Skip to main content

Community schools — providing multiple dividends across an entire neighborhood

This story was originally published May 8, 2011 on LISC/Chicago's New Communities Program website

Related story:  How a neighborhood organization is bringing parents and schools together so the whole community benefits


"You learn you have a leader within yourself," explained parent-mentor Monica Espinoza during the recent Logan Square Neighborhood Association Expo.

Deborah McCoy/LSNA

There is another way to reform education — the "community schools" model — and its application in Logan Square got a strong endorsement from Harvard University researchers who visited the community April 28.

So far the movement to reform and improve Chicago Public Schools has centered on the “charter” model, wherein a non-profit sponsor runs a public school without having to follow all the rules set by the CPS and its labor contracts.

The charter concept has produced some excellent results, including several schools supported by LISC/Chicago and NCP. And more are on the way. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promoted charters when he led CPS for Mayor Richard M. Daley, and incoming mayor Rahm Emanuel has indicated that he, too, would like to see additional charters.

The Education Expo at LSNA

Deborah McCoy/LSNA

There is growing unease in many neighborhoods, however, that so much emphasis on creating more charters — and on opening more high-achieving “selective admission” high schools such as Whitney Young, Walter Payton and North Side Prep — is leaving traditional neighborhood schools at the starting gate.

As more and more motivated families apply to charter elementary schools, and more and more high achievers test into selective high schools, more and more neighborhood schools struggle to compete.

But there is another way, in addition to charters, for neighborhood schools to elevate their performance, according to new scholarship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

And it’s a way that can pay multiple dividends across an entire community.

A cord of three strands

Actually, the alternative model — community-based schools — is not new at all in Logan Square, where the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) has been testing and expanding the concept for 18 years. The core idea is to involve parents more directly in the education of their children.

That’s a goal espoused by virtually all education reformers, yet one that’s rarely achieved due to the bureaucratic and cultural divides that exist between home and school.

Parents’ Night and PTA bake sales just don’t get it done.

How one community has managed to bridge the divide was joyfully on display at the LSNA Education Expo held at Funston Elementary School, one of nine public schools now part of the neighborhood’s school-community partnership.

Soo Hong

Deborah McCoy/LSNA

The event was also a chance to welcome back Soo Hong, a professor of education at Wellesley College who, as a Harvard doctoral student, spent three years studying LSNA’s approach. Her new book, A Cord of Three Strands (Harvard Education Press, $29.95) is based on countless interviews with families, teachers and education officials.

The book concludes that LSNA’s approach is “an exemplary model in driving educational change” that overcomes the “animosity, distrust and misunderstanding” that too often separates working-class families and their local schools.

“Building this real sense of family and community is incredibly rare and should really be a model for the kind of schools we want to build,” she told some 300 parents, students and education leaders gathered in the Funston auditorium for a panel discussion that capped the Expo event.

How it works

There are several programs within the LSNA community school model, but it all began at Funston, on North Central Park Avenue, in 1995.

Then-principal Sally Acker asked LSNA to recruit and train non-working mothers to come into the school and help teachers with instruction and other duties. As the work progressed, LSNA obtained grants from various public and private sources, including LISC/Chicago, to pay for administration and to give Parent-Mentors a small stipend.

Joanna Brown

Joanna Brown, who has overseen the program’s growth for LSNA, said the work has impacted parents as much as students, especially Mexican-American moms who had been isolated by language and culture not just from the schools, but from community participation in general.

Especially effective have been home visits by parent-mentors to families whose children have been falling behind or not showing up. An offshoot called Literacy Ambassadors sends teacher-parent teams into homes of struggling students armed with ideas and materials to promote better reading skills and habits.

 “You learn you have a leader within yourself,” explained Monica Espinoza, now a Parent-Mentor leader, of her own recruitment to the program, which, she said “turned my life around.”

Over time, LSNA helped set up after-school Community Learning Centers at six schools where kids could get help with homework, or work on various arts and enrichment projects, while their parents take GED or ESL classes elsewhere in the building.

Among those schools is Ames, on North Hamlin, one of five middle schools comprising LISC/Chicago’s Elev8 program, which has institutionalized many of the educational initiatives pioneered by LSNA.

An advanced group of Parent-Mentors were trained to be Parent-Tutors working 1-on-1 with students under the direction of teachers. By 2004 LSNA also began working with its neighborhood high school, Kelvyn Park, focusing especially on attendance, home visits, and most recently, new approaches to behavior and discipline issues such as “peer juries” and “peace circles” in which students resolve disagreements through negotiation.

“Instead of suspending or pushing out a kid every time they do something wrong, we have programs like peer jury to pull us together” said Brian Perea, a Kelvyn Park grad now studying criminal justice at Truman College. He was one of the presenters explaining specific aspects of the LSNA approach during walk-around tours of Funston preceding the panel session in the auditorium.

“It’s been the best experience of my life,” said Danny Silva.

John McCarron

Grow your own

The most ambitious program of the overall community-based schools effort may be Grow Your Own Teachers, a college scholarship program whose design has spread to 16 communities across Illinois. Started in 2000 as Nueva Generacion, the idea is to recruit promising high school graduates who’ve grown up in working class neighborhoods, then help them earn degrees in education and return as teachers in local schools.

“It’s been the best experience of my life,” said Danny Silva, who graduated from Kelvyn Park and, with the help of GYO, earned his college degree so he could return to teach at Logan Square’s Monroe Elementary.

“This is my neighborhood. I live here. I know what the kids go through. I hear the gunshots at night. Only now I can help people — socially, academically. As a young male, coming from this community, you can make it.”

So far, the 16 GYO programs across the state can count 29 college graduates, with 130 due to graduate, and more than 300 on waiting lists, according to the umbrella group Grow Your Own Illinois.

Looking ahead

So what are the prospects for LSNA’s community-based model to take a place alongside the charter model as a broad, nationwide movement?

Mark Warren

Deborah McCoy/LSNA

It’s already happening, according to Expo panelist Mark Warren, the Harvard professor of education who oversaw Soo Hong’s research.

“There are strategies that are replicable and doable,” Warren said. “You’re part of a national movement that’s occurring all across this country. LSNA has found ways to engage parents broadly and deeply in their schools ... to help schools become institutional sites for community-building and for democracy-building in our neighborhoods.”

In general, the LSNA presenters avoided comparisons between their approach and the charter approach much favored by public officials.

But one panelist, Dr. Charles Payne, interim chief education officer of CPS, was upfront about one key difference — with community schools, no child is turned away.

Unlike community schools, charter schools "don't serve the entire population," said Dr. Charles Payne, interim chief education officer of CPS....Public schools shouldn’t get to choose their student population."

Deborah McCoy/LSNA

“They [charter schools] don’t serve the entire population,” Payne argued. “Many don’t serve students with language needs, or with special needs. Public schools shouldn’t get to choose their student population. If you have a child in September, you ought to have that child in June. You shouldn’t be able to put them out in January or February. That ought to be forbidden by law.”

Nor must schools be ultra-selective to get results, said Nancy Aardema, LSNA’s executive director. She pointed out that over the past seven years, as the community-based approach became fully operational, average student scores on standardized tests (ISATs) have risen from “the 20s [in percentiles] to the 60s and 70s.”

‘Our schools are doing better,” Aardema said, “and our community is doing better as a result. We don’t want our schools to be separate from the community.”

For an overview of LSNA’s education programs, please click here.

For more information: or Joanna Brown at 773-384-4370.

Posted in Chicago, Education & Early Learning

Stay connected

Stay up to date with news and events related to the Institute: