Renaissance 2010 protesters Credit: Christine Oliva

Five years ago, the Chicago Housing Authority began moving residents out of the infamous Robert Taylor Homes, a two-mile stretch of high-rise buildings saturated with crime and intense poverty.

The goal for this and other areas in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation: To remove concentrated public housing structures and replace them with mixed-income communities.

Known as Mid-South, the area encompasses four neighborhoods—North Kenwood, Oakland, Douglas and Grand Boulevard, where much of Robert Taylor was located before demolition began—and sits along the lake from 31st Street to 47th Street, stretching west to the Dan Ryan Expressway.

As buildings come down, a host of developers are changing the landscape with a mix of new houses, town homes and condominiums.

Soon, it became apparent that the school system needed to be brought in. The Chicago Public Schools responded with a vision and process aimed at revitalizing public education in this transition community, now served by 21 elementary and four high schools.

“This is an unprecedented approach to educational planning,” CEO Arne Duncan said at a press conference. “Never before has there been this type of link between community revitalization and school development.”

CPS’ vision is to create a variety of schools that focus on strengthening early math and reading skills but still offer parents a choice of specialized curricula. The schools would have preschool programs for every child, after-school programs and direct links to colleges, universities and the working world. And they would be staffed by outstanding principals and teachers. The hope is that, with outstanding programs, middle-income parents would be willing to send their children to schools with low-income children.

With no model to look to, the district assembled a group of advisers—representatives from foundations, universities, area businesses and community groups—to weigh in on what it will take to realize the vision.

“In Mid-South, we are talking about only 3,000 or so students, so this is not a big transformation in terms of the size of it,” says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education. “But bringing in middle income families, that’s what’s drawing all the attention.”

By 2014, the district expects to enroll some 11,800 children in Mid-South schools, up from the 8,600 enrolled this year.

According to one insider, remaking schools is an important positioning tool for CEO Arne Duncan and Mayor Daley.

“This is a key opportunity to do something bold, to show the middle-class families that these schools are for you, and to show that the mayor can undo his father’s legacy—which were high-rise ghettos,” says one person who helped plan new schools for Mid-South.

However, revamping Mid-South schools will be a challenge. Among the 25 schools, 11 are either on probation now or have been in the past. Enrollment is dwindling across the board.

As CPS continues to flesh out a solid plan, to be unveiled in June, critical questions remain. Some local leaders who’ve provided input wonder whether enough middle-class families will move into the area and live alongside public housing residents. They are skeptical that schools can be recast to appeal to middle- and upper-income families, and at the same time, serve the needs of low-income families.

“CPS is offering an excellent time to reexamine how we educate our children,” says Patricia Dowell, a Mid-South resident. “How that gets rolled out is the question. And education for whom?”

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