Principal Denise Gamble Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

One overcast Friday afternoon in July, a little girl waits to be picked up from Medill Elementary, where she goes every morning for a summer camp of sorts. But no one shows up.

“What happened?” asks Principal Denise Gamble, a note of concern in her voice as she talks to her staff.

A mix-up has left the 5-year-old girl without an escort. She was supposed to walk home with an older cousin, who is enrolled in Medill’s summer school, but the cousin is absent. When Gamble reaches the girl’s mother on her cell phone, she learns that the woman is still traveling by bus from the suburbs, and it will take a while for her to make it back to Medill.

Home is just a couple of blocks away, so the mother tells Gamble to let her daughter walk home alone. But the trip home through the ABLA public housing project is not a safe trek, especially for a 5-year-old: She would have to walk past a sprawling empty lot—formerly home to high-rise housing—and then by a group of run-down townhouses that residents call “the doghouses” because of their dilapidated condition. 

After the incident, Gamble sums up the kind of character it takes to work in a school in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods: “Medill is not for the faint of heart.”

Medill sits in the heart of the Near West Side, a community that is slowly gentrifying after decades of entrenched poverty, crime and other social ills. Yet Medill still draws its students from public housing, where most households are headed by single mothers or grandmothers and the average yearly income is just $20,000, according to the 2000 census. Much of ABLA has been torn down, forcing families to move (the Chicago Housing Authority declined to provide data on how many families were displaced) and making way for newcomers to move into rebuilt, mixed-income housing. But by and large, these new residents are not sending their children to schools like Medill, which has seen its enrollment decline by half since 2003.

For years, Medill’s test scores have been firmly lodged in the basement. But Gamble, brought in by the district as a turnaround principal in 2006 after previous principal Frederic Metz was removed for poor performance, has a game plan to turn the school around.

New programs and improved teaching are part of that plan. But Gamble also has something more deep-rooted in mind: building bridges to the community and creating a sense of trust between parents and the school. That kind of relationship-building, research says, is key to school improvement.

Why this matters

In line with experts who say schools need more than quality teachers and a good curriculum to boost academic performance, Denise Gamble’s strategy is to:

  • Establish trust between the community and the school.
  • Build better relationships between teachers and parents.
  • Give parents ownership of the school by allowing them a voice in decision-making.

“Schools that reach out to the community are stronger,” says Gwen Benson, associate dean of school and community partnerships at Georgia State University. “The community serves as volunteers and finds resources, like free tickets to the aquarium, that benefit the school, and does things like make sure children go to school.”

Building trust in the community is important, Benson adds, “but sometimes it is tough to get people to buy-in that you want to make things better.”

Transforming Medill won’t be a quick and easy task, and the school’s future is uncertain, especially with its enrollment on the decline. Still, there are some signs of improvement: Two years ago, only five parents were regularly involved in the school; that number is now up to 30. Test scores, while still low, are slowly creeping up, with reading scores rising 9 percentage points since Gamble’s been principal.

“We stress to parents that we are all accountable.” says Gamble. “I can’t do it all. My staff can’t do it all.”

To reach out to parents after taking the helm, Gamble turned to Della Ezell of the social service agency Youth Guidance.

“She had no parent involvement,” says Ezell, program manager for community schools. “Parents dropped their kids off, and no one was coming in. It was not personal. She was new, and people felt like, ‘I’m not sharing my personal business with these strangers.’”

In addition to strategies to help their children academically, Gamble realized that parents needed an outlet for talking about issues in the community, which would help them create their own social network.

But parents were a tough sell, Ezell recalls. No one came to the first organized meeting, despite phone calls inviting them. So the next strategy was simpler: Stop parents when they arrive at school, greet them and start a conversation with small talk. “A little talk about the weather and then, ‘What would you like to see at your school?’” Ezell says. “Parents were used to the old days, when no one asked their opinion. Gamble was talking inclusion.”

The strategy is similar to one in use at Perspectives Charter Schools, which hired a director of community relations to spread the word about the charter and get families and community groups involved. “It’s about one-on-one conversations and asking the community what they want in their school,” says Ray Thompson. (See related story)

Such input is vital for improving education in struggling schools. “One of the biggest weaknesses in urban education is that some people undervalue the community’s knowledge,” says Pauline Lipman, professor of policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But the community knows the kids, their challenges and the strengths that those children bring.”

Gamble also asks Medill’s teachers to reach out, by having them call their students’ parents before the school year begins. Teachers introduce themselves, tell parents what they can expect for the upcoming year, field questions and concerns and tell parents they are looking forward to working with them and their children.

“Parents are shocked,” says 3rd-grade teacher Elwanda Butler. “But they are more willing to come up to the school and be involved, all because they got a phone call.”

Soon after Gamble became principal, veteran community activist and ABLA local advisory council president Deverra Beverly invited her to a community council meeting to give residents a chance to “kick the tires” and find out what Gamble was about.

“I have a vested interest in Medill,” says Beverly, who attended Medill and sent her children there as well. “We support them. The community makes the school.”

Gamble knows the importance of community involvement—she cut her teeth on the subject at Herbert. Under her leadership, Gamble focused on building relationships and giving parents a voice, both key components of the Comer Process, the school improvement strategy that she is now using at Medill. (See related story).

One Herbert parent recalls how Gamble brought the school’s chaotic climate under control, making it a better learning environment for students. Building relationships with parents made it easier for Gamble to talk to them about how to help their children. Parents felt more comfortable taking their complaints and concerns to Gamble, which paved the way for her to cut down on disputes between staff and parents.

Once there, Gamble established a parent leadership steering committee and held mini-conferences on the weekends to teach parents about core subjects like math, reading and science. Gamble also polled parents about what kinds of programs they wanted at the school and if they thought teachers were doing their jobs.

“She had a parent volunteer in each classroom every day,” says Cloria Duckins, a Herbert LSC member.  “And she’d send parents to meetings outside the school to find things that we liked that we thought might benefit the school. She was always saying, ‘Go take notes, and bring it back [to share with the rest of the school community].’” 

While Gamble brought the community into the school, she was also good about venturing out into the community herself, Duckins says, attending birthday parties, baby showers, graduations and funerals.  “She had no problem doing a home visit. She’d sit and laugh with the kids and she’d tell them at school, ‘You don’t know, one day I could be standing at your door,’” Duckins says.

The trust levels at Medill are not at that level yet, Gamble says, but she is working on it. She has been letting parents know, as well as their children, that she is vested in them.

In July, when summer school is almost over, she catches two upper-grade girls arriving a half-hour late for summer school classes, thinking they won’t be noticed. But Gamble definitely does. “This is the second day you’ve been late,” she says, in a stern yet caring tone. “I don’t want to see you late again.” The girls exchange glances and promise to do better.

This school year, Gamble plans to replicate the parent leadership steering committee and the mini-conferences that she created at Herbert.

“The main thing is building support and confidence in parents, so they believe they can help their children and the school. They are their children’s first teachers,” says Gamble. “If we can do that, we can do anything,”

Slowly, word has spread about Medill’s transformation. Resources have begun flowing in, including tutoring, counseling, new flat-screen computers, a pledge for a new science lab and after-school programs in African-American dancing, art, Spanish and music. Teachers are getting more professional development.

Parent Keith Wells, who transferred his two sons out of Medill under the previous principal, brought one back this year. (The other son is now in high school.)

“I heard Medill had changed, that a lot of good things were happening here,” says Wells. “So far, it has been beautiful. I’m pleased with what I see.”

Gamble “definitely has ideas about what she wants to do, and she will battle for what she wants,” says Reginald Adams, the director of community affairs at Rush University Medical Center, which is building the school’s new state-of-the art science lab.

Gamble’s predecessor, he adds, “tried to do some good things. But Denise has a plan.  She doesn’t wait for handouts. She just comes up to you and says, ‘This is what I want from you.’”
Medill is now at its broadest level of parent participation ever, says Ezell. “You ask them to come to a meeting and an assembly, or volunteer for a field trip, and they come.”

The goal is to get them to do more—and eventually sit at the table when decisions are made about the best ways to educate their children.

“You will never have 100 percent parent participation. But if they believe they can trust you and you have their best interests at heart, they will support the school,” says Gamble.

Gamble’s dream is to turn Medill into a demonstration school, especially since the CPS Medill Training Center for teachers is a stone’s throw away. [The building was formerly a part of Medill, but when enrollment dwindled, students were moved to Medill’s smaller building .]

Nevertheless, projections for fall enrollment have dropped again, from 209 students to 150. District officials say they have made no decision on the future of the school.

In the meantime, Gamble and her staff soldier on.

As Debra Pickett, the school’s resource coordinator, prepares to ferry the 5-year-old home, she asks Efrem Felton, the school’s security officer, if he’d mind tagging alone.  He doesn’t; he’s done it plenty of times before. In the five years he’s worked at Medill, Felton has gone to any number of homes searching for missing students, even rousing some from their beds.

Besides, Felton’s got a 6-year-old daughter of his own, and can’t imagine letting his baby—or any child that age—walk home alone.

When Pickett and Felton arrive, they are greeted by two more little girls. The older cousin—the one who did not come to school—is baby-sitting. She’s in 5th grade.

“Why weren’t you in school today?” Pickett asks her.

“I didn’t have any clothes to wear. I’ll be there tomorrow,” the child replies, with a shy smile.

“Well, all of you get in the house now, so I can go back to school,” Pickett instructs them gently. “It is about to rain. Go back in the house and lock the door.”

The girls giggle and follow her instructions. Pickett watches until the door is closed and locked, then she makes a beeline back to the school.

Handling incidents like this is all in a day’s work at Medill Elementary.

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