One by one, each member of the Galesburg school board called out “aye” in front of a packed board room Feb. 11. The room erupted.
The board had just unanimously voted to close Cooke School, the smallest and most diverse of Galesburg’s elementary schools, serving almost entirely economically disadvantaged families and students. The board members sat stone-faced as Cooke parents and supporters bundled up to head home. Some made sure to hurl their discontents at the board members on the way out.
The decision was part of a measure that will save the financially ailing district just under $1 million next year, in light of a looming $4.4 million deficit in three years. The district superintendent places blame for the closure on Illinois state officials and their failure to provide the promised funding. (Since more than half of Galesburg’s students live in low-income households, Galesburg relies heavily on state funds to run its schools.)
But Cooke community members are wary of the district’s cost-cutting measures, citing a racially- and socioeconomically-motivated knee-jerk decision that, they believe, threatens to turn their neighborhood into a ghost town.
“It’s more of a neighborhood kind of school,” said John Maaski, a retired principal of King Elementary School now serving as interim principal at Cooke. Maaski explained that Cooke families spanning several generations maintain strong ties to the school — a situation more unique to Cooke than other schools in the district.
Despite those strong connections, Cooke has never been a stable part of the community. Its tumultuous history began in 1975, when an explosion from sewer gas buildup destroyed a wing of the building. It reopened in 1976, only to be closed again in 1983 due to financial constraints. It reopened in 1985, only to be closed again in 1987. Cooke has now been operational since 1995, and it narrowly avoided the chopping block in 2006.
Some parents and community activists remain wary that this closure is a purely financial matter — and not an issue of a disenfranchised segment of society. Nearly all of Cooke’s students (over 97 percent) live in low-income households, and of the six Galesburg elementary schools, Cooke is the only one where less than half of the student body is white.
Emma Sargent is one of those activists. Sargent, 70, never left the Cooke area after attending the school in the 1950s. As a mother, grandmother and now great-grandmother, she has been an advocate for three subsequent generations of Cooke students. For four decades, and with the air of a civil rights activist, she has fought to keep open the tiny, one-winged school that has periodically come under siege.
“I am just so tired of Cooke being victimized,” Sargent said.
Throughout her life, Emma Sargent has watched three generations of her family attend Cooke, and in some cases, get relocated to other schools because of closures like this. But each time, she encountered problems, both social and educational.
From the time when her daughter’s fifth grade class was bussed to Steele — and none of the Cooke kids were given parts in the school musical — to when she noticed a drop in grades and discovered her daughter was spending most of her time out of the classroom, holed away in the library, Sargent was never satisfied with other schools like she is with Cooke.
“The other kids don’t really know how to associate with them, because they’re not the neighborhood kids,” she said. “When they’re with their neighborhood kids, they don’t have to fight to belong. My kids had to fight to belong.”
“Either you don’t have enough money, you don’t have the right name or you’re the wrong color.”
When Sargent’s children or grandchildren were attending other schools during periods of Cooke closure, she always did her best to make sure they felt comfortable attending extra-curricular activities elsewhere. Neighborhood kids in a three-block radius would converge on her home, with sometimes 15 children piling into her old station wagon, which for all intents and purposes, was a transport van.
“If you fit in, get in,” she would say. For years, she never left home without every kid who needed a ride.
She knew that many parents in the area couldn’t drive, didn’t own a car or in some cases didn’t think to take their kids across town for a school function. In those cases, “they just didn’t care.”
Earlier, the kids would tell their teachers “Grandma’s bringing us.” Eventually, there wasn’t a teacher who didn’t think Emma was the grandmother to one of their students. Emma would arrive at the function to hear: Oh, I didn’t know you’re such-and-such’s grandmother!
Technically, she wasn’t.
“Oh my God. What are we going to do now?” thought Marcey Rocha, a mother of three Cooke students, as the school board unanimously voted to close the school. “I think Cooke is the last thing holding our neighborhood together,” Rocha later told TKS. “Basically, it’s going to be a ghost town.”
For parents like Rocha, Cooke is the only school that’s been completely accommodating in terms of academic needs. At Cooke, her oldest daughter’s reading level was brought up to par — from a first grade to a fifth grade level — in just two years at Cooke.
“No one has ever been able to give her the help she needed until we came to Cooke,” Rocha said. “These teachers and staff not only acknowledged there was a problem immediately, but they got her the help she needed.”
“Everyone’s using the excuse that Cooke is too small. Since when was that bad?”
One week earlier, Rocha was one of the noticeably few attendees at the first and only public forum hosted by school district administrators to hear the concerns of Cooke parents and community members. That day was declared a snow day for the entire school district, and many attribute the poor attendance to the weather.
“It was a terrible night,” said district superintendent Bart Arthur. “They feel like we set that up, but the truth is, it was the only night I had available that week.”
That meeting, along with the overall timetable of the Cooke closure, has been a source of major distrust of district officials in how they handled the process. All told, from the early discussions to the board’s vote, the decision to close Cooke was made in just over a month.
While the budget cuts loomed, Arthur’s position was filled by an interim superintendent as he recovered from a stroke suffered in September 2013. The interim, essentially a caretaker, wasn’t charged with facilitating the budget talks, and the major cost-cutting considerations didn’t begin until Arthur returned in January.
But to Arthur, regardless of any public outcry, closing Cooke was inevitable given the district’s financial constraints. The human resources procedures require 45 days notice for any district layoffs, which added a sense of urgency to making a decision in February.
“Even if we had another meeting, or two or three more meetings, what was going to change? I agree that we would have liked to hear the people, but we heard a lot of people talk at our board meeting. We wanted them to come and speak.”
“The board members all feel bad about those cuts,” Arthur said. “But this is the one cut where they felt like, ‘Well, Cooke kids will survive.’”
For Rocha and other parents and activists, Cooke’s closure has left them feeling disempowered. The February board meeting was well-attended by Cooke’s most vocal supporters who made their case to the board. Looking back, many of them have come to the same conclusion: that the board had already made up its mind before the vote.
Knox is no stranger to community involvement with an eye to social responsibility. The college owned and operated one of Galesburg’s public housing projects until the early 2000s — when Knox started unloading liabilities in the face of financial catastrophe. Today, spurred by President Teresa Amott’s self-imposed goal to improve Knox’s relationship with the community, the KnoxCorps civic engagement program pairs Knox students with local organizations.
And nor is Knox a stranger to Cooke. The small and diverse school, nestled among modest homes, industrial plants and taverns on Galesburg’s lower-income southwest side, is a site for Reading Buddies, a popular volunteering program for Knox students. Educational studies students will often conduct their fieldwork or student teaching at Cooke. And just inside the main entrance at the school, one can find plastic bins filled with meals packed by Blessings in a Backpack, a Knox student organization.
“I think the college has the responsibility to contribute to improving the lives of families and individuals and community neighbors,” said Amott, who declined to comment specifically on the issues surrounding Cooke. “I think it’s our obligation to do what we can for the neighborhood.”
While Cooke’s band of activist parents, teachers and community members work through official channels to bring this issue to the forefront of public discourse in Galesburg, Cooke’s closure hasn’t stirred that kind of reaction at Knox.
“In general, small neighborhood schools like this function as much more than simply a school. They are a center around which a community is built and maintained,” said Nancy Eberhardt, a professor of anthropology and sociology. “So when a school like that is closed, it is a potential threat to the community.”
Other colleges have recognized that very danger.
“If you take a school away from a community, they lose a part of their identity and local culture,” said Chuck Hyser, an education professor at Augustana College in the Quad Cities. “There’s a sense of ownership, and that’s especially true of elementary schools.”
In the mid-2000s, Longfellow Elementary School, just two blocks from Augustana’s campus, was slated for closing. Like Cooke, it’s a lower-income school in a college town. But luckily for Longfellow, Augustana’s board of trustees was on the prowl for a project, something they could use to demonstrate some social responsibility — and a way to give back to the community to make up for their tax-exempt status.
Today, the Longfellow Liberal Arts School runs on Augie. Though the college doesn’t provide direct financial support, the amount of involvement takes enough pressure off the school district to keep the school up and running.
Longfellow is not just a place for elementary education majors to do their fieldwork before student teaching. Augustana staff members can spend some time working there. Some of the sororities have chosen Longfellow as the main beneficiary of their philanthropy work. Augie sports teams will spend time running camps and clinics there.
“It’s about neighborhood stabilization,” Hyser said. “We wanted our neighborhood to be vibrant, but that wouldn’t be possible if we lost the school, which is the cornerstone of any community.”
The Silas Willard Elementary School façade has the sophisticated aesthetic of an early-20th century school building. Silas families are more affluent than Cooke’s. Silas is the historical darling of the Galesburg school district, as Ronald Reagan was briefly a student there during his childhood years in Galesburg.
But Silas also has a crowding problem. (The district purchased an old storefront next to the school to help with overflow.) Silas has drawn concern regarding mold in the building, and asbestos removal remains an ongoing process. And after a 2010 district-wide facilities study, the building was deemed “functionally obsolete.”
This week, the school board decided that Silas Willard will be rebuilt — to the tune of $18 million.
So when advocates for Cooke, which was in the best physical shape of all district buildings before recent renovations, see the millions of dollars being poured into Silas, their recurring question arises: Why close Cooke?
Granted, money for these renovations is generated by the 1 percent sales tax approved by voters in 2010, and those funds can only be used for capital projects, not regular day-to-day school operations. But this adds to the feeling among Cooke’s supporters that closing the school was the plan all along.
And to some extent, it was.
Nearly a decade ago, when the elementary school boundaries were redrawn, a part of Cooke’s area was lopped off and handed over to Steele Elementary, the now-newly renovated school on West Main Street. The district’s consultants noted that if a school had to be closed, it would be Cooke. And when Cooke had its brush with closure in 2006, the school board determined (and set in policy) that Cooke would be closed if its enrollment dipped below 100.
Today, Cooke sits at 106. Two of its classrooms are in violation of the so-called 70/30 rule, an Illinois law that limits the ratio of special education students in a given classroom to 30 percent.
But even if the old boundaries were reinstated, says Superintendent Arthur, Cooke numbers would still be dangerously low, and those two classrooms might still be in violation of state law — not to mention that no progress would be made to address the underlying financial disaster the district faces.
Joel Estes prefers to take a bird’s-eye view of the district when considering these problems. Estes, now an educational studies lecturer at Knox, served as Cooke’s principal briefly for the 1995 reopening, during his rise through the district’s administrative ranks.
“I understand how important it is to have a neighborhood school,” he said. “I understand what it means for that neighborhood.”
But he also has a unique understanding of what it takes to reorganize a school district. Estes, who until recently was one of the district’s assistant superintendents, noted that it’s much easier to redistribute a school of 100 than a school of 400.
“It’s unfortunate for the families who depend on that school,” Estes said. But he isn’t concerned that they will have trouble with the transition. “They will become part of the other school.”
Emma Sargent is not so sure.
Although there is little hope for Cooke reopening in the fall, community activists remain optimistic. In the wake of the closure vote, parents are looking to revive Cooke’s defunct parent teacher organization. And though the city has no jurisdiction over schools, some are looking to the city’s Community Relations Commission to bring Cooke and its neighborhood issues to the forefront of local discourse.
“We’ve gotta show people that we have power,” Sargent said.