Creating a community school from scratch

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Marquette’s community school program last year served about 350 children and 100 adults, offering about 25 activities including homework help, dance classes, family nights and courses in English as a Second Language.

Even so, the program has been beset by a variety of problems, says Rios, resource coordinator for community school programs. “It’s gotten stuck in a hole.” The local school council and the School Board locked horns over principal selection. Latino and African-American parents have sometimes disagreed over the program’s direction. And now funding has been cut.

“I would love to see the school as full in evening as it is in the day, and I’ve got a million and one ideas,” Rios says. “But I can’t do it because I don’t have the money to bring people in. So I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place … and it’s kinda sad.”

Rios got mixed financial news in July. A state government grant that covered most community school expenses had been renewed. But the renewal grant was for less money and Marquette would have to trim next year’s budget by $7,000. The total annual budget is $120,000.

It will be difficult to make up the shortfall, she predicts. “It’s a lot of money, and it’s going to hurt us. I don’t exactly know where I’m going to match the cut.”

This year’s unexpected shortfall is the latest challenge in Marquette’s ongoing struggle to integrate the school with its community.

Marquette is one of three community school programs launched in a 1997 pilot program funded by the Polk Bros. Foundation. Unlike one counterpart that had a head start on community school conversions (see related story.), Marquette had to create its program from scratch, no simple task for a school overflowing with more than 2,200 students in an area that has long been home to ethnic change and racial tension.

The pilot required each school to team up with a nonprofit partner that would serves as a fiscal agent and assist with programming. Marquette joined forces with Metropolitan Family Services, an agency with more experience in providing direct services to low-income families than community organizing.

Initially, Rios, a former youth services coordinator for Latino Youth, says she had trouble getting buy-in from parents and teachers even though the principal was committed to the idea and the community had expressed interest. Her initial high hope was that Marquette’s community school would snowball into something bigger. But just the opposite happened.

By the time the pilot ended in 2000, Marquette had secured replacement funding for most of Polk Bros.’ annual $95,000 grant. Nevertheless, increasing demand for after-school activities could not be met and participation stagnated. Now, even those programs are threatened by budget cuts.

(Also, bitter infighting between the LSC and the board, which invalidated the council’s choice to succeed retiring principal Fred Kravarik, has taken a toll on community relations. The battle is now being fought in the courts.)

During the pilot phase, community school leaders on the oversight committee spent most of their time learning to work together and gain consensus, but they dropped the ball on funding, Rios recalls.

As fiscal agent, Metropolitan Family Services is responsible for securing funding for Rios’ salary—she reports to agency staff—and other community school expenses. So far, Metropolitan Family Services has been able to secure state funding, a Teen Reach grant, that covers 70 percent of community school program expenses for four years. The rest of the money comes from school discretionary funds (25 percent) and Metropolitan Family Services’ budget (5 percent).

The program has not received any federal funding. An application for a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, which was filed through CPS, was declined.

“We’d love to expand it to serve more kids, but funding is tight,” says Mark McHugh, director of Metropolitan Family Services. “The fact that we have the Teen Reach funding means we’ll be able to sustain [Marquette’s community school program] at some level for at least the next three years.” Teen Reach is a three-year grant, but the state must approve funding each year.

This year’s shortfall will probably mean fewer supplies and fewer slots for after-school programs, many of which already have waiting lists, McHugh adds.

Marquette is slated to receive at least $20,000 from the Campaign to Expand Community Schools, a coalition that has raised money from local foundations and CPS to provide technical assistance to new community schools.

Meantime, Polk Bros. Foundation officials continue to refer potential partner organizations to Marquette. Such programs, a pilot literacy project for example, could provide vital financial assistance, says Associate Director Suzanne Kerbow.

But Rios says none of those organizations have opted to team up with Marquette. “They tend to go to the suburbs or up north,” she says. “It can get discouraging, because we put our best face on.”

Diverse population

Marquette’s student population reflects the diversity of its Southwest Side Chicago neighborhood: about half African American, half Latino, with a few whites, some from the Middle East.

Finding common ground can be a challenge, and in several instances the interests of Latino and African American parents clashed, Rios notes.

For instance, Latino parents wanted a folkloric dance class, but local school council members, most of whom were African American, wanted programs that would appeal to all students. Rios lobbied members individually, persuading them that the class was important to a large segment of the community.

Now, twice a week, 2nd and 3rd graders line up in the south lunchroom to practice traditional Mexican dance steps. An instructor yells out instructions in Spanish. Silvia Mendoza Cepeda pays $10 a week for her two children to take the class. “They get to know Mexican culture, [and] it gets them away from TV and off the streets,” she says.

Many of Marquette’s adult education classes are geared to Latinos, as most are run by the Latino Organization of the Southwest. The organization offers three levels of ESL courses, computer classes in Spanish, two GED classes (one in English, one in Spanish), citizenship classes and aerobics in Spanish. A class for non-Spanish speakers to learn the language is being considered.

Hector Rico, director of the Latino Organization of the Southwest, says he is grateful that Marquette’s facility is available. In the past, he had searched unsuccessfully for classroom space, but the neighborhood has few public buildings, he says.

This summer, Marquette didn’t have enough money to keep the building open during the evening, so Rico had to look for other space. “It’s a headache for us,” he says. He eventually found suitable space at a nearby church, but he plans to return to Marquette in the fall.

“We are a community that is underserved,” Rico says. There’s no Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA is small, he adds. “This is a community in transition and there’s not enough institutions that fulfill the needs of the newcomers.”

Lessons learned

Rios believes the community school can help ease neighborhood tensions by getting more parents involved and recruiting school staff to stay after hours.

Marquette teachers were the toughest group to bring around, notes Rios, who keeps a manila folder of their complaints about missing supplies. To keep the peace, Rios promised to replace them.

Once a teacher reported the class pet tarantula was missing. Rios spent the next day searching pet shops for the difficult-to-find species. She bought one for $300. When she returned to the school, she learned the missing spider had been found.

Rios also came up with creative ways to involve teachers. She also hired some of them to work as instructors or coaches.

Students are more motivated when they get to know their teachers better, says Sam Whalen, a University of Chicago researcher who studied Polk Bros. community-school pilot.

There are two components of academic progress: high standards and social support, he says. “Programs that do one without the other don’t actually tend to raise long-term performance.”