RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This year a record 55 million children are expected to attend America's primary and secondary schools. Fast growing cities in the West and South can't build schools quickly enough. And some older larger cities have some growing pains of their own as Chicago Public Radio's Shawn Allee reports.
SHAWN ALLEE reporting:
English teacher Martin McGreal was groomed to become principal of Chicago's Gage Park High School on the city's southwest side. But when he officially took the position earlier this summer, he did not look forward to his first duty: gauging home many student he should expect this year.
Mr. MARTIN MCGREAL (Principal, Gage Park High School): We were promised in the spring 500 would be our cap for students.
ALLEE: Summer wore on and freshmen started enrolling.
Mr. MCGREAL: And were up to 650 and it didn't look like it was slowing down. There were another 120 on the books that didn't have a school yet.
ALLEE: McGreal says he was willing to try nearly anything to avoid overcrowding, because otherwise students at the mostly Latino and black high school would have to attend more classes in the auditorium or even the cafeteria.
The administration suggested stretching out the school day or trying to a year-round schedule. Instead, McGreal turned freshmen away, telling them to enroll in other city high schools. That action got him fired.
Mr. MCGREAL: I know I could have great instruction but I can't have kids walking around with their head down feeling disrespected about how we, society, teachers, schools, whatever, perceive them.
ALLEE: Chicago Public Schools quickly found a new principal, someone would institute a staggered, lengthened school day to deal with the overcrowding. School spokesman Mike Vaughn defends McGreal's dismissal.
Mr. MIKE Vaughn (Deputy Press Secretary, Chicago Public Schools): There is plenty of space at that school for the child to get a good education there, and that parent is turned away from that school. Where is that parent to go?
ALLEE: In Chicago, it's common for teens to attend class outside their neighborhood. Usually it's by choice, but sometimes it's because of overcrowding, and that's especially true in Chicago's fast-growing Latino neighborhoods. Gage Park High is in the heart of a historically black neighborhood, but now the student body is two-thirds Latino.
Mr. JOSE ALEJANDRO GARCIA(ph) (Parent of Gage Park High Students): (Unintelligible) they are good people but they're still lost because they don't have Jesus. But they need someone to tell them about Jesus...
ALLEE: Victory Outreach Church on Chicago's southwest side is just a few blocks from Gage Park High. If you hear an amen rise above the music, there's a good chance it came from Jose Alejandro Garcia. Three of his daughters will attend Gage Park this year, and he says the cramped quarters make it more challenging.
Mr. GARCIA: They're lost. Where do they go? They go to gangs. They get recruited by the bullies. I guess in this system children would be left behind but it's a play of the cards or the dice.
ALLEE: But Garcia says more than a decade ago demographers predicted an influx of students here. And while Gage Park will get relief, three replacement buildings won't be ready for another six years.
Mr. GARCIA: The money should have been invested in the southwest neighborhood maybe five, six years ago when my kids were in sixth, fifth and fourth grade, but nobody cared.
ALLEE: Chicago Public Schools did splurge on construction and repair over the last decade, but state money dried up and construction slowed down.
It's a weekend morning and former Principal Martin McGreal just finished interviewing for a teaching job at another Chicago school. McGreal has second thoughts about leaving the kids at Gage Park High.
Mr. MCGREAL: I really wish I could be home and not worry about this stuff all the time. I wish at times, like, I wouldn't, you know, be attracted to this so much because it's just nothing but heartache sometimes.
ALLEE: Even if McGreal lands a new position - not as a principal this time -it's likely he'll miss the first day of school.
For NPR News, I'm Shawn Allee in Chicago.
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