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The Stephen F. Gale Academy: Profile of a School on Probation

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”—Nelson Mandela

Near the Howard Street El tracks in East Rogers Park sits the Gale School, now officially known as the Stephen F. Gale Math and Science Academy. An N-8 school of 460 students in the Chicago Public School system, Gale Academy is currently on probation. It was deemed Level 3, “Far Below Average,” in its 2012 CPS report card.
Gale services the section of Rogers Park known as “North of Howard,” a small pocket enclosed by Lake Michigan to the east, Calvary Cemetery to the north, Clark Street/Chicago Avenue to the west, and Howard Street to the south.  North of Howard was formerly a part of Evanston, but in 1915, faced with the prospect of digging underneath Calvary Cemetery to provide utilities to the neighborhood, Evanston ceded the area to Chicago.
When Gale opened in 1922, North of Howard was a middle-class neighborhood, known locally as “Germania” because of its high concentration of German Jews.  Throughout the 1920s and on into the 1950s, its Howard Street border was a hive of activity, full of stores, bars, and restaurants; because most of the North Shore was dry, people who wanted a drink “headed for Howard.”
North of Howard began to change during the demographic shifts of the post-W.W. II era.  Children who had grown up in the neighborhood moved out, seeking home ownership in the suburbs, and older people either died or relocated. The Chicago Housing Authority, seeing an opportunity, bought up the vacated apartment buildings to operate as subsidized housing. When CHA tore down housing projects in the southwest Loop to expand U.I.C. in the 1960s, it moved those residents to North of Howard.  Russian and Eastern European immigrants also poured into the neighborhood, and eventually Hispanics joined them.
Today the student body at Gale Academy is 65% African-American, 25% Hispanic, and 10% other, including some foreign-born refugee children. Barbara Kaufman, who for fifteen years has supervised the after-school Howard Area Reading Program (HARP), which tutors Gale students, says that in the last few years “Gale students have become more ethnically diverse. There is a growing Latino population, as well as more Southeast Asians, Africans, and children from the Middle East.”
Presently, 97% of the students at Gale come from low-income families, and 25% of the students have limited English. The school has a 50% mobility rate, which means that half the students either move in or out during the school year. The pupil-teacher ratio is about 23:1.  The average class size is 21.7 in the first grade, 30 in the third grade.
To put these statistics in perspective, it is useful to contrast them to the same measurements at a nearby private school. A few miles north of Gale, on the Evanston-Wilmette border, sits the Baker Demonstration School. Like Gale, it is an N-8 school, and its age (it opened in 1918) and its size (385 students) further liken it to Gale. Only a tiny number of Baker students come from low-income families, however.

While about 25% of Baker students receive some sort of financial aid, the other 75% have parents who can pay the $15,000-$18,750 annual tuition.  According to Hilary Holder, Director of Admissions, Baker’s mobility rate is around 10% a year, meaning that 90% of the students stay put. Half of the school’s graduates, in fact, began Baker in nursery school or kindergarten. The pupil-teacher ratio at Baker is 9:1. The average class size is 18, with a teacher and an assistant in every classroom.

As you would expect, Baker provides a much wider range of educational experiences than Gale. Baker has a 14,000-foot athletic field, a swimming pool, a theatre, a drama studio, a music lab.  It employs both a drama teacher and a music teacher.  Because it is private, Baker does not have to focus on standardized test scores the way Gale does; it is free to stress critical thinking and hands-on problem solving. When its eighth graders do take standardized tests —the Terra Novas—most score in the 90-99th percentile.
Cassandra Washington, the principal of Gale, understands what she is up against, and she has worked hard to turn Gale around.  She is proud that in her four-year tenure, she has noticeably altered the school climate. Barbara Kaufman sees the difference: “Before, yelling in the classrooms and public humiliation of the children was not uncommon. We handled very difficult behavior issues—angry children, mean children. This is not to say we do not still confront behavior challenges, but not as many as we faced before. The consistent and professional leadership of Ms. Washington has made a big difference.”
At this point, with Gale’s test scores “far below average,” Ms. Washington identifies her three greatest obstacles to improving those scores as the language barrier for
many of her students, the school’s high mobility rate, and the difficulty of sustaining communication and involvement between home and school. Some of the parents don’t speak English, and some are illiterate. 15-20% of  the students are homeless, which means they are temporarily staying with friends or relatives, or housed in nearby shelters. Many of the children come from single-parent families, and many of those families don’t have the time or the wherewithal to offer much school support.  A federal program provides every child at Gale with a hot breakfast and a hot lunch each day. It often happens that a child will ask for a second breakfast because he or she did not get dinner the night before.

Says Ms. Washington, “We’re technically not supposed to give anyone a second meal—but we often do.  You can’t learn when you’re hungry.”  Gale has received some corporate gifts that have helped enormously. The kCura Corporation has given the school over 60 desktop computers and 30 laptops, with more coming from Wells Fargo Bank. This has enabled the school to set up two computer labs. The Carson Pirie Scott Company has donated winter coats for every child in the school. But what Gale desperately needs is more teachers and more specialized personnel. The school has one social worker, but the grant that pays her expires this year. Ms. Washington longs for “more people in the socio-emotional sphere.” She would also like an attendance official and more ELL staff to help the non-English speakers.  Funding for things like instrumental music or drama is a distant pipe dream.
When budgets are tight across CPS, and when a school like Gale finds it almost impossible to bring up its test scores, it is not clear what lies ahead.  Cassandra Washington is not against testing, but she does say, “I am against the way testing is used to determine success.”   She also notes that her school is the bulwark of the community:  “Gale is the hub of the North of Howard neighborhood.  Without the school, there would be no center for the students or their families.”
While Gale’s future may not be clear, what is clear is that more funding for the school could make an immense difference—and could help reduce the crippling educational inequalities that now plague American society.

Published: December 07, 2013
Issue: 2013 Philanthropy Guide