Mahalia Jackson Elementary School is located in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. It serves a population that is 75% low income, 20% special education, and 98% African American.
“Given the legacy of Mahalia Jackson as someone whose artistry and activism were borne out of the experience of her people as a service to humanity, it is critical to examine her legacy in relation to this moment of school closings and its impact on African American children.[…]Naming a school in honor of Mahalia Jackson is not simply a matter of brick and mortar, but a claiming of Mrs. Jackson as an ancestor to those children the institution serves.” —Johari Jabir, assistant professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
Mahalia Jackson teaches students kindergarten to eighth grade with a half-day pre-k program and full-day kindergarten. They have an autism program and an award-winning hearing and deaf program—the only one on the entire South side.
“My children feel comfortable, they feel loved, they feel supported by this administration, and sign language and sensitivity to the hearing impaired is part of the culture here. To take that away from them now, to send them to a place where people don’t understand who and what they are — they’re going to separate themselves — this is just terrifying for me.” —Constance Morris, teacher of hearing impaired students at M. Jackson for 28 years
Mahalia Jackson’s new principal this year is himself hearing impaired. The school has made a strong effort to include and integrate of deaf and hard of hearing students into regular classrooms, with all students there learning American Sign Language (ASL).
Fifty-three percent of Jackson’s staff is certified to work with special needs students. The building is also a fully handicap-accessible building. They provide students with specials such as art, music, sign language, and self-development. They provide SES services and tutoring.
“He’s seen wonderful progress here. He’s reading sentences, he’s completing worksheets, he never did any of that before and it’s really exciting.” —Menjiwei Latham, parent of M. Jackson student with Fragile X Syndrome
Despite CPS’s claims to be shutting schools because they are under-resourced, Jackson also boasts two new computer labs, a science lab, a library, a learning garden, and air conditioning. Sports programs include softball, basketball, and cheerleading. Community partners include ARAMARK, Great Books, Eugene Profit, and Junior Achievment of Chicago.
Mahalia Jackson continues to be part of the school closing list although an independent hearing officer recently concluded that Mahalia Jackson should remain open. CPS says it is only 40% utilized, but staff at Mahalia Jackson says they have specialized programs and provide a well-rounded and rich curriculum for their students:
“The culture of Jackson is unique, seamlessly integrating special education programs and regular instructional activities in a way that involves the entire school community.” —Hon. David H. Coar, independent hearing officer
The community has looked at CPS’s data and found numerous flaws in their analyzing of Mahalia Jackson’s utilization, making it impossible to ignore similarities to civil rights injustices within CPS fifty years ago. Although only 40% of Chicago Public School students are African-American overall, 88% of the students affected by this years mass closings are:
“It seems that they’re targeting the African-American schools. The majority of these schools are in black communities. I feel it’s not right.” —Natasha Norment, M. Jackson alumnus and parent of a special needs child
“We are the City of Big Shoulders and so we intend to put up a fight. We don’t know if we can win, but if you don’t fight, you will never win at all.”
Parents and staff are concerned about the safety of their students should Jackson close, not only are there dangerous railroad tracks along the route to Fort Dearborn, their children will have to cross gang lines to get to their new school.
“They’re going to fight up and down the street going to school, coming to school. It’s going to be chaotic and a mess.” —Suzie McNeil, M. Jackson teacher
Graduates of Mahalia Jackson have cited numerous reasons why the school should not close. Parents are unsure if their child will receive the same services their special needs child has gotten in the past.
“Once the schools close and the kids are going to the other schools, are they still going to get the same quality of education? And is that school going to be overcrowded?” —Natasha Norment
Post author: Janet Meegan with Cassie Creswell