Robert Croston was a powerful leader who helped save the last school with a majority black student body in a community where African Americans have been displaced in recent years.
Croston was the principal of Jenner Academy of the Arts, an elementary school adjacent to the former Cabrini-Green public housing project on the Near North Side. He played a key role in engineering a merger with Ogden International of Chicago, saving Jenner from closure.
Croston died in March from a genetic disorder.
Parents, students and teachers from Ogden and Jenner schools gathered at Jenner on Friday, Aug. 17, for the unveiling of a mural painting of Croston.
Ogden is a nearby school in the Gold Coast neighborhood, with an affluent and diverse student body that was overcrowded. As Croston’s supporters describe it, the merger, originally the brainchild of a group of Ogden and Jenner parents, was a desperate and ultimately successful effort to save the underfunded and under-enrolled Jenner from being closed by Chicago Public Schools.
The Cabrini-Green housing project was demolished in the late ‘90s and many of the black residents were displaced during the controversial redevelopment of public housing in the early 2000s. Many of the families who used to send their kids to Jenner were gone, and many families who moved into the area chose not to send their children to Jenner, which was known as a poorly-performing school.
Ogden students currently exhibit reading and mathematics growth rates in the 90th and 81st percentile, respectively (Jenner’s performance data has been removed from the Chicago Public Schools website).
According to Tara Stamps, former teacher at Jenner and daughter of civil rights activist Marion Stamps, “many teachers at Jenner have never taught a white student. That is a learning curve.”
With Jenner’s closure looming, Croston worked tirelessly to save the school; to save the students.
“Ogden and Jenner kids belong to this neighborhood,” said Debora Land, parent of a seventh-grade Ogden student. By orchestrating the merger, “Robert ensured that they had the same opportunity for a high-quality education,” she said.
Jenner graduate Lamone Hampton said that Croston was “always caring and made sure every student stayed “NEST” – “N” for neighborly, “E” for engaged, “S” for scholarly, and “T” for teamwork.” This was Croston’s philosophy.
According to his supporters, Croston helped bring a gentrified community together through education — a notable achievement given Chicago’s long process of reckoning with its history of racial segregation. Croston believed that every student could make the community better with the right opportunities, according to Juan Alvarez, whose family lives across the street from Jenner.
“Robert knocked on our door one day to say hello” Alvarez said. “He started a change for the better. Not just within the school, but within the community. My kids don’t go to this school yet, but they’re already a part of it.” Jezail Jackson, a first-grade teacher at Ogden, said that the merger “is exactly what should be happening across Chicago — for teachers, students, and parents alike.”
“Croston was a powerful leader who helped heal our community in the midst of change,” Alvarez said.
“That will always be part of his legacy.”