Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No Child Left Behind (depending on tax district) — Part One

Note: Pinkmingo, our resident investigative reporter and fellow adopter of the Chicago area as her "other hometown," reports on a conflict that has often flared up over inequities in school funding, but here becomes even more complex due to its locations and cast members. Part one of two:

New Trier High School
in Winnetka, Illinois is one of the most famous schools in the country. It has its own Wikipedia page, was the high school of many celebrities, has been the school of choice in some “classic” movies, and is located in a semi-famous town. And if you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone.

You probably don’t know Winnetka, either, but you’ve seen it. Nearly every scene in the movie Home Alone was filmed in Winnetka and its surrounding areas. Other movies filmed in Winnetka include Ocean’s 12, and Uncle Buck, with scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 16 Candles, and The Breakfast Club all filmed at New Trier High. The celebrity of the town and school extends through a list of famous New Trier graduates: Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Donald Rumsfeld, John Stossel, and two out of four of the members of the band Fall Out Boy, along with many more.

So, it was no surprise when a mass-enrollment of hundreds of Chicago Public Schools students was attempted at New Trier High last month, organized by Illinois Senator James Meeks along with other government officials, students, and parents.

With a resume like this school’s, who could blame anyone for wanting to go there? But for these CPS students, it wasn’t about fame; it was about something much deeper that flows through the halls of New Trier High and down the streets of Winnetka. You see, money sets Winnetka apart from most small towns, and New Trier High apart from most schools. Although just a small suburb, over 92% of Winnetka residents have attended college, and the median household income is over $195,000 (the fourth highest in the country). Not surprisingly, there’s also a financial divide within the Illinois public education system; CPS receive $11,000 per pupil each school year while New Trier High receives $17,000.

Because of this, Senator Meeks led a protest against the funding at New Trier High by urging CPS students to skip classes Sep. 2 and enroll there. The protest made national news, but ended after two days because Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich would not meet with Meeks to discuss solutions while it was in effect.

But the difference between a school like New Trier High and the CPS school system isn’t just dollar bills. Consider the movies Dangerous Minds and High School MusicalDangerous Minds will represent CPS while High School Musical represents New Trier. Both movies evolve around the lives of high school students, but other than that, they couldn’t be further apart. The teachers, students, neighborhoods, and cultures of the surrounding cities are different, and no one sings catchy songs in Dangerous Minds (okay, maybe Coolio). Sure, money could help the school in Dangerous Minds, but students still wouldn't break into song about their basketball team. And while there may not be that many kids wishing to go to a school full of theater majors, we’d bet they would happily go there if the only other choice was a “gangster’s paradise.”

And of course, High School Musical is mostly white and middle-class, while Dangerous Minds has many students in the Other category; and the same can be said for New Trier High and CPS students. Chicago is populated by diverse ethnic groups, while Winnetka is mostly lilly white, like New Trier High students. Economics and geography come together to form an uncomfortable but de facto segregation.

WB believes that all students deserve an equal and quality education, but Pinkmingo also uncovered some aspects about this dilemma that the protesters, news organizations, and some New Trier High supporters failed to mention. We’ll cover those in part two of this post.

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