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A new day for Chicago neighborhood schools

The district’s pledge to put neighborhood schools first is a start to making Chicago’s communities stronger.

An exterior view of Englewood STEM High School
The new Englewood STEM High School, which welcomes its first class of freshmen when the 2019-2020 school year begins on Tuesday, Sept. 3.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Another school year starts Tuesday, and Englewood teenagers who might otherwise make a crosstown trek to school now can walk to a new, $85 million building in their own neighborhood.

The new Englewood STEM High School is a promising sign for the impoverished South Side community. Its residents desperately need such a ray of hope, after years of watching vacant lots take over entire blocks and seeing proud schools become boarded-up buildings.

Chicago prides itself on being a “city of neighborhoods,” but communities such as Englewood will never rebound without good schools. Neighborhood schools are community anchors, essential to a healthy community. Without them, families leave. Communities die.

Yet Chicago’s neighborhood schools have taken hit after hit. Mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttered 50 of them in 2013 while, at the same time, the Chicago Public Schools poured hundreds of millions of dollars into charter and selective enrollment schools. To be fair, the groundwork for the new school building in Englewood that will open this week was laid under Emanuel’s watch.

Students who didn’t score high enough on entrance exams for the top-tier schools, or whose parents didn’t know how to get them into a charter school, were left to find the best fit they could among schools that would take in students from outside their attendance area.

It’s no wonder that most students, even now, do not attend their own neighborhood school.

With that in mind, we welcome a pledge by Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to shore up schools that have been neglected stepchildren for too long.

Shore them up enough and neighborhoods like Englewood, North Lawndale, Austin and Auburn-Gresham stand a far better chance of a real rebirth.

This year, CPS’ $7.7 billion budget includes $619 million for much-needed capital improvements and academic programs in neighborhood schools. The money won’t fix every broken window and balky boiler, but it will make a visible difference.

It will pay for a new roof and athletic field for Morgan Park High School, a new roof for Earle Elementary in West Englewood, new preschool classrooms, upgrades so that schools meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, modernized science labs, improved internet access and more specialized curricula, such as the prestigious International Baccalaureate program.

Compare this to the school district’s capital budget for last year, which was skewed heavily toward spending on school annexes and new schools, most of them in middle-class communities on the North and Northwest sides, as a WBEZ analysis found.

Meanwhile, WBEZ found, other schools had racked up $3 billion in needed repairs that went undone.

Real “community schools” in low-income neighborhoods provide social services and after school programs for kids, as well as activities for families and the community as a whole. Research has shown that students in community schools with these offerings tend to have fewer discipline problems, better emotional health, higher attendance and higher test scores.

CPS supports several community school models already. This year, the district is investing $10 million in a community schools partnership with the Chicago Teachers Union at 20 schools.

CTU wants to expand the model beyond 20 schools, which might be terrific. But we’ll wait on the findings of outside evaluators from the University of Wisconsin.

A good neighborhood school tells every neighborhood boy and girl that he or she is prized.

As one principal told the Sun-Times, “When kids look around and they don’t see that they’re being valued, how do they think their learning’s valued? It takes a long time to right a wrong.”

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