Sabrina Jackson says she never really wanted to send her children anywhere but the school down the street, Perkins Bass Elementary.
It’s where she attended when her family moved back to Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood after trying their luck in the South for a few years. Her mother, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and now even her great nieces and nephews have all had classes in this weathered brick building alongside Ogden Park.
“They say churches can be a stabilizing force in a neighborhood, but schools are too, especially if they’ve been in the neighborhood forever,” says Jackson, whose four children have or are currently attending Bass.
Englewood is an area that could use stabilizing. Since 1990, the neighborhood has lost more black families than any other in Chicago. And enrollment at Bass has been falling for years, reflecting the population trends. It dropped from more than 700 in 1990 to 336 by the start of the 2012-2013 school year.
The following year, Bass became a receiving school for children displaced by the closing of 49 schools, including six in the Englewood area, and saw its enrollment soar to 566 students. Still, enrollment took a slight hit again last school year, dropping to 522 students.
The school’s probationary status hasn’t helped, says Jackson. Although the school has been improving in recent years, Bass has been on CPS probation for nearly two decades.
Even Jackson, who sees this place as an extension of her own family, admits to taking advantage of an opportunity to remove her own children from Bass. In the middle of the 2002-2003 school year, she says, she received a letter from CPS Central Office explaining that her children were allowed to attend another school because of Bass’ probationary status.
“It was a very difficult decision I had to make,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ll try the options they’re giving us, to see what’s going on.’”
So midyear, she transferred her oldest son, Orlando, and daughter, Ovanni — they were in 7th grade and kindergarten at the time — to Woods Academy, another poorly rated school a few blocks away. “There were good teachers at that school,” Jackson says of Woods. Still, it was only marginally better than Bass and, so, after Orlando graduated from 8th grade, Jackson felt compelled to transfer her daughter back to Bass.
“Bass had been in my family for four generations,” she says. “It’s part of my heritage.”
At the time, Jackson, a single mom, was working full-time and attending community college. She occasionally attended parent meetings at Bass but didn’t have time to commit to much else.
Then in 2006 Jackson and her family moved to South Bend, Ind., taking advantage of an opportunity to live in affordable housing, but she returned a year later to care for her ailing parents. At that point, she was unemployed and had time to spend at the school.
That year, 2007, she became a regular classroom volunteer. She joined the school’s parent advisory committee and ran for a seat on the local school council.
“Shortly after that, I became chair of both of them,” she says. “It was basically … going up to the parents, introducing yourself, shaking their hands, getting to know them, inviting them into the school and talking with them, trying to be their support system.”
Hiring a new principal
However, her most important contribution to the school came in 2012, when she participated as an LSC member in recommending a new principal for Bass when the former principal retired. (Because the school was on probation, the school council’s choice had to be approved by Central Office.)
Jackson led a group of parents and teachers who interviewed more than two-dozen candidates for the job and eventually offered the post to Carolyn Jones, who took over during the 2012-2013 school year.
Two of Jones’ big selling points were her knowledge of the Common Core State Standards and her use of data to improve academics. Jones, who had gotten her start as a teacher in district-run schools, learned about both during a brief stint in administration at a charter school network that was an early adopter of the standards.
In Jones’ first year at Bass, about 31 percent of students met or exceeded state standards in reading and math. The following year, with Bass absorbing more than 300 students from closed schools, test scores plummeted, with just under 23 percent meeting standards.
Last year, Jones’ third at the school, she brought in a personalized learning program that includes interim assessments. “This way we test students four times a year to get a temperature of their progress,” Jones said. “These interims gave us an opportunity to actually give feedback because we get the data within 48 hours of the students taking the assessment. Now teachers can come back to the table and plan based on that data, so that instruction matches students where they are.”
While the district has not released last year’s official test score data, Jones says the growth she sees helps put the school on track to jump from a Level 3 — the lowest rating in the district’s five-tier system — to a Level 1. (The highest level is a Level 1-plus.)
Apart from the interim assessments, Jones was also able to hire more than a half-dozen teachers in her first year, due to a number of retirements. “It was almost like a turnaround,” she describes. Putting a team in place that she helped choose — including teachers she’d worked with at other schools — has helped her build the school culture she wants.
Parent involvement outside the LSC
Soon after Jones’ arrival, several members of the LSC resigned, citing conflicts within the council. Jackson declined to elaborate, saying only that “there was a lot of negativity” between various members. District officials considered the council “non-functioning” and essentially dissolved the body for nearly two years until the next elections.
During that period off the LSC, Jackson took on a part-time paid position as a monitor for the school’s Safe Passage program. Under the district’s ethics policy, parents and community members are prohibited from joining councils if they are on the payroll of CPS or a subcontractor. So when elections took place again in the spring of 2014, Jackson decided that the financial stability of the job was more important for her family than a position on the council, and she didn’t run.
“I hate that there’s a conflict of interest,” she says. “I wish I could do both.”
Last year just four parents ran for six available seats on the Bass LSC. Jones says the employment policy can make it challenging to recruit parents for the council in low-income neighborhoods with few employment options.
“They want jobs, and they know that they can’t do both,” Jones notes. “These are people who … know the community, so I want them on these spots along the way, keeping my kids safe. At the same time they’d be the advocates for the help that I need to keep moving the school in the right direction [through the LSCs].”
Despite the low LSC participation, family involvement at Bass is slightly better than at demographically similar schools and slightly behind the district as a whole, according to survey research by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. The Consortium’s 5Essentials survey identifies how well schools are organized for improvement based on five indicators, including family involvement.
Under that category, Bass is considered to be doing a “neutral” job on measures of parent outreach, teacher-parent trust and parental involvement in the school.
Even though Jackson is no longer on the LSC, she continues to volunteer at the school and head its parent advisory committee. She’s a dogged door knocker who routinely is spreading the word about the improvements happening at Bass — “bragging about the school,” as she puts it — and trying to convince new families to consider it as an option.
She works on the Safe Passage route before and after school, but is inside the building most of the day in the parent room. “We have computers, a TV, fridge, microwave. Parents can come in, find resources, search for jobs,” she says.
Bass has also teamed up with parents and administrators from other neighborhood schools to share resources and outreach for community meetings. They bring in local organizations that offer classes in computer literacy, financial stability, parenting skills and even stress management, Jackson says. “We invite each other, and everybody helps build up the rapport in the community with parents.”