LEARN Charter School Network: A Founding Story

Back in 1980 – four decades ago – the original LEARN school looked very different than the charter public school network that we know today. Back then, it wasn’t a charter public school at all. It was just one, single private school named Lawndale Community School. It was founded by three women, two of whom were educators themselves, because they were frustrated by the poor quality of educational options offered to the Lawndale community in Chicago. With limited resources, the women began by renovating the second floor of a three-story flat in Lawndale. It was easy to tell that this new school was formerly a family’s home – learning happened in the kitchen, the bedrooms, the cloakroom, and in the family room. But in that flat, they built a different kind of home for the eleven founding students, one where they could learn and grow together.

As more students and families were attracted to Lawndale Community School, the campus moved several times to other locations throughout the community. Noelle Curtis was one of those students. “I began my education by attending an elementary school outside of Chicago. Then, my family moved to Chicago and didn’t feel supported by their neighborhood school. Someone suggested that I try Lawndale Community School, which was right down the street from my home, and I loved it.” The school really became a home away from home when her brothers started to attend and her mother became a staff member. By the time Noelle graduated the 8th grade, she was accepted into some of the most rigorous high schools in the city.

Noelle and her family were not alone in their love for Lawndale Community School. Eventually, the demand for the school was just too large. By 2001, the school reached capacity educating 113 students, but the waitlist was nearly 500 strong. After a year of decision-making and planning, the school’s board decided that it would be best for the school and the community to apply for charter school status, which would help the school to serve more students but remain autonomous and make decisions in the best interest of their students. When the charter was approved, Lawndale Community School became LEARN Charter School. In 2004, they moved into a new building, which allowed them to serve even more students.

In 2008, LEARN began the growth process within and outside of Chicago, which was aided by alumni like Noelle, who returned to LEARN and worked within the network to assist in the development of the standard operating procedures for the High school placement process and the Alumni Summer Internship Program. Currently, they’ve expanded to ten campuses in Chicago, North Chicago and Waukegan, serving over 4,000 students. Yet, their mission remains the same: to provide children with the academic foundation and ambition to earn a college degree.

LEARN offers a combination of a rigorous curriculum, an extended day and school year, high parent and teacher involvement, and social-emotional learning embedded into the school curriculum. Their approach has led their scholars to achieving at high levels with 33% of LEARN alumni, 96% of whom are low income, Black students, graduating from 4-year colleges, 10 points above the national average for all students regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity, when tracked from 8th grade. In the course of its 40 year history, LEARN has evolved immensely, and we look forward to the continuing success and growth in years to come.