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Promise Community Boosts Woodlawn Education, Health

At a quarter past three on a recent afternoon, on the top floor of Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn, first-grader Meshawn Griffin was stumped.

He stared at a small card in his hand. “Thhh, thhh,” coached eighth-grader Jamal Carr.

Students at Fiske Elementary benefit from middle-school-aged tutors as part of the activities provided by the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community.

All photos by Juan Francisco Hernandez

Meshawn’s eyes lit up. “This!” he exclaimed, and four boys seated around a library table searched their Sight Words Bingo boards for a match.

Jamal and some 50 other middle-school-aged tutors in Woodlawn are among the youngest contributors to a multimillion dollar project aimed at transforming education in their neighborhood.

The high-powered team behind the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community includes two universities, the school district, one of the city's largest churches and one of the world's biggest international law firms.

Modeled on the Harlem Children's Promise Zone in New York City, the initiative intends to remove barriers to learning with a full range of academic, social, health and other supports for Woodlawn's 10,000 children and their families.

The plan calls for projects ranging from after-school programs and parent leadership training to school health clinics and more affordable housing.

“It’s been too long coming,” said Mattie Butler, executive director of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors. “We are behind the 8-ball and we need to hurry up,” she insisted. “Our children are still losing ground.”

The late Bishop Arthur Brazier set into motion the concepts behind the Promise Community, which focuses on academic, social and health other barriers facing Woodlawn children and families.

The idea for the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community originated in 2008 with the late Bishop Arthur Brazier, retired pastor of the Apostolic Church of God and then-director of the Woodlawn New Communities Program.

He was frustrated by the continued underachievement at neighborhood schools, said Butler, who serves on the Woodlawn NCP board. “It just incensed him,” she recalled. “He said, 'It can’t happen anymore. We have to do something about it.' ”

This school year, seven of Woodlawn’s nine elementary schools are facing sanctions for missing state targets on standardized tests. While test scores for all but one Woodlawn elementary school are below the city average, they are not unusually low for children from low-income communities. One-third of Woodlawn children live in deep poverty, with family incomes below half of the federal poverty level.

Brazier had heard about the Harlem Children’s Promise Zone, which provides free services for youth living in a 97-block area of that community. During his election campaign, President Obama pledged to fund similar efforts around the country, and Brazier approached the University of Chicago with the idea of launching one in Woodlawn.

Charles Payne, a professor in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, who is now serving as interim chief education officer for Chicago Public Schools, championed the idea. And after years of planning, Woodlawn expects to be one of several Chicago communities competing this year for a federal Promise Neighborhoods grant. Obama requested $150 million in funding for the grants in FY2012, but congressional approval is pending.

Woodlawn is seeking federal funding as a Promise Neighborhood but will forge ahead with or without it, gaining support to date from sources like Chicago Public Schools and LISC/Chicago.

Woodlawn will forge ahead with or without federal funding, said Sam Dyson, interim director of the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community, a nonprofit created to support the initiative. “We are doing aggressive fund raising,” he said. “The plan is to get the work done by whatever means necessary.”

Already the planning team—which includes the University of Chicago, Brazier's church, DLA Piper and Associates and the University of Illinois at Chicago—has raised more than $2 million for the first year and a half. The school district contributed $1.3 million in after-school funds, and LISC/Chicago was an early contributor, with a $50,000 grant.

Since last spring, the initiative has rolled out college-readiness program, summer enrichment activities, three after school programs—including the one that pairs beginning readers with sixth-to eighth-grade tutors—pro-bono legal services for Woodlawn residents and a parent leadership program.

Parents are learning how to recruit and manage parent volunteers at their schools, said Della Ezell, parent specialist with Youth Guidance. They also learn strategies for promoting their child’s school success, such as how to resolve conflicts with school staff.

“It’s not a program, it’s a movement,” Ezell tells parents who attend her workshops. “You’re beginning to change the climate of your school and home. That’s what it’s all about.”

"Before you can have the village [it takes] to raise a child, you've got to create the village," says Cynthia Miller, principal of Fiske.

For the coming years, plans include afterschool arts, music and debate clubs with van service to get children home safely, free parenting classes modeled after those at Harlem Baby College and expanded preschool enrollment. Currently, only 75 percent of Woodlawn children eligible for free preschool enroll, according to Dyson.

The Woodlawn Children's Promise Community will work hand-in-hand with the Woodlawn NCP on neighborhood issues that impact education, such as the shortage of affordable housing. Foreclosures and a lack of affordable rental properties have forced families to move mid-school year, said Butler, disrupting children's learning.  

Cynthia Miller, principal of Fiske Elementary, said that the Promise Community is already making an impact on her school. First-grade teachers are reporting more motivation for reading among primary children with eighth-grade tutors, she said. “When the children see their mentor, they become very excited. The older children love to take on that mentoring role.”

More parents are visiting the school now, since Miller invited them to join her for coffee once a week, a practice Woodlawn schools recently adopted to build better relationships with parents.  

"It's not a program, it's a movement," says Della Ezell, parent specialist with Youth Guidance, which trains parents to serve as classroom assistants, lunch monitors and safety patrol.

And where formerly few parents volunteered, 15 trained by Youth Guidance are serving as classroom assistants, lunchroom monitors and the school safety patrol. Parents are not only helping the school run more smoothly, and getting to know each other and the school staff, but they are reaching out informally to other parents whose children aren't attending school regularly, Miller said.

“It's helping to build a sense of community,” she said. “Before you can have the village [it takes] to raise a child, you've got to create the village. That's what we’re in the process of doing.”

Posted in Education, Woodlawn


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