong. Although Joshua lives closer to his old school, he lives within Commodore John Rodgers Elementary's zone.

He might as well have been assigned to Timbuktu, as far as his mother is concerned.

General Wolfe is a better school for Joshua and is in what she sees as a better neighborhood, said his mother, Rochelle Jacobs. She's also incensed that the school system waited until three weeks before the start of school today to tell her.

Joshua's situation is not unique. Pupils have been transferred from other schools, and school officials might face similar problems on a wider scale if they act on consultants' recommendations to close and consolidate some schools.

Jacobs, who spent the past few weeks scrambling for other options, said she can't believe the district would try to force her son away from a school that uses a teaching style she believes has allowed him to excel. She can't believe the district would send him farther away, to a school that would force him to cross more major streets - including Lombard and Baltimore streets - and into a neighborhood that makes her uncomfortable.

"They made a mistake, so my son's the one who's going to pay for it," Jacobs said. Although her son has been enrolled in the wrong school since prekindergarten, no one told her, she said.

School officials offered explanations last week but no hope for Jacobs' ultimate goal - keeping Joshua in a school where he's made friends and where his tile, the one with the rainbow on it, is displayed by the front doors.

If they make an exception for Joshua, they will also have to make exceptions for about 20 pupils at General Wolfe Elementary up to third grade who enrolled while living in another school zone and are now being sent to their home schools, said Gary L. Thrift, the area executive officer for Direct Instruction schools.

At General Wolfe, which is expecting about 220 pupils, the decision to move pupils out was made to relieve crowding and provide programs such as art and music in a small school with no room to expand, Thrift said. The result of months of discussion was a plan to move younger children to their assigned schools and be vigilant in accepting only those pupils who belong at the school, he said.

He would not identify the other pupils affected but said about half of their families have called since letters went out.

"Although they're not 100 percent satisfied, they certainly understand the situation and what we're trying to achieve," he said.

For parent-teacher association president Donna Martin, though, the whole process smacks of unfairness. The fourth- and fifth-graders who aren't zoned for General Wolfe get to stay; that decision came from a compromise with the community, Thrift said. So do the out-of-zone, English-as-a-second-language pupils; such programs are limited to certain schools within the school district. Those ESL pupils' incoming siblings will also get to go to General Wolfe.

"Even if you take 18 kids out ofthere, you're still not giving them space for art and music," said Martin, whose son, a fourth-grader, does not live in General Wolfe's zone but is exempt because he is in an upper grade. "We could do that without these children leaving. It can be done in the classroom."

Since receiving the letter, Jacobs has called school and city officials and her state senator. She said she's been sent in circles and heard "no" so many times she's given up.

She doesn't want to send her son to Commodore John Rodgers. It doesn't have Direct Instruction, a highly prescribed, phonics-based curriculum that allowed Joshua, who gets fidgety when bored, to advance more quickly, she said. Jacobs credits Direct Instruction for her son's high performance on standardized tests - he ranked in the 99th percentile in math and the 88th percentile in reading on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills - and in the classroom.

That, added to the neighborhood surrounding the school - a neighborhood she knows from her own drug troubles a few years ago - make it an unsavory prospect for schooling Joshua, Jacobs said.

And although Thrift has offered to place Joshua at another Direct Instruction school, City Springs Elementary - a school even farther from home - Jacobs doesn't want him in that neighborhood either.

So Jacobs, a graveyard shift waitress at the Sip & Bite restaurant, is opting for a Roman Catholic education, Father Kolbe School on O'Donnell Street, and trying to figure out how she's going to afford the monthly payments.

"It's going to be tight, but it's better than the alternative," she said.

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