Englewood Credit: Ryan Thurlwell

State Rep. Mary Flowers remembers fondly growing up in Englewood in the 1960s. Working two-parent families lived there, she says. So did notables such as journalist Vernon Jarrett, former state Sen. Charles Chew and Richard Stamz, then a popular personality on black radio. People looked out for other people’s children.

“We were like a family,” says Flowers, who lived on West Normal Parkway, across the street from a teachers college that has since moved and been renamed Chicago State University.

But as the 60s waned, so did Englewood, which began a downward spiral following riots after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Blocks of tidy residences and businesses were abandoned, boarded up and later torn down, leaving a wake of litter-strewn vacant lots.

As housing deteriorated and community investment dried up, families—particularly those who were economically better off—moved away, and Englewood’s public schools took a beating, too. Enrollment plummeted, teacher turnover went up and problems with student behavior and discipline escalated steadily.

Principal Dorothy Naughton says Holmes Elementary lost nearly half of its student population during her 32 year tenure. “We had about 1,200 students in 1971; now we have about 689,” says Naughton, a former Holmes teacher and assistant principal.

The plight of Englewood was ignored for decades. Then in 1998, the arrests of two boys, 7 and 8 years old, for the murder of an 11-year old girl, catapulted the community into national headlines.

(Charges against the boys were dropped when DNA tests linked the crime to a convicted sex offender.)

But the spotlight spurred leaders to take action. A year later, the city earmarked $256 million to redevelop housing there, build a police station, improve public parks and commercial facilities and relocate the area’s higher education anchor, Kennedy-King College, to a new, expanded facility a mile away. President Bill Clinton paid a visit and pledged $25 million in economic support.

Since then, new construction is replacing vacant lots. A subsidiary of St. Bernard Hospital built a $16.5 million development of single-family homes and two flats. The Yale Building, a deteriorated vintage apartment building and city landmark, was rehabbed and converted into apartments for senior citizens. A memorial was built for Ryan Harris, the girl who was murdered.

Community leaders hope this rebirth will improve the quality of area schools. But, it won’t be easy. All 14 elementary schools in Englewood are on academic probation; two of three high schools are.

And this spring, Chicago Public Schools took drastic measures, announcing that one school, Englewood High, would be phased out and reopened in a few years under the Renaissance 2010 new schools initiative.

Residents protested the closing and appealed to Teamwork Englewood—a fairly new group of organizers who have quickly garnered the community’s goodwill—to mediate on their behalf with district officials.

However, many remain hopeful about Englewood’s future and the possibility that schools will get better. “You have to believe it and work toward it,” says community activist and resident Jean Carter-Hill. “We need to change the quality of life, but people have got to believe.”

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

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