Uptown: Home-grown school aims to beat odds

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Uplift Community School

Photo by John Booz

Uplift Community School

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and a group of 8th-graders loosely file into John Yolich’s social studies class at Uplift Community School.

“Let’s get comfortable,” Yolich tells the kids draped in loose-fitting T-shirts who slowly break away from private conversations and find their seats.

Other teachers might tell their students to sit down and take out their books. But Yolich, who darts around his room as he talks, is not an ordinary teacher. And Uplift—a new 6th- through 12th-grade school under the district’s Renaissance 2010 initiative located on one of Uptown’s main drags—is no ordinary school.

Once students are settled in, Yolich explains a role-play exercise where they will reenact how decisions were made in the Wilson Yard Project, one of the most contentious debates in the community’s history over how much affordable housing should be built on unused land owned by the Chicago Transit Authority.

Students divide up into groups representing all sides of the debate, from Chamber of Commerce business leaders to Ald. Helen Shiller, and from affordable housing advocates to new homeowners association members. They talk about demographics. “Who lives in Uptown?” asks Yolich. “Everybody,” someone shouts.

Yolich finds discussions about Uptown and its future to be more than perfunctory lessons in civics. Yolich has deep roots in the community. He and two other colleagues on the design team that created Uplift grew up here and attended public schools. They bought pizza by the slice at the same haunts where their students do now, and dribbled basketballs on the same streets.

Uplift opened its doors in September, but its story is more than a tale of a new school. It’s about grassroots might in a neighborhood where there’s a shift in the housing and bank accounts of those moving in. It’s about political struggle in an area with a reputation as a bastion for working-class families; protection and support for those who are down, for a minute, but not out; and assistance for those who are new to the city and the country. And from an educational standpoint, it’s about pushing the limits of Chicago Public Schools’ most ambitious reform effort.

Eventually, Uplift will replace Arai Middle School, one of 70 schools that will be closed or phased out citywide to make way for 100 new schools. The initiative has been contentious throughout the city, and Uptown is no exception.

School of ‘last resort’

Even before Uplift’s design team had submitted a proposal to open a school there, Arai had begun the process of phasing out, beginning in 2004 when it was directed to stop accepting 6th-graders. That decision, along with declining enrollment and another directive to expand four K-5 feeder elementary schools through 8th grade, fueled speculation that Arai’s days were numbered.

“There was a perception in the community—and it was just a perception—that the building was unsafe; that it was a last resort school,” says David Pickens, a deputy to Schools Chief Arne Duncan. “A lot of kids from the feeder schools were not accepting Arai as an option, so we were losing a lot of those kids either out of the system or to other neighborhoods,” adds Pickens, who previously spent a year as an assistant principal at Arai.

When Mayor Daley unveiled the district’s new schools plan in June 2004, three Arai teachers—Yolich, Chor Ng and Karen Zaccor—dusted off their five-year-old plan to create a small school. That proposal never got off of the ground, but part of it, a provision that allowed them to teach as a team and follow their students from grade to grade through middle school, had been implemented at Arai. The success of this strategy, known as looping, would later play a role in the community’s support of Uplift’s new school proposal.

Instructionally, the design team “knew what they were doing,” says Truman College President Marguerite Boyd, who sat on the community panel—known as a transition advisory council—that was charged with recommending one of six proposals vying to move into Arai.

Truman College, located a few blocks away on Wilson Avenue, has a longstanding relationship with Arai, and during the Renaissance 2010 selection process, maintained a keen interest in which new program would fill the space. Another member of the transition advisory council who had more than a casual interest in what school would replace Arai was Uptown’s alderman, Helen Shiller.

Her reputation contrasts sharply with many of her colleagues on the City Council.

While some have welcomed developers into their communities with hugs and tax breaks, Shiller offered them a guarded stare. To developers she was a devil who kept winning elections; to affordable housing advocates she was an angel, albeit a tough one.

Shiller says she kept an open mind through the selection process, although she had known members of Uplift’s design team for years. Those who grew up in Uptown had spent time in her living room in the 1980s playing fantasy baseball or watching TV with her son, Brendan.

One of Shiller’s biggest concerns during the selection process were rampant rumors that CPS wanted a charter school for the Arai site. Two of the contenders—Perspectives and Chicago International Charter Schools—fit the bill. “It is my distinct impression that they wanted a charter school and they wanted as many of the [Renaissance 2010] schools to be charters as possible,” Shiller says.

Getting the best educational program into the Arai site was a priority, Shiller says, but she was also concerned about using taxpayer dollars to fund a charter school in a building that boasts a swimming pool and other amenities. “From the beginning, my point was, I’ll be open to anything, but anything in a certain context,” she says. “I’ll always have certain priorities. I am a very strong public school supporter.”

Meanwhile, a team of district administrators, also charged with weighing in on the school selection process, had given their nod to Perspectives Charter, one of the mayor’s oft-cited models. The two finalists—Perspectives and Uplift—wound up on Duncan’s desk for final approval, says Pickens.

“Arne Duncan had not made a decision when all the rumors were flying around,” Pickens says. “People were trying to anticipate the decision he was going to make.”

The Uplift design team’s strong ties with the community and its community-driven curriculum weighed heavily in Duncan’s decision, he says. Perspectives, on the other hand, could likely replicate anywhere in the city.

Shared roots, coinciding careers

Once they had made it past the final selection hoop, the Uplift team began planning a program. This year, the school enrolls 6th- through 9th-graders. Each year, the school will add a grade until it reaches 12th grade by 2008.

For core design team members, Uplift is a culmination of long friendships and shared ideals. Yolich and David Taylor, the school’s dean of students, have been friends since 3rd grade, when Taylor moved to Uptown from the Ida B. Wells public housing development on the South Side.

He was the new kid in class and sat right in front of Yolich. Still testing his new environment and classmates, Taylor told the teacher he had a headache and was allowed to put his head down. But he couldn’t help being distracted by the conversation between Yolich and another classmate. When he turned around to see what’s going on, “John is looking at me with this strange look, like, “‘Aren’t you sick; isn’t your head hurting?’

“I crack this smile [as if to say], ‘No, I’m not really sick, but you’re doing work and I’m not.'” Yolich must have respected Taylor’s agile scheming. The two have been friends for more than 25 years.

Another friend, Chor Ng, lived across from Taylor on the 4400 block of Racine. Ng’s apartment was in between Taylor’s and Yolich’s, who lived across the alley.

When they weren’t out playing baseball or trying to scratch up a game of football, they were in Yolich’s bedroom playing sock basketball.

All three attended Stockton Elementary and, although they never discussed future plans, they all ended up teaching, and by 2000, all three were at Arai.

There, Taylor taught physical education. Yolich and science teacher Ng formed a teaching team with Zaccor, who taught math.

“It was the most amazing teaching experience,” says Zaccor of the team concept which focused on reading and integrated core subjects. “I was able to work with John and Chor to reinforce and support the math curriculum.” When students started the day, they were greeted with a math problem on the board in all three classrooms.

The cross-pollination also worked with other subjects. “We would choose literature that reflects the conflicts and controversies of everyday life because that’s what kids want to read and that’s what our kids were living,” says Zaccor. “Our kids were always doing the same assignments with those books.”

The strategy worked. Students who were taught by the team outperformed others at Arai in the same grade on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills for three years running, according to data the team provided in its Uplift proposal.

The formula Zaccor, Chor and Yolich developed became a building block for Uplift. The reading project for this fall was LeAlan Jones’ “Our America,” an account of his childhood in a public housing complex on the South Side. Not only did the students read the book, they invited Jones to the school to speak.

Uplift’s academic theme is social justice and teachers there are unabashedly on a mission to create change agents. In Zaccor’s math class, for example, students study fractions and ratios while the likes of feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman, anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells and Uptown-based peace activist Kathy Kelly look on from posters on the wall.

Even Uplift’s supporters say the school has an uphill battle ahead, particularly as the founding teachers and administrators learn the ropes of running a school.

“What they really want to do is change these children’s lives and it’s hard work,” says Truman College’s Boyd, who has taken Uplift’s first-time principal, Stephanie Moore under her wing, and has helped tap mentors to work with her.

Just learning how to shuffle paper shuffle in a large urban district bureaucracy is a huge learning curve, says Boyd.

Moore, a product of CPS schools, says she is up to the challenge. While this is her first time managing a school on her own, she completed the district’s principal internship program at Crane High School and earned a master’s degree in education administration from Chicago State University.

Moore was first approached about joining Uplift by a design team member who was a colleague from Best Practices High School. Moore first wanted to make sure that Uplift was not going to be a charter school. As a CPS graduate, Moore says she is committed to traditional public schools. “I wasn’t interested in charter schools,” she says.

“We just liked Stephanie instantly,” Zaccor says. “We weren’t all caught up in, ‘Oh, let’s have someone with lots of experience,’ because we’ve been through a number of principals up here and experience has not necessarily been some great thing. You can get jaded with experience at CPS.”

Moore points out that she has some administrative experience running summer programs and managing facilities. “So, administrative tasks are not new to me,” she says.

However, Moore admits that there are days when the mission and the paper pushing that comes with it feel overwhelming. On those days, she consults with her mentors, who are helping her keep things in perspective.

“I just came to the realization that your job is never done,” she says. “You may finish one part of the task, but the task itself never goes away.”

Curtis Lawrence is a Chicago writer and teaches journalism at Columbia College Chicago. E-mail him at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.