Principal Kurt Jones Credit: Photo by Jason Geil

From the corner, Kurt Jones spots two boys sizing each other up nearby. Jones, principal of the low-performing Libby Elementary, is monitoring the dismissal of students from summer school, and since it’s a hot day, these two boys have already shed their T-shirts. The lean boys are wearing unbelted jean shorts, sagging below their underwear—white briefs and plaid boxers. Just beyond them, two men sit on the concrete stoop of an apartment building, seemingly oblivious to the mean, mugging youngsters in the middle of the street. Two women, maybe in their 20s or early 30s, walk by, briefly glancing at the boys then moving on.

Jones, however, tucks a red motorcycle helmet under his arm and then comes charging down the street. “Do not even think about swinging,” he hollers in a voice that is a curious mix of street and diva.

Jones, a slight white man, plants himself between the boys and asks what they are angry about. The tall one, whose name is Jeremiah, turns away with a blank and defiantly bored look on his face. Markess, the other boy, tries to muster tough, but his eyes are sad, like he’s fighting tears. Jeremiah remains silent. Markess mumbles, “He’s been messing with me all day.”

“Why?” Jones asks.

“I don’t know,” Markess responds.

Jones learns that the boys, both about 12, are in the same class in summer school and that for weeks they have been goading each other for no apparent reason. “You don’t have to like each other,” Jones tells them. Jones gives Jeremiah a few dollars and tells him to go to McDonald’s. Once Jeremiah and his friends turn down the street, Jones tells Markess to go home. Only when the street is clear does Jones turn to go back toward work.

At schools in other neighborhoods, such disputes might be diffused by any one of a host of adults—parents picking up children or a nosy retiree. But this is often not the case here in the no-man’s-land where Libby is sandwiched between Englewood and Back of the Yards.

In the year that Jones has led the school, he’s learned that save for a handful of parents or grandmas, adults in the area are wary of stepping into conflicts, perhaps not wanting to get hurt if the fight escalates or bring attention to themselves by getting involved. Jones has also come to know that what happens on the streets is intertwined with what happens in school. And for any school improvement to take hold, Jones realizes it’s going to take the combined efforts of those inside and outside of Libby.

“This is not about me,” he says. “I cannot do it alone.”

The area surrounding Libby is one of intense poverty. Half of the residents live below the federal poverty line, more than 40 percent are either unemployed or have given up looking for work. Punctuating the area’s problems was an incident last October, when a 10-year-old boy was shot and killed at a nearby intersection as he went to get candy and pop. Police say he was an innocent victim of an ongoing battle between the Black P- Stones and the Gangster Disciples.

Technically, Libby is in a community area known as New City, but most of those who live south of 51st Street identify more with Englewood, a neighborhood that is emblematic of urban decay. A map of the community’s assets developed by the quasi-governmental agency Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning shows a sliver of retail development starkly surrounded by blocks of empty land. Driving through it, worn-down houses and lot after vacant lot of purple-flowered weeds make the area look like a dying country town, not a blighted city neighborhood.

CPS has seen marked gains in test scores at its elementary schools in the past five years, yet Libby is among a group of about 40 where already-low scores continue to lag. Back in the 1990s, a racial mix of students attended failing schools. Today, those left behind are almost exclusively low-income black students. Looking at demographics and resources, more attention is being paid to a suspected missing piece that is not easily seen or measured.

Researchers have long asserted, and now more principals have come to accept, that success in schools in poor communities hinges on educators’ ability to broker good relationships with parents, identify community assets and address unmet needs, such as health care. A 2006 report by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research reinforced that strong ties between schools and parents and community members is one of the five essential supports that must be in place to improve low-performing schools.

Why this matters

Experts say low-performing schools are hindered from making progress by their weak relationships with communities and parents.

  • As other elementary schools have improved, 39 that serve mostly low-income black students continue to lag behind academically.
  • In contrast to teachers in better schools, those at failing schools describe trust between them and parents as minimal or limited.
  • A national taskforce of educators and activists is pushing the government to emphasize a new wave of reform: providing quality out-of-school activities to improve kids’ social and emotional well-being.

Recent surveys of Chicago Public Schools teachers indicate such connections are missing in failing schools, those where more than 60 percent of students read below grade level. Nearly half of CPS teachers at these failing schools said trust between them and parents was a problem and two out of three said their schools had minimal or limited parental involvement.

At more academically successful schools, 73 percent of teachers saw trust as strong or very strong and most said parental involvement was high.

Nationally, a groundswell of attention has recently underscored the importance of schools in low-income communities aggressively and intentionally making these links. Last spring, a group of lauded educators and activists, such as Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, heralded a campaign for what they called a bolder, broader approach to school reform. Their argument is that the federal No Child Left Behind Act has forced schools to report how well they are doing in educating each demographic group of students. This has shed light on achievement disparities.

The problem, according to the group, is the assumption that bad schools alone are the reason. Research, however, clearly shows that when schools take it upon themselves to pay attention to what’s happening outside their doors after-hours, students do better, according to the taskforce.

In ads in the New York Times and Washington Post, taskforce members call on government to fund education-related social and emotional programs, such as quality preschool and after-school programs.

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University and a taskforce member, says the “broader, bolder” statement is focused on what government can do and does not address parental engagement, which is essential. “The school should be seen as part of the community, when often it is seen as separate,” he says. “When parents feel supported in schools and that their children are getting a good education, they go out and do fundraisers and build ties with organizations.”

The difficulty of accomplishing this in a community like Libby’s is immense. Libby is at the center of a nexus of schools—Fulton Elementary to its west and Sherman School of Excellence to its east and four schools to the south in West Englewood—where fewer than 40 percent of children read at grade level. No other area of the city has as many failing schools clustered together; only two others have more than three next to each other.

Stepping into Libby a year ago, Jones faced skeptics. The school has run through four principals since 2000. Not only is Jones white, but he’s young, upwardly mobile and openly gay. By contrast, Libby is in a poor, black neighborhood, serving mostly children of single moms growing up on streets where children are often made tough young.

Jones approached Libby’s community and parents with a combination of nerve and common sense. On the practical side, he aligned himself with several women who have deep roots in the community.

Karen Miles, the assistant principal, still owns the house her great-grandmother bought in Englewood in 1926. Her father was the first black police commander of District 7, the district that covers the area. “I am entrenched,” she says. Miles says she knows the community can be strong because it once was. But she also knows how easy it is to fall into pitfalls. She was a teen mother—a fact that meant she had to sacrifice a lot of freedom.

Miles came to Libby School with Jones. But Mary Ann Moore, another Jones ally, has been there all along. One early summer day, Moore sits in Jones’ office talking over plans for next year. As she tells her story, the normally boisterous Jones quiets.

Moore also was a teen mother, having her first baby just after her 16th birthday. She dropped out of Robeson High School and settled in at home. Moore’s mother gave her the job of walking her 5-year-old brother to Libby. After dropping him off, she lingered at the school reading books to children, a habit that would change her life. For a year, Moore’s mother watched her baby and she volunteered at Libby. In November 1995 she got her GED. Then on May 5, 1996—“I ain’t going to forget it”—Moore was offered a job as a teacher’s aide. She has been at the school ever since.

As she rattles off a litany of dates that mark milestones along her journey, Moore’s gratitude is obvious. It’s a testimony to what a school can do for a family, she concludes. Her children know, for instance, that “we are never absent [from school] and they always know I am here.”

Looking back at the principals who preceded Jones, Moore notes only their assets—this one tried their best; that one was nice. But she is desperate for Libby to break out of the bottom rung. The minute she met Jones, she liked his passion. She told other parents not to make hasty assumptions.

“You all have to give him a chance,” she recalls saying. This year, Jones is promoting her from teacher’s aide to clerk, strategically placing her at a desk in the front office.
But Moore’s powerful endorsement was not enough to squash under-the-breath and behind-the-back comments about Jones or his sexual orientation. For the first six months, “I was the [expletive] faggot,” he says.

His response was to confront the name-calling head on. “I am white and I am gay. You are black and you are poor,” Jones says he would readily tell resistant parents in meetings. “I wasn’t brought here to be politically correct. Now we can stay where we are and live up to our labels or we can go forward.” Jones says that parents would often be taken aback by his frankness, not knowing what to make of it. But it also broke down a wall and made them listen to what else he had to say.

Throughout his first year at Libby, Jones used this brand of matching tough with tough, frank with frank to good measure inside and outside the school. On the day Markess and Jeremiah came close to throwing punches, Jones was loud and in their faces, and he forced the boys to look him in the eyes.

But Jones can instantly shed that posture for a gentle and more approachable demeanor. Walking back to Libby after the boys’ near-fight, a stocky boy with an uncombed afro reappears, a friend of Markess’. He wanted to tell Jones that he, too, had tried to stop the fight. Jones slows his pace and listens. “Thank you,” he says, putting a hand around the boy’s shoulders.

As the boy walks away, Jones says he recognizes that many students need a lot of love and approval. And while on the outside he may seem totally different, Jones’ own experience makes him empathetic.

Jones calls himself a punk from Peoria, a working-class industrial town in central Illinois. His father was a drunk, he says, who left his mother to fend for herself and raise five boys. Jones knows about violence and loss. When he was 15, his older brother was shot and killed.
“Watching my mother bury her son,” he inhales, “I can easily recall the hurt.”

Yet sometimes the social gap that Jones—and other principals leading schools in troubled communities—has to bridge is more complicated than getting people to move beyond labels. Class and educational differences between staff and parents in these schools loom large. Half of the adults in the community around Libby have a high school diploma; only 4 percent of that group has bachelor’s degrees.

Most everyone knows that these socio-economic factors have an impact on schooling. Middle-income families have the resources to make sure their children are ready for school on day one. They are used to having a certain amount of sway in talking with teachers—whether it is because of who or what they know. Teachers, many of whom are middle-class themselves, are more prone to connect with these parents and respond to their concerns or suggestions, Noguera says. “It is generally the case that staff has an easier time identifying with people like them,” he says. “They find it easier to empathize with them and build a rapport.”

Researchers call this kind of affinity social trust and social capital, which, as it turns out, is measurable to some degree. And like fresh air and good fruit, they are more plentiful in some places than in others.

Low trust levels at Libby and other troubled schools are a common denominator in schools that are struggling. Penny Bender Sebring, founding co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, says schools in communities with a host of social ills—such as high crime rates, child abuse and neglect and low religious participation—have major problems developing strong essential supports, such as community school ties. Consortium researchers deem these schools “truly disadvantaged” and Sebring notes “some schools do overcome it, but very few. It is a lot to ask the schools to do.”

Sebring also points out that poor black communities grapple more with these social ills than schools in moderate-income black and Latino neighborhoods.

When Jones talks about his interaction with parents, tales of disconnection come easily. Sometimes, Jones finds a way to bridge the gap; other times he doesn’t.

Tina Ford, whose son is in summer school trying to avoid repeating a grade, was a miss. As she sees Jones riding up on his motorcycle one afternoon, she clicks her tongue. “I am pissed at him,” she says.

According to Ford, her son got beat up by a group of high school boys who came by Libby during the regular school year; she says Jones let it happen. If Jones came from the neighborhood or one like it, she argues, he’d understand the students. She is moving out of the neighborhood and will be sending her son and five other children to new schools this fall.

At the mention of Ford’s name, Jones shakes his head. His version: Ford’s son went on a “two-week fighting rampage” and pushed past a security guard to get at a few boys who had come to Libby looking for trouble. Afterwards, Ford came to school and cussed out the security guards. Jones banned her from campus.

Many principals in this swath of poor-performing schools see one of their roles as providing a buffer between irate parents and school staff. “I have to protect the teachers,” Jones says.
When a parent is “on 20,” Jones’ shorthand for riled up, he keeps them at arm’s length. The same goes at Sherman School of Excellence, a turnaround school just blocks east of Libby, where Principal Lionel Allen made regaining control of the school from parents his first priority. Like Jones, Allen says he had to put a stop to parents who had previously been allowed to storm into classrooms and curse at teachers.

“We let them know that wouldn’t be tolerated,” Allen says.

Some parents get it. Lakisha Branley, who lives across the street from Libby, laughs with Jones as they recall the first time they clashed. Her son Devontay came home limping and crying. Devontay told her the teacher knocked him down. Furious, Branley called the police and then headed to the school. Jones refused to call the teacher down from class and sent Branley home. That evening, the teacher left Branley a voicemail message. Calmer the next day, Branley returned to the school and talked to the teacher. As it turned out, the teacher never touched Branley’s son, who had been mouthing off and tripped over a chair when the teacher reached for him.

Jones credits Branley for returning to Libby ready to talk; she is thankful that he made her take a deep breath. “We have been good friends ever since,” Branley says.

A little more openly than Jones, Milton Hall, who briefly led a low-performing West Englewood school, talks about tensions between parents and schools. When he was principal of Henderson Elementary in the early 1990s, Hall made headlines for trying to bar parents with arrest records from being seated on the LSC. Those roles, he says, should be for “good, upstanding citizens.”

Hall, who now directs education programs at West Englewood United Organization, says he can spot troublemaker parents today because he remembers them as his students at Henderson. These parents’ own bad experiences in school inform how they approach the schools their children attend, he explains. “When you tell them something about their children, they are immediately defensive,” he says. “They are ready to pounce.”

He has vivid memories of trying to stop a fight between two boys who, instead of stepping aside out of respect, continued to throw punches, roughing up Hall in the process. Then, one boy’s mother accused Hall of hitting her son. “I learned from that not to get involved, that getting involved often led to something bad happening,” he says.

Hall’s reservations are shared, privately, by other teachers and principals who shy away from close contact with parents in low-income areas. Analila Chico, the area instructional officer for Libby, says she has some principals who simply don’t want to open their doors to parents.

“Working with parents is hard,” she says. “It can get uncomfortable at times.” Yet this is a mistake, adds Chico, who tries to impress upon them the importance of getting to know families.

Jones and other principals in the area say they aren’t giving up, but to some degree, they feel overwhelmed. Relations inside the school between parents and teachers are important, but more amorphous is improving how parents interact with each other. Researchers say strong schools have families where moms and dads talk, exchange information about their children and work together to support the school. In research jargon, this is called intergenerational closure.

At Libby and the schools around it, few formal organizations exist to support this kind of healthy and necessary social exchange. None of them have active, well-attended PTAs, PTOs or some other form of parent clubs. Local school councils are often stymied by lack of a quorum. Students frequently transfer in and out of these schools, leaving little time for families to bond or connect with others. Every year, student mobility at these schools stands somewhere between 40 and 50 percent, double the district average.

Before Jones took the helm at Libby, he spent a year as a principal apprentice at nearby Earle Elementary, another low-performer. There, he saw his mentor Adrian Willis, a turnaround principal who had left a gifted school, struggle in his dealings with parents. Willis tapped parent, community member and teacher’s aide Sheila Strong, who had previously led the PTA, for a job with the Children’s Home + Aid Society, a child welfare agency that was partnering with Earle to start a community school program.

This past spring, Strong, in her new capacity as parent coordinator, met with a small group of parents to find out what kept them from being more involved at Earle and to hear what they needed from the school. The handful of moms who showed up told her health concerns like high blood pressure and diabetes kept them close to home. Yet the gathering over snacks and coffee made some headway. “A lot of them had been at the school for years and never had met,” says Rita Hillman, a lead coordinator from Children’s Home + Aid Society.

Libby has long participated in the district’s community schools program, but has no one on staff to shepherd the program that is geared to parent involvement. Jones is pushing to get funding to hire a parent liaison. He also would like to use the community schools connection to one day refashion Libby as an arts academy like Franklin Fine Arts on the Near North Side.

This dream, however, seems a bit far-fetched. Parents at Franklin are an active bunch, who compete for seats on the LSC and run a vibrant PTA. Franklin also boasts an outside “friends of” organization that raised some $50,000 last year that the school can spend on the wish list that supports their arts programming. At Libby, Jones relies mostly on the YMCA for after-school and summer programs in music, dance, drama and photography. Parents at Libby have not done any fundraising to speak of; the librarian won a $250 grant to take children to a book signing. “We don’t have resources in our community we can turn to,” Jones says.

Of the handful of parents Jones depends on to help out at Libby, Sharon Howard stands out. Howard spent four years as president of Libby’s LSC, eventually leaving the board as her biological children aged. Then, two years ago, disenchanted with the principal, she got back on the council to usher her out. Howard was a member of the committee that hired Jones three days after interviewing him by phone.

One late summer afternoon, Howard, wearing sequined blue flip-flops, walks briskly down Garfield Boulevard. She has just picked up two boys from summer camp—which is being held at Sherman while some necessary repairs are made at Libby—then grabbed 5-year-old twins Eula and Eddie, and hollered at her own 13-year-old son to take home the wiry dog he was walking so they can all get to the library. It’s a regular excursion that Howard makes four afternoons a week, and like the Pied Piper, she collects children along the way, and often arrives at the library with half a dozen or more in tow.

Today, Howard cuts through an alley and into a backyard where she tells a teenage girl to let her grandmother know she’s leaving. Eight-year-old Deshon, who loves to read but hasn’t read a book since school let out, comes out of his yard to ask if he can come, too. As long as he has permission, Howard says, it’s fine with her.

With six children trailing behind, Howard heads toward Sherman Park, a lush green space with a cobblestone bridge over a fishing pond. The public library, a cottage-like structure, is just on the other side. As they walk, navigating through a group of teen boys wearing baseball caps and large white T-shirts, Howard never breaks stride.

She is driven by a belief that schools are powerful community institutions that can pave the way for children—many of whom she feeds and provides with bus cards and an occasional safe haven—to have a better life. She says she doesn’t understand how parents and others can be so disengaged.

She has a few suggestions for how Jones and Libby teachers can reach out. Among them: Give moms more detailed information about how they can get involved at school and help their children with homework.

Howard says the school needs more “front-line soldiers,” but there’s only so much Jones can do. “I am not going to put all the problems of the neighborhood on one person,” she says. “He is doing the best he can. He is only one man. He can’t do it alone.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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