Woodlawn: Activists make housing-schools connection

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In 1994, residents of Woodlawn Avenue between 61st and 62nd streets came together to develop an affordable housing cooperative in the area. But it wasn’t long before the Woodlawn Development Associates, as they called themselves, made the connection between housing and schools. Pat Wilcoxen, a founding member of the group, recalls their reasoning: “If we’re going to develop housing, people are going to want to have schools to send [their children] to.”

This fall, the Woodlawn Community School, one of the system’s first small schools, will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Despite recent ups and downs in reading scores, the school has become one of the two strongest-performing schools in the neighborhood. Recently, some parents in Evanston have taken a look at its Afrocentric curriculum as a possible means to close the achievement gap in their schools.

When the district released a request for proposals for new small schools in 1995, Woodlawn Development Associates jumped on the opportunity. Children and youth committee chair Lorne Cress Love went to work asking parents and neighbors what they wanted to see in a school. “We held community meetings. Lots of people came,” Love recalls. “We wanted to attempt to establish an African-centered curriculum. Our children needed to know more about not just their history, but a stronger sense of self.”

The community also supported the idea of a small school where teachers and students could build stronger relationships. Love, who continues to serve on the local school council and runs an after-school program, says “the difference is tremendous. You know the children and the children know you. You can create a really safe environment.”

Woodlawn Development Associates’ small school proposal was the only one to be approved that came from a community group. “We didn’t know how much work was in front of us,” Wilcoxen says. “We had to go out and find a location for our school. We had to order the supplies. When we tried to do that, they said you couldn’t order supplies without the principal’s number. We said, ‘We don’t have a principal yet.’ “

In the fall of 1996, the school opened inside Wadsworth Elementary, with two kindergarten classes and one 1st-grade class. Since its inception, Woodlawn Community School has offered a full-day kindergarten and before- and after-school programs, so working parents have a child care option.

But as time went on, the founders realized other aspects of the curriculum needed improving. “I was helping some children who were in the principal’s office because they were misbehaving,” Love recalls. “I was trying to help them and they couldn’t read. I was just floored.” Love, who had been recruiting parents to send their children to the school, began to wonder how she could continue her work. “I went home one afternoon in tears.”

Through a friend, Love contacted Elaine Moseley, the founding principal of Kellman Corporate Community School (now Kellman Elementary in North Lawndale). Woodlawn Development Associates hired her as a consultant. After observing classrooms over time and assessing students individually, “she recommended we put in Direct Instruction,” a scripted reading program that includes lots of drills, says Love. “Then our children began to learn to read.” Last year, the district banned new schools from adopting the program, but allowed schools with a track record of success to continue using it.

Woodlawn Community stayed at Wadsworth until the fall of 2003, when it moved to the building that formerly housed the Tesla alternative school for pregnant and parenting teens. Last year, enrollment had grown to 230 students. Over the last three years, about 50 to 65 percent of students tested have consistently met or exceeded reading and math standards on the ISAT.

As a small school, Woodlawn Community does not have attendance boundaries. “We wish we had more from the neighborhood, to tell you the truth,” says Wilcoxen. “We have quite a few who walk, but we also have many who are driven in cars.”