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A Lesson For Bruce Rauner

Andy Velez got it right.

In the spring of 2005, I was the junior varsity baseball coach at Kelvyn Park High School. I used to live a few blocks west of the school and passed by it many times. Aside from thinking it was a typical, fortress-like building housing an urban high school, I never gave the school much thought.

Andy was a sophomore. He played left field. Couldn't hit much but he could go after a fly ball with dexterity, and as my leadoff man, he walked frequently and could steal a base. He also lived right across the street from the school in the 4500 block of West Wrightwood. If Andy was late to a game or practice, which was infrequently, I could always knock on his front door to jump start him.

Andy also was a bright kid. In a school which "did not meet federal education standards," according to the 2013 CPS report card, Andy ranked third in his class and talked about going to college.

More than 88 percent of today's 1,000 Kelvyn Park students are Latino, and almost 93 percent come from low-income families.

Without any preconceived notions other than playing a ballgame, we traveled one spring day to Walter Payton College Prep on North Wells Street. The bus driver dropped us off in front of Payton, and we had to walk through the campus of the then five-year-old school to reach the baseball diamond.

Walking next to Andy, he gazed up at the state-of-the-art building and observed, "They'd never build anything like this for us."

"You're a good student," I answered. "Why wouldn't you apply here to see if you could get in?"

"What?" he said. "And leave all my friends and my neighborhood?"

I've been thinking about that spring afternoon this week after reading about gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Rauner pulling strings so that his daughter could attend Payton, whose students today have the highest standardized test scores of any school in Illinois.

If my left fielder had decided to pursue admittance to Payton, it's laughable to think what kind of reception his mother would have received if she had called Arne Duncan in hopes of getting Andy on the principal's list for admission.

While the Rauner family foundation wound up gifting $250,000 to the school, Andy's mom would have had only her son to offer to the school, a priceless gift for sure, but not one that gets kids into an elite school.

Furthermore, apparently Rauner's daughter lived in Winnetka, and she could have gone to New Trier, a school that does meet federal education standards. And then some. For many, many years. Was it not good enough for the venture capitalist's kid?

Getting back to Andy Velez and his teammates, they were a unique bunch. Individually, I enjoyed my relationships with most of the 12 or 14 kids on my team. I liked these guys.
However, as a group, I had no control. The bus rides to and from road games were torture for me. Flashing gang signs to other teens on the streets of Chicago was common practice. Mooning unsuspecting motorists on the Dan Ryan was great fun for them. Challenging pedestrians to a fight - usually when the bus was moving - happened on every trip.

Funny thing, though. On the return trip home, once we crossed Pulaski, they all sat quietly like choirboys.

Prior to each bus ride, I attempted to lay down ground rules. My spiel went something like this: "I really need you guys to behave yourselves today. There are 12 of you and only one of me. I'm asking you for your cooperation so that you don't embarrass yourselves, your families, your school, and your coach. You think you can do that?"

"Sure, Coach," they assured me. Five minutes into our journey they reneged.

"Aww, Coach, you did the same things when you were a kid," they'd tell me.

"Actually, I didn't," I'd respond. "I couldn't even think of doing some of the stuff you guys do."

So why didn't I kick the perpetrators off the team? For one, we wouldn't have had enough players to continue the season. Aside from maybe two or three kids, the remainder joined in with what they interpreted as a really good time.

In addition, I figured that these 15- to 17-year-olds were better off playing baseball with me as their coach for a couple of months than they would have been that spring on the streets during their free time. If that's a cop-out, so be it.

The Rauner story churned up these memories of kids who clearly had/have no chance of a school such as Payton becoming part of their neighborhood. "The gubernatorial hopeful has said little about his daughter's admission to Payton, dismissing it as 'stuff that doesn't matter,'" according to the Sun-Times.

In my view, this "stuff" matters a lot. It matters for kids like Andy Velez who might have experienced success at a place like Payton rather than feeling alienated from a school like Payton. It matters because a child of privilege - living outside the city - assumed a spot in an elite school that could have been awarded to another youngster for whom the opportunity could have been life-changing.

It matters because public policy tends to pour money and resources into elite schools while slapping negative labels on places like Kelvyn Park. The city has committed $17 million to enlarge Payton Prep to accommodate 400 additional students. Meanwhile, the Kelvyn Parks of the world have shrinking enrollment, narrowed curriculum in an attempt to raise test scores, and staff cutbacks.

It matters because young Rauner's chances of a fulfilling and healthy life required little enhancement.

The last I heard of Andy Velez his mother was contemplating a move to Orlando to get away from gang activity in his neighborhood. He's in his mid-20s now, and I like to think that he went to college and has become a healthy citizen contributing to his family and community.

I also suspect that some of his teammates haven't been as fortunate either by poor choices and/or circumstances out of their control. They matter as well.


Roger Wallenstein authors our White Sox Report and last winter wrote a four-part series about Oasis Elementary in Thermal, California.


Comments welcome.


Posted on January 15, 2014

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