The Role of Neighborhood Schools in Community Organizing

Kelly High School is a neighborhood school in the Brighton Park community in Chicago. (Frank Buchalski)
Kelly High School is a neighborhood school in the Brighton Park community in Chicago. (Frank Buchalski)

By Lynda Lopez 

As puzzling as it may seem in our current financial climate, CPS held hearings last week to garner feedback for seven new charter school proposals. In front of CPS headquarters, community members representing schools like Kelvyn Park and Prosser held a press conference to express their disapproval for the proposals. As the press conference rolled on, another scene unfolded on the sidewalk around it. Lines of students, teachers, and community members waited to enter the hearings, each representing different sides of the charter vs. public debate, a debate less drawn from abstractions but from the lived experiences of many of the students attending.

On one side stood Kelly High School students alongside Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC) leaders, and on the other stood the Noble Charter students (mostly from Noble’s downtown campus). The proposal for a Noble Charter school on 47th and California has ignited backlash throughout the Brighton Park community, especially from Kelly High School students and stakeholders. If a new charter school is approved a few blocks away from Kelly, it will most definitely lead to a drop in enrollment and a loss in funding. Knowing the potential negative implications of a new school, Kelly students donning their BPNC shirts impassionately chanted “Save our schools!” and held up signs saying “No to Noble!” and “Fund our schools!” There was a cohesion among the Kelly students that made for a powerful show of force and made me think about the greater implications of privatization and divestment from neighborhood schools. As Noble seeks to expand, Kelly stands to lose much of what it has built and continues to build in the larger community. This became clearer after watching the documentary In the Game.

Last Thursday, Kelly screened In the Game, a documentary following the lives of the Kelly High School girls’ soccer team. Throughout the film, we are shown the adversity the school faces, such as losing $4 million one year; at one point, students even had to bring toilet paper to use in the washroom. Juxtaposed with the losses, however, is the story of community and the role of community groups in harnessing the power of the school. Brighton Park Neighborhood Council was a prominent feature of the film, operating out of an office in the school, and offering various resources for students. On the Kelly website, it says, “The high school is an anchor in the community through a partnership with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council which brings in needed health and social services and youth and community development via the Chicago Community Schools Initiative.” BPNC also offers “arts opportunities and community development.” Kelly is much more than a school; it’s a hub where community groups like BPNC can build their base and provide important resources for the larger community.

At the documentary screening, BPNC, Kelly alumni, parents, etc, were all there to experience the film together, a representation of the strong existing network the school promotes. It is no coincidence that the southwest side has one of the most formidable movements against Noble that this city has seen. Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, alongside Kelly students and teachers, has spurred this fight forward through town halls and meetings with the local alderman. This has been a showing of the strong role Kelly plays in creating a space for Brighton Park residents to address community concerns.

Neighborhood schools connect students, parents, and community groups, which fosters cohesion and community power.  Privatization, charter school expansion, and school closings threaten the community-building potential neighborhood schools help foster. It threatens the organizing power of communities like Brighton Park. All throughout the city, we see how integral neighborhood schools are to building power and the way community groups serve as a vital link. On the northwest side, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) garners much of its base through its large network of parent mentors and student leaders at various schools, including Kelvyn Park High School. LSNA has recently been helping to lead efforts to fight against budget cuts at Kelvyn Park. In Bronzeville, Dyett High School has been a center of activism, as community leaders with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization waged a 34-day hunger strike to maintain Dyett as an open-enrollment school. Neighborhood schools have served as an important bridge and venue to address community concerns, especially among working-class families that may not have ties to other formal institutions. Privatization of our schools takes away power from communities and weakens institutions that allow for community-building to occur. If we care about strong communities, we need to care about our neighborhood schools and fight for their existence because our communities are stronger with them.