Back of the Yards

In November 1997, a parish priest in the Back of the Yards and principals from Chavez and Seward elementary schools began discussing ways to improve the lives of children in their community.

Their discussions took on greater urgency three months later when a 12-year-old from Seward shot two students from nearby Daley Elementary in an effort to prove he was tough enough to join a gang, police said.

To the priest, Rev. Bruce Wellems, and principals Sandra Traback and Marcey Reyes, it became clear that combating gang violence had to be a major focus of any effort to improve children’s lives. Their first step was to create two alternative schools for dropouts, housed at Chavez and Seward. “We found that the kids committing the violence had either dropped out of school or were put out,” says Traback, the principal of Chavez.

Soon other principals and community leaders joined the discussions. Thus was born The Peace and Education Coalition of the Back of the Yards/ New City. The non-profit alliance is a diverse group that includes six public elementary schools (Chavez, Seward, Hamline, Daley, Hedges and Lara); a Catholic middle school, San Miguel; and two parishes, Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Joseph. The city’s Neighborhood Housing Services, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and a local bank, Park Federal Savings, also are members.

Its mission is to end violence by helping families provide a better home environment for children, finding ways to help children get to know each other, eliminating influences that promote violence and revitalizing the neighborhood. “If we don’t change what’s happening outside the schools, we’ll never be able to change what’s happening in the schools,” says Traback.

Neighborhood Housing Services sought to counter gang activity by getting more families involved with Community Alternative Policing Strategy. CAPS meetings were moved from a trailer at St. Joseph’s Church to schools, where parents felt more comfortable, and attendance increased. At one CAPS meeting where attendance previously topped off at 12, 60 to 100 now attend.

The alliance also took aim at vacant buildings used for crime and drug activity. Housing Services bought the abandoned properties, rehabbed them and sold them. So far, 22 homes have been sold to renters who lived in the community. And this summer, Chavez’s principal moved into the neighborhood.

John Groene of the Neighborhood Housing Services, notes, “For some students, this could mean that they now have a place to do their homework.”

Homeowners are also more likely to vote, participate in CAPS and take ownership of the community, says Groene.

Schools and other coalition members identify students who engage in chronic violent behavior and appear to have serious emotional problems and refer them to Youth Outreach, where therapy focuses on the entire family, not just the child.

To help students from different schools in the neighborhood get to know each other, several schools began bringing students together for basketball games. “We thought if they started playing ball together and got to know one another, they would be less likely to shoot each other later,” says Traback.

Last year, the group held its first youth summit for the upper grades of the six elementary schools to introduce students to each other.

There are some signs the coalition’s work is paying off. For the last two years, parents felt safe enough to allow children to go trick or treating on Halloween.

Students also walk to other schools for basketball games; in the past they were bused even though the schools are only two blocks away. “Personally, I know that [the coalition’s] involvement has benefited that community tremendously,” says Pat Camden, the spokesman of the Chicago Police Department.

Looking ahead, the coalition wants to expand the youth summit and involve students in other joint activities. It is also searching for a permanent home for one of the alternative schools, and it wants to get more businesses and community organizations involved in anti-gang activities.

Though coalition members believe their efforts are having an impact, the potential for violence still lingers. Last April, after a community cleanup outside of Hamline, a 12-year-old from the school was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity. Says Wellems: “The violence hasn’t disappeared. We know that. But we used to have six burials a year. This year, we’ve had one.”

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