Parkside Community Academy volunteers pass out meals from Olive Mediterranean Grill and Dimo's Pizza at a June 12 food giveaway. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

SOUTH SHORE — A South Shore elementary school will have a new STEAM focus as officials work to reestablish the school as a neighborhood hub.

Parkside Community Academy, 6938 S. East End Ave., is one of six Chicago Public Schools to receive district approval to develop a science, technology, engineering, arts and math-focused curriculum.

Sixteen other schools will shift their academic focus to areas like fine and performing arts or world languages as part of CPS’s $18 million programming initiative.

The next school year will be an “incubation year” for Parkside to make building improvements and offer professional development before the STEAM curriculum is implemented.

“We remain committed to … seeking additional opportunities for engagement so that more schools in more neighborhoods will apply for these programs,” chief education officer LaTanya McDade said in a statement.

As a STEAM school, Parkside will be better equipped for thematic learning, college and career readiness and collaboration between teachers, said Principal Tori Hughes, whose first year at the helm ends Thursday.

Hughes has faced numerous challenges since starting at Parkside. She said she had to hire 24 teachers to fill a 60 percent staff vacancy rate upon taking the job, then oversaw a school year shortened by an 11-day teachers’ strike last October and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The upheaval has helped staffers grow closer to each other, Hughes said. She said teachers continued to help with the STEAM funding application, even as they were striking for things like smaller class sizes and more nurses.

“This was a year of learning and definitely doing,” Hughes said. “I’ve been looking at everything that is happening as some type of opportunity.”

The school expects to receive $150,000 in resources during the transition, including a STEAM specialist, a technology coordinator and a new makerspace, said Dixon Romeo, community representative for the Parkside local school council.

It’s unclear if these resources will be approved in the end, however, as the pandemic has created uncertainty around the district’s budget.

As a child growing up in South Shore, Romeo said he wanted to attend Parkside, where most of his friends were. But he attended Skinner West Elementary in the West Loop, which had a magnet program and where his mother felt he would receive a better education.

Schools are “the best investment I think you can make in a community,” Romeo said. With the STEAM curriculum approved, new leadership and community initiatives, he hopes the school can become a destination for South Shore residents.

“It really didn’t sit well with me — the fact that my mom had to make that choice, to go outside the community to get a better education,” Romeo said. “We’ve been working really hard to get more stuff for the school.”

As part of a push to bring community members to Parkside, volunteers have kicked off a series of twice-weekly food giveaways that started June 3.

Anyone who stops by is able to pick up a hot meal from a Chicago restaurant, as the giveaways are backed by the Chicago chapter of Frontline Foods. The next distributions are from 1–4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.

Parkside’s giveaways were organized in response to CPS’s suspension of its meal distributions June 1 due to civil unrest, though the district restarted its effort a day later.

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