South Chicago: A school for the community tries to raise math and reading test scores

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After-school at Sullivan

Photo by Jason Reblando

After-school at Sullivan

On just about any weekday evening, and sometimes on Saturday, a visitor to Sullivan Elementary can walk through the halls and find a buzz of activity until 7 p.m.

After 90 minutes of tutoring or other academic activities, students can take part in sports, sewing lessons, a computer lab session, band, drama, art or board games.

For parents, there are GED and English as a Second Language classes, parenting courses, a dad’s club and a program to learn how to teach early literary skills to their young children.

Sometimes the school sponsors field trips for students and parents. And for the community, Sullivan has hosted asthma, dental, vision and hearing screenings.

The buzz of activity is the result of the Community Schools Initiative, one of CEO Arne Duncan’s pet projects. Community schools, which are springing up in districts across the country as well as Chicago, aim to provide activities and services not just for students but their families and the neighborhood as well. Chicago has 102 community schools so far.

“Being a community school helps our kids academically and it’s good public relations because it gets more people in the building,” says Principal Robert Esenberg, who believes the lure of recreational activities motivates kids to come for the academics beforehand. “We even have a few kids who don’t go to Sullivan, because we have a good band program.”

Almost 10 years ago, Esenberg and the South Chicago Consortium, a group of local organizations and businesses, hatched an idea that led to Sullivan’s adoption of the community school model.

Initially, the plan was to create after-school programs in every school in the neighborhood and provide transportation to them for students. But some consortium members died, and the plan never came to fruition.

Esenberg held on to the idea. “I had a vision to make Sullivan the educational center in the neighborhood,” he says.

In 2003, he learned that Metropolitan Family Services would receive a five-year, $212,000 grant from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program to partner with schools and offer after-school activities. Metropolitan became Sullivan’s partner.

Signs of success

“The community school looks at students in a holistic way,” says Michelle Scheidt, a manager at Metropolitan Family Services. The vision is to put supports in place so that our students can succeed at school, at home and in the community.”

Although the data is preliminary, an evaluation by Metropolitan shows that participating students raised their test scores faster than those who don’t participate, Scheidt reports.

“This is both in reading and math and for every year we’ve had the program. We hope to see it this year too,” she says. The evaluation will be complete in August, and will include results of a survey of teachers, parents and students about the program.

National data bolster Metropolitan’s findings. According to a 2005 report from Naperville-based Learning Point Associates, about 45 percent of children who participated in activities at schools funded by federal 21st Century grants raised their reading and language arts grades; 41 percent raised math grades.

Still, school-wide impact at Sullivan remains elusive. Last year, Sullivan’s reading test scores dropped, and for the last five years, test scores have hovered just below 30 percent.

Scheidt notes that low participation may be a barrier: Only 347 students, out of some 825 enrolled, are involved in the after-school activities. Sullivan also has a high mobility rate—36 percent compared to the district average of 24 percent—and many students come and go during the year.

“We are not touching all of Sullivan’s students,” Scheidt explains. “Mobility has us concerned.”

Connecting to curriculum

One hallmark of a community school is a linkage between the after-school program and the curriculum, says Alicia Haller, senior program manager for the Chicago Campaign to Expand Community Schools.

To that end, tutoring at Sullivan is done by teachers or career service personnel who have the opportunity to talk to a student’s teacher about his or her academic needs, says Sylvia Diaz, a member of the community school’s oversight committee.

Most teachers send students to the after-school program with a weekly homework calendar, so that tutors know what they are working on. In other cases, tutors devise their own methods to reinforce classroom work, such as exchanging notes on a special memo pad.

This year, as part of the after-school initiative, Sullivan began a special program called SUCCESS 3 for students with behavioral problems. The program pairs 10 students, typically referred by their teachers, with a counselor who helps the students work on communication, social skills and team-building.

“We had a desperate need for some kind of intervention plan for these students,” explains Diaz. “These kids were disruptive in the after school program and we didn’t want to kick them out.”

The oversight committee approached Metropolitan Family Services, which agreed to provide the counselors.

While the program has only been operating for a few months, teachers say they see a positive change in the students’ ability to get along with others; in particular, their unruly behavior in the lunchroom has improved.

Haller praises the school’s efforts.

“Sullivan is top-notch,” says Haller. “We are not talking about a lot of money, and Sullivan is a large school. They are doing the best they can with what they have.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.