A recent report from the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago singled out Area 8, which includes most of North Lawndale, as one of the three elementary school areas with the poorest academic performance. The single high school within North Lawndale’s boundaries, Collins, is on academic probation.
Schools do not operate in a vacuum, so it’s no surprise that those in North Lawndale are struggling. The neighborhood is struggling as well. Median family income is a paltry $20,253. Crime is prevalent; in 2002, the community racked up 35 violent crimes and 56 non-violent crimes per square mile, one of the highest rates in the city.
Children especially face tough circumstances. Among families with children, 51.5 percent live in poverty, and 83 percent are headed by single parents or by grandparents, according to “Chicago Kids Count,” a report compiled by the research and advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children. And North Lawndale has the fourth-highest population, among Chicago’s neighborhoods, of children with elevated lead levels in their blood—a precursor of potential learning and behavior problems.
The neighborhood’s decline began with the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., devastating much of the community’s infrastructure. Then, by 1970, an estimated 75 percent of local businesses had left, taking jobs with them. When jobs left, people followed. The population plummeted by about half between 1970 and 1990, and by another 12 percent between 1990 and 2000.
Still, the news is not all doom-and-gloom. The city is trying to spur economic development with special taxing districts and other initiatives. And community leaders point to several projects as a sign of better times, including rehab of the Pulaski Avenue el station, a new police station in Homan Square and rehab and construction of hundreds of affordable housing units by a network of community organizations.
In 1995, the Steans Family Foundation chose North Lawndale as the focus of its grantmaking. By 2001, it had poured more than $11 million into economic development and other programs, including education.
“Schools are a direct barometer of the quality of life in the community,” says Derrick Harris, president of the North Lawndale LSC Federation, which is seeking to strengthen local school councils.
Two schools already have a track record of achievement, Kellman Elementary and North Lawndale College Prep Charter High School. And after decades of neglect, the physical condition of many schools has steadily improved, especially since School Board President Michael Scott, a North Lawndale resident, took over.
“One of our goals is excellence in every community, and one of the things I’d really like to do before I leave here is to have some schools in Lawndale [that] are looked at with envy,” says Scott. “A place where any parent would say ‘I’d love to have my kid in that school, and by the way, what’s the housing stock like around here? What are the parks like?'”