CPS has seen marked gains in test scores at its elementary schools in the past five years, yet Libby in New City is among a group of about 40 where already-low scores continue to lag. Back in the 1990s, a racial mix of students attended failing schools. Today, those left behind are almost exclusively low-income black students. Looking at demographics and resources, more attention is being paid to a suspected missing piece that is not easily seen or measured.
For years, Medill’s test scores have been firmly lodged in the basement. But Principal Denise Gamble, brought in by the district as a turnaround principal in 2006 after the previous principal was removed for poor performance, has a game plan to turn the school around. New programs and improved teaching are part of that plan. But Gamble also has something more deep-rooted in mind: building bridges to the community and creating a sense of trust between parents and the school. That kind of relationship-building, research says, is key to school improvement.
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. Five schools get $18 million to raise performance through longer school days, enrichment classes and on-site health clinics.
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.
When it comes to forging solid relationships between communities and schools, Logan Square Neighborhood Association has it all figured out. “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.
It boggles the mind that a solution—maybe the solution—to the intransigent problem of fixing the worst public schools could sound so simple: making connections. Yet these deceptively simple two words are monumentally difficult to achieve and sustain. In his new book, “So Much Reform, So Little Change,” University of Chicago researcher Charles M. Payne lays out in no uncertain terms how everyone, from educators and parents, district leaders and politicians, education funders and, yes, the media, is at fault for a myriad number of reasons. The most basic is a failure to address what’s really happening on the ground in schools.