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Rockford, Illinois has had the honor of being listed as one of America's worst cities by the Rand McNally Corporation and Money magazine.
Due to a separating highway, there are two clear sides of Rockford—West and East. The West includes an abandoned downtown and is plagued by poverty and high crime rates. There are huge areas of old established neighborhoods with vacant homes and no one wishing to buy them. The East is home to relocated collages, malls and new construction.
I turn on the TV in my hotel room to the morning news. Right after the tips for staying safe during a winter storm the focus shifts to the Rockford Public Schools.
The Rockford Public Schools encompasses both sides of the city and is not only the third largest School District in Illinois but also the largest employer in the area.
The district is considering a partnership with the parks department to save the sports programming. The anchorman, who likes he should be in high school, tells the story of his father’s senior year in high school during the 1976-77 school year. The district was plagued with budget cuts that year as well and sports were eliminated. His father was unable to play football for his final year. The Superintendent is trying not to repeat history with this unique solution.
This is not the only decision that the school board needs to make. In order to close an anticipated $50 million revenue shortfall, Superintendent LaVonne M. Sheffield proposes to increase class size, close schools, have union members contribute towards health insurance, reduce the numbers of administrators and move from full to half-day kindergarten.
I leave my hotel located on the East side and head West. At 8am, the town seems to still be asleep. No stores are open and few cars are on the road. Pass the railroad track and around the corner, I arrive.
As a sit in a literacy classroom, I notice that the room is equally divided by race. According to their 2009 report card, the district has 26,990 students with 38% white, 39.9% black and 22.8% Hispanic.
It is socio-economics that connect these students. Seventy-four percent of the students in the public schools are categorized as low-income. The city is home to 56 public schools but also to 27 private schools that enroll close to 9,000 students. The West side is prevalent in the schools.
This group of students is also connected by experience. They all have been born and raised in Rockford with little exposure to other cities or states. Many have had former interactions with law enforcement and few have visited a library. Their dining-out experiences are limited to McDonald’s-which is the only 'restaurant' I found since leaving the East side.
This school is tackling the punishing feeling of living on the wrong side of town. Their partnership with Border’s Bookstore provides books to students. Their family literacy night encourages parents to read to their children. Families then take the books home. Students are also involved in a construction-training program to increase their employability skills.
The final step?....
In a city t rying to return from a negative image, job loss and a high number of outdated or closed factories, I wish them well as they try to reclaim what was lost.