Focusing on the assets

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Ray Thompson

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Ray Thompson

Ray Thompson knows what it’s like to grow up in a poor, single-parent home, facing the same struggles that low-income people face today—including the struggle to get a good education.

What set him on the road to success, he recalls, was help and positive reinforcement from the community outside his school—a strategy he relies on now in his job as director of community relations for Perspectives Charter Schools.

As a student, tutoring helped Thompson raise his test scores enough to earn a scholarship to Culver Military Academy, a boarding school in northern Indiana. From there, he went to the University of Illinois at Chicago and then to the University of Chicago for graduate school.

During his childhood, Thompson recalls, “there were some folks along the way who stopped looking at me and saying, ‘Well, Ray has a teenage mom and there are some problems he’s going to have.’ They started to treat me like someone who wanted to learn, someone who had talents and skills. They helped to bring those out and [use] them.”

Bringing out students’ talents is an educational cornerstone of asset-based community development, an approach to neighborhood revitalization championed by the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. The approach aims to use the strengths, skills and resources of local residents and institutions to improve a community and its schools.

Having mentors, as Thompson did growing up, plays a large part in a child’s development, he says. And while many teachers allow the negative reputation of a school’s neighborhood to intimidate them, they should focus on developing students’ skills.

With asset-based development, Thompson asserts, students improve academically because they receive support from the community and, in turn, learn to see themselves as assets to their neighborhood.

So far, Thompson’s efforts are bearing some fruit, with students placed in summer jobs and internships and a new health clinic slated to open on campus this fall in a joint venture with the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation, Access Health Care, and the Integrated Services in Extended Day initiative, which is a social support and academic project brought to Perspectives by Thompson in 2006.

At a recent August meeting at Perspectives, Lashaun Goodwin, a parent of two middle-school students and two high school students, says she is pleased with the charter’s commitment. “They’re really turning the school around, and they’re really turning the community around,” she says.

“We needed someone like Ray to be the community liaison,” says Ald. Howard B. Brookins Jr. (21st). “Perspectives has done what they said they were going to do.”

Before hitting the ground to build partnerships, asset-based development calls for two steps.

The first step, called asset mapping, involves researching and listing the organizations, businesses, residents and religious institutions that already serve the community. Thompson created the first asset map in 2006, and updates it annually. The list has grown to about 25 institutions.

The second step is a listening campaign, which involves meeting with community leaders to talk about the neighborhood’s positive attributes—for instance, churches that are active—what needs to improve and what they’d like to see from the school. Thompson began his listening campaign with monthly community meetings and monthly parent meetings, giving both groups the chance to talk about how Perspectives can benefit the community and what they, in turn, can do to help the school.

Thompson—who says schools often demand help from parents but rarely ask what parents can do—also plans this year to survey parents about their interests, skills and schedules, then create a database of activities they can participate in. One example: A parent who told him about her avid interest in cooking could be tapped to teach cooking to students.

Thompson also wants to boost parent involvement by bringing in programs for their benefit. One plan is to have community colleges offer evening classes in customer service skills, writing résumés and writing grant proposals—a marketable skill that could benefit the school and community as well as parents.

Through another partnership, the Greater Auburn Gresham Development has recruited students to participate in its “Litter-Free Zone” project to promote recycling. The nonprofit also offers internships throughout the year, ranging from work on beautification projects to office and clerical assignments. And 20 Perspectives kids were placed in summer jobs sponsored by the organization.

Other institutions working with the school are Neighborhood Housing Services, St. Bernard Hospital and St. Sabina Catholic Church program.

“I think they’re doing a great job as far as trying to get this organization involved with the school, to get kids learning,” says St. Bernard’s Barbara Young. “And that gives [students] quite a bit of experience as far as the work force.”