Research shows that strong relationships among teachers, schools, and
neighborhood organizations are a key factor in school improvement. Yet few Chicago teachers have those connections.

Research shows that strong relationships among teachers, schools, and neighborhood organizations are a key factor in school improvement.

Yet few Chicago teachers have those connections.

“The path for many of our staff is the parking lot, into the building, out to the parking lot, and down the main streets out of the community,” says John Schmidt, who runs the Service-Learning Initiative in the CPS Office of Humanities. “I would be shocked if we had even 15 to 20 percent of teachers living in the neighborhoods where they taught.”

To help bridge the divide, the Chicago Public Schools organized three week-long teacher immersion institutes over the summer to help about 90 teachers connect with the communities where they teach. Some school principals have conducted community tours, Schmidt says, but the summer institutes were a first for central office.

Using $70,000 in federal stimulus money, CPS partnered with four community organizations — Action Now, Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, and Logan Square Neighborhood Association – to conduct institutes in Kenwood Oakland, Logan Square and North Lawndale.

Participants learned about community history, culture and resources.

For example, at Herzl Elementary School in North Lawndale, teachers learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., lived in the neighborhood during the 1960s and that there is an African heritage garden a block and a half away.

“Teachers [with] 10, 15 years at the school were completely unaware of some of the resources in the community,” Schmidt says. “Over the course of the week, they really began to shift their thinking about who the kids are and what they’re up against.”

The participants also created classroom projects that will eventually be posted online as resources for other teachers.

Know yourself first

All of the institutes followed a similar outline. On Day 1, teachers spent the morning in exercises that explored their own identities and cultures.

In the afternoon, they looked at the historical developments and the issues that are shaping the neighborhoods. “The issues that shape the neighborhoods shape the people, shape the kids, and those are the people that end up in our schools,” says Schmidt.

Teachers also participated in a day of service that advanced student learning as well.

“Service-learning is not just the service, it’s the learning,” service-learning project coordinator Cristina Salgado told Logan Square participants on the third day of their institute.

Accordingly, CPS is going to shift its service graduation requirements from the current 40 hours, to three service-learning projects, which teachers can help students do as full-class activities, independently, or in small groups.

The projects developed by Community Immersion Institute teachers, tied to neighborhood issues, could count toward the new requirement. For instance, one North Lawndale teacher plans to help his class study food deserts and the lack of grocery stores in the neighborhood.

“It’s not just about learning about inequities, but providing students with opportunities to be involved and take some action around an issue,” Schmidt says.

Building social capital

On a Monday morning, about 20 teachers are gathered in the cafeteria at Ames Middle School in Logan Square listening to a facilitator lead them in a discussion of social capital. Research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research has shown that social capital – or community connections – is a key factor in school improvement.

More broadly, the teachers learn that communities become richer and more stable when their residents are civically engaged and organized. Social capital includes both relationships within a community or school, and relationships with others outside of it. The message: By making use of their own social networks and tapping into local community organizations, teachers can help build stronger schools.

Next, the teachers are asked to draw their life stories. Sheets of construction paper come alive with stick-figure scenes. The message: to understand students, the teachers must first understand themselves. They fill out a “power flower” with different aspects of their identity and note for each whether they chose it, or whether it was chosen for them. Then they share some of their findings with other teachers.

Touring the neighborhood

The next morning, teachers are paired with students from Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) for a neighborhood bus tour.

“Teachers are always nervous the first day of school,” Natalie Gardner, a 4th-grade teacher at Mozart Elementary, tells a student. “The way you feel, teachers have it worse.”

Later on, Gardner and the student swap updates on hang-out spots and clothes shopping opportunities. Gardner notes that many of the people she knows – some of them recent arrivals to Logan Square – tend to frequent the neighborhood’s new businesses at the expense of established community anchors.

“I’ve lived here a long time and, teaching here, I do know some of my kids’ lives, but I live in a very different world than they do,” Gardner says. “My friends do completely different things. They see a different Logan Square than people who’ve grown up here.”

Their conversation is punctuated by tour stops on the tour, which emphasized gentrification, housing, and other community issues in Logan Square.

“If you look to your left, we’re going to see the Mega Mall,” announces Leo Cedasero, a youth leader for LSNA and After School Matters. The bus is at the intersection of Milwaukee and Sacramento. “The Mega Mall was burned down twice. Half of it was not used any more; half of it, people still use.”

Then it’s time for a student to chime in. She talks about how the Mega Mall is a popular after-school hangout where students can buy clothes, jewelry, and piercings. But, she notes, the Mega-Mall is newly surrounded by fancy restaurants, and its future could be in doubt.

“Make sure you guys look at the neighborhood around the Mega Mall. It’s changing,” Cedasero says.

Next, the group stops at LSNA offices for a talk about the general lack of health care in the community and the organization’s clinics for low-income residents. The teachers get flyers on health services, so they can refer students and families to the clinic. They also learn about the group’s citizenship assistance and foreclosure prevention programs.

Other stops include Kelvyn Park High School; a lot where an affordable housing development is planned; the local YMCA; a spot near the proposed Bloomingdale Trail (an elevated green space, park and trail on old CTA train tracks); and Funston Elementary, located at the border of two adjacent Chicago Police Department districts and two gang territories. A 13-year-old girl was shot and killed on the school playground a few years ago.

On Wednesday, the teachers talk with LSNA’s Bridget Murphy about ways to continue the collaboration and reach out to even more neighborhood teachers.

Value added

April Truhlar, a Kelvyn Park High School math teacher who lives in Lake View, says that before the institute she struggled to describe her school’s neighborhood. She adds that she appreciated the opportunity to meet teachers from other grade levels, which she did regularly when she taught in Aurora. “I’ve never once been in a meeting with a teacher from a feeder school [in Chicago],” she says.

Shantell Barnett, a special education teacher at Mozart Elementary, says the institute opened her eyes to new information about the community where she has taught for 18 years.

 “I don’t think people really realize the impact of gentrification, how it impacts not only the homeowners but the renters,” she says.

Barnett says she learned more about the effects of rising home prices and condo conversions on the community. She has already seen a reduction in the number of students attending neighborhood schools but now, she says, she knows that homelessness is more than students living in shelters.

“There could be two or three families living in a three-bedroom apartment,” she says. “If you have a kid… [who] doesn’t have a quiet spot to go, he can’t do his reading.”

Jitu Brown, an education organizer at Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, says that the kind of knowledge imparted in the immersion institutes is crucial.

Teachers from schools including Jackie Robinson, Mollison, Ariel, Dyett, Reavis, Price and Woodson attended the institute in his neighborhood. 

“We think the immersion institute is a needed activity,” Brown says. “Teachers need to know the communities in which they teach — know and respect the people, the culture, and the day-to-day experiences.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.