Schoolyard Phantoms

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

My co-teacher brought in a newspaper clipping. Earlier in the year, students and parents from Chicago had taken schoolbuses up to New Trier in suburban Winnetka to try to register for school there. Predictably, they were denied. What was not as predictable was that a group of New Trier parents and students had assembled to welcome them. Some form of that student group still existed, according to the clipping.

Months later, our group of seventh-graders, parents, and teachers from Boone School on the far North Side headed up to New Trier. It wasn’t easy. I got lost because I took I-94 instead of I-90. When I called a student’s dad to let him know I was running late, he said he was at New Trier but the wrong campus.

We stand in front of a large, modern brick and concrete structure wrapped around a freshly cut grass courtyard. A few joggers run past, enjoying the spring air. A toddler and his dad are playing with a soccer ball. An empathetic New Trier student leads us on a tour. The facility is amazing, but what impresses our group isn’t just that.


New Trier student …and we have these medical cards that you swipe and it comes up on the computer whether you can take aspirin at school.


Boone student You have Kleenex!


New Trier student Here are the soccer fields, the stadium—they’re having a lacrosse game right now, and the other fields are…


Boone student You have grass!

New Trier student There are a few different meal plans…


Boone student Flat screen TVs!

New Trier student We have lots of after-school clubs, basically if you are interested in anything, just propose it as a club and…


Boone student The doors are just open?!

Boone student What sort of grades do you have to get to go here?


New Trier student Um… you don’t have to…


Boone student What do you have to do to go here?


New Trier student You have to live in the school’s area.


Boone student What test scores do you have to get to come here? Do you have to be a really good student to go here? What happens if you get bad grades, do they kick you out?


In Chicago, the “selective enrollment” high schools require certain test scores and grades to get in. CPS students are so familiar with the idea of inequality based on “merit” that it was disillusioning to see inequity based on old-fashioned spatial borders. By believing they are in control of their test scores and that schools actually base admission on these scores, students give themselves agency, and hope that perhaps the world makes sense.

To cross spatial borders requires that families move if they can afford to, or lie about their address. These are not things a seventh-grader can do.

Students know that these borders, however constructed, ultimately serve another purpose: the distribution of probabilities in future life opportunities. Probability is sort of the mathematical equivalent of peripheral vision. If you look closely, at one individual case, everything looks fine. A student went to a public school, and had a chance to work hard and get an advanced degree that will give her more options and a larger income. But if you look out the corner of your eyes, try to take in the whole scene, you can see that each student’s chance is not equal. Factor upon factor interacts with a child’s own personality, and in the end each of us is left living a life uncertain of how exactly we ended up here. To focus on all those fuzzy factors robs us of agency. Troubling, fleeting, nagging glimpses be damned, it’s simpler to focus on a core tenet instilled by the educational system: We get what we deserve.

Confronted with a situation that shows this to be false, it is simpler to see it as an exception. Confronted with many situations that show this to be false, it is simpler to blame government agencies, institutions, policies, land boundaries, and real estate prices. Which leads to a belief that a simple legislative solution could fix things. We could legislate equal funding for schools in Illinois. We should But that only brings us back to Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal. Brown v. Board of Education said that schools will never be equal until they are integrated. And isn’t the problem even deeper than that? In a society that values some individuals above others, how can we expect school systems to equally value each? The white flight that resulted from the Brown decision points to a conglomeration of common attitudes and everyday decisions that involve fear, privilege, race, income, and competition in the context of unequal power. Policies of privilege are upheld by participation. Parents attempt to leverage inequality to their own children’s advantage. Those fuzzy probabilities we pretend not to see are the manifestation of complicated decisions made—within the frame of structural inequality—by all of us: student, parent, citizen.

We must look to where the limits of our agency and the agency of our limits converge—to the decisions and actions of our daily lives, individually and collectively. Each day we navigate a system of inequities. What are we actually doing? 

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