In a school nature center created with the help of the Chicago Botanic Garden, there are “red, purple, yellow flowers,” a “green corn stalk,” and “brown wood chips,” report the kindergartners of Room 106 in Suder Elementary School on the Near West Side. You can take their word or see for yourself in “Our Nature Center Color Book,” which last year’s Room 106 inhabitants left behind for this year’s class.

“It’s reality-based learning,” explains Jana Baskins, their teacher. “Kindergartners have to learn colors. Well, there’s a lot of ways to do that. We can do color worksheets, or we can go into our Nature Center and see what colors we find.”

Since partnering with the Botanic Garden through a Chicago Annenberg network, Suder has added such reality-based learning to all parts of its curriculum, integrating plant science into reading, math, art and science.

“We wanted to create a living museum outside the school where kids could explore math and science and poetry and art,” says Baskins, 30, a teacher for seven years, including four at Suder.

With a digital camera provided through the program, Baskins records her children’s garden explorations. “They find colors, count flowers, whatever. Then I put it in the computer, and they tell me what words to type so it’s in their language. As they write, they’re using words to communicate their ideas. Of course they have to learn pre-reading skills, and the best way to do that is to read your own writing.”

The matchmaker for the Suder-Botanic Garden partnership was Imagine Chicago, a non-profit organization launched in 1992 to link up businesses, churches, community groups and cultural institutions for creative projects aimed at cultivating civic interest, especially with the young and disadvantaged. One project, for example, had teenagers in public housing interview prominent community leaders citywide, with the finished product artistically displayed through several venues. Lasting mentoring relationships were a byproduct, says founder and president Bliss Browne, a former Episcopal priest and corporate banker.

“In 1995, Imagine Chicago had never done anything with schools,” says Browne. “Public schools were searching for more imaginative ways to get kids involved, and when Annenberg came along, it offered us an opportunity to connect with public schools in a way that really led to some visible outcomes.”

Imagine Chicago sought the help of the DePaul University Center for Urban Education to develop a proposal aimed at garnering one of the $25,000 planning grants being offered by the Challenge in 1996. The successful proposal was a plan to improve reading comprehension by partnering schools with different museums each year to help students create school exhibits to demonstrate comprehension of subject matter from math and reading to science and social studies.

The goal was to help teachers and parents rethink the reading process and see it as a way of gathering and organizing information. As students created exhibits, they would become teachers as well as learners, and their work would become a learning resource for the school and community.

Largest network

With five elementary schools, two high schools and six museums, the Urban Imagination Network is the largest collaboration funded by the Challenge. It also has received the largest grants— $450,000 this year alone. Imagine Chicago has chipped in another $365,000 in program and operating grants it has won from other foundations over the past three years.

Besides Imagine Chicago, Suder and the Botanic Garden, the network includes Byrd, Locke, Nobel and Laura Ward elementary schools; Corliss High School, John Hope College Prep, the Chicago Historical Society, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Kohl Children’s Museum and the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston.

During the course of the program, all seven network schools increased their scores on the state IGAP reading test and posted substantial gains on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, according to studies by the Challenge and by DePaul, For example, when it joined the network, Suder was on academic probation, with only about 12 percent of its students scoring at or above the national norm in reading on the ITBS. The school got off probation last year when that percentage rose to 20.

The degree to which the schools have adopted the network’s curricular and instructional approach varies. However, researchers have found that schools have integrated museum resources into their curriculum and lesson plans, teachers are more willing to experiment with creative approaches to reading comprehension, and the basic reading strategy — research and presentation of topics by students — is directly related to student achievement.

Browne says the network also has been successful in developing lasting relationships within peer groups (principals, teachers, librarians) from one school to the next. She adds that a parent training program, added last year, has helped parents fulfill the role of their children’s first educators.

Indeed, teachers at participating schools report that parents are spending more time helping in classrooms and have gotten more involved in their children’s projects. Enrollment in the parent training program jumped from 33 the first year to 150 this year.

The goals of the Annenberg Challenge were smaller, more intimate learning communities, reduced isolation of teachers and principals, and creative use of time. With curriculum guidance from DePaul, Urban Imagination delivered:

Student Development

Focused, active reading in science and social studies.

Visits to museums.

Making learning visible through creative displays.

Building library collections in the content areas.

Budget allocation: Each school receives $11,000 a year for exhibit materials, and librarians receive $5,000 to purchase books in the content areas.

At Locke School on the Northwest Side, for example, 7th-graders are making robots; 2nd-graders are making 3-D dinosaur boxes; and 4th-graders are creating a prairie display and Origami, sculptures made of paper.

“My neighborhood is very interesting when you know what there was a long time ago,” says 4th-grader David Kirsten, 9, discussing what he learned from Locke’s partnership last year with the Chicago Historical Society.

Teacher Development

Reading workshops in conjunction with the DePaul Center for Urban Education.

Museum workshops.

Teacher Renewal Program: quarterly weekend retreats at the Botanic Garden.

Individualized learning programs, $300 scholarships to pursue teacher education opportunities.

Classroom coaching

Budget allocation: For museum workshops, teacher renewal program expenses, scholarships, classroom support, librarian development program.

Each quarter, 24 teachers from Urban Imagination schools retreat from the inner city to the serenity of the Botanic Garden in north suburban Glencoe. Over a weekend, they bond, adopt a tree to share their stress, and try to remember why they became teachers.

“I think we tend to get burned out, or just beat down,” says Carolyn Hale, 53, a teacher for 31 years, 20 spent at Nobel in Humboldt Park, where she teaches 7th and 8th grade. “The serenity of the Garden, and the fellowship you get with other teachers — talking, sharing — helps you recognize we’re all in the same boat. The retreat is really not about problems you have in the classroom. It’s about reconnecting you with the reason you went into teaching in the first place. You leave inspired and motivated.”

Parent Development

Monthly reading workshops in core curriculum areas.

Summer institute.

Workshops in supporting classroom teaching and field trips.

Strengthening museum connections through visits and workshops.

Citizen Leaders Program, developing parent involvement projects benefiting students and broader community.

Budget allocation: For facilitation and design of workshops, transportation, museum workshops, Citizen Leaders project grants.

One parent at South Side Corliss High School says she doesn’t let anything keep her from the monthly field trips and workshops of the parent program. Initially, concedes Cheryl Goode, a single mother of three, she was reluctant to participate.

“Last October, I said I’d go on a field trip to the Botanic Garden, but that day, I was going through a situation with my daughter and her grades, and I was just feeling disgusted,” recalls Goode, 52, whose daughter Tineca graduates in June.

“I told them to go ahead without me, but they encouraged me to go, and I just feel real blessed that I did. It was so refreshing being outdoors and everything. I really enjoyed that place. The kids had gone on field trips there, and I didn’t even know the Botanic Garden existed. I’ve been going ever since. Every field trip, I’m there!”

The Englewood mother also enjoys attending DePaul for computer training. Like other Urban Imagination schools, Corliss has established a parent resource room, where Goode soon will have access to computers donated to the network.

“They’re educating us, so we can help our kids,” Goode says. “They taught us to get involved with our kids, to sit down with our kids, to read to them, and to take them on field trips so they can get adjusted to different cultures and different surroundings. More and more parents are getting involved, and as the parents get involved, the kids get more involved. I’ve just been really enjoying myself.”

Building relationships

Officials at the museums say they, too, have benefited.

“I feel I get back more than I give,” says Linda Patchett, supervisor of teacher services at the Botanic Garden. “It works so well because we’re able to support the schools, and the schools help us develop our programs. Because of the length of time we’ve been involved with each other, other things have come up because you’re in the right place at the right time.”

Like when the Botanic Garden was paired with Suder in 1997. Suder embraced plant science, devoid as the neighborhood is of any greenery. Then, when the Botanic Garden won two separate grants for school partnerships, Suder got to participate in those programs as well.

“It’s about building friendships, ideas and trust together. That takes time,” says Patchett. “Whether you’re doing plant science inquiry or reading a lesson in your literature book, it’s much more about the skills than the subject matter. You’re summarizing what you’ve learned—what that bean is going to do in that ziplock bag [sprout!], just as you’d summarize what a book character does when he walks out the door. Meanwhile, the quality of our program keeps improving, because we’re creating programs with the people they’re for. My job is to help teachers feel more comfortable with science. The best way to do that is for them to help plan the curriculum.”

As part of the collaboration, museums receive $5,000 annually for workshops.

Progress is monitored and programs developed in monthly and bimonthly meetings of participants at every level—school administration, museum administration, teachers, parents, librarians. But as the fifth year of the Annenberg Challenge draws to an end, so too do the programs. Participants hope to sustain some through alternate funding. But for a small nonprofit like Imagine Chicago, continuing to support the world of creative education it helped create will be next to impossible.

“My personal preference would be to continue to be a partner in educational reform that leads to meaningful public engagement,” says Browne. “But I know I won’t be able to do that if I have to channel much or even most of my time into locating partners willing to make long-term investments in education.”

“Annenberg was a very important partner who made possible our relationship with the public schools in a way both meaningful and transforming—for us and for them,” she says. “Whether what we’ve developed continues to grow will depend on other funders [bringing] imagination, commitment and a long-term willingness to invest.”

Rebecca McDaniel says that when she became principal of Suder in November, “The school literally looked like a museum. Displays of children’s work were in the hallways, on the lockers, hanging from the ceilings. There were displays of children’s work everywhere.

“Without the funding, we won’t be able to do all the displays, because we just don’t have the money to purchase all the materials. I’ll miss the networking—the opportunity to meet other principals and hear what’s going on in their buildings and share what we’re doing. And the opportunities for teacher training and development will be missed as well. But we’ll continue what we can. We’ll continue as funds are available.”

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