When residents in North Lawndale sat down a few years to devise a quality of life plan for the impoverished neighborhood, one thing on the top of their list was a brand-new school with a focus on math, science and technology.
But then reality hit. Community groups were told by Chicago Public Schools officials that the existing elementary schools – all of them severely under-enrolled with few a couple hundred students each– were sucking up all the resources, said Betty Allen-Green, a co-chair of the Lawndale Community Action Council, an advisory board convened by the school district.
Now, these groups say they want the school district to strike a deal with them. They say they are willing to see three elementary schools close, but in exchange, they want a state-of-the-art school. They want to call it the North Lawndale STEAM Partnership Academy.
Allen-Green said she and others know that closing schools is controversial and some will fight it. Scars caused by the closing of 50 schools in 2013, including some in North Lawndale, remain.
“We feel that it’s worth it if we are bringing in a school to North Lawndale [where] each of our children will receive a rigorous high-quality education,” said Allen-Green, who spent 18 years as a principal at Herzl, a school in North Lawndale.
If this happens, the three elementary schools — Sumner, Lawndale and Crown — would be the first schools closed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot. When she was running for office, Lightfoot said she was going to put a moratorium on school closings, but did not say for how long.
Chicago Public Schools officials are not yet saying if they will support the plan. In a statement, officials say they are “committed to listening to members of the North Lawndale community who are seeking to strengthen their schools.”
Officials said forums are being planned where they will be able to gauge the opinions of parents of the schools that would close.
But the community proposal is exactly what CPS CEO Janice Jackson has said she supports for underutilized schools. Under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Jackson closed four schools in Englewood and replaced them with a new $85 million high school, which opened last year.
When asked at the grand opening of the Englewood school last year, what she was going to do about other underutilized schools across the city, Jackson said “what Englewood represents is the path forward to correcting some of that.”
Jackson connected the under-enrolled schools in neighborhoods like Englewood with the fact that many students travel to other areas schools they perceive as better. She said creating new, better options locally could potentially prevent families from leaving their neighborhoods.
About half of Chicago Public Schools have significantly more space than is needed for their students, according to the most recent data from the 2020 school year. In North Lawndale, all nine of its elementary schools have small student populations and are severely underutilized.
Some argue it is inefficient to have buildings, an administrative team and support staff for just a few hundred students.
Allen-Green said the community groups were told by CPS officials that North Lawndale’s schools are being drained of resources because so much money is being spent on infrastructure. CPS schools are funded on a per-pupil basis so fewer students means fewer dollars to operate with.
Allen-Green said the Lawndale Community Action Council and the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council concluded it would be better for some of those resources to be spent on a new school.
They spent a lot of time looking into different types of schools and concluded they wanted it modeled after a STEM school located on the campus of Aurora University. It is a teaching school where students get a lot of hands-on experiences.
Sherry Eagle, who is the former director for Aurora University’s Institute for Collaboration, said the Aurora school is a special place and that North Lawndale students could benefit from the type of education offered there.
“We believe that careers in the future will be focused on the areas that have a foundational base of the understanding of mathematics and science,” she said.
Several colleges at the University of Illinois at Chicago, like engineering and nursing, have committed to support the proposed North Lawndale STEAM Partnership Academy. Also, the groups have identified 22 other partners, including companies like Caterpillar and local businesses, like Cinespace Chicago.