Songhai Learning Institute is named for the Songhai Empire in 7th century West Africa. According to their website, the Songhai Empire “attracted many students from distant parts of the globe, and left a great legacy of scholarship for the future generations of African Americans to emulate.”  The Songhai Learning Institute itself is 96% African-American and 4% hispanic. There are about 375 students at Songhai from pre-K to eighth grade. The school itself was established in 1897 and was named Scanlan Elementary until it was renamed Songhai in 1997.

Songhai prides itself on being a “data driven” school according to the school’s mission statement. However, as Dewanna Evans brought up at the April 12th CPS Community Meeting, the “data” justifying Songhai’s closure doesn’t add up. Curtis School is set to be the “welcoming school” that will absorb Songhai’s students. Although Songhai is a Level 3 school, Curtis is only 2 points away from being a Level 3 School as well. Songhai also has higher NWEA scores than Curtis and is Healthy School Certified (Curtis is not). In addition, as 3rd grade teacher Gerald Ross said, there is data showing that the culture and climate has been improving at Songhai on a daily basis. There is no data on the culture and climate at Curtis. Mr. Ross also expressed how many improvements have been made over the past 3 years compared to the previous 15 that he’s been at Curtis. He is confident this trend would continue if Songhai remains open.

Songhai has not only been described as a great place to learn, but as a safe haven and family for students.

“Mrs. Pirdle [Songhai’s principal] and the counselors opened their heart to me…Songhai is like a home, you can come to Songhai when you down and out because that’s what I did. I always had someone to talk to…everyone at Songhai treated me like their child.” –Nia Cole, 6th grade.

“Songhai has graduated five generations of my family, and hopefully there will be a sixth, including me…Give me Songhai, or give me no school at all.”–Fatima Sturges, current Songhai student

“We love each other, we like being around each other…the first thing we do, we give each other a hug”–Jordan Edwards, student at Songhai for 3 years

“We are a family at Songhai…we have kids that have left our school and come back to Songhai and talked to us and confided in us…so where are those kids going to go? They going to go to somebody at Curtis?”–Ebonie Kendricks, Special Education assistant, mother

Songhai has worked hard to establish many partnerships in the community. The Salvation Army provides band instruments and music instruction for the students. Songhai recently was selected as the Adopt-a-School Partner of BMO Harris Bank and the Chicago Bulls. According to the press release announcing Songhai’s selection, Songhai will receive $1 from BMO for every point scored by the Bulls during the Playoffs. Songhai will also receive money for more PCs and Macs in their computer labs, as well as window-mounted air conditioners in the labs. BMO also gave a workshop on financial literacy to Songhai’s sixth graders.  The school also has partnerships with Art Institute in Chicago (it received 10 fine arts scholarships this year), as well as culinary arts programs, a chess club, mentoring, track and field, the Stellar Girls science initiative (See Songhai students extracting DNA from a banana here.), and many other programs. (Find photos of all these activities on their Facebook page.)  As teacher Cynthia Solomon stated, there is a limited fine arts program at Curtis, which frustrates her since she worked to hard to establish the Art Institute partnership at Songhai.

 The fact that Songhai students will be transferred to Curtis specifically is a huge point of concern. Getting to Curtis would be dangerous: Songhai students will have to walk 10 blocks to get to Curtis and cross the train tracks at 116th St. and State. A student recently died crossing these tracks. Students (and parents) would also have to walk past 11 abandoned buildings to get to Songhai, which leave some parents fearing for their safety as well.

Besides the longer and more dangerous commute, Curtis itself would be a dangerous environment for many Songhai students. Curtis and Songhai have a rivalry that dates back to the 1980’s. It has resulted in lockdown at Songhai in 2002 when Curtis students threatened to hurt Songhai students.

“It’s not safe for them to move these children from Songhai to Curtis…they can’t go to Curtis. If they could go to Curtis they would have been transferred…everybody knows they put the money at Curtis, they would’ve been transferred, but it’s not safe.” –Tashiee Johnson, parent.

“For our children, lives are at stake…we need not allow this to happen…we need to keep this safe haven open.” –Steve Mosley, Local School Council member, father

“All of these kids are my family. Going to Curtis would be a tragic disaster…it’s not going to work.”–Deattra Woolfolk, parent and volunteer.

At the end of the CPS Community Hearing on April 6th, two students, Isaiah Evans and Yohance Nowlin student recited the Songhai Pledge, recited each day at Songhai after the Pledge of Allegiance:

“I promise to do my best, to respect myself, my teachers, and my classmates, to learn as much as I possibly can and to bring honor to the name of Songhai Learning Institute.”

Find Songhai on

Post author: Laura Nessler


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