The STEAM Partnership Academy is being developed in North Lawndale. Credit: Provided

NORTH LAWNDALE — A state-of-the-art public school is being developed by neighborhood groups on the West Side — but some parents fear the school would cost the community more than it’s worth.

The plan would require three existing neighborhood schools to be closed and consolidated into the new school, which would specialize in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. While most residents and educators — including those at the schools that would close — support the new STEAM academy, some parents balked at the plan, saying the last thing the West Side needs is more closed schools in light of its history of disinvestment and school closures.

The North Lawndale STEAM Partnership Academy plan is spearheaded by the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council under the neighborhood’s Quality of Life Plan. The neighborhood plan launched in 2018 as a community-driven blueprint for improving key issues housing, health and public safety in Lawndale.

A centerpiece of the plan to address education has been the creation of a STEAM school so students would have more access to educational programs in their own neighborhood.

There has been an exodus of West Side students who travel to other schools in other neighborhoods to seek educational programming not available in the area, Betty Allen Green, of the neighborhood’s education committee, told the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday.

The estimated 600 students who travel out of Lawndale to access quality educational programs have “left all of our schools within the community highly underutilized,” Green said.

“Whatever options our children choose, we should be able to provide it to them right here in the North Lawndale community,” Green said.

It has been nearly 60 years since a traditional school has been built in Lawndale. Parent Debbie Sims said the STEAM academy would be an important step to recovering from the legacy of disinvestment toward the West Side.

“Children in low-income communities are always asked to do more with less,” Sims said. The community needs “the programs and facilities” to bring students back to the North Lawndale, she said.

A rendering of the science lab at the STEAM Partnership Academy. Credit: Provided

But some parents want the district to fully fund the schools already in the neighborhood rather than build a new school.

Three schools — Sumner Elementary, Crown Community Academy of Fine Arts and Lawndale Community Academy — would be closed so resources and student bodies could be pooled into the new STEAM academy.

The plan opens up old wounds from the city’s history of neglect toward West Side schools, parents said. Two schools in Lawndale closed in 2013 due to under-enrollment. Another, Frazier Preparatory Academy, was shut down by the Board of Education this year. At least five schools in the neighborhood have also been targeted by the district as “turnaround schools” in recent years.

Lawndale Community Academy parent Brandy McMahan told the board she worries it would be unsafe for her child to travel across the neighborhood to get to the new school. She knows and trusts the staff at her child’s current school since they understand the community and the struggles the students there face.

“New doesn’t always mean better,” she said.

McMahan also questioned whether Lawndale residents would even benefit from the school. “How do we know our kids will be chosen?” she said.

Pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students at the three schools would be guaranteed a seat in the new school, organizers said. Tentatively planned to open in 2022, the school would be a traditional public school, not a charter or a selective enrollment school.

A parent at Sumner told the board that if there is enough funding to build a state-of-the-art facility, then “there is funding to bring up to par and bring STEAM initiatives” to quality neighborhood schools like the one her child attends.

She also criticized the plan for leaving out some community members.

“The community surrounding Sumner has no idea what is being proposed at all,” she said.

The team developing the school has had more than 50 meetings with parents, educators, residents, local school councils and neighborhood groups “to discuss what the community wants in the new proposed North Lawndale STEAM Academy,” said Leonard Moore, cochair of the education committee of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council.

Even educators at the schools that would be closed have signed onto the plan, Green said.

“Every group that we’ve met with has endorsed this program. Even the teachers and principals that realize that this might impact their jobs,” Green said. “But they are concerned about the education of the children, and because of that they would like to see this school come to this community.”

A Chicago Public Schools spokesman said the district is committed to listening to Lawndale community members who are working to strengthen their schools.

“We will consider moving forward only if their proposal gains significant parent and stakeholder support and they demonstrate a credible path to improved student outcomes,” the spokesman said in a statement.   

Based on feedback from parents and educators, the school would be designed to support diverse learners and would have a focus on social-emotional learning as well as restorative justice practices.

The academy will include a parent engagement center to support a student’s home learning environment. Parents involved in the development of the school suggested the center provide resources like cooking classes, financial literacy workshops, a GED program for families and a fitness center.

The curriculum would follow an instructional framework that emphasizes understanding design processes, industrial experiences and activities, collaboration, and awareness of careers in tech. At least 20 community partners have committed to supporting the school, including the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The UIC partnership would help develop the curriculum and place interns at the school to support after-school programs, tutoring and social-emotional services. The partnership would “make learning exciting and relevant to students” and create a pipeline of students going from Lawndale to the university, said UIC Vice Chancellor Susan Poser.

“On a typical day you’d see students recording observations, carrying out experiments, conducting research,” Moore said. “It would be project-based learning.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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