This is the third post in a series about the community engagement that is helping to define our future campus development. Click here to read the other posts in this series.
Our community extends far beyond the walls of our school to include our parents, extended families, partner organizations and the geographic community around us, and engagement with our local community has increased since expanding from one to two rented facilities that, while they are just a few blocks away from each other, are located in separate wards and distinct communities.
Our K-2 building, where we have been since 2009 is a former barrel factory sandwiched between a truck part distributor and a pallet company. The small one-story brick building blends into its surroundings and, although the parking lot has been converted into a playground and edible schoolyard gardens, you might the block a few times before recognizing that there is a school here. Ward 14, West of Cicero is heavily industrial, characterized by thundering trucks, rattling freight trains and roaring airplanes headed to Midway airport just over a mile away. In the pockets between factories and train yards are clusters of former workers’ cottages where many of our families live.
Our 3rd-8th grade building, where we moved in 2011 after running out of space in “the barrel factory,” is a sunny and (relatively) spacious two story annex building built by Chicago Public Schools to accommodate the once over-enrolled Phoebe A. Hearst Elementary School. AGC occupies a small piece of the beautiful Hearst Elementary School Campus. With four massive murals, three luscious gardens (two edible, and one native prairie garden with an outdoor classroom between the two buildings) and a real field for sports and wellness, this campus is buzzing with a different energy. The sounds on this side of Cicero are less industrial and more adolescent, with a few hundred Middle schoolers between the two schools in addition to local high schoolers that use the campus’s playgrounds and basketball courts after school hours. Ward 20, West of Cicero, is much more residential than industrial.
While once very distinct, these two neighborhoods have begun to blend as the Southwest side becomes more diverse, populated, and less industrial. Until 2009, the area West of Cicero was home to a bustling and populous city within a city: LeClaire Courts, a public housing development built in 1950. The loss of LeClaire Courts housing displaced tens of thousands of families and many useful community resources. The LeClaire community, now scattered, stays connected through an annual and a thousand former residents return to the land each summer for a picnic. The subsequent loss in enrollment left Hearst Elementary School’s Annex building vacant, and open for AGC to move our then growing population of students in. Moving into a building left vacant after such a large demolition was an emotionally complex experience.
Moving into a new community has also meant building new relationships and clarifying misconceptions about our school, as a single-site charter school with a unique vision of scale that does not include duplicating, but, rather, emphasizes scaling our ideas by sharing with Chicago Public Schools and districts around the world. To date, we have calculated a positive impact on 800,000 students around the world through our efforts to share our work, including our School Sustainability Handbook and open tours.
While occupying Hearst’s Annex building, AGC has continued to add grade levels, as planned, to reach Kindergarten through 8th grade and graduate our first 8th grade class this year. The once spacious and sunny halls are now cluttered with student lockers, and small group-work. Storage spaces have become offices and offices became classrooms. The offices once shared by our School Culture Coordinator and our After School and Community Engagement Coordinator is now a Special Education office and pull-out classroom, and our conference room is now a computer lab.
For years, we have been planning to design our future dream school, a lush and green campus that will house all of our 450 students and serve as a model for the district and beyond, as the Midwest’s most sustainable school campus. After years of searching for clean land in our community, we found the area’s industrial history left toxic stains we weren’t capable of cleaning up. We’ve finally found a parcel west of Cicero that we can build our dream home on.
Engaging the community outside of our students, families and staff is a process that will take more than one workshop or observation day. We began in October with a small group of local leaders, including representatives from the Salvation Army, Chicago Park District, and neighbors who have raised children and grandchildren in the area. We discussed the community’s existing and desired resources and discussed. There were many services that had been lost with LeClaire Courts, and many had not been returned.
Our second meeting, held at the LeClaire – Hearst Community Center inside the beautiful LeClaire – Hearst Park, focused on sharing the diverse history of the community and understanding the way the community has changed since the 1950s.
“People want to hang on to their histories,” said one resident. “[in the past] we had community values and that’s what brings a community together.”
Participants shared their experience growing up in the area, as well as their concerns for the present and ideas for the future of the community. Much of the discussion centered around honoring the history of the community while building a new community together. The balance of history and future, young and old, was a theme of the conversation.
“How can we cheer each other on? It starts with young people, how do we attract young people?” Our future campus will certainly attract young people, however, it also needs to reflect the existing community. “The current residents represent stability.”
“Buildings can’t solve problems,” shared Studio Gang’s Todd Zima, “But they can react to needs.” Our future campus can’t make our community more collaborative, but it can react to our community’s desire to be more united.