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New marquee caps investments at Ray School

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Ray School’s new marquee is Principal Gayle Harris-Neely’s leading improvement to the elementary, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., but one of several designed to enhance student learning.

“Ray is a beautiful building, and it’s a historic building, but we needed a facelift,” she said. “And in light of the pandemic, we needed to improve our communication.”

Hence the $28,000 marquee, which Harris-Neely points out communicates to Ray stakeholders and the surrounding community alike. There is also a new school website and a $15,000 intercom has been installed within the building.

There are curriculum improvements, worth $40,000 total, including new books, staff professional development and subscriptions to IXL, an online K-12 website for a variety of subjects.

The gym is being renovated with wraparound netting and protective padding to the tune of $20,000. And for the first time, the school’s art program will have a $7,000 kiln for ceramics.

Work on the gym should be done next month. Due to supply chain issues, the kiln is on backorder, but it should be here next month, too.

Long-term, Neely-Harris would like to do work on the school’s auditorium, which is today used for indoor recess in bad weather, so that it can be used for performances. (The chairs need to be replaced.)

Harris-Neely said she went without an assistant principal, a job in Chicago Public Schools that can pay anywhere between $100,000 to $120,000, for nine months to pay for the new investments.

“It was challenging, but it was worth it,” she said. “Our students deserve this. Our school community deserves to have a school with a brand new look, and our communication is going to improve.”

Harris-Neely observed that the attendance area for Ray — most of Hyde Park outside of East Hyde Park and the northwestern corner of the neighborhood — is a well-to-do area, but that the school enrolls students from across Chicago who gain admission through a lottery.

“Students spend a lot of time at school, and my educational philosophy is that this is a home away from home,” she said. “I want them to have a learning environment that is conducive to learning and they are proud to come to their school.”

When she became principal last year, she said the school had a pest control issue; in December 2017, inspectors found mouse droppings at the school as well as other cleanliness issues. Today, she said, the issues have been resolved, and with the infrastructural as well as the curricular improvements, students’ learning has been enhanced.

Controversy accompanied the marquee’s installation. Harris-Neely said its lighting levels are adjustable, and it can be switched off. The school has not decided if it will be switched off; Harris-Neely said she is open to and will solicit feedback from Ray’s neighbors after a period of its illumination.

Ray’s Local School Council approved the marquee’s installation over the summer, to the chagrin of some in the school community who argued that the money spent on it should have been otherwise spent, or that the process of its approval, with Chicago’s byzantine zoning and sign approval processes, was improper.

“I did my due diligence to contact the company (MECO Electric, 1510 W. Huron St.) to let them know that these were the concerns well in advance,” Harris-Neely said. “They didn’t have this at other schools. According to the company, Ray was the only school that they had so many challenges. But nonetheless, we followed all the procedures. Initially, it was just the electrical permit, but we had to go back and get the city permit, so all of that was done.”

State of pandemic at Ray

Learning is continuing at Ray in-spite of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The new availability of vaccines for students 5- to 11-years-old, is a welcome development.

There have been cases of COVID-19 identified at the school, which results in the quarantining of unvaccinated students. Once students are vaccinated, so long as they do not show symptoms, they can stay in the classroom. Harris-Neely said students have already come up to her to announce they have had their first doses.

The school is continuing with deep cleans, including Saturday cleans. Comer Children’s Hospital, 5721 S. Maryland Ave., did testing for a research program last week, supplementing CPS testing.

Harris-Neely said she did not ask Ray families for monetary assistance last year, during pandemic-related job losses and deaths.

Five hundred and fifty-three students attend Ray. Many of them have lost family members in the pandemic, or are in economically stressed households. Many students’ mental health has been taxed over the pandemic, and schools are at the front line in mental health care.

“I think everyone had to readjust. It’s not just the students. It’s OK to say it’s not OK,” said Harris-Neely. “We have an environment here where, not just our students but our teachers, if you need additional support or you need a mental health day or you need to just vent, it’s OK to just say that.”

Ray has one counselor and a social worker. Teachers have gone through social-emotional learning training. Harris-Neely said that concessions are being made to the state of learning at this stage of the pandemic: “There’s a new way to give students that additional time, whether it’s academically or they just need a break.”