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In Rare Departure, CPS Neighborhood School Wins Top National Award

When the U.S. Department of Education honors top performing schools across the country each year, the awards in Chicago usually go to schools where kids test in or schools that draw students from around the city.

But this year, a neighborhood Chicago public school, Solomon Elementary, won. Since 2004, only four of the 16 National Blue Ribbon awards for Chicago public schools have gone to neighborhood schools, which admit anyone from the surrounding community.

The award helps shows why “neighborhood schools matter,” Solomon Principal Christopher Gamble said. 

“We are a centerpiece of the community … When we do well, that shines a light on the whole community,” he said of his highly-diverse school, which is tucked away on a residential street in the North Park community. 

To have a shot at winning the Blue Ribbon honor as an Exemplary High Performing School, schools must test in the top 15 percent in their state. Of the 342 schools honored around the nation, 25 were from Illinois, including Solomon and Poe Classical Elementary school, a test-in school in Pullman on the South Side. Most Illinois winners are in the Chicago area, including two in suburban Deerfield, and six Archdiocese of Chicago Roman Catholic schools, two of them in the city. 

At Solomon, 71 percent of students scored at or above grade level on state tests in 2016. That’s compared to the state average of 34 percent of elementary students at grade level. CPS’ average is 26 percent. 

Solomon’s scores are high for any type of school, much less one with large numbers of immigrants and students just learning English. Sixty percent of Solomon’s students were considered low-income last school year. And the families at Solomon come from all over the globe. At home, they speak about 40 different languages, Gamble said. 

Three that rarely go together — Arabic, Vietnamese, and Romanian — are the top languages spoken by Solomon students.

“I like how there’s a lot of diversity in all the classes,” said Brian Nguyen, an eighth grader. “There’s a lot of races and religions here.”

Many of his classmates are immigrants and some are refugees. Brian says everyone gets along, despite the varied backgrounds. Some 30 percent of Solomon students last year had limited English skills and 30 percent received special education services, according to the school’s Blue Ribbon application. 

Solomon also stands out for its small size — just 360 preschool through 8th graders. It’s that small but diverse environment, Gamble says, that gets students ready to enter much larger Chicago public high schools.

“It’s not a big leap just because they’ve seen the world here in school,” Gamble said. “They’ve seen tremendous need diversity and socioeconomic diversity and language diversity, and they’ve been tremendously successful here.” 

But it’s not easy. 

“Every nook and crevice is used for instructional space,” he said. “We use our lobby as a music classroom. We haven’t converted our lunchroom to a classroom space. Our lunchroom is still a lunchroom.” 

And while the award is a big boost, it does little to change the financial realities Gamble confronts every day. 

“As great of an honor as it is, tomorrow still comes and we still need money to operate,” Gamble said. “The realities of the day to day of the district doesn’t change.”

He hopes the recognition will boost fundraising efforts and keep a steady flow of students from all parts of the world coming through Solomon’s doors.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @soosieon and @WBEZeducation.

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