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Orozco Community Academy

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Orozco Community Academy

Middle-grade students at Reavis Elementary in Kenwood are learning Brazilian martial arts. Perspectives Charter Middle School at Calumet in Auburn Gresham wants to require students to learn to swim. Ames Middle School in Logan Square will have a garden and cooking classes.

Parents at Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn are teaming up with teachers to conduct home visits for new students and provide information for families who need extra help.  At Orozco Community Academy in Pilsen, parents will be offered English, nutrition and life skills classes.

And all five schools are scheduled to open on-campus health centers by the end of December.

None of the new programs seems directly related to academics, but the hope among educators is that these activities will help low-income students achieve better grades and improved test scores. In March, Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation with offices in seven countries, awarded the schools and their community partners a four-year, $18 million grant to provide health and social services to students and their families.

Each school will receive as much as $850,000 a year to extend the school day into the late afternoon and Saturdays, add enrichment programs and bring in the services of doctors, nurses and mental health professionals. The initiative, called  Integrated Services in Schools (ISS), seeks to help children in all areas of their lives. Middle school students are being targeted because they struggle mentally, socially and physically in the transition between childhood and adolescence.

“Middle-schoolers go through a lot, and many of our parents don’t have the money or resources to get the students into intervention,” says Principal Coralia Barraza of Orozco, where nearly all students are Latino immigrants. “They need to have a healthy mind and a healthy body to be ready to do the school work.”

The grants are being administered by Local Initiative Support Corporation’s Chicago office, which has long been involved in community development in struggling neighborhoods. LISC and Atlantic Philanthropies, started by businessman Charles Feeny (a co-founder of Duty Free Shops), began to develop the integrated schools initiative about two years ago. LISC worked with nine community agencies and their school partners to develop budgets and proposals. Of those, Atlantic Philanthropies awarded the grant to five.

Chris Brown, director of education programs for LISC, says the schools will serve as testing grounds and, if successful, models for innovation. Participating schools are representative of the entire district, with small and large student populations, African Americans and Latinos, long-term principals and newer leadership, and charter and traditional structures.

“The school district has about 600 schools, so we’re not going to change the system,” Brown says. “But we’re interested in using these five as a model to say, this does work, this does make a difference. We want to use this as a way to get more money for these types of programs.”

Chicago is one of four sites nationwide that Atlantic Philanthropies has selected for the initiative. The program has started in New Mexico and Oakland, Calif., and is under consideration in Baltimore.

Increasingly, educators and researchers are reaching the conclusion that schools need to take a more holistic approach if they are to successfully educate children in troubled communities. Many studies have linked socio-economic disadvantages to low student achievement. Distrust and discomfort among parents, teachers and administrators also are barriers to students being engaged in school.

This spring, education leaders issued a statement challenging policymakers to increase investments in early childhood education and health services and to pay more attention to the time students spend outside of school. The “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” campaign asserts that the No Child Left Behind law has helped focus attention on the achievement gap, but that the potential effects of the law have been undermined by assumptions that bad schools alone are behind this gap, and that academic standards, testing, teacher training and accountability can fix it.

The statement was signed by academics and superintendents nationwide, including CPS’ Arne Duncan.

Syda Segovia Taylor, ISS program director at Reavis Elementary, says that when she began work at the school in April, she immediately noticed that many students often expressed doubts that what they did mattered to anybody.

But during a summer program for about 50 middle-schoolers, she saw many of the students transform their attitude. The six-week camp, funded by the grant, included Brazilian martial arts, theater, and science classes where students made models of an amusement park to learn about physics. “You saw them struggle from, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ to ‘Oh, I like this,’” Taylor says.

At a performance showcasing what the students learned, so many parents showed up that it was standing-room only. After school this fall, Reavis will continue to offer Brazilian martial arts and other activities. The school day will be extended to 6 p.m.

With the students occupied, there’s less of a chance for them to get into trouble, Taylor says.
Chapin Hall Center for Children, a research center at the University of Chicago, will study how ISS impacts students, parents and the community. Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that evaluates social policies, will collect data on participation rates.

Perhaps the most ambitious and complex part of the initiative are the in-school health clinics. School and community leaders say health services are one of the most urgent needs, but the lack of resources has stymied their ability to do much.

According to the grant plans, each school will have a health clinic with exam rooms and a reception area. A nurse practitioner, mental health counselor and other staff will be provided by partner health organizations.

Once health clinics are open in schools, “hopefully it’ll reduce the time that [students] miss school because of illness,” says Jim Murphy, who oversees health partnerships at Access Community Health Network, which will work at Perspectives at Calumet and at Marquette. Statistics show that students in low-income communities suffer from asthma, obesity and diabetes at much higher rates than other children.

Brown of LISC says after the grant ends, the clinics ought to be able to support themselves through fees and insurance reimbursements. Many families will be paying through Medicaid or Family Care, the state-subsidized insurance program.

Perspectives at Calumet is expected to open the first clinic at the end of October and other schools will roll out clinics shortly afterwards, Brown says. In the beginning, the clinics will only serve middle-school students. Later, service will extend to parents, school staff and others in the greater community. (For safety reasons, the clinics will have separate entrances for the school and the general public.)

Besides diagnosing problems, clinic health workers will hold workshops on nutrition, sex education and conflict resolution skills. Mental health counselors will talk with students about stress and depression that stems from exposure to violence, the difficulties of immigration and acculturation, and the struggles of being poor.

At Orozco, health educators aren’t waiting for the clinic to open. In August, the school launched a three-week fitness and life skills camp for about 40 students who had discipline and academic problems in 7th grade.

“They’re not going to change right away,” says Marco Garduno, a coordinator at Alivio Medical Center, Orozco’s clinic partner. “My main goal is for them to understand that they have choices—good and bad—and out of those, they need to make good choices.”

One morning at Orozco began with a 50-yard dash. After lunch, the students broke into groups to talk with counselors about self-esteem and values. Most of the kids were reluctant to talk, but health teachers encouraged them, and some opened up. One girl says there wasn’t anything she liked about herself. A boy didn’t like how strangers assumed he was a gang member.

During a writing exercise, one student wrote about how he wanted others to view him. “I don’t want them to point at me and say, here comes the kid that almost got arrested. … I haven’t been an angel, but I could still work hard.”


For more information
  • Luis Bermudez, Orozco Community Academy and Resurrection Project, (312) 666-1323, ext. 250, lbermudez@resurrectionproject.org
  • Sandra Del Toro, Marquette Elementary and Southwest Organizing Project, (773) 436-1000, ext. 106 or (773) 471-8208, ext. 13, sandra.deltoro@gmail.com
  • Michelle Mason, Perspectives Middle at Calumet and Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, (773) 483-3696, mmason@perspectivescs.org
  • Adriana Portillo-Bartow, Ames Middle and Logan Square Neighborhood Association, (773) 534-4170. ext. 107, apbartow@lsna.net
  • Syda Segovia Taylor, Reavis Elementary and Quad Communities Development Corporation, (312) 371-7036, taygovia@msn.com
  • Chris Brown, Local Initiatives Support Corporation-Chicago, director of education programs, (312) 385-4818, cbrown@lisc.org