Thursday, January 28, 2010

Big Boosts Coming for Neighborhood Small & Micro Biz

In last night's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pledged $30 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds to community banks for small business loans.

Chicago is ahead of the curve on this one, to a smaller tune. Last November, City Treasurer Stephanie Neely announced the city would devote $5 million of Skyway lease funds to a loan fund for microenterprises--business with five employees or fewer. Accion Chicago has already received $750,000 and is making loans between $10,000 and $25,000 to qualifying businesses. You can watch her talk about it here.

According to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, a trade association supporting microbusinesses, these tiny enterprises generate 17 percent of the jobs in Cook County. Good things come in small packages, and it's good to see local and national government stepping up to support them as they spur economic recovery.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

School-Community Partnerships for Extended Learning

Catalyst Chicago just published a great set of stories on how Chicago might extend its abysmally short school day and year. The lead story shows how Marquette Elementary extended the day for its middle school students by one hour with money from Elev8.

To add real time to the system would require a generous infusion of cash. District officials and local nonprofits like the Academy for Urban School Leadership are pinning their hopes on the federal Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grants as possible sources of money to extend learning time across the system.

At today's Catalyst/BPI policy luncheon, a city official made the case that out-of-school time programs will be essential however the effort to extend learning proceeds. "I don't think we're going to extend the school day or school year any time soon, given our budget constraints," said Mary Ellen Caron, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. "Even if we do [extend school time], we still need to provide robust out-of-school time programming."

This is where community partners come in. Today's lunch featured the dynamic duo of Lila Leff, executive director of the Umoja Student Development Corporation, and Sean Stallings, until recently the principal of Manley HIgh School. Umoja has long partnered with Manley, and under Stallings' leadership the partnership went deeper and pushed the school in a positive direction. Both of them talked turkey about the challenges schools and outside partners face in working together--the importance of shared vision and hard conversations to make sure both parties are on the same page. Both said if the meeting of minds isn't there, you've got to walk away, even when that is hard.

"As a school person, we're inundated with programs. They're all over the place," said Stallings. School leaders have to be willing to weed out the ones that don't fit the vision, and support the ones that fit well, including pushing staff to get on board with the partnership.

From the nonprofit community side, "being a critical friend is really important," Leff emphasized. "At every place we operate, we operate as a thought partner with the school." Partnerships may start off with everyone thinking they are on the same page, but as the real work begins "the conversation gets messy, louder, a little hostile sometimes. We've learned to say 'let's have the tough conversations.'" As it has expanded its partnerships with more schools, Umoja has also learned to judge when it can help a principal move a faculty in the direction of supporting youth development and promoting youth voice, and when it can't. "We try to help the principal think like a community organizer about the school." When that's not possible, Umoja pulls out--and has done so "on occasions that almost fill one hand." Leff acknowledged.

During questions and answers, someone asked whether there's training for schools and community groups to partner successfully? "No," said Leff. "It has really been a process of inventing it," and talking with others involved in the work. "It is an art and a science. Both these roles need to be honored."

On a more hopeful note, Suzanne Armato of the Federation for Community Schools said her group offers a two-day training on this topic. For more information, check out the Federation here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stimulus, Neighborhoods and Schools

A couple of recent news items from the Chicago Public schools related to stimulus spending have caught my attention. First, today's hot CPS story is the announcement of details about the district's $30 million, stimulus-funded plan to reduce youth violence. WBEZ's Linda Lutton did a good overall piece on it, which you can read or listen to here. Back in September when the plan was first announced, Englewood pastors loudly complained about a Philadelphia-based agency taking on the task of, and the pay for, working with at-risk youth. For the next five months, the district's chief executive officer, Ron Huberman, zipped his lip about the plan.

According to the Catalyst Notebook blog, Huberman unzipped his lip at a press conference at Englewood's Robeson High School yesterday just enough to let us know that the work with high-risk youth will now be split among community agencies, plus the Philadelphia group, Youth Advocate Programs. Looks to me like the pastors' voices were heard. The Philadelphia group will be paid to work with the 250 highest-risk students, while community agencies will be hired to work with another 2000 students. The two efforts will eat up $10 million, or one-third of the total funds available. Another $2 million will go toward community patrols to ensure students have safe passage to and from school, like the effort Huberman helped kickstart last March in Little Village, which I wrote about here.

I certainly hope this will be an opportunity for NCP neighborhoods with strong antiviolence work in place, like Little Village and Auburn Gresham, to put more gas in their tanks, as well as helping other neighborhoods plant new efforts or help their seedling projects grow.

Second, last week Mayor Daley and the district announced significant new bonds for school construction made possible through stimulus. According to the press release, CPS used approximately $22 million for emergency repairs at Bond, Caldwell, Ebinger, Harlan, Gallistel, Schneider, Sumner and Yale schools, plus $7 million to renovate four CPS turnaround schools: Bethune, Dulles, Fenger, and Johnson. While urgent repairs are key in an underfunded system with decades of deferred maintenance, and turning around a school ought to include needed repairs, only one of these schools (Ebinger) is on the heavily overcrowded Northwest Side. And none of the early spending addresses the long-neglected problem of overcrowded schools on the Southwest Side. (Full disclosure: I'm a Southwest Sider, though I don't live in the bull's-eye of the overcrowding zone.) Back in 2005 a colleague and I analyzed where the kids were and where CPS capital dollars went; the numbers didn't match up well. You can read our analysis here.

Back then, the district cried poor, saying there was no money left to address overcrowding. Well, there's new money now. Unfortunately, there's a lot of new faces in district leadership, which means new priorities and lost institutional memory. Let's hope some of it gets spent this time on longstanding overcrowding in places like Chicago Lawn, Gage Park and Brighton Park. Jimmy Dispensa (head of demographics for CPS), can you put a bug in Ron's ear on this?