Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bridging the School-Community Gap

On the surface, it seems like schools and communities ought to be natural partners. Neighborhood schools are filled with kids who walk just a few blocks every day, often escorted by their parents. They are big public spaces, often next to parks that are filled with locals at night and on the weekends. Yet schools constantly say they don't see their parents enough, and neighborhood folks say schools are often aloof from the local goings-on.

I've recently come across a couple of different strategies for trying to bridge the divide. The photo above was taken in February at Reavis Elementary's Family Art Night. This school year Reavis has been hosting family events every couple of months or so, inviting parents to join their children in activities or letting parents get a taste of their children's after-school activities through a "showcase." It's been a big hit--administrators say they've never seen so many parents show up for a school-related event. In December, about 200 of them showed up in a blizzard to see their kids perform in the end-of-semester showcase. This is one of many new things happening at Reavis since it became part of Elev8 Chicago.

Another tack is being taken in Pilsen. Last week, about 40 principals, parent and community leaders and university representatives headed out to Itasca for an overnight planning retreat. They began the process of drawing up a five-year plan for education in Pilsen, which should help ease the transitions from one stage of education to another (like pre-K to K-12 and K-12 to college), reduce the high school dropout rate and improve adult education and job training. This group, known as the Pilsen Education Task Force, grew out of a Principals' Table that brought local school leaders together to discuss common issues.

The Reavis strategy has successfully brought formerly absent parents through the school doors, but have yet to engage them in deeper levels of partnership; in Pilsen, they've brought stakeholders together from a variety of levels, but acknowledge that parents are still under-represented.

What are other neighborhoods and schools are doing to build bridges? How's it going? Now that Reavis is getting parents inside the building, what's the next step? Should more neighborhoods be creating task forces like the one in Pilsen, or are there other ways to go here?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's Next for Washburne Trade School Site?

It's been holding the corner of 31st and Kedzie since 1910, a whale of a building and a nice-looking one, too. The prairie-style factory was designed for Liquid Carbonic by Nimmons and Fellows, the same architects as the original Sears Tower in North Lawndale.

It became, of course, the fabled Washburne Trade School, which trained tens of thousands for good jobs in a powerful industrial city, with 17 different unions hiring the graduates. That changed as integration came to the all-white school in the 1960s. By the 1980s most of the unions had pulled out, and Chicago Public Schools closed Washburne in 1993. It reopened briefly under City Colleges of Chicago, but closed for good in 1996.

Little Village neighborhood leaders have been pushing to convert the 11-acre site into park and community space for years, and that dream is now closer. A 1930s building fronting on Kedzie was demolished in 2006 and discussions were well along to rehab the historic building and create park space behind it. But a four-alarm fire on Feb. 15, 2009, ruined that scenario. Demolition, underway now, will leave a clean slate.

"What do you want to see? Que quieres ver?" asks a new flier circulating through Little Village, inviting residents to three community meetings on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, May 2 to 6, at three locations. "Field House, Indoor Track & Field, Soccer Field, Community Center, Affordable Housing, Retail, Day Care Center, Student Teacher Dorm, Baseball Fields, Computer Room, Trees, Flowers, Skate Park, Grass, Green Technology, Health Care..."

Those are the possibilities. The meetings are sponsored by Enlace Chicago. For more information, contact Edgar, 773-542-9233, x21, or Cesar, 773-542-9233, x14.

Photos below by Juan Francisco Hernandez, taken in 2004 and 2008.

USX Redevelopment "Slowly Getting Under Way"

Despite the stalled economy, plans are afoot to transform the former site of U.S. Steel into a thriving, eco-friendly neighborhood. My friend and former colleague Mick Dumke has a post up over at Clout City with great photos of the site. They include some shots of the mighty ore walls that once stored the raw materials for steel through the winter, when the lake froze and ships couldn't bring new supplies.

It's a great, if unintended, promo for the Great Chicago Places and Spaces tour of the area taking place on May 16. Advance registration is open now, and they reserve a few spots for day-of registration. If you're interested, click the link to sign up ASAP. They often sell out-so you might have to show up early to get lucky day-of.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"It's too tough" to be a mayor, says Biden

Vice President Joe Biden was in town today at the UIC's fifth annual Richard J. Daley Urban Forum, to talk about how the economic stimulus package will benefit cities. "All of you have the most difficult job in government," he told the couple dozen or so mayors and municipal leaders from five continents, who had just finished a global town hall describing the challenges they are facing and solutions they are finding amid the world economic crisis.

Those mayors had stories to tell. Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, saw local unemployment jump from one to nine percent in the first six months of her country's economic crisis. City revenues were projected to fall 20 percent, while costs were rising due to inflation and the devaluation of Iceland's currency. The mayor led the way in cost-cutting, taking a 20 percent pay cut, while city council members tightened their belts to the tune of 10 percent. City employees were invited to submit cost-cutting ideas, generating 1500 possibilities. Three hundred of their ideas made their way into the current city budget, helping balance the budget without raising taxes.

Meanwhile, in Lahore, Pakistan, the city's first elected mayor, Mian Amer Mahmood, described his home town's initial forays into privatization. When Lahore first tried to privatize waste management, they got no takers. Instead, the city partially privatized by giving its own workers the tools but asking them to share the costs--for example, the city provided garbage trucks but didn't fill the gas tanks, leaving that to the workforce. Lahore's waste management costs have been reduced 20 percent. Corporate sponsorship of public schools is also gaining ground in Lahore. More than a quarter of the city's 1400 schools have been adopted by businesses or wealthy individuals, and sponsors even chip in toward teacher salaries. The standard of education is improving in these schools, the mayor said, and the city's cost savings are being reinvested in infrastructure and teacher training.

Mayor Judith Pinedo Florez of Cartagena, Colombia could teach Chicago Public Schools a thing or two about food service contracting. In the past, foodservice contracts only went to large firms, but now the city is able to work with smaller, mom-and-pop vendors and with budding entrepreneurs fresh out of school, creating more competition on price and service. Meanwhile, the Organic School Project is struggling to get a toehold in CPS due to the same kinds of contracting rules that held Cartagena back in the past, I suspect. Like Chicago, Cartagena is keeping its school doors open longer hours to provide cultural and other enrichment activities for kids.

Education and health were much on Biden's mind as well. "How educated your city is explains how wealthy your city is by 60 percent," he told the crowd, interpreting recent research from CEOs for Cities. If Chicago were able to raise the number of people earning college degrees by just one percent, that would translate into $7.2 billion more dollars in the local economy. "A lot of those jobs are in health and health care," Biden noted. "Strong cities will be hubs of learning and hubs of healing."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Going to Scale: Family Science Nights

When a school system has 600 schools and 400,000 students, you don't have time to make changes one kid at a time. You need programs that scale, whether that's the recent Spring Into Sports that attracted 800 kids a day to four schools during Spring Break, or the Family Science Nights that result from trainings by the Museum of Science of Industry.

My wife Pam came home from Stockton School in Uptown tonight with a bunch of nice photos of that school's annual Family Science Night. More than 150 students, parents and teachers (and the principal with her own two kids) turned out to participate in scientific inquiries including Ultraviolet Beads; Sink, Hover and Float; Sound Sandwich; Bee Hummer (a spinning rope that makes noise); Slime; Garden in a Glove; Making Paper; Marbles at Work; and Ink Chromotography.

All the activities originated in the museum's education department, which trains nearly 1,000 teachers a year on ways to engage students in hands-on science activities, which are also available online.

So do the math. A thousand teachers, perhaps 30 kids each, that's 30,000 students. Scale.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Southeast Chicago Featured in Chicago Wilderness Magazine

The just-published spring issue of Chicago Wilderness Magazine is devoted to an exploration of the Calumet region, the bottom of Lake Michigan. The Calumet region stretches from South Chicago all the way to Mt. Baldy, a migrating sand dune just west of Michigan City, Indiana.

It fascinates me that the same region where you can find 24 different species of orchids--compared to just four in Hawaii--is also the same region where 60 square miles are covered in slag from the days of steel. The Calumet River's Indiana Harbor still tests above the "probable effect threshold" for 28 different toxic chemicals and minerals. Yet at the same time, volunteers counted over 2250 different species in nearby Eggers Woods, Powderhorn Lake and Wolf Lake during the Calumet BioBlitz.

Southeast Chicago resident Joann Podkul leads the Calumet Stewardship Initiative, featured in the issue's "Tales of Restoration" section for training locals to become stewards of the conservation sites in the area.

It's great background reading, and even better if you're interested in coming to the Great Chicago Places & Spaces tour of South Chicago on May 16. For more information, click here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Want the Story Right? Do It Yourself

The Tribune ran a nice story by Jon Davis this morning about Spring Into Sports, noting that the program kept 1,500 students busy – and out of trouble – during spring break.

But you can't please everyone. Earnest Gates, one of the event's organizers and executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corporation, thought Davis missed the bigger point: that the finals took place at Crane Technical Prep High School, 2245 W. Jackson Blvd., just 13 months after student Ruben Ivy was killed at the school.

Here's Gates' email: "They didn't talk about Crane hosting the finals and having this diverse group of young people from across the city competing in a healthy environment. No fights no arguments just fun and a competitive spirit. Crane has received a bad rap because of the young men who were slain near the school last year. The finals marked a turning point in the perception of the school."

He's right. Last month we ran a story on about how Crane has become a "safe haven" in the neighborhood, and I saw for myself on Saturday that under new Principal Richard Smith, the school is a different place than it used to be.

But with the Tribune cutting another 20 percent of its already gutted staff, and the Sun-Times bankrupt, we can't look anymore to the big media to tell these stories. If we want to get the word out about something going on in the neighborhoods, we're going to have to do it ourselves.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Let's see, that would be . . . 215,000 words

It's an old adage because it's true: a good photo is worth even more than a thousand words because it can deliver emotions and color that writers just can't manage. So I'm thrilled that we were able to implement a photo-centric approach to covering the Spring Into Sports events last week. We wrote some decent stories, too, but it's the work of photographers Alex Fledderjohn, Juan Francisco Hernandez and Eric Young Smith that conveys the sweat and glory of the youthful activities, which incidentally engaged 1,500 youth throughout the Chicago Public School spring break.

We uploaded 215 of the best photos to Flickr in 15 different sets and then embedded the slideshows in stories on the Neighborhood Sports Chicago web site. Here's one set below, from Saturday's finals, by Eric Young Smith. Find the rest at the sports site or on LISC/Chicago's Flickr page.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

One-Minute Video Packs a Lot of Punch

If it's looking like "all sports, all the time" on this blog lately that's only because I've been contributing to a flat-out effort by LISC/Chicago and its neighborhood partners to attract youth to Spring Into Sports activities at four high schools.

And it's working.

More than 1,270 students have registered and they're filling the gyms and hallways every day. What's startling about it is how much they're getting into the various sports on offer, including some they've probably never participated in, such as archery, table tennis and rowing. Read all about it at Neighborhood Sports Chicago.

Or take a minute to view this new piece by Sarahmaria Gomez and Alex Fledderjohn at TuMultimedia.

Spring Into Sports Spring Break Chicago from Tu Multimedia on Vimeo.

You've Come a Long Way, Farragut High School

Last Saturday, Farragut High School in Little Village achieved another milestone in its slow evolution from a school of last resort to a true community resource. The school played host to the second annual Little Village Youth Forum: Building Community, Fighting Violence. Between 75 and 100 current Farragut students and graduates served as volunteers at the event; many had been involved in the planning from the very beginning. "Everything was smooth; everybody worked together," said Farragut senior Janet Soberantis. And as you can see in the photo above, everybody got lunch.

Holding this year's youth forum at Farragut sent an important signal to the neighborhood that the school has become a welcoming place. Both persuading the administration to host the event and bringing in turnout from all parts of the neighborhood and beyond were important organizing victories for SITY Ollin, the youth arm of the Telpochcalli Community Education Project, main sponsor of the event. "The administration were very open to new ideas about working with youth," said lead organizer Henry Cervantes, a Farragut alum.

"I'm really happy we had so many people, especially considering the challenge we had convincing people that it was safe to come here," said SITY Ollin organizer Paulina Camacho, who is based at Little Village High School. A number of people I spoke with said this was the first time they had set foot inside Farragut.

For decades, Farragut was the Chicago Public Schools equivalent of Fort Apache, both the army outpost featured in a John Wayne 40s Western and the South Bronx police station depicted in a 1981 movie starring Paul Newman. To those who worked at Farragut, it had the feel of a lonely army outpost in foreign territory, like the original Fort Apache. To those who lived in the neighborhood, and often, to its own students, Farragut was a forbidding place full of incompetent and possibly corrupt staff who didn't understand the community, like the precinct station in the South Bronx film.

Farragut students come from both the Little Village and North Lawndale neighborhoods, and the racial and gang tensions between them have often surfaced at school. To this day, Latino and African American students leave school through separate doors to prevent fights at dismissal.

As early as 2003, Catalyst Chicago was writing about positive changes at Farragut. Violence is down, graduation is up, and academics are improving, though not as rapidly as one would hope. What has really moved forward in the last five years is the strength of student organizing, thanks especially to SITY Ollin and the Mikva Challenge. Though Farragut, like neighborhood high schools across the city, still faces tough challenges, it has come a long way.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What They're Saying at Spring Into Sports

In the news biz you listen for "good quotes." During the first days of Spring Into Sports, the drop-in-for-fun-and-competition festival going on during spring break in four violence-prone neighborhoods, I've been getting an earful.

"They feel like superstars." That was longtime activist Jenice Sanders at Englewood High School after Sunday's opening ceremony, with 200 in the stands, that featured the Imani African Dance and Drum Troupe (photo) and her own creation, Englewood Idols, the talented local singers who had made the cut down to 14 finalists.

"That was awesome." A child at Little Village Lawndale High School after time in the pool.

"They act at first like they're too cool to play volleyball, but once they get started their competitive juices kick in." That was Oji Eggleston at Crane Tech Prep, talking about the b-ball players who got serious at the volleyball net.

I counted about 155 kids and adults at Crane on Monday afternoon in the two gyms, hallways and food room. It was more than just a good natured and safe environment. There and at the other venues the youth were not just learning new athletic skills but social ones as well, from taking on something they hadn't done before to interacting with other youth and adults. Even the teenagers sitting in the stands, waiting and watching, that looked good to me too.

Top photo of Orr High School participants by Juan Francisco Hernandez. More photos here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Touring Secret Chicago with Curie Youth Radio

While we're on the topic of being a tourist in your own town, it's a good time to give a little preview of some great upcoming audio work from our friends at Curie Youth Radio. The young writer/producers over there have taken on what you might call a commissioned assignment--Patrick and I asked if they would be interested in doing pieces on some of their favorite places in Chicago.

The work isn't finished yet, but advisor Sarah Levine shared some early scripts with us. They are well on their way to giving listeners a taste of hidden treasures far from the beaten tourist trails. For instance, who knew that teenage Harry Potter fans are playing Quidditch in Marquette Park?

There's a couple of beautiful gardens in Brighton Park and Back of the Yards that may never be found on a Chicago garden tour, but give beauty and hope to family and neighbors. I'm going to have to walk past my own neighbor I don't know, over by 49th and Wolcott, and admire her miracle garden, which she defends endlessly against bird poop and trash. "It's like she lives for magnolias and twinkle lights," Ana Romero tells us.

There are haunted houses, real and virtual, a chocolate factory (not Blommer's on Kinzie), a comics store in Lakeview and an outpost of cafe culture way down in Beverly. Most importantly, we get snippets of the people who make these places special, from the children whose unique personalities make Whiz Kidz daycare a place of love and laughter to the block where a young man saw his best friend off to join the Marines, never to be seen again. There's a part of the West Side that doesn't have it's own neighborhood name, but the young storyteller who lives there remembers when she first arrived, and "can still see the desperation on my mom's face because she was eager to move us out of the Henry Horner projects and into a better community."

Oh, and if you find yourself over by 53rd and Mozart, don't be afraid of the quiet, 50-ish guy with a boxer's build out walking his dog. He might look intimidating, but he's a neighborhood hero.

Listen to earlier work by Curie students on the New Communities multimedia page (scroll down and you'll find them).

Look for another post when these and more pieces are ready for prime time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tours: Daniel Burnham Would Be Pleased

Six real-life neighborhoods will be on display May 16 during the Great Chicago Places and Spaces Festival, which is branching out this year to feature more than the usual tours of central-city architecture and hotspots. As part of the Burnham Plan Centennial, tour buses will be heading to Bronzeville, South Chicago, Auburn Gresham, Pilsen, Albany Park and the Indian shopping strip on Devon Avenue in West Ridge.

Mr. Burnham would be pleased, because the changes in these places reflect a less-quoted section of that "make no little plans" statement that we hear so often.

"Make big plans," he continued, "aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency."

I've seen that ever-growing insistency in most of the New Communities Program neighborhoods, where the noble, logical diagrams laid out in their quality-of-life plans keep rising up in the conversations. Insistently. As in "if we want to be great, or just survive, we've got to do this and that." And think big, too, which is another Burnham dictum.

Six neighborhood groups have been preparing the tours with help from the Burnham Centennial team and professional tour consultants, and the stories are shaping up nicely. The Bold Plans Big Dreams Community Showcase Tours will start from downtown, with details to come at Explore Chicago. Here's the lineup:

Albany Park: Chicago's Gateway to the World, will highlight that neighborhood's rich multi-ethnic base, its bungalow belts and retail assets, and its culture, nature and movement. Hosted by the North River Commission.

Bronzeville: Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond, will trace back to the beginnings of Chicago's African-American experience, show off many historic sites, and preview the "second urban renaissance in the capitol of Black America." Hosted by Quad Communities Development Corporation

Pilsen: A Healthy, Vibrant and Well-Organized Community will focus on that neighborhood's long history in labor activism and organizing, with a focus on the work done by Mexican-American community organizations since the 1980s. Hosted by The Resurrection Project.

South Chicago: From Pollution to Solution will show how the formerly gritty steel town is transforming itself into a "green" community of affordable energy, efficient houses, organic gardens and talented artists. Hosted by Claretian Associates.

Auburn Gresham: A Classic Chicago Community will show off the bungalows and two-flats and 79th Street commercial district that have attracted and supported generations of families. Hosted by Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation.

West Ridge: Gateway to India in Chicago will feature walking tours of the Devon Avenue retail strip, complete with visits to sari shops, video stores and snack shops that attract Indian and Pakistani visitors from across the Midwest (and plenty of locals, too). Hosted by the Indo-American Heritage Museum.

The tours will be repeated during the summer, so check with the host organizations if you can't make the May 16 event.

South Chicago photo above by Eric Young Smith for Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau.