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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Plan To Close 3 West Side Schools, Build STEAM Academy Scrapped For Now After Parent Pushback

The community members behind the proposed school said they will resume their planning after the pandemic and work to convince skeptical parents in the meantime.

Parents, teachers, students and alums rally at Lawndale Community Academy against the STEAM school.
Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Development of a state-of-the-art STEAM school on the West Side has been postponed indefinitely following weeks of community pushback.

The plan would have closed three neighborhood schools and consolidated them into the North Lawndale STEAM Partnership Academy. But some teachers and parents from those schools resisted, saying their communities have seen enough closed schools.

The North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council worked for years on the plan and submitted its proposal Nov. 2 to Chicago Public Schools. A month later, group leaders withdrew the plan from consideration and said they won’t revisit it until after the pandemic.

“We share mixed emotions, but we are committed to bringing the STEAM Academy to the children of North Lawndale,” said Betty Allen Green, co-chair of the neighborhood’s education committee.

Since the initial plan involved closing schools, some opponents said this was an especially bad time to even consider it.

“During this time of uncertainty with an ongoing pandemic, and community violence and lack at an all-time high, a sense of normalcy and wellbeing has taken center stage in the lives of our children,” said Tasha Dudley, a teacher at Crown Academy, one of the schools that would close.

“Their voices are speaking loud, and I want to make their opinions clear: not now.”

The school specializing in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics was part of the neighborhood council’s resident-driven quality-of-life plan for addressing social issues in the neighborhood.

Neighborhood education leaders envisioned the school as a way to address the issue of West Side students traveling to other areas to seek challenging educational programs not available closer to home, 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.

Education leaders had held monthly community meetings on the STEAM Academy since 2018, as well as additional meetings with local school councils and school communities.

But opposition mounted once it became clearer Crown, Sumner Elementary School and North Lawndale Community Academy would close to support the new school. Students from the closed buildings would have been guaranteed seats at the STEAM academy.

Some said they felt the prospect of closing the schools crept up on them without enough input from the families who would be impacted.

Opponents staged protests and formed the North Lawndale Parent and Community Coalition in the fall to pressure the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council and CPS to abandon plans to close the three schools.

The coordinating council briefly adjusted the proposal to build the academy on the campus of one of closing schools before withdrawing it.

Enrollment at Crown and Lawndale has dropped by more than half since 2010, CPS data shows. Enrollment at Sumner has decreased by about half in the same time period. Currently, 178 students are enrolled at Crown, 207 at Lawndale and 235 at Sumner.

According to the coalition, underutilization of Lawndale schools isn’t just about program options. It has more to do with social conditions that have shrunk the neighborhood population, such as unemployment, a lack of affordable housing and high crime.

While the proposal is paused, the groups said they will work to build more community support for the new school.

The neighborhood community council organizers will continue to engage residents to develop a plan that takes into account the needs and concerns of those opposed to the STEAM school.

“We will hold additional meetings with the parents, community residents and essential stakeholders to ensure that this school is built for our beloved community,” Green said.

Meanwhile, the parent and community coalition will “begin the process for a parent-led proposal that will address the root cause of under-enrollment these schools face,” said Dixon Romeo, a spokesman for the group.

Instead of building a new school, the district and partners behind the proposal should improve STEAM program options at the three existing schools by making “same investment of $65 million to address the root cause of disinvestment that the students in North Lawndale face every day,” Romeo said.

A CPS spokeswoman confirmed the district is not currently considering the STEAM school proposal since it was withdrawn. But district leaders will remain open to evaluating the plan in the future as the community builds a stronger consensus around improving educational offerings in the area.

“We are grateful for the time, planning, participation and consideration from community members who led these efforts. Looking ahead, the district remains fully committed to continued engagement with the North Lawndale community in support of strengthening educational opportunities,” said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton.

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

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