There is no simple answer why Little Village elementary schools are succeeding in staying popular with local families. But many signs point to the “community school” model that makes these schools strong local institutions for children and their families.
In Part One of this series, we looked at how well the CPS elementary schools in Little Village are doing in retaining the students that live within their attendance boundaries, a much higher percentage than the citywide average. Is it because the schools are attracting more wealthy families that are investing their time and money in the local school, as has been happening in some North Side neighborhoods? How is Little Village swimming against the tide, keeping or even adding local students, while most other schools are losing them?
Little Village’s is not a typical story of neighborhood improvement. In fact, Little Village has seen virtually no signs of gentrification over the last ten years, and unlike its rapidly gentrifying neighbor community, Pilsen, it has seen decreases in community income levels and home values.
Very little new construction and housing development has happened anytime recently in Little Village, and community demographics have remained largely homogenous (83% Latino) and unchanged over the last ten years.
However, Little Village schools have improved, violent crime has decreased, new schools and parks have been built, and healthcare access has improved for many. Little Village residents have proven that communities can be improved by-and-for the low-income individuals that reside in them. In fact, in the most recent round of CPS budget cuts, Little Village schools fared better than many similar communities.
Little Village has rapidly increased community resources—especially in youth programs, family health, and violence prevention—and improved coordination of service providers and community institutions, including schools. For example, The Little Village Education Collaborative was formed in late 2013 to deepen the level of coordination among service providers, school principals, teachers, and parents and to implement strategies outlined in the Little Village Quality of Life Plan, 2013.
Even more vital, have been the community/school partnerships unique to the area. Little Village has the largest neighborhood network of 'Community Schools' in the city of Chicago. Community Schools are schools in which a community agency and a local school have partnered to engage students and family beyond the classroom, turning neighborhood schools into community hubs rich with programs, services, and leadership development.
For over a decade, Enlace Chicago has coordinated eight Community School partnerships, including three at the elementary and middle school level; Rosario Castellanos Elementary, Eli Whitney Elementary, and Francisco I. Madero Middle; and five at the high school level. In the past, The Boys and Girls Club, Central State SER, and Alivio Medical Center have also coordinated Community Schools at Little Village Academy, Cyrus H. McCormick Elementary, and John Spry Community School. In fact, an intentional strategy of strengthening neighborhood public schools seems to be paying off; Enlace Community Schools are leading the pack in neighborhood school participation rates among elementary schools.
Fanny Diego Alvarez, Enlace Chicago's Director of Education, explains it this way, "Families and communities want to be involved in their schools, but they want to have meaningful engagement. It is not just about report card pick up, it is about making the school and its activities relevant to a family. This year, we celebrated eleven years of our Community Schools Program. It is not a coincidence that our schools are improving and remain popular. Our schools are hubs of learning for the whole family. In them we are leveraging resources and services in academics, adult education, health and wellness, immigration, and housing. We are addressing needs and interests. Viewing our community as an asset allows us to challenge the pervasive perspective of low-income communities, prevent future issues, and make improvements now."
Principal Jose Llanes from Francisco I. Madero, a neighborhood middle school with rapidly climbing enrollment rates, says it starts with administrators and teachers who truly believe in the mission of school improvement and the success of students, but it has to include parents and community.
" Madero's Community School is one of the most successful ventures in my nine years at Madero. We offer resources and opportunities for parents, like GED, ESL, Cooking, Zumba, and even Yoga. We have opened the doors to parents, and we mean it, we truly want them involved. We also offer opportunities for youth after school. They have supervision during after-school hours- they aren't roaming the streets- but they also have programs that are exciting and that enrich their lives. Kids have to want to come to school and enjoy it. It has taken eight years, but our school is popular, and we don't have to worry about enrollment. While many schools' budgets is being cut, ours is increasing this year."
East Side Chicago is also showing enrollment and quality improvements in the local public elementary schools matching Little Village. This largely Latino community on the far south side of Chicago is home to a cluster of schools that have enrollment rates of students living in the attendance area that are also among the highest in the city: Addams (94%), Gallistel (91%), Taylor (91%), Marsh (94%), and Washington, G (94%).
These schools seem to share a similar story of community partnership, resource development, and ultimately extensive academic, enrichment, and leadership development opportunities for youth and families. Celia Lozano from nonprofit Communities in Schools of Chicago (CIS of Chicago) reflects on their long-standing partnerships with four of these schools - Addams, Taylor, George Washington and Marsh. CIS of Chicago works with the schools to identify school-level priorities and connect community partners - many of whom wouldn't otherwise extend their services to the under-resourced and under-served far southeast side of Chicago - to address these essential school and student needs. In fact, former counselor at Addams, now Alderwomen, Susan Sadlowski Garza was awarded the Al Ward Spirit of Giving Award by Communities In Schools of Chicago in 2006 commending not only her dedication to bringing community resources to the students and families at Addams school, but also her role in mentoring others at surrounding schools building a rich and engaged school community.
Like in Little Village, intentional community investment has been able to build neighborhood schools that work for the communities that they serve. Little Village knows this story well. In fact, the Little Village schools that are not retaining neighborhood students are the exceptions that prove the rule. Little Village schools with fewer resources in and around the schools have not seen the same growth in attendance.
Hammond, Kanoon, Finkl, and Spry are located along Marshall Boulevard at the eastern border of Little Village, also known as Marshall Square, which has not experienced the proliferation of resources equal to the rest of the community. In the Little Village Youth Safety Map, released by Enlace this year, 'Boulevard Schools' were perceived by students to be less safe in and around the school than any other set of schools in the neighborhood. Surveyed student may be correct in their assessment; the same study found the rates of violent crime were also highest in this area.
The community is responding to fill the gap in resources along the boulevard, including: securing 21st Century Learning Center funds at Spry, Hammond, and Telpochcalli; releasing a new round of violence prevention funding focused on youth development through the Little Village Youth Safety Network; an expansion of Safe Passage along school routes; and a generous United Way of Metro Chicago grant to the Marshall Square Resource Network to improve the area. These same strategies have proven effective in other areas of the community.
Despite the proliferation in community resources, CPS is responded to the lower number of students at these four schools by cutting nearly $1 million in funding to these schools this school year, based on a projected loss of just 100 students. These are not the only Little Village schools projected to lose funding this school year. That list includes Emilio Zapata, a Level 1 elementary school with a 92% attendance area participation rate in 2014, which is projected to lose nearly $300,000 due to CPS funding cuts this year.