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Reavis: The Little School That Could

By: Gordon Walek
Published: March 19, 2015

Among the mansions and parks of South Drexel Boulevard sits Reavis Elementary School, a small, two-story brick box whose 1950s pedigree is at odds with the architectural and historical splendor surrounding it.

Unlike many other underperforming Chicago public schools, Reavis, at 834 E. 50th St., lacks even the faded beauty that would suggest it was once a beacon of hope for students. Neighborhood students that could migrated to better Hyde Park schools, leaving Reavis struggling to educate youngsters for whom it was a place of last resort.

And for years, by CPS standards, it did a poor job. Reavis was consistently rated a level 3 school based on test scores, student gains, attendance, etc. That’s the bottom of the barrel and damaged its ability to attract motivated students, good teachers and additional resources.

Reavis Elementary Students

Motived by new leadership at the school, Quad Communities Development Corporation and LISC Chicago selected Reavis seven years ago as one of five schools for the Elev8 program, an ambitious effort funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies to bolster out-of-school time activities, parental involvement and health programs, including the construction of health centers in each of the schools – all intended to better prepare students for life in high school and beyond. Reavis was the runt of the Elev8 litter – the smallest, the poorest, the most challenged.

But like a lot of runts, it had spunk. Once through the chain link fence and windowless doors, the place possessed an energy manifested by colorful artwork, curious students and energetic young teachers. Every school, like every block, gives off a certain vibe – an intangible message about its worth that isn’t related to discernible metrics. It’s something one feels, and Reavis, for whatever reason, always felt pretty good.

That commitment to improve was coming from the top. From former principal Michael Johnson. And for the last three years from Gail King. And from people like Scott Witherspoon, of the Quad Communities Development Corp., the Elev8 neighborhood partner that’s worked with the school in the Elev8 program. And from his predecessors, Syda Segovia Taylor and Heather Ireland, a pair of After School Matters veterans capable of making every room better simply by walking into it. And from former students like Brianna Reed, who continued to attend Reavis even after her mother moved to the West Side and who, as a student at Whitney Young High School, returned to Reavis to tutor students. It’s as though their enthusiasm rubbed off on the kids.

Well, something’s happening at the little school that could. Late last year, CPS, elevated Reavis from a Level 3 school to Level 2. In the scheme of things, that’s not a huge deal. Level 2 is still considered “underperforming.” But it’s clearly a step in the right direction.

“It shows that Reavis is on the move,” said Principal Gail King. “It feels good to know the work we’re doing is finally paying off. Our goal now is to move to Level 2-plus. Or Level 1.”

Elev8, she said, has been an important part of the improvement. “Having the program is a big benefit,” she said. “We really love the partnership. They support what we do during the school day and in after-school programs. And the health center is a great benefit.”

The improved rating, said King, will help with teacher and student recruitment. “No one wants to transfer their child into the lowest rated school,” she said.

Witherspoon, who’s been directing the Elev8 program at Reavis for the last three years agreed. “Reavis is in a unique position on the cusp of Hyde Park,” he said. “Moving to Level 2 helps parents understand there is a quality school here that’s trending in the right direction. It’s really a benefit to the community.”

He ticked off a bunch of ways Elev8 has helped the schools – by bringing in tutors to get students up to speed, by importing interns from Chicago State University and the University of Chicago, by hiring a parent engagement specialist, by aligning the out-of-school activities to be compatible and consistent with the teaching that occurs during the school day.

The students, the teachers, the administrators, the tutors, the parents – they all have their work cut out for them. But between lines there’s the Reavis mantra – “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” – and Level 2-plus doesn’t seem so far after all.

Posted in Areas of Work, Neighborhoods

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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