By 2015, the State of Illinois had the most regressive education funding system in the country. When the state put forth its new education funding system in 2018, it calculated each of the state’s ~850 school districts’ funding adequacy targets. North Chicago Community School District 187 had just 54% of the funding it needed to serve its students. Meanwhile, the surrounding communities of more affluent and whiter students had 288% (Rondout), 158% (Lake Forest), 137% (Lake Bluff) of their education funding adequacy targets.
North Chicago is a city about 35 miles north of downtown Chicago and has a population of around 30,000 people. The city is home to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, which is the largest training installation for the United States Navy. Despite its proximity to some of the wealthiest communities in the state, North Chicago’s school district serves over 80% low-income students. The community has significant racial and ethnic disparities in poverty rates, with Black and Hispanic residents experiencing high rates of poverty.
In that context, it is not surprising that this school district failed its students as the community became more impoverished in the 1990s and early 21st century.
The state took over the schools in 2012. While there is much more to do, graduation rates have increased from 56% to 82% and 9th grade on track has soared to 94% today, compared to 2012. In particular, those graduation rate improvements have no significant gaps by race, and North Chicago Community High School has among the highest graduation rates for Black students than any other high school in Lake County (among 28 high schools). North Chicago is now home to a preschool which has received the state’s Gold Level of Quality two review cycles in a row. Further, the district has achieved the highest rating level of financial sustainability from the state for six years running.
What are the ingredients to progress, and what will it take to go much further for students? We are introducing you to Mrs. Dora King, chairperson of the school district’s independent authority, to tell this story. Our team at Afton has experienced Mrs. King as a North Chicago community hero.
Mrs. King, as a long-time community member of North Chicago and the chairperson of the North Chicago Community Unit School District 187 Independent Authority for the last decade, please tell us about your personal story.
My family came to North Chicago from Mississippi during the Great Migration in the 1950s seeking jobs at the factories. My street in North Chicago was full of strong Black men and women who were working hard and providing for their families. The community was segregated as were the schools. My church was my strength – it is where activities and structure were provided, and my church educated me and other children as much or more than the public schools did. In the 1960s, as young people in our church, we grew up in The National Baptist Convention around Baptist preachers and social justice advocate, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. I saw parents and community members going to school board meetings, advocating for a better education opportunity for all of the children. So, I learned how to advocate for change from the adults around me. I went on to raise my three children, all of whom have been accepted into PhD programs and are a physicist, an educator, and a biologist. I, myself, went on to get my college degree.
What led to you becoming the chairperson of the state’s independent authority over the school district?
Assuming this governance role for the school district is an extension of my entire life’s work. During the time after I raised my children in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot changed in the school system and in our community of North Chicago. Industry started leaving in the 1990s, and families immigrated from the City of Chicago’s housing projects to North Chicago. Around the same time, more Hispanic families moved in. The culture of the city changed as well as the differentiated needs of the children. And our school district was unable to effectively serve the needs of the children. The state did a takeover of the school district, which by then was insolvent, and they asked me to take on this responsibility. I accepted the role because I believe in building something excellent for our students and can do so as a fair-minded, honest, respectful leader.
Here at Afton, we met you soon after the state took over the school district in 2012. A lot was written about the problems of the district at that time and what the community had experienced with regards to school failures, mismanagement, insolvency, and fraud. Since 2012, the school district’s academic progress has been improving and its finances are more stable. The community opened a brand new Neal Middle School this past year, and Superintendent Dr. John Price is being named Lake County Superintendent of the Year. By 2027, the district will transition to a fully elected school board. All of this has been done under your leadership. Through your eyes, what should our society learn from this history to better our service to the children of tomorrow?
This is a story about establishing stable and credible leadership, being accountable for student programs and governance processes, and being laser focused on taking responsibility for the children. After the first few years of building that trusted and stable leadership as a foundation, the ability to serve our students improved dramatically – including being able to attract the resources to invest in student services. What has been lifted off today was out of vision at the beginning because the school system was in such disrepair. Now, our children are college-going. We welcome parents into the high school for training. We have established a robust early learning center. We have business partnerships and community partnerships that have led to a new school facility and various student-serving programs after school and beyond.
What are your dreams for North Chicago’s students? What will it take moving forward to see those dreams through?
My dream is that each student in North Chicago is prepared for whatever they choose to be in life. My dream is that our students can dream and are prepared to fulfill their own dreams. This will require a continued child-centered focus. It will require that the adults continue to see the child and care for the child, and that decisions are made in that context. We have more to do to attract the funding and build the talent to be at our best. Right now, we have a foundation to build from.