The Health of Chicago Students Should Never Be Sacrificed

Teachers and students from the Southeast Side have come together to advocate for green schools in some of the most polluted areas in Illinois.

Diesel-powered dump trucks passing a school bus in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago.


Karen Canales Salas for NRDC

Co-authored with Donald Davis and Lauren Bianchi, George Washington High School teachers


When toxic industry brushes up against our schools and threatens the health of Chicago’s students, these institutions are no longer the sanctuaries they were meant to be. In communities of color like the Southeast Side, the city’s dirtiest industries are allowed to operate right next to our schools, parks, and homes. 

The zoning and land use rules in Chicago not only lack protections for students’ health, but they also help funnel polluters to Black and Brown communities, even next to the most vulnerable populations. 

A recent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) investigation found that Chicago agencies were essentially creating sacrifice zones in neighborhoods of color through unfair zoning and land use laws. The investigation acknowledged the severe impacts of decades of racist zoning and land use policies that continue to create problems, threats, and inequities. 

Teachers and students from the Southeast Side have come together to advocate for green schools in some of the most polluted areas in Illinois. Public schools in areas like the Southeast Side desperately need upgraded green infrastructure. George Washington High School is quite literally falling apart. On the last day of the previous school year, a big section of ceiling fell, injuring a school staff member. The buildings where our kids spend the majority of their days should never get to this crumbling state.

Our school buildings are dirty—full of toxic lead, asbestos, and mold—and lack proper ventilation. Advocating for new green schools as well as retrofitting existing school buildings will repair the historic harm of environmental racism while strengthening our communities to withstand the extreme weather that the climate crisis is already bringing. Majority Black and Brown environmental justice communities should be the first in line to receive funding for green schools.

Proper resources for the educational needs of students in underfunded communities that are slated as sacrifice zones must be first on the list for education dollars. We must rethink the way we prioritize the needs of environmental justice communities in Chicago. This can start with passing the cumulative impacts ordinance that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration promised during the height of the campaign to stop the General Iron facility from coming to the Southeast Side.

A robust cumulative impacts ordinance will be a huge first step in ending sacrifice zones in our city and allowing our schools and communities to heal from the toxic legacy left by industry. 

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