Penn Elementary School in North Lawndale was on the potential closing list until late March, when school leaders learned Penn would be spared. Penn shares its building with KIPP Ascend Charter, and Penn staff have been concerned that the charter school will eventually take over the building. [Photo by Jonathan Gibby] Credit: Photo by Jonathan Gibby

Most of the corners along 16th Street, in the heart of the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, are vacant lots. On snowy winter days, no one clears the sidewalks in front of the lots, forcing pedestrians to trudge down the middle of the street.

Here and there, a run-down building still stands—some house little neighborhood stores, others are boarded up and tagged with graffiti. Only two new buildings exist: a fire station and an apartment building on the site where Martin Luther King Jr. once lived in 1966 during his stint in Chicago to protest the city’s segregated housing.

Two schools remain. The biggest one, Penn, is a grey-beige, mammoth structure. On its marquee is a little prayer: “Save our Schools.”

Penn and other neighborhood schools in North Lawndale have half as many students as they did a decade ago. CPS officials have gone out of their way to emphasize that North Lawndale’s population loss, and the population loss in other mostly black West and South Side neighborhoods, is the driving factor in the dwindling enrollment. For that reason, CPS has said, schools must be closed.

But population loss is not the entire story. Several converging factors, from housing policies to social ills, have led to fewer children in these Chicago neighborhoods.

“It was not a natural process,” says Pauline Lipman, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

On top of outside factors, Lipman says, neighborhood schools were destabilized as the school district shifted its focus to what it calls “schools of choice.” CPS slowly pulled money and resources out of neighborhood schools years before they were closed, she insists.

The phenomenon of closing schools and moving toward charter schools is a national one. Because most of the schools being closed serve black and sometimes Latino students, activists and students from New York, Detroit, Washington D.C. and 15 other cities came together last year to file civil rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and the U. S. Department of Justice.

Helen Moore, a long-time Detroit activist, says the closings of more than 300 neighborhood schools in her city over the past decade has led to even more population loss in already-devastated communities.

“I see blight everywhere,” says Moore. She partly blames CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who led the school system in Detroit from 2009 to 2011.

On top of this added decline, Moore says, many children have dropped out of school because their mothers don’t have money to get them to and from the new schools—many of which are charters. 

CPS officials and advocates for school choice are virtually certain to disagree with Lipman’s assertion that the district has long neglected neighborhood schools. But one thing is clear: The population decline that affects many schools has been worsened by the expansion of choice over the past decade.

Consider these statistics from a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data for 2012:

  • Only 40 percent of elementary students in North Lawndale attend their neighborhood school. A decade ago, the situation was reversed, with 60 percent of students going to neighborhood schools and 40 percent traveling to schools elsewhere.

  • In 14 predominantly black South Side and West Side communities that CPS defines as “underutilized,” an average of 54 percent of elementary students attend their neighborhood school. In other communities, two-thirds of elementary students attend their neighborhood school.

  • In the 10 neighborhoods with the most children attending their neighborhood school, six are well-to-do neighborhoods on the North Side or Northwest Side. The other four are Latino neighborhoods–two on the Far Southeast Side and two on the Southwest Side of the city.

To a large degree, this situation was created by design. When former Mayor Richard M. Daley and then-Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan launched Renaissance 2010, the central idea was to put new schools into communities that did not have enough good options and, at the same time, to shut down low-achieving schools.

In 2004, North Lawndale, along with every other community that today has a high number of underutilized schools, was among the top 25 neighborhoods in need of better schools. That assessment was made in a report by the Illinois Facilities Fund, which provides loans to non-profits, including charter schools. (The fund is now known as IFF.)

Daley and Duncan opened more than 100 new schools, mostly charters but also some magnet schools. They were more cautious when it came to closing schools, leaving some communities with a glut of classrooms.

North Lawndale has been caught in the middle, with five charter elementary schools, more than any other community area in the city. Three of these charter schools—Learn, Legacy and North Lawndale College Prep—have received strong financial and political support from the influential Steans Family Foundation, which focuses its philanthropy on North Lawndale.

A third of North Lawndale students who don’t attend their neighborhood school go to charters, according to CPS data.

Darren Tillis, a local businessman who co-chairs the community council charged with coming up with a plan for schools in the neighborhood, says that community leaders didn’t do enough to prevent this imbalance. North Lawndale wasn’t at the top of the list of neighborhoods that needed better schools, but it got the most new ones anyway.

“Who stood up and asked questions?” Tillis asks.

Still, the charter schools have given North Lawndale families some better options. Two of the five elementary charter schools are at Level 1, the district’s top rating on a performance scale that is based on test scores, improvement and attendance. One charter is at Level 3, the worst rating. In comparison, none of the 12 traditional neighborhood schools were at Level 1 in 2012, and nine received the worst rating.

Tillis, who is in his mid-40s, grew up in North Lawndale and says his parents didn’t have to go through the taxing process of worrying about where to send him for elementary school.

“The neighborhood school was seen as having a quality education,” he recalls.

But during that time, the community suffered its biggest blows. North Lawndale is famous for being the site of riots in 1968 following the assassination of the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr. These riots destroyed the businesses along Roosevelt Road.

Then, in the following decade, major businesses took off, including Sears, Zenith, Sunbeam and Western Electric. Families with means also left, sending the population plummeting from nearly 95,000 in 1970 to 47,296 in the1990 census.

Yet in the1990s, hope seemed to spring up. North Lawndale is just 15 minutes from downtown and close to a major medical district, so developers thought they might have a chance to lure higher-income homebuyers to the area. New houses began to pop up.

Around Homan Square at West Arthington and South Central Park (the location of the old Sears headquarters), gated communities of townhomes and single-family homes were built. Many of these homes were subsidized by New Homes for Chicago, a city housing program that encouraged mixed-income developments. In 2000, a new community center and park district facility opened up.

In 2005, the optimism about the neighborhood was evident. A plan developed through the New Communities Program (a development initiative funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) put forth this bold vision: “By 2010, North Lawndale will have a growing and diverse population with a mix of incomes, generations and cultures. It will be a place where people choose to live, invest, raise their families and work.”

But these plans never materialized, derailed by a combination of unscrupulous landlords, the housing crisis during the recession and the collapse of Daley’s 2016 Olympic dreams.

Community activist Valerie Leonard drives down Douglas Boulevard, a wide, winding thoroughfare lined with greystones and deep, courtyard apartment buildings. Like others in the community, Leonard points to a major blow that came in 2005: the seizure by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of 100 of the buildings along Douglas, Independence and some interior streets.  

As Leonard tells the story, it started when a woman accidentally backed into a garage. Inspectors who came to look at the property found deplorable conditions in the building, which was owned by Lawndale Restoration Limited Partnership.

Inspectors went to look at other HUD-subsidized buildings owned by the partnership, which was managed by Cecil Butler, once a highly esteemed North Lawndale businessman.

Most of the buildings owned by the partnership could be identified by their thick brown windowpanes, Leonard says. “That one, that one, that one,” she says, pointing to one apartment building after the other. Altogether, the partnership lost 1,200 units of housing.

“When these buildings were foreclosed on, it was huge,” she says. “It was like a neutron bomb hit the area.”
Since then, the federal government has sold the buildings to a variety of for-profit and non-profit owners. But Leonard notes that families have been slow to move back in. 

Meanwhile, in the mid-2000s, more new houses were built on various side streets. Many of the blocks are now an odd mix—two or three new houses in a row, a few greystones, an apartment building and empty lots.

Median home values rose by 10 percent throughout North Lawndale between 2000 and 2008, and the percent of owner-occupied units also rose, according to a report by the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Schools also got a boost. Michael Scott, an influential businessman who grew up in the area, was president of the CPS Board of Education for two separate terms in the 2000s. Under Scott’s watch, local schools got more than other neighborhoods for capital projects, according to a 2004 Catalyst analysis. (See “School repairs up on Scott’s watch” in the March 2004 issue of Catalyst Chicago.) Yet at the time, Scott noted the funds came after decades of neglect and were “a drop in the bucket” at best.

Scott also bought up parcels of empty land in the community, in anticipation that Chicago would host the Olympics. The sprawling Douglas Park in the center of North Lawndale was to be a venue for events.

Then, in 2008, the Olympic dream died and the bottom fell out of the housing market. (In 2009, Scott’s body was found in the Chicago River; the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office ruled his death was a suicide.)

Like many black neighborhoods on the West and South sides, North Lawndale was devastated by the foreclosure crisis. Boarded-up homes, both new and old, are now found on nearly every street.

Many of these buildings were owned by landlords who didn’t inform residents that they were losing their property, says Tracie Worthy, education organizer from the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, a not-for-profit housing organization.

“These landlords were continuing to collect rent while not paying their mortgage,” she says. “Residents didn’t find out until the sheriff showed up at their door and all of a sudden they had to move or were homeless.”

While the housing market in Chicago is rebounding in some communities, North Lawndale isn’t one of the lucky areas. On real estate websites, most properties listed are foreclosures or pre-foreclosures. More than a third of those currently on the market are for sale for less than $50,000, according to

Also, as in many other communities with underutilized schools, North Lawndale lost population—and children—when its public housing projects were demolished. Ogden Courts was torn down in 2007, and though there are plans for redevelopment, the land where the buildings once stood along West Ogden Avenue is yet another stretch of vacant property.

The schools that remain in the neighborhood are remnants of North Lawndale’s heyday. Before white, mostly Jewish families abandoned North Lawndale, before the major businesses moved away, there was a school construction boom. Adding to the stock of early 1900s, grand old brick buildings with ornate molding, like Penn, nearly 10 buildings rose up around the neighborhood in the 1950s and early 1960s.

At the time, the area was bustling with families, and many of these schools were only blocks apart. Mason Elementary, which was built in 1922, got three additions, in 1958, 1964 and 1972. It became a sprawling campus of motley buildings that today house a charter school, a small high school and an elementary school with a dwindling enrollment.

Most of North Lawndale’s population was lost between the 1970s and 2000s. During that time, more than one-fifth of the residents left. Between 2000 and 2010, the population dropped by another 14 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Many of the residents still in the community don’t have as many children. The number of school-age youngsters in North Lawndale fell by about 25 percent during the past decade.

At community meetings, CPS officials have brought PowerPoint presentations detailing the population loss in the areas. But Tracie Worthy, Valerie Leonard and others say population loss is beside the point—the presentations seem as though officials are trying to convince them of something they already know, something they live every day.

Leonard, who grew up in North Lawndale and whose father was the principal of Paderewski (a neighborhood school), is dismayed as she drives and walks through the neighborhood.

“Wow,” she says, stopping s at a newly constructed two-flat that has boarded-up windows and is marked with a red X, signaling demolition.

The one shining spot is the MLK apartments on 16th Street. The Lawndale Christian Development Corporation has space for a health clinic, a restaurant and a professional kitchen that caterers can use. Also, a fair housing exhibit center is planned for the first floor. “We want it to be a destination point around Chicago,” Worthy says.

A couple of blocks away, Lawndale Christian Development Corporation is building an art and technology center.

The vision is to provide adults with job training in industries where jobs exist, and give teenagers the opportunity to become involved in the arts.

Yet these hopeful developments don’t erase the current reality that the area is a desert—a grocery store desert, a healthy food desert, a technology desert, a job desert.

Worthy and others say they want to hang on to schools, not because they will be able to fill every seat in every classroom, but more because an empty school will be another blow, another institution lost.

“It feels like children are being punished,” Worthy says.

Betty Green, who is co-chair of the local Community Action Council, says that in many cases, the school is the only thing children and families have left. For 39 years, she was principal of Herzl Elementary. As time went by, she saw children coming to school scarred by one of the other signs of the neighborhood’s devastation: Many of them had parents in prison.

After she retired in 2008, Green started a mentoring program for children of the incarcerated or children who had been affected by incarceration. (See Catalyst Chicago, April 2007.)

Green says the discussion about space and closing schools doesn’t take into account the fact that schools provide stability.

“The children expect to see their classmates. They expect to see their teachers,” says Green. “When I was at Herzl, I had students whose parents and grandparents were also my students.”

Henson Principal Demetrius Hobson points out schools are one of the few places in the community with a group of people who have college degrees. As such, he sees himself and his staff serving as an example. Hobson came to the school a year and a half ago, and is working mightily to improve it.

Hobson says that drug dealers often sell on the corners surrounding the school; as he puts it, “young brothers work” the streets. With their presence glaringly evident to his students as they come to and from school, Hobson says he often feels as though he must sell education as a better alternative.

“We know the right path. We are the light bearers,” says Hobson, a young black man who went through the school leadership program at Harvard University. “We shine the way.”

A shuttered, discarded school sends the opposite message, Hobson notes.

Henson, just three blocks from Penn, is a hub for the community in other ways. It has a cozy health clinic run by Erie Health Center. Not only can students come in when they aren’t feeling well, but people in the community can also get appointments.

The clinic was inside Frazier Elementary until it was closed in 2007. Most of the students from Frazier went to Henson, so the health clinic followed the students.

Erie helped connect the school with the Greater Chicago Food Depository so that it could also house a food pantry. A sign outside reads “Free groceries,” rather than “Food pantry,” in an attempt to erase the stigma for people in need.

Inside the room is Euler Hatchett. She has lived in the community all her life, raised her children there and now is raising her nephew.

One day, Hatchett is cooking potatoes and showing parents how to prepare healthy meals. The smell of spices fills the air. Hatchett tells the story of what happened with her nephew during a previous round of school closings.

Her nephew was at Frazier when it was a traditional neighborhood school and shut down. He then went to the charter school that took over the building. That lasted a year.

“They found a reason to put him out,” Hatchett says.  She didn’t feel welcomed at the charter school and didn’t like it. Her nephew later ended up at Henson.

The whole school action process was detrimental to her nephew, Hatchett says. The time span from when Frazier closed to when he ended up at Henson took a toll on him. Just as he got settled into a new environment, he was uprooted again and finally landed at Henson, where he got his academics back on track.

Hatchett says she wishes the powers-that-be would realize two things about her community as they talk about closing schools. One is that they are poor and need resources. The other is that they deserve resources.

 “A lot of children here don’t have anything to eat,” Hatchett says. “Children and people in the community are hungry.

“They should take more consideration [into] helping people instead of throwing them out and down,” she adds.

“There are some beautiful people in this community, some beautiful children. Not everyone is bad.”

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Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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