On Friday, September 9, with great fanfare, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) announced his long-promised local education initiative, Grow 47. Although the program has many of the hallmarks of the usual big political program roll-out, for instance it will be co-chaired by ward resident and former state comptroller, Dan Hynes, Grow 47 is being widely praised by leaders of schools in the 47th Ward.
“It’s a good plan,” says Kathie Bock, chair of Friends of Coonley Elementary School. “Having had the experience at Coonley, getting the community involved is great.”
“It’s a good start,” says Greg Janes, chair of the Ravenswood Elementary Local School Council (LSC).
“I commend him for making education the centerpiece of his ward initiative,” says Bob Farster, co-founder of Friends of McPherson Elementary and a member of the school’s LSC. ”That has been a long time coming and needed.”
The initiative aims to improve schools in the ward by fostering and bolstering “friends of” groups for each school, using the alderman’s bully pulpit to move local businesses to sponsor local schools and to leverage a new aldermanic policy of giving school capital improvements priority access to Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money in the ward.
While many other new aldermen are making job creation and business promotion their first priority, for instance newly elected Edgewater and Andersonville Alderman Harry Osterman (48th) hired a full-time, experienced business development staffer, Pawar argues that improving neighborhood schools will make the 47th Ward more attractive to residents and increase real estate and business prospects as a result.
If kids do not test into selective enrollment schools, some well-to-do parents send them to private school. Many others, just move to the suburbs, says Pawar.
“If you look at the data for 9th graders living in the footprint of Lake View High School and you see how many of those kids go to those schools, a lot of them are going to selective enrollment or private schools,” Pawar told Center Square Journal. “You look at the Lake View Parents Association and the drop off, that there’s a big out-flow out of the ward. You leave the city if you can’t test into a magnet or private school.”
Pawar’s data analysis is not hyperbole, says Coonley Elementary’s Bock. “For most people I talk to in my area, if they can’t get into the academy high schools they’re extremely discouraged. It’s either get in or move [to the suburbs].”
While the Grow 47 roll-out calls for area high schools to get the same attention as elementary schools, Lake View High School, at Irving Park Rd. and Ashland Ave., is not in a TIF district, and Amundsen High School, inside the ward at Damen and Foster Avenues, lacks a parents’ group to coalesce around.
“For Amundsen there is no ‘friends of’ group,” admits Pawar. “I’m going to work with [Amundsen] principal [Carlos] Munoz to build one.”
“I think the biggest challenge is going to be the high schools,” says Bock. “Keeping people coming in to Chicago Public Schools is going to require having a K-12 solution…The fact is that our area has two large capacity high schools that could be solutions for people: we really need these to be schools of choice.”
As much as organizing parents and supportive area businesses appeals to local school leaders, the promise of TIF money and capital improvements from Pawar’s Grow 47 initiative is what really interests them.
“One of the things all the schools in the area are struggling with is needing capital,” says Ravenswood’s Janes. “If TIF is the way to do it. I’m all for it.”
“It’s all wrapped up in the promise of TIF, which we’ve all been working for some time,” says Coonley’s Kathie Bock. “I would like to hold him to that, using TIF money for our local schools.”
“It is ambitious,” says Pawar. “I told you that I was going swing big.”