Pilsen & Little Village: Constructing a new school

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Little Village hunger strikers

photo by John Booz

Little Village hunger strikers

The fledgling Little Village Community Development Corp. did not intend to get involved in schools when it set up shop in 1998. Rather, like most such organizations, it had its sights set on improving housing and supporting local businesses.

However, in the summer of 2000, its volunteers kept coming back with a different priority. “Everywhere our block club organizers went, people would ask them, ‘Whatever happened to the new school we were promised?'” says Jaime DeLeon, the corporation’s director of community initiatives.

“This was something that the community was very passionate about,” says Jesús (Chuy) Garcia, the former state senator and alderman who now is executive director of the Little Village CDC. “You need to address what people are really concerned about first.”

So the CDC staff and a small but determined group of parents and community members swung into action. During a yearlong effort: They unearthed the history of the School Board’s promises for a new school in Little Village. They gathered signatures on petitions. They pleaded at School Board meetings.

They disrupted public events. They met with Chicago Public Schools officials. They went to Springfield. But they got nowhere. There were two sticking points. One was the opposition of the powerful alderman next door in Pilsen. Two, the money had disappeared into other projects.

Finally, the Little Village activists resorted to a hunger strike. Months later, a new school administration and reconstituted School Board revived the commitment to a new school with a $5 million down payment. And the moms and grandmothers just kept going, meeting biweekly to plan, talking to other parents about what kind of school they wanted, and meeting with CPS staff and architects to help design the school.

With an anticipated September groundbreaking and 2005 school opening, many difficult decisions remain, such as winning community and CPS approval for the academic programs that have been planned.

The Board of Education first promised Little Village a new school in January 1998, according to Garcia, who credits Ald. Ricardo Muñoz (22nd). “He worked it very hard,” says Garcia.

Farragut Career Academy, the sole high school in Little Village, was not large enough to serve the community’s burgeoning student population. And many parents refused to send their children there anyway because of the school’s poor academic performance, a high dropout rate and, at one time, frequent violence.

The School Board bought land at the western edge of the community where a shuttered cooking-oil factory stood, and it budgeted $30 million to begin work on a combined elementary and secondary school.

But Ald. Daniel (Danny) Solis (25th), the alderman from neighboring Pilsen, applied pressure to block the school. For the record, he maintained it was unwise to put elementary and secondary school children in the same school. But he also was known to oppose a site so far away from Pilsen, which, like Little Village, had been promised an addition to its community high school, Juarez.

As a protracted tug-of-war ensued, the money earmarked for Little Village seeped into other construction projects, like two college prep high schools on the North Side. Neither schools CEO Paul Vallas nor School Board President Gery Chico would take sides in the Southwest Side stand-off. They told the communities to go back to Springfield for money or to resolve the issues themselves.

Time for drama

The Little Village group decided it was time for drama. On Mother’s Day 2001, a small group of parents and community members set up camp on the Kostner site and began a hunger strike.

“We did it because the Board of Education gave the money to other schools,” says Manuelita Garcia, a grandmother who has been one of the most involved community members.

For 19 days, the strikers consumed nothing but juice and water and, in the process, attracted waves of publicity. They quit when they felt that they had made their point and became worried about the health of some of the strikers.

In August, the School Board, then headed by Michael Scott, renewed its commitment to both communities without setting deadlines. It allocated $5 million for site preparation and design at 31st and Kostner and $5 million to begin the process of finding and purchasing a site for a second high school in Pilsen. It also promised $25 million for an annex to Juarez High School.

Little Village got out of the gate fast. Within two months, the hunger strikers were meeting in the Harding Street offices of the Little Village CDC to begin planning their new school. With a translator at their side, they talked with architects about the size and physical features of the building, and with curriculum experts about programs.

The Little Village CDC conducted a dozen meetings with community members, put out surveys to find out what parents wanted and held focus groups with students. This spring, the CDC began raising awareness of the new school by making presentations at neighborhood elementary schools.

“Everything from the planning and design of the building facility, to the school’s academic focus, has been done collaboratively with the CPS, community organizations, LSCs and principals from feeder elementary schools,” stresses Jeanne Nowaczewski, director of the office of small schools at CPS.

Recently, the CDC won a $110,000 grant from the The Chicago Community Trust to support the school planning process. Soon it will receive even more funding for this and other efforts from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. That money—the total is uncertain—will come by way of the Local Initiatives Service Corp. (LISC), a redevelopment non-profit that MacArthur is using to select recipients for funding under its “new communities program.” Still more money may be forthcoming from a $17 million, national grant the Walton Family Foundation made to LISC to help create and improve school facilities.

CDC involvement in schools is a trend that began roughly a decade ago and is likely to continue to grow, according to Andrew Mooney, senior program director for LISC in Chicago. “It is part of a CDC’s interest to ensure that community schools are doing well,” says Mooney, who cites a couple of Chicago examples, including involvement of the North River Commission in Northside College Prep, and the Southeast Chicago Development Commission in the new Sullivan Elementary School.

“CDCs are involved in everything from housing to childcare to healthcare to whatever needs doing,” says Mooney. “Education is pretty close to the top of the list.”

As with its birth, the new Little Village school itself will break new ground: It will be the first high school in Chicago built to accommodate small schools—four to be precise, each enrolling about 400 students. The school also will feature two gyms, a pool, an auditorium and a distance-learning lab. A decorative cone will act as a sundial and memorialize the strike that led to the school’s creation.

Budgeted at almost $60 million, Little Village High School will be the city’s most expensive new school. On a per-pupil basis, construction costs will rival those of Northside. Little Village will log in at $43,000 per pupil; Northside was $47,000.

The school also will boast a broad range of social services and be open to the community during the evenings and weekends, according to organizers.

College prep

While the school will aim to prepare all its students for college, there will be no special admission requirements.

The idea of creating four small schools is a compromise between community members who wanted as large a high school as possible to accommodate as many students as possible, and CPS, which was against building a school with more than 1,200 students. Faced with CPS opposition, the community turned to small schools.

According to hunger striker Garcia, some parents came to see the educational benefits of small learning communities after visiting a small school in Ohio—at the suggestion of Jaqueline Leavy of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group—and hearing Deborah Meier, a leader in the national small-schools movement, and some parents who visited from New York City.

DeLeon of the CDC acknowledges that small schools will continue to need a sales job in the broader community. “It’s not something that someone just understands,” he says, noting that it took parents on the committee a while to understand how the schools would work and their emphasis on relationships and self-esteem.

Parents and community members still express concern over which of the schools will be “better” and whether their children will be able to transfer among the small schools if they change their minds. Some doubt that the dual-language program planned for one of the schools will attract parents and students.

But Mike Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois, is not worried about community buy-in. “I have never seen a group of people who are more concerned with getting the community involved at every stage,” he says. “These guys have the involvement thing down.” The Workshop has dedicated one staffer to serve as a liaison with school planners.

Such community savvy will be needed as planners tackle the remaining, sticky challenges. They include:

Finalizing an academic focus for each small school. The leading ideas are performing and visual arts, language arts/dual language, math/science/technology, and social justice.

Deciding how many local school councils and principals the school will have. The curriculum committee currently favors just one council, one building principal and four program directors.

Setting attendance boundaries and, therefore, the elementary schools that will feed into the high school. The CDC says tentative plans include six schools in Little Village—Castellanos, Corkery, Gary, Little Village Academy, Whitney, and Zapata—and two in North Lawndale—Mason and Paderewski. This configuration would yield a high school population that is about 70 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African American, according to the CDC.

Determining the opening enrollment. One option under consideration would have each small school start with only a freshman class, but that would leave large parts of the facility unused the first few years.

Also up in the air is whether the new school will receive funding through the High School Redesign Initiative, a citywide effort supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create smaller high schools. A recent Chicago Sun-Times article suggested that Little Village might get some Gates funding, but that was news to those involved in the school. Patricia Ford, the initiative’s director, says it “anticipates” providing support to the new school but has not made a commitment yet. Chuy Garcia of the CDC acknowledges that to ensure the new school will be a good school, “we still have a lot of things to do.”

Meanwhile, in Pilsen, construction matters are moving much more slowly. Groundbreaking for the $25-30 million Juarez expansion was scheduled for June, then August and may be pushed back further, according to Assistant Principal Karen Gill. “It’s still in the blueprint stage,” says Carmen Cruz, another of the school’s assistant principals. “There is no definite date.”

As for the new school, CPS is still looking for a site.