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Sor Juana parents fight for promised classical program after Chicago district’s about-face

Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat

When Andrea Sanchez’s son Roman was a first-grader, she was already worried that he wasn’t being challenged enough at his neighborhood school. He was reading at a fifth-grade level, but teachers said they didn’t have the capacity to make adjustments for him.

Then she found out that Sor Juana Elementary School, a neighborhood school near Midway Airport on Chicago’s Southwest side, promised a classical program where students are accelerated above their grade levels. Last summer she enrolled her son.
She considered advanced classes a blessing. “When a child is engaged, listened to, and supported they come home talking your ear off about what they’re doing in class,” Sanchez said. But unbeknownst to Sanchez and other parents, they were actually enrolled in a “hybrid” classical program, where only some students in the school received a classical track.

Now, following weeks of back-and-forth with Chicago Public School’s office of enrollment and many panicked phone calls, the future of a full classical program at the school is uncertain. The district, initially saying there would be no full classical program because of low enrollment, said it will run a “hybrid” program as it did last year.

And with families applying in the fall for selective enrollment and specialized programs, inconsistent messaging from Chicago Public Schools at the end of the year may have left some families in the lurch for finding other options if they choose not to stay at Sor Juana. The uncertainty about the program comes as Latinx and African-American families have struggled to get specialized programs disproportionately used by white families.

Latinx students are particularly underrepresented in one type of specialized program: elementary gifted programs in Chicago, according to a 2016 study called the Untapped Potential report. They made up 46% of district students, but only 25% of students in elementary gifted programs. White students, who made up 10% of the district, occupied 25% of gifted seats.

The confusion at Sor Juana began when parents received a call in recent weeks from the district saying enrollment was too low to offer a classical program at the school, and directed them elsewhere, including to a new classical school 6 miles away in Bronzeville.

Chicago has five fully classical schools and one partially classical school, Skinner West. The district expanded gifted and classical offerings at several schools in the past year. Along with the Bronzeville school that opened this year, both Orozco Elementary in Pilsen and McPherson Elementary in Ravenswood will add gifted programs next school year.

Chicago Public Schools requires a minimum of 28 to 30 students per grade to offer classical programming — a threshold the district said it didn’t reach in sign-ups at Sor Juana.

Parents responded by circulating petitions at school this week, and launching an online petition that garnered more than 500 signatures by Wednesday afternoon. Some even threatened to pull their children out of the district altogether if the program wasn’t continued in some form.

On Wednesday, the district sent a letter home to parents, saying that while Sor Juana would not have a formal classical program, parents could instead enroll their students in a “hybrid” program that would allow a small number of students to take classical lessons, as they did this past school year.

It’s a step forward, Sanchez said, but she finds the district’s lack of clarity and shifting messages unsettling. Instead, she wants the district to promise to provide full classical programing.

“We are aware that CPS has finally responded to parents, more than three weeks since they began turning away applicants,” Sanchez said. “However, parents continue to have concerns. The parents of Sor Juana would like clarification on how they will build bridges, and not battles.”

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