Pilsen & Little Village: Community organizing pays off

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Southwest Side Cousins

Southwest Side Cousins

On the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend, community members and friends gathered on an empty lot at the western edge of Little Village for an anniversary celebration: Two years ago, 14 parents and grandparents put up tents on that lot and began a hunger strike to get a new high school built there.

This May, they reviewed the fruits of their protest and continued labor, passing around architectural plans and remembering how far they have come.

“I got tired of hearing horror stories about Farragut,” recalls Linda Sarate, referring to the only high school in Little Village. “Paul Vallas told us to go to Springfield to get more money for a new school. But we had already been there.” Sarate hopes her son Gary, now in 6th grade, will be in the new school’s first class.

From business-like meetings in 2000 to a hunger strike in 2001 to curriculum planning sessions in 2002 and 2003, the creation of a second high school in Little Village is part of a Chicago tradition, community organizing to get the government on your side. It also represents a budding variation: the involvement of community development corporations in schools.

Five years ago, Little Village was confident of getting a new school because the Board of Education had bought the land and earmarked $30 million for construction. However, political leaders in neighboring Pilsen felt their community deserved a new school, too, and objected to the distant site. Meanwhile, the money got swept away in the rush to build two college prep high schools on the North Side.

When meetings and petitions failed to restart the Little Village project, the newly created Little Village Community Development Corp. took a page from Pilsen’s playbook and organized the hunger strike.

Thirty years ago, Pilsen students walked out of the now-closed Froebel High on 21st Street to pressure for the creation of Juarez High.

While Little Village has a burgeoning school population, its neighborhood high school, Farragut, is not overcrowded by School Board standards. The reason is that 50 percent to 60 percent of the graduates from area elementary schools go elsewhere for high school, a loss rate that is about average for a Chicago public high school. Still, Farragut suffers from a reputation for violence and poor performance that school officials say is no longer deserved. Attendance and test scores are on the rise, and many teachers report that student discipline is much improved.

But the difficulties of this large, comprehensive high school—it enrolls 2,300 students—figured into the plans for the new school. Little Village High School will be built to accommodate four small schools with 400 students each, for a total of 1,600, and will have an attendance zone that will not require students to cross gang boundaries on their way to school.

“Just the fact that it is a new school brings hope,” says Jaime DeLeon of the Little Village CDC. “Everyone we talk to is really excited.”

School officials and community members have worked together closely on the plans. But many difficult decisions remain, such as who will get to attend the new school. In tight financial times, money could be a problem as well. Charles Kuner, a veteran teacher at Farragut warns, “Those parents are going to have to keep a very close eye on the Board.”