A New School is coming to Belmont Cragin

At a press conference Sunday, August 5th, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, leaders from Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC) announced plans to build a new, state-of-the-art elementary school and adjoining community center. The school and community center will be a re-location of Belmont Cragin Elementary School and will be housed in a location yet to be decided.

This groundbreaking project is the culmination of over four years of the NWSHC’s organizing efforts among Belmont Cragin’s parents, students, local public-school leaders, and elected officials. The need for a new school arose from community meetings, door knocking, surveying, and listening sessions conducted by the NWSHC through the 2015 Belmont Cragin Quality of Life Plan (QLP). The QLP engaged over 1,000 residents throughout the summer in 2014, and a new school was the main priority identified by residents.

The school is backed by support from 11 of our 12 lcoal community schools as well all our local aldermen (30th, 31st, and 36th Wards), and County Commissioner Luis Arroyo Jr., State Senator Omar Aquino, and State Representative Luis Arroyo Sr.

The school and community center will respond to the needs of Belmont Cragin’s growing Latino, immigrant, and undocumented population. The community is home to the fastest growing Latino population in the state, the second highest undocumented population in the City of Chicago, and the highest number of English as a Second Language learners in the city. Further, this school addresses overcrowding among Belmont Cragin’s public schools; as of 2018, Belmont Cragin Elementary Schools were 1,400 students over capacity.

In acknowledgement of these needs, the school and community center will have social and emotional learning workshops, dual-language instruction, and supportive services to immigrant families, available after school and on weekends. Further, its teachers, programs, and education style will all be trauma-informed. The school will be rooted in building resiliency and will include a Wellness Center that provides space for health providers to serve students, parents, and community members.

Long-time Belmont Cragin resident and community activist Jose Quiles has also been central to school campaign. “We gave birth to Mary Lyon Elementary back in 1995, and here we are in 2019 and we still have the same problem of overcrowding. It means a lot to us to have another school on the northwest side. I was involved in the Quality of Life Plan in 2014 and I heard what the community was saying that our schools were overcrowded. When the community speaks out and the Mayor hears us, that’s a victory itself.”

Vanessa Valentin, Director of Community Organizing at the NWSHC, has been at the forefront of this project. She said: “This shows what a community can do working united with all stakeholders. We listened to what the community needs, what’s going to help children in Belmont Cragin get the resources they need. And having a community center that will build our community’s health and resiliency—it’s a win-win for the entire neighborhood. We’re changing the next generation of Belmont Cragin. We will see the future President of the United States and the future mayor of Chicago come out of this school.”

Also critical in the years-long battle to lobby and organize for the school is Belmont Cragin Elementary Principal, Stacy Stewart, who will assume the same position at the new school. "This is truly a labor of love, it's about a community coming together to mobilize through non-violence and advocacy. It's a lesson that people do listen if you engage with them the right way. Through this process, many people's lives have been changed, they've developed as leaders, it has empowered them and the entire Belmont Cragin community.”

Stewart was recently awarded Golden Apple’s Stanley C. Golder Leadership Award, honoring exemplary performance in school leadership. Stewart has improved learning at Belmont Cragin Elementary by using an approach that combines personalized learning with dual-language education and social and emotional learning.

Laura Slabaugh