From timid to tough

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Margarita Vasquez signs school documents for her daughter Alicia,  a 3rd-grader at Hanson Park Elementary School, while her grandson Alexander plays in the living room of their home in Belmont Cragin.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Margarita Vasquez signs school documents for her daughter Alicia, a 3rd-grader at Hanson Park Elementary School, while her grandson Alexander plays in the living room of their home in Belmont Cragin.

As with many parent activists, Margarita Vasquez’s involvement in her children’s schooling began slowly with the basics, encouraging them to do their homework, to study and not to drop out, as she had done as a teenager in Mexico City.

It was the late 1990s, and Vasquez and her husband both had full-time jobs as factory workers, so they had little time to devote to the schools their two children attended, Hanson Park and Schubert elementary.

It wasn’t until their third and youngest child, Alicia, was born a decade later that she decided to quit work to spend more time with her children.

“I finally had more time to volunteer at the school,” says Vasquez, who would help out in her daughter’s classes at Hanson Park two to three full days a week.

At first the prospect of volunteering was intimidating because Vasquez doesn’t speak much English. It’s a similar story for many other parents at Hanson Park, where about 44 percent of students required bilingual services last year.

That’s more than double the percentage of Hanson Park students who needed those services 25 years earlier, a reflection of how dramatically the neighborhood has changed. When Vasquez’s family first arrived in Belmont Cragin in the early 1990s, the area was starting to make the transition from a white, middle-class neighborhood with Polish roots to the majority-Hispanic neighborhood it is today.

Belmont Cragin is the neighborhood that’s seen the biggest overall population gains since 1990 — including the most new Hispanic residents, the most new public school students and the biggest loss of white students attending public and private schools. The newcomers are both new immigrants and families that have been displaced from gentrifying communities farther east, like West Town and Logan Square.

As a result of these demographic shifts, more community organizations are getting involved in neighborhood-level education issues. The Albany Park Neighborhood Association, for example, changed its name to Communities United in part out of recognition that many of its previous members had moved west to neighborhoods like Belmont Cragin, where the organization now has a full-time education organizer who works with parents like Vasquez.

After several years of volunteering at Hanson Park, Vasquez was encouraged by teachers and staff to run for the local school council — that was two years ago. “I got 57 votes,” she says, still a little stunned that she was elected. “I didn’t think so many people would support me.”

Participating in the LSC elections felt like a unique privilege to Vasquez. Although she’s in the U.S. legally, she is not a U.S. citizen and cannot vote in general elections.

One of seven parent candidates for six seats, Vasquez won easily. Not all schools generate such interest — in last year’s LSC election, a third of the schools failed to attract enough parent candidates to fill the available seats.

Bursting at the seams

Vasquez was very familiar with the school’s No. 1 issue, overcrowding. Hanson Park parents, in collaboration with the school’s principal and Communities United, are petitioning the Board of Education for an annex and to make building improvements to a set of classrooms that are leased from a church across the street.

“The kids are crammed into that building,” says Vasquez. Even so, she says, parents tend to keep their children at Hanson Park because they work and siblings have to walk them home.

While other neighborhoods are struggling with declining enrollment and school closures, in Belmont Cragin most schools are at or over capacity.

According to CPS data from the 2014-2015 school year, 11 of the 18 schools in the Belmont Cragin area were at or above 100 percent capacity, and six of those depend on mobile classrooms or leased space elsewhere to handle all the students.

For Hanson Park, that means using a half-dozen mobile classrooms behind the main school building and an additional 18 classrooms from a shuttered Catholic school across the street — one of the dozens of parochial schools that have closed in the city since 1990.
And still, the main hallway doubles as a library, teachers don’t have a lounge, lunch spans six periods, starting at 10:30 a.m., and there is no storage space, so lunchroom supplies and boxes sometimes crowd the hallways.

Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy was opened six years ago to help alleviate overcrowding, but that barely made a dent. In fact, Hanson Park’s enrollment has grown from 1,340 in 2009 to just under 1,600 last school year.

“This neighborhood is saturated with young people,” says Hanson Park’s principal, David Belanger.

Volunteers hard to get

Despite the activism around overcrowding, Vasquez says it’s always a challenge to recruit other parents to serve as volunteers. “We used to have 27 volunteers and now we have nine,” she says. “I think it’s because parents have to work so much, it’s hard to make time for the school.”

In addition, Vasquez still finds parents who, like her, are intimidated by the language barrier — even though she’s learned that “nowadays every school has somebody on staff who speaks Spanish.”

Overall, Hanson Park ranks better than average for family involvement, as measured by indicators that the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research developed. Teacher surveys indicate “strong” levels of teacher-parent trust and outreach to parents. But parent involvement in the school, as measured by volunteering in the classroom or contacting teachers about student performance, was rated “neutral” — which is still slightly higher than the CPS average.

(Such involvement is one of five “essential supports” for school improvement identified by the Consortium in the mid-1990s. Since then, both CPS and the state have required schools to survey teachers and students on the strength of these supports.)

Belanger encourages and celebrates parent involvement at the school. For example, as the school year came to an end last year, Belanger cooked breakfast for parent volunteers one morning and rewarded those parents with certificates of recognition.

In addition, the school partnered with Communities United for a year-end “education conference” that included a concert as well as workshops on issues ranging from scholarships to undocumented students to health care to renters’ rights. More than 500 parents and students showed up, Belanger said, marveling at the turnout on a weeknight.

Academics saved principal’s job

The Hanson Park LSC has had a sometimes shaky relationship with the principal, who had to lobby hard to convince enough members to vote to renew his contract two years ago. Belanger, who has now been principal for six years, blamed it on internal politics, as test scores and other metrics at the school have improved in recent years.

Vasquez says that LSC members finally agreed to keep Belanger because of improved academics, a decision validated by the school’s attaining CPS’s highest level, 1-plus, last year.

Despite the high rating, Belanger worries about the fairness in using the same metrics across all CPS schools — especially attendance. Elementary schools with average daily attendance rates of 96 percent or higher get the most points on that part of the district’s accountability system. But for Hanson Park, which is a “cluster school” for students with disabilities and other special needs, it takes extraordinary work, and the school still fell a fraction of a percentage point short.

“That’s a pretty high bar, especially when you add in the 80-some kids who are in that low-incidence program, kids who are medically fragile, who have trach tubes or feeding tubes or ventilators,” Belanger says. “They miss a lot of days.”

For students who don’t have severe health problems but are still chronically absent, Belanger asks teachers to send letters home to remind parents that attendance is compulsory. In addition, he’s asked a neighborhood police sergeant in charge of schools to make a handful of home visits to talk with parents — although he assures there have been no arrests. “It’s a delicate balance,” Belanger admits.

So far, Vasquez says, she’s satisfied with the principal’s performance — but will evaluate closely whether he helps Hanson Park meet its goals. She and other parents have asked Belanger to work on improving the school climate and do a better job of evaluating teachers and giving feedback, particularly to those in a wing of the school that is dedicated to students with disabilities.

“There’ve been improvements,” Vasquez says. “But the school can still do better. And the council will keep asking for more improvements.”