Friday, October 31, 2008

Neighborhoods, Social Capital and Schools

Principal Michael Johnson of Reavis Elementary, shown here with some 6th-graders, is working hard to create cohesion among his staff and build bridges between his school and its neighborhood. According to research discussed at the kickoff of this year's School Policy Luncheon series, he's on the right track.

The Consortium on Chicago School Research says that trust within schools is "the heat in the oven" that accelerates school improvement and ultimately academic gains for kids. Further, according to their regular surveys, trust between principals, teachers and parents has been slowly rising systemwide. "These might not be dramatic changes, but they are changes in the right direction," researcher Penny Bender Sebring told a capacity crowd at the Union League Club on Wednesday.

What may be getting less attention as policymakers focus more narrowly on the classroom is the importance of trust beyond school walls, or social capital. Social capital comes in two flavors: bonding, which helps people within the same community relate to each other and solve internal problems; and bridging, which helps people network across communities to get resources and information they couldn't access otherwise.

Consortium researchers classified Chicago's public elementary schools into seven different categories. The "truly disadvantaged" were those in African-American neighborhoods with a median income below $20,000 per year. It won't surprise anyone that very few schools in those neighborhoods had the kinds of internal supports, including trust, that lead to student success. It also won't surprise anyone that even fewer schools in neighborhoods with high incidences of child abuse and neglect had the internal climate to help children succeed. Meanwhile, mediocre schools in high-social-capital neighborhoods can coast a bit internally and their students still make gains.

However, this fact might surprise you: Chicago's "truly disadvantaged" schools are producing better-than-expected academic gains for their students given the low social capital around them. This could mean it's time to look at how to support and connect to the neighborhood outside the school.

That's exactly what Michael Johnson is doing right now at Reavis, with the help of Elev8, a new initiative supported by New York-based Atlantic Philanthropies and a group of Chicago funders. For more about Elev8, see this story from Catalyst Chicago.

As noted researcher Charles Payne put it on Wednesday, "Social capital matters. Social capital is differentially distributed by race. The impact of social capital is greatest for the neediest kids."

Payne also had a couple of cautionary words for Chicago Public Schools leadership. Two hot topics around town are the district's efforts to turn around low-performing schools by replacing principals and entire faculties in one fell swoop and the rapid replication of a select group of charter schools. Though Payne applauded the sense of urgency around school improvement that fuels both these strategies, he cautioned that they do collateral damage to social capital where it is sorely needed.

"We need to respect the desire to get good fast," yet also "beware that doing this may destroy the trust that makes good things good."

For example, he had heard of a turnaround school where "some kids came back boiling mad. Every teacher they knew was gone. It was not their school. How do we do this in a way that minimizes damage to social capital in a place where social capital is already limited?"

Meanwhile, he's encouraged by the strong relationships building at Urban Prep–"that's something special going on"–and worried that a push for them to open new campuses too soon may endanger the trust that has been built there. "Now, doggone! These relationships have been developed with great trust and care over time. You spread those relationships over three campuses? How do you do that? I hope people are staying up at night worrying about that."

In urban school reform, the challenge has always been to "balance urgency with complexity. The least well understood part of complexity has been the power of social capital."

Let's hope Michael Johnson and other practitioners can shed light on this by their example.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Party on 18th Street

As Chicago Artists Month draws to a close, I wanted to share some great stories from Saturday night of Pilsen Open Studios, held the weekend of October 17-19. The sixth annual artist-organized event kept 18th Street hopping well into the night, thanks to some unofficial piggyback events as well as official gallery openings on the tour. The vintage thrift store Knee Deep cracked me up--they had about five pieces of art on the wall and a few dozen young hipsters out back drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Hey, any excuse for a party, right?

The Casa de la Cultura Carlos Cortez had food, a live singer and a guy passing out cans of Miller from a garbage bag while visitors admired the works on the walls. "If everybody has a number, we're zero," joked Victor Montañez, pictured above with one of his paintings. However, their convenient location next door to Number 23, the APO Community Center, kept the foot traffic coming.

Victor wasn't too concerned about making it in the gallery scene. "To hell with galleries. My art doesn't belong in galleries. They say don't touch. They mean people wear black. They whisper," he said, as two women got up to dance to a cumbia blaring from the speakers. Others joined them, and the singer called for a friend next door to come dance with one of the women. The couple tore up the floor to applause and cheers.

After a ten year break from painting, Victor returned to it recently with his signature rebel spirit. He now paints panels that can be shifted around to reveal different images. "I think the 21st century is all about alternatives and options," he said, noting that while other art forms have opened up ways for the viewer to manipulate the work, painting has largely remained static. "It's the last stronghold of tyrants. I am trying to shake up the establishment by saying there's a new way to paint. I wanted to put some authority in the hands of the spectator."

Victor put down his Tecate to show how his panels work. Here's the same set of panels grouped two different ways:

Though Victor's career has taken turns into politics and education, "the one thing I've always been is an artist," he told me. "I'm not gonna let people dictate I'm not an artist because I'm not in galleries. What makes you an artist is whether you follow an artistic vision."

"Like you," he pointed out. "Some people might say to you, 'It's not real because it's not a paper.' It's a whole new world out there. Cybernews is where it's at. Paper, you wrap it up and throw it out."

Outside, a number of artists were showing in the Del Sol Realty offices across the street, and a group of young people had collected on the front steps. I stopped to talk with Erica Sanchez, a young woman from Little Village who was getting inspired by all the creative activity around her. She's a guitarist who's played in the Little Village punk scene, but lately she's "kinda slacked off." Now, she says, "Maybe I'll grow some balls and start doing something. It makes me kinda wanna get out there."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Chicago Children's Zone?

There's exciting work going on in Harlem that connects to both education and community development. The Harlem Children's Zone has developed a network of programs for children and families from zero through high school. Paul Tough's new book, Whatever It Takes, chronicles the work, especially the struggles the nonprofit had with its charter middle school. Tough came to town last week and we had an opportunity to talk about whether this effort might be replicated, especially under an Obama administration.

District 299
's Alexander Russo summed up our conversation nicely: Kelleher asks Tough whether HCZ could work in Chicago, what it would take, and how many people are really being served by the program. Why HCZ uses non-union charters and whether the model requires a "superhero" to work.

To read the interview in its entirety, click here and scroll back up to the beginning of the thread. It's sparking some discussion over there; feel free to contribute or to post your thoughts here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Three neighborhoods. No cars.

Chicagoans on bicycles, skates and sneakers will take to the streets this weekend for the second Sunday Parkways event as portions of the city's boulevard system are closed to auto traffic. The first such event on October 5 was a huge success with thousands of happy participants and this Sunday's version – running through East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Little Village – is bound to be just as good.

It's from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. See the route here.

Brooklyn videographer Nicholas Whitaker talked to several of the event's organizers and posted his piece on Vimeo, which is where I found it this morning. It features Jaime de Leon and Cristina Bronsing of Little Village Community Development Corp. and Adolfo Hernandez of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, who talk about the civic benefits that such events have brought to cities in Latin America.

Chicago Sunday Parkways from Nicholas Whitaker on Vimeo.

For more videos of ciclovia events in Chicago; Bogota, Colombia; Quito, Ecuador; and Guadalajara, Mexico, check out

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

600 vacant units at Lathrop Homes. Why?

Residents of the Lathrop Homes along with Logan Square community leaders will hold a rally Thursday afternoon to ask the Chicago Housing Authority why 600 units of the 900-unit Lathrop Homes development have been allowed to remain vacant when thousands of Chicago families need good affordable housing.

It's a good question to ask. The low-rise development, at Diversey and the Chicago River on the eastern edge of Logan Square, is the city’s most diverse public housing community. It has housed a blend of African-American, Latino and white families – both low-income and working class – for nearly 50 years. And in a neighborhood with rising rents and condo conversions due to gentrification, it's a potentially valuable resource for families that need an affordable place to live.

That's why the Lathrop Leadership Team, Lathrop Local Advisory Council and Logan Square Neighborhood Association will call on the CHA to put 300 of the development’s 600 vacant units back into service by 2010.

“Keeping these units empty, in the midst of a housing crisis, is a terrible waste,” says Cynthia Scott, a member of the Lathrop Leadership Team. “Leasing 300 units would help families avoid homelessness and reduce the crime and maintenance problems that come with vacancies.”

At 4 p.m., residents and community leaders will march through Lathrop Homes, starting at the corner of Clybourn, Wellington (3000 N) & Leavitt (2200 W). At 5 p.m. (just in time for the local TV news), participants will gather outside one of the vacant homes on Leavitt just north of Diversey Parkway.

When the CHA began its Plan for Transformation in 1999, it put Lathrop on the back burner, listing its future as “to be determined.” Nine years later, there is still no plan to revitalize the development. But since 1999, the CHA has barred Lathrop’s manager from leasing units after families move out. As a result, the number of vacancies has soared to more than 600.

Thanks to Logan Square Neighborhood Association's Tami Love for passing on this information. A resident vision for Lathrop is here. For more information, contact Tami Love, 773-549-2525, x 1 or John McDermott, 773-384-4370 x38 or 773-617-3949 (cell).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Action from two ends of the spectrum

"Do a hundred things at once" is a maxim of comprehensive community development, and it came to mind as two very different event announcements came across my desk:

Gun control – St. Sabina Parish will hold a third rally at The Thompson Center to ask legislators to enact Common Sense Gun Laws on Wednesday, October 22, 2008, from 11 am to noon. If you need a ride to the rally, contact the Rectory at 773-483-4300 for a seat on the bus, which will leave at 10 am.

Green spaceFriends of the Bloomingdale Trail will dedicate and improve a new greenspace adjacent to the future trail at 1811 N. Albany on Saturday, Oct. 25th. Volunteers will be planting flower bulbs, cleaning up and celebrating the new community space, called Albany-Whipple Park. Food and refreshment will be provided and there will be pumpkin decorating for the kids. So bring the family and some gloves if you want to help dig.

Is one approach more important than the other? Or do the two ultimately work together to create stronger communities?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Illinois Settlement Helps Homeowners

Maybe I'm just out of it, but it took me until this morning to learn that on October 6, Attorney General Lisa Madigan reached a settlement with Bank of America, which acquired notorious mortgage lender Countrywide earlier this year. Among other benefits, the settlement will stop Countrywide's pay-option ARM loans from putting homeowners in the position of increasing the principal owed on their house even as they make payments ("negative amortization"). Her office says 11,000 Illinois homeowners should benefit.

Here's the gist from her office's press release:

As part of this landmark agreement, Countrywide agreed to implement a range of homeowner relief programs and to drastically modify its future lending practices. Specifically, Countrywide agreed to:

* Suspend foreclosures on the riskiest loans to determine if borrowers qualify for modification.
* Establish a Foreclosure Relief Fund of $8.5 million for borrowers in subprime and pay-option ARM loans who lost their homes due to early payment default or default at the time the interest rate reset. Early payment default is a strong indication that the loan was not underwritten properly and that the homeowner couldn’t afford the loan from the beginning.
* Help homeowners through a $1 million relocation assistance program, which will provide payments to homeowners who cannot qualify for a loan modification. The funds will help borrowers relocate if necessary.
* Waive loan modification fees and late fees.
* Waive prepayment penalties on subprime and pay-option ARM loans owned by Countrywide.
* Pay $1.7 million for the costs incurred in Madigan’s investigation, eliminating taxpayer expense.

Let's get the word out in the neighborhoods to help stop the bleeding from the foreclosure crisis.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Art shows indicate neighborhood strengths

From the evidence at archaeological sites and art museums around the world, one might conclude that arts and culture are outgrowths of strong and healthy societies: that it takes a thriving and culturally advanced community to foster a high level of creative output among its residents.

If that is true, some Chicago neighborhoods might be stronger than traditional economic and social measures suggest. The arts are thriving across the South and West Sides, and this weekend the evidence will be on display in South Chicago, East Garfield Park, Little Village and Pilsen.

It's all part of the citywide Chicago Artists Month, but what impresses me is how individuals and organizations in neighborhoods have very consciously cultivated and promoted and participated in the creation of art by local residents -- and in public gatherings that honor that creative work.

So my hat is off to the organizers of these events:

Garfield Park: Alpha Bruton alerted me to this exhibition, part of the Phantom Gallery series.

Fred Owens, Helen Jones Myers, Vivian Vissar, Jamin Jadda, Gabriel Patti, Kat Silverstein, Nancy Zook, Students from Chicago Christian Academy, Loveitta Simpkins, Dewitt Quayim

Garfield Park Market Place (just north of the Garfield Park Conservatory on Central Park Avenue)
Friday, Oct. 17, 2008, noon to 8 p.m. Reception 5 to 8 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 18 and 19, noon to 5 p.m.
Learn more at

South Chicago: Claretian Associates is promoting a whole series of events including a gallery in their own office space, a knitting workshop at Villa Guadalupe, cartooning for kids and a performance by the 63rd Street Drummers.

Friday, October 17
Knitting Basics by Marisa Arevalo of Studio KOI
Villa Guadalupe
3201 E. 91st Street
6:15pm - 7:15pm
Participants must bring their own supplies or project.

Saturday, October 18 Saturday, October 18
Sweetest Day for Artists, Performers, and Musicians by The 63rd Street Drummers with Ms. Yakiri, Flo Mills, and Artist Friends Pilgrim Baptist Church 3235 E. 91st Street 2pm - 4pm

For the full schedule, go here:

Little Village Arts Fest:
Villarte, an emerging arts coalition in Little Village, organized two days of free art exhibits, performances and workshops that kick off Friday night, October 17, from 6 to 10 p.m. in the Second Federal Savings parking lot at 25th Place and Pulaski. Get the official map and program at Catedral Cafe (2500 S. Christiana) or download it here.

Pilsen Open Studios:
Bigger than ever, this Saturday and Sunday event features dozens of artists and locations throughout the neighborhood (see map below by Salvador Jimenez). Many of the artists will be at the kickoff from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, at Prospectus Art Gallery, 1220 W. 18th Street.

By any measure, that's a pretty convincing display of cultural strength, don't you think?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

'Our children and future are dying'

Gun protest at the Thompson Center. Photos by Gordon Walek.

When word came through about the latest killing of a Chicago teenager – the gun death on Sunday of Julian High School senior Kiyanna Salter on a CTA bus – it hit me as it always does, with sadness and anger that the affected families and communities must absorb this terrible hurt and somehow move on.

For the people around that young person, the pain must be debilitating. How can it not create a feeling of helplessness? The senseless killing of a child knocks down whole networks of people and institutions, or at least slows them down in whatever work or progress they might have been making. It ripples through classrooms. It travels down blocks and through neighborhoods and within families. It is personal.

And so it hurts even more to learn that Kiyanna Salter was a cousin of Southwest Organizing Project organizer Rabbi Joshua Salter, who works on safety issues on the Southwest Side. The death touched that neighborhood, too.

But violence can also galvanize responses, and two came across my desk today.

First, the Sun-Times reported that Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan refused to accept an anti-violence award from the Illinois Coalition Against Handgun Violence. He cited the eight students killed in the first month of the school year, and left the award on the table. "I don't feel I can accept this award, not quite yet," he said. "I don't feel I've earned it."

Second, I heard from Ernie Sanders in Auburn Gresham, who alerted me to a gun-control protest planned by members of St. Sabina Parish at 11 a.m. this Friday, October 10, at the Thompson Center. This is a return visit after a similar rally on September 24 (photos) and obviously just as needed.

Below, the notice of the protest. The second paragraph packs a punch.

"Our Children and Future are Dying"

"In response to 3 more of our children being killed due to gun violence we will meet on Friday at The Thompson Center from 11am to 12pm.

"It is still our mission to have "Common Sense Gun Laws" enacted in this state. This school year, 2008-2009, has already seen Chicago Public Schools lose 11 students. Understand we have only completed one month of school, and we have lost 1/3 of a classroom.

"Please help us get the word out, raise awareness, and put an end to the destruction of our children, our future. If you need to ride the bus to the rally please call the Rectory at 773-483-4300, the bus will be leaving the church at 10 am."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Strolling and rolling on Sunday morning

A family enjoys the car-free boulevard. Photos by Gordon Walek.

Chicago launched Sunday Parkways this morning and thousands came out on their bikes and on foot to enjoy traffic-free boulevards in Logan Square, Humboldt Park and East Garfield Park.

I've been viewing videos about these ciclovia events in other cities and they seem to be a transformative opportunity for our city. Imagine thousands of people, including many families with young children, strolling and rolling down the streets and stopping to chat with others -- all in a big-city environment. It feels good.

And it happened this morning in Chicago for the first time. When I arrived at the Humboldt Park Boat House, a techno beat was booming from loudspeakers and two dozen people -- including many children -- were following three instructors doing a kick-boxing exercise. Others stood around straddling their bikes or chatting with each other. Smiling.

"I'm elated right now," said Miguel Morales of Community Organizing for Obesity Prevention in Humboldt Park, who helped organize the activities. The Greater Humboldt Park Community of Wellness had sponsored two earlier En Movimiento events in the park this summer, but this worked even better because it brought so many people to the park, he said.

Farther south I ran into Rishona Taylor of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance. She was happy that the second event, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 26, will cover the same East Garfield territory but run south this time through North Lawndale and Little Village. See the route here. "I learned a few things," she said, "like next time we're going to cluster the activities a bit more" because the crowds prompt even more people to stop and participate.

A story in this morning's Tribune quotes the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation's Adolfo Hernandez, who says that if this year's events are a success we may do more of them next year. Let's make sure our political leaders and neighborhood organizations realize that we want these events and we want them more often -- every week or at least twice a month during the warm months, so that they become a routine for many thousands of Chicagoans.

Do you have photos or video of Sunday Parkways? Please share it with others by joining the new site and posting there (or linking via YouTube or Flickr). Thanks.