South Shore: Community turns around, but progress at schools is slow

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South Shore

South Shore

Once on a fast track to become yet another blighted urban community—the aftermath of white flight and disinvestment—South Shore has changed course. Its lakefront location, vintage housing stock and residents’ own efforts to preserve two key institutions have helped the community hold on to middle-class African Americans.

One of those institutions is South Shore National Bank, which in 1973 had announced plans to move out of the community because of declining business opportunities. But protests and federal regulators forced a sale, and a group of four neighborhood investors bought the bank. Over the next three decades, the bank, now known as Shorebank, underwrote loans for about a third of South Shore’s housing stock, expanded to five cities and two rural areas, and earned an international reputation for its brand of community-development banking.

A lower profile, but also noteworthy, effort saved the once-exclusive South Shore Country Club from demolition and transformed it into a showplace for arts and culture run by the Chicago Park District.

Last year, South Shore Cultural Center received landmark status, and capital projects are underway to build a dance studio and cooking school in the field house.

Yet throughout the 30-year renewal of South Shore, few of the community’s better-off families have put their children in nearby public schools, opting instead for private schools or long commutes to magnets elsewhere in the city. In recent years, an influx of poor children, mostly those displaced by public housing redevelopment, has increased mobility in some elementary schools and forced them to serve needier students without additional resources.

“My children have moved around a lot. They bring with them some emotional baggage,” observes Principal Diane Rochon of Parkside Community Academy. Once children enroll, she adds, “Believe me, sometimes they leave three weeks later.”

Principal Shelby Taylor of Revere Elementary notes that “the new kids have been having disciplinary problems, but we’ve gotten nothing [from central office].”

A November study by the Illinois Facilities Fund ranked South Shore as the community area most in need of a better-performing elementary school, and strongly suggested that the district open a new school there. Acting quickly, Chicago Public Schools approved a charter school’s expansion proposal to open there for next fall.

South Shore fared a bit better in the high school rankings, coming in at 20th, but only because it enrolls fewer high school students relative to other parts of the city. The report recommended holding off on creating new high school options to give an effort to convert South Shore High School into four smaller schools a chance to take hold.

Local residents have had a hand in South Shore’s conversion through the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore, a grassroots group founded in the 1980s in response to a CBS documentary that exposed the school’s dismal academics and high dropout rates. In the 1990s, CIESS began developing a network among area elementary principals, and recently embarked on a neighborhood planning process to improve elementary school options for families.

Meanwhile, the middle class is watching for clear signs of improvement. Henry English, a neighborhood resident who led the fight to save the country club, is not ready to send his own 8th-grade daughter to the South Shore high school campus. “We’re looking at high schools [but] we’re not looking at South Shore,” he says, adding that rebuilding the school’s academics is “going to take some time.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.