Families & the Community

‘Community Schools’ Cooking Up Local Support in Chicago

By Linda Jacobson — December 03, 2003 8 min read
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Sitting around brightly painted tables, the preschoolers begin to roll dough between the palms of their hands, then place balls of the mixture on baking sheets.

Ayse Blom, a preschool parent here at Nettelhorst School—located in the East Lakeview neighborhood—next shapes the dough into long strips and begins to braid them, urging her young chefs to do the same.

“We have to bake it now,” Ms. Blom instructs.

The children use their fingers to brush their oddly shaped loaves with an egg wash, and then watch as Ms. Blom puts their creations in the oven.

This lesson in baking Turkish bread is not taking place during regular school hours, or even after school. It’s 9:30 a.m. on a cold, windy Saturday, and snow flurries have started to blow around outside. Still, several local parents are here, warming up with coffee and bagels in a room decorated as a country kitchen, with modern appliances and expensive cookware hanging along one wall.

The casual gathering last month is an example of how this 110-year-old public school—largely forsaken by residents of its white, middle-class area north of downtown—is experiencing a rebirth through Chicago’s effort to establish 100 “community schools” by 2007.

“The hope is that this can be a model for the city,” said Jacqueline Edelberg, a parent of two children who attend preschool at Nettelhorst, which serves 380 pupils through 8th grade. “If all the doors are locked, it’s very hard to invite your community in.”

A co-founder of a parents’ “co-op” formed specifically to fix up the school, Ms. Edelberg was already involved in an effort to lure East Lakeview parents back to their local school when Nettelhorst was chosen to become a community school.

Such schools are basically neighborhood hubs that offer a variety of academic and enrichment activities for children before and after school, and also programs for parents and members of the local community.

‘Benefit Achievement’

Launched early last year, the city’s Campaign to Expand Community Schools involves 17 schools. Another 20 will be announced before the school year ends.

Foundations and businesses—including Bank One, the Boeing Co., the MacArthur Foundation, and the Polk Bros. Foundation—are helping to support the effort, by matching half the $100,000 each school receives from the city school system for three years to provide classes and activities.

To be eligible, a school must team up with a nonprofit organization that will help it build relationships with families in the community and secure programs to be offered at the school. Coordinators are also hired to manage the programs so the burden doesn’t fall on school principals.

“Chicago was set up to do this because there was already local control,” said Beth Swanson, the director of the office of after-school and community school programs for the 438,000-student district, which has a system of elected local school councils that include neighborhood representatives.

But she added that as the popularity of the program grows, district officials are being careful to spread the community schools evenly across the city. Already, she noted, some city aldermen have expressed interest in having community schools in their wards.

“It will become more political,” Ms. Swanson said. “We want to be fair and make sure this is available to all.”

While activities at the 20 locations vary, based on the interests and needs of their neighborhoods, improving student achievement is one of the goals of the effort. Most sites include time for students to do homework or receive tutoring.

“Test scores are definitely on the table,” Ms. Swanson said. “It makes sense that this [program] would have to benefit achievement.”

In fact, the city’s campaign was largely inspired by an evaluation of an earlier “full-service schools” initiative paid for by the Polk Bros. Foundation. Conducted by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children, the study found that mobility rates improved at the three schools involved in the three-year project, when compared with those of schools with similar demographics.

Standardized reading and mathematics scores also improved at rates higher than for the district overall and equaled or slightly exceeded rates at the comparison schools.

A report released earlier this year by the Washington-based Coalition for Community Schools also showed improvements in achievement in 15 out of 20 community school efforts studied across the country. (“‘Community Schools’ Earn Plaudits, But Face Perils,” May 14, 2003.)

The coalition’s study also suggested that such schools have an advantage over traditional schools because they bring in outside resources to help students and families, they foster both academic and nonacademic skills, and they give children a chance to take part in service learning and other activities that connect them to the world outside of school.

Designing Jane’s Place

While the children wait for their bread to come out of the oven, a reunion of sorts is taking place at Nettelhorst School. Parents of children in the school’s preschool classes are meeting with mothers who sent their children here in the 1970s and were involved in a similar effort to bring community-based services into the school.

Nettelhorst’s community school program is now called Jane’s Place, named for the school’s nonprofit partner, the Jane Addams Hull House Association, which has been running community centers in this city’s immigrant neighborhoods for more than a century. After Hull House recently decided to move out of its Lakeview community center, parents involved in the co-op worked to bring the agency’s after-school programs to Nettelhorst.

“They said, ‘Let’s make it look like we want it to look,’” said Susan Kurland, the school’s principal.

This morning’s meeting gives the preschool parents a chance to show off the cosmetic improvements that have been made in the four- story building over the past 10 months.

An eye-catching mural featuring an underwater scene with fish, turtles, and other creatures covers much of the ground floor, and was painted by the same artist who did work at the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Lincoln Park Zoo in the city. Other floors are painted with outdoor scenes, and the top floor, which is not yet completed, will resemble outer space.

The entrance to the school cafeteria looks like a Parisian cafe, with window boxes filled with artificial flowers and a sketch of a maitre d’.

Parents in the co-op have also convinced some of the neighborhood’s well-known art, dance, and recreation programs to offer their activities in Nettelhorst’s remodeled classrooms.

Their strategy makes sought-after enrichment programs available to the school’s students, most of whom are bused in from poorer neighborhoods. And it could bring local children and parents back into a school that they might have thought had little to offer.

The Old Town School of Folk Music, for instance, offers percussion classes to students. The Chicago Yacht Club Sailing School teaches sailing on Lake Michigan when the weather is favorable. When the conditions are not so fair, skills are taught on a movable sailboat inside the school.

And the Lincoln Park Athletic Club has installed a climbing wall in the school’s gym. The athletic club is also taking over the nearby Hull House building, where it is installing a pool that will be available to Nettelhorst students.

“When they have the pool at the community center, that will put us on par with any private school in the city,” Ms. Edelberg boasted. “I couldn’t have scripted it any better if I had written it myself.”

In some ways, the co-op parents’ vision started with the school’s tuition-based preschool program—an initiative started by the district three years ago to attract middle-class families into the schools. The hope is that once parents enroll their children in preschool, they’ll decide to stay for kindergarten.

But for Ms. Edelberg, a former college instructor, it’s not enough that both preschool classrooms are attractively painted in yellow and lavender, and that each one has a cozy reading loft. Or even that the classes are taught by certified teachers and have low child-to-staff ratios.

“It all has to be invigorating,” Ms. Edelberg said about the school.

‘Walking a Fine Line’

What’s unusual about the Jane’s Place enrichment classes is that they are not free to the public as they might be at other community schools. Local residents still pay what they would have if they were going somewhere else for such programs. For example, 10 weeks of ballet lessons cost $180.

One of the conditions for the providers, however, was that they offer scholarships to Nettelhorst students.

The difficulty is that the community school funding doesn’t cover all the children who want to participate but can’t afford the fees.

“We’re walking a fine line between those who can pay and those who can’t,” said Ms. Kurland, the principal. “We’re just in the process of figuring this out.”

Another obstacle facing the Jane’s Place program, and other community schools in Chicago, is providing transportation to students from outside the neighborhood who stay late for the after-school classes. Schools could use their community school dollars to pay for transportation, but that would leave little for classes. As a result, many children still wait for their parents to pick them up or depend on city buses to get home.

In a few cases, schools that got involved in the campaign later discovered they weren’t really ready to operate as part of a partnership, said Tawa M. Jogunosimi, the program manager for the initiative.

Three of the original 20 schools that were approved are no longer participating, either because the administrators decided $100,000 was not worth the work involved, Ms. Jogunosimi said, or because “there was a lack of understanding of what it really means to integrate the community into the school.”

Ms. Kurland of Nettelhorst says she knows the money isn’t enough to adequately pay the teachers who work after school hours for Jane’s Place.

But sitting in a comfortable reception area with furniture donated by an Ethan Allen furniture store, she says she also recognizes the potential this community school effort has to change her school for the better.

“We’re on the precipice,” she said, “of bringing in the neighborhood.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.


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