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Bronzeville Pastor Reviving Empty School

By Sam Cholke | September 26, 2013 6:47am
 Glorious LIght Church is finding a new life for the shuttered Price Elementary School.
Reusing Schools in Bronzeville
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BRONZEVILLE — The lights are still on at a shuttered elementary school on South Drexel Avenue as a small congregation finds new uses for the building.

Rev. Michael Neal and the congregation of Glorious Light Church have kept the former Price Elementary School full of life, though the students and teachers moved out in 2012.

“As soon as we got here, they got put on a list to be shut down,” said Neal, who negotiated using the school’s gym for Sunday services in September 2011.

Chicago Public Schools recommended closing the school at 4351 S. Drexel Ave. in 2011 because of poor performance, and the Chicago Board of Education voted to approve closing Price in early 2012.

“Then they left,” Neal said, standing outside the former main office, that still looks much like it did when the school was open.

Much of the school looks very much the same as when it was open. Teachers' names are still written on chalkboards. Books are still on the shelves. A computer was still on in the library. One of the pianos, reportedly owned by Florence Price, the first African-American symphonic composer and the school’s namesake, sits in the lobby.

“This one hasn’t been broken into, and a lot of the other ones have,” Neal said of the many other shuttered schools in Bronzeville. “We want to keep life going in the building.”

Eleven public schools have closed in Bronzeville since 2001, the highest concentration in the city, until the most recent round of school closures.

Neal and his congregation keep the old school busy with Zumba classes, salsa lessons, counseling sessions for domestic-abuse victims, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Sunday services. But there are still two floors that go largely unused.

City Year volunteers come in about twice a month and rearrange chairs for training sessions, according to Neal, but many of the upper floor classrooms remain as they were when the students left.

Neal said he would like to use the upper floors for block clubs.

“We’d like to expand, but before we can get funding, they want to see some stability,” Neal said. “We’re at that crossroads where we do need funding and we are ready to reach out based on what we’ve done with no funding.”

Glorious Light Church and its service arm, the Timothy Community Corporation, rent the school for $2,400 a month, which is paid through contributions from the congregation.

“This could be a real hub for the community,” Neal said, adding that he is planning to approach CPS about a three- to five-year lease. “And if CPS wants to, it could be replicated across the city.”

A representative for CPS was not immediately able to comment on the long-term plans for Price.

"We have a lot of vacant spaces and the community uses them in various ways," said Dave Miranda, a spokesman for CPS.