From outside to inside schools

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When it comes to forging solid relationships between communities and schools, Logan Square Neighborhood Association has it all figured out.

Its roster of programs includes classroom mentoring, in which parents assist teachers in the classroom; one-on-one tutoring by parents of struggling students in benchmark grades; a “literacy ambassadors” initiative that sends teams of parents and teachers on home visits to teach literacy skills; community centers that offer programs for children and adults; and a teacher preparation program, called Grow Your Own, that has helped 25 community residents become bilingual teachers and sparked the creation of a similar statewide initiative.  (See related story)

“It is a model that not [only] gets parents active in schools, but breaks down barriers between the community and schools, helps schools and builds on parent strengths,” says Chris Brown, who co-authored a case study of the organization in 2002. (Brown is now the director of education programs at LISC/Chicago, a national nonprofit redevelopment group.)

In 2000, LSNA won the Chicago Community Trust James Brown IV Award for Community Service; in 2005, the group won a national Leadership for a Changing World award from the Ford Foundation. The Southwest Organizing Project, a grassroots group in Chicago Lawn, is seeking to replicate LSNA’s approach.

LSNA’s success got a jump-start in the early 1990s, with the election of the first local school councils. “All of a sudden, we had a base of people talking about education,” says Nancy Aardema, the executive director of LSNA for the last 21 years. Foremost in their minds, she adds, was increasing parent involvement and relieving overcrowding—a long-standing concern in schools with large Latino enrollment, like those in Logan Square.

So the group gathered parents, local school councils and school administrators from Avondale, Monroe and Darwin elementary schools, and successfully petitioned CPS to build Logandale and Ames middle schools; redraw attendance boundaries for Monroe and Darwin; and build additions at other schools.

Buoyed by its early success, LSNA began to look deeper, exploring ways to improve what was happening inside classrooms. The change in strategy was sparked when community stakeholders—churches, block clubs, social service agencies, local leaders and businesses—came up with a holistic plan for neighborhood revitalization that stressed the importance of school/community collaboration.

To bring parents into the school, LSNA launched the parent mentor program. Funston Principal Sally Acker (now retired) came up with the idea out of frustration with her students’ lack of academic progress. “It occurred to me that if you want to change the child, you have to change the family,” Acker says. If mothers were trained to work as classroom aides, she reasoned, they would not only feel more connected to the school, but learn first-hand the work that goes into educating children.

Another grassroots group, Community Organizing and Family Issues (known as COFI), trained stay-at-home moms, focusing on raising self-esteem and awareness of the contributions that they could make in the home and at school.

The initiative grew—from a handful of parents at Funston in 1994 to 132 mentors at nine schools last year—and proved beneficial in other ways. When parents who weren’t involved in the school complained about something at LSC meetings, the parent mentors stood up for the teachers and the school.

“I loved it,” says Acker. “The parents who worked here told the others, ‘You have no idea what is going on in this school and how hard it is to do the work here.’”

Trust between teachers and parents grew. Teachers learned that parents were real assets to them, and developed an appreciation for the culture of the community. Moms who had never been active in their communities boosted their self-confidence and learned how to help children who were struggling academically.

Later, LSNA created a tutoring program, where parents work one-on-one with students who are failing in the benchmark grades. Last year, there were 13 tutors; this year, there will be 24.

OER Associates, an independent research group founded by the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, completed an evaluation of the parent tutor program last year, comparing students who were mentored with students who were not. OER found that students who were tutored had slightly better skills in areas such as alphabet recognition, word recognition and vocabulary development.

A community survey found that what residents most wanted in schools were after-school programs, for themselves and their children. LSNA stepped in, designing centers tailored with services that the neighborhood wants.

At Funston, the focus is on serving adults with GED preparation and adult literacy classes. At Brentano, the focus is on children, with programs such as art, music and dance. 

“They are not cookie-cutter centers,” says Joanna Brown, LSNA’s director of education organizing.

The centers are staffed by parents who have participated in other LSNA ventures.

 “As a principal, you are involved in a lot of organizations and a lot of them were a lot of talk,” says Acker.  “But LSNA listened and acted. I trusted them or I would not have opened my school up to so many new things. They made a huge different in the community.”