When it opened in the 1940s, Altgeld Gardens, a public housing development on the far Southeast Side, attracted young African-American industrial workers and post-World War II military employees who needed to save money until they could afford to buy their own homes.

Not so today. The 157-acre area now is home to 3,400 low-income families whose prospects of moving out and up the economic ladder are dim.

Between then and now, Altgeld became an isolated corner of the city, where there is no major commercial development and, according to residents, the city has made only minor capital improvements—new sidewalks, gutters and curbs.

Flanked on three sides by sanitary and hazardous waste landfills, manufacturing plants and shuttered steel mills, the area is now distinguished by poor air quality, with both adults and children suffering from above-average rates of respiratory ailments.

This phenomenon figures into children’s poor academic performance, say educators. All but one of the five public schools in or near Altgeld are on probation.

Two schools on the outskirts of the community, DuBois and Aldridge, enroll mostly kids who live nearby in stable private housing developments such as Concordia Place Apartments and Eden Green, a cooperative.

Within Altgeld, however, schools are facing increased mobility as a Chicago Housing Authority project to renovate buildings gets underway. The plan is to move families out while their apartments are gutted and rehabbed. Some may permanently relocate elsewhere using Section 8 vouchers; others will be moved temporarily to another unit in Altgeld or to another public housing development.

So far, families in three of Altgeld’s 17 “blocks” have received letters from the housing authority saying they will have to move by January.

Anticipating such notice, some residents have already left. Others have been evicted. According to 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, about 500 of the 2,000 units are vacant.

The drop in the number of residents has meant a decline in school enrollment. Five years ago, 865 students attended Carver Primary; this year enrollment is 400. “I used to get $750,000 in federal [poverty] money,” says Principal Linda Randolph. “This year, I received $230,000.”

With fewer funds, Randolph has had to cut a counselor position, an assistant principal, classroom assistants and teachers.

Meanwhile, environmental hazards affect children’s health, and some principals and teachers suspect it affects learning ability.

Efforts to improve the quality of education in Altgeld offer some hope. A mentoring program matches middle-school students with successful adults who used to live in the area. A failing high schools has been converted into military academy.

Test scores there remain extremely low, however.

With so many obstacles for Altgeld’s kids and schools, one advocate suggests Chicago Public Schools give educators more time to catch up.

“With all the life changes going on here, the rules for schools shouldn’t be the same,” says a community advocate who works with students.

“This is a transitioning community. It took time to mess [schools] up; it will take time to fix them.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.

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