New facility aims to be a hub for change, opportunity in southwest Chicago

December 01, 2023

U.S. Bancorp Impact Finance investments support the Academy for Global Citizenship and neighborhood revitalization at a former public housing site

When you walk through the main doors at the Academy for Global Citizenship’s new building on Chicago’s southwest side, you know immediately it’s no ordinary school. The first room you enter has two-story windows, walls painted in shades of green and seedlings growing out of spaceship-looking planters.

You’ve entered the greenhouse.

Large staircase with nooks for books
A seating area designed to look like a large staircase doubles as a library, with shelves for books beneath each seat.

Continue through the next set of doors and you’re greeted by what looks like a giant staircase spanning the first and second floors. But a closer look reveals it’s more than just oversized steps.

The multi-purpose space was designed to be a large seating and assembly area for students, and each level of the “stairs” contains a cubby space under the seat that doubles as a bookshelf. It’s the school’s creative way to include a library.

This is just a taste of the Academy for Global Citizenship’s new school and campus that opened this fall. The 72,000-square-foot building, designed with sustainability in mind, enabled the school to consolidate two other locations in the neighborhood.

The new location is more than just a school. It’s a community-designed and -centered hub, and the first phase of development at the former LeClaire Courts public housing site.

“We’ve grown to believe that schools can be more, as cornerstones and an opportunity to really think about reimaging the role that schools can play in communities as places where every member of our community can come and gather,” said Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, the Academy for Global Citizenship’s founder and executive director. The Chicago Public Charter School was founded in 2008 under Ippel’s vision and leadership.

“Places that can catalyze neighborhood investment, that can create jobs, that can cultivate wellbeing for multi-generational members of our community,” she said.

The new campus – also known as the Cultivate Hub – is designed to do all of that and more. In addition to housing the Academy for Global Citizenship, the building is home to a new early childhood development program and a community health center operated by Esperanza Health.

Hallway with large photos covering the walls
Images cover the walls in a hallway at the school.

It includes space for a neighborhood fresh food marketplace and 3.5 acres of urban agriculture will soon be under development. Once complete, it will have neighborhood walking trails, aviaries, orchards and nature-focused learning spaces, as well as goats and chickens.

All of this has come together under the collaborative vision of community-led nonprofit Cultivate Collective, where Ippel is a founding board member. The campus was designed with four pillars in mind – cradle-to-career learning, sustainability, economic vitality, and health and wellness – with a goal to drive generational impact in the neighborhood.

U.S. Bancorp Impact Finance invested $12.6 million in New Markets Tax Credit equity, including its own allocation that it reserves for projects that support racial equity and help close the racial wealth gap. It also provided two low-interest loans totaling more than $28 million and provided a $75,000 grant to support the project.

“This project was a natural fit for us because of its focus on creating generational change in a historically disinvested neighborhood,” said Laura Vowell, managing director of Community Finance Solutions with U.S Bancorp Impact Finance. “We believe everyone deserves to live in a thriving community with access to opportunities. This project – with its wide range of services – will support students and adults alike.”

People gathered for a ribbon-cutting event
Officials participated in a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony at the academy.

Niquenya Collins, who was born in LeClaire Courts and is president of Cultivate Collective, described what disinvestment looks like from a personal perspective.

She said it meant driving over 15 minutes to access critical medical care and taking two busses and two trains as a student to get to a school on the north side that offered gifted services to feed her brain.

It also meant having no access to workforce development programs or entrepreneurship classes, she said, resulting in a longer lead time to learn what she needed to know to eventually start her own business. 

“None of that was here when I was younger,” Collins said. “I am so excited to see this building erected and be more than a school, more than just education. This area has been disinvested for so long. To see – on this spot that has been vacant for almost two decades – it finally has the things that I longed for as a child, that my grandkids can now have access to. Words cannot even describe how emotional I am.”

The campus is unique for another reason: It’s on track to achieve the Living Building Challenge, an international sustainable building certification program that encourages the creation of regenerative-built environment. The challenge defines the highest measure of sustainability possible based on the best current thinking.

The campus is designed to be fossil fuel-free, and when finished it’s planned to have 550 kilowatts of solar power, 50 geothermal wells, onsite battery storage and other sustainability strategies that will make it net-positive energy producing.

“It’s our hope that this Cultivate Hub – this place for sustainability, for learning, for wellness – can serve as model not only for Chicago but for our country and our world,” Ippel said.

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