CHICAGO (CBS) – There's an education gap not often talked about in the U.S.: school infrastructure.
CBS Newsand found that nationwide, higher numbers of minority students in a school district meant less money from states to help level the playing field.
CBS 2's Tara Molina found a Chicago area district bucking that national trend by fully renovating a crumbling school into a state-of-the-art facility. Here's how they did it.
Students, teachers, and administrators at Maya Angelou Elementary in south suburban Harvey were learning, teaching, and working in poor conditions for years until a school administrator found a road toward a full renovation. It didn't cost taxpayers an extra dime.
"It was dark and dingy, and it had horrible smells," said teacher Amy Woloszyk.
That was Woloszyk's description of the elementary school.
"The AC, we didn't have it most of the time," said Darnell Patterson, a fourth grader. "And the hot days were bad."
Issues with the air conditioning, constant leaks, and the building's boiler meant issues with mold, peeling paint, and warped floors.
Principal Juli Mahorney acknowledged there were "a lot of maintenance issues."
"The classrooms were dusty and stuff," said fifth-grader J'zariyah Hale. "And the bathrooms were a mess."
Not to mention there were classroom sizes, common areas, and an entryway suited for the district when the school was built back in 1955.
"Our gym was also a cafeteria, was also an auditorium, a stage," Mahorney said.
But not anymore, as officials unveiled the new Maya Angelou Elementary School.
"They did a good job," said volunteer and grandmother Zyporah Hale. "I love it."
China Howard, another parent, said, "It's state-of-the-art. Amazing."
Woloszyk said she cried when she first toured the renovated building.
"I couldn't believe we get to be a part of something so amazing and new and state-of-the-art," she said.
The faces on the first day of school told the rest of the story.
"Them having a new school environment, state-of-the-art equipment, I think it levels the playing field," said Howard.
It was a story years in the making. The district doesn't get any state funding specifically for building improvements.
And a levy or property tax increases weren't the answer for the school. More than 28% of the fewer than 20,000 who call Harvey home are living in poverty, and the city has seen a dwindling population over the years.
The school is comprised of nearly all students of color, and 82% of them qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"The kids that come from this type of community don't always receive maybe what they need," Woloszyk said. "And I feel this building and building a brand new school in Harvey, it brings positivity to the community."
National data show the wealthiest districts invest about 40% more on new buildings and major renovations than the poorest. Poorer districts spend 20% more of their budgets to band-aid their aging schools, something they did for years in Harvey.
That was until passionate school administrators got creative and found another way to make the renovation happen. They searched for solutions. They applied for federal grants, a process they navigated for the first time.
The district was ultimately awarded more than $15 million in federal emergency relief grant money to make the new school a reality. The district spent less than $4 million, which was money officials said they had saved.
They replaced dark, dingy, and smelly with bright, new, and safe.
"These kids in this community definitely deserve it," said Woloszyk.
The elementary school finally matches the students and teachers it houses.
"There are a lot of areas of this community that does not look like this school does right now," Mahorney said. "And we want to just make sure they are accustomed to having the best because that's all we want for our students."
Everyone CBS 2 spoke to in Harvey shared the same message: don't give up. They know they're not alone in the issues they dealt with for years and said if it's possible in Harvey, it's possible anywhere.
For more on the project and infrastructure disparities in U.S. schools, check out.
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