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Raising Up Teachers in Your Backyard

Nancy Ballesteros is completing a remarkable three-year journey from being a low-paid single mom of two kids to being a full-fledged Chicago Public Schools teacher … and all-around inspiration to kids in her Little Village neighborhood.

“I can say to my students, hey, I know what you’re going through. I know how you feel. I grew up in this neighborhood.”

Elizabeth Skinner (left), assistant professor of education at Illinois State University, is co-editor of the book, Grow Your Own Teachers: Grassroots Change for Teacher Education, which drew in part on the lessons learned by grow-your-own pioneers at Logan Square Neighborhood Association, led by Nancy Aardema, executive director.

Deborah McCoy, LSNA

Ballesteros told her story Nov. 10 to a group of college professors and education majors gathered to learn about a potentially game-changing innovation in urban education developed right here in LISC/Chicago New Communities Program neighborhoods. And they celebrated a new book on the phenomenon: Grow Your Own Teachers: Grassroots Change for Teacher Education,published by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

“I do believe that Grow Your Own is the future of teacher education,” said Dean Maureen Gillette of Northeastern Illinois University’s College of Education, who moderated a panel that included Ballesteros. 

LSNA the hotbed
The unconventional idea that moms and dads of children in predominantly minority schools could be directly involved in the classroom—and in some cases even become certified teachers—traces its beginnings to Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) was active in the school reform movement well before coming aboard NCP as a lead agency in 2002. For a decade prior to then, LSNA had campaigned successfully to relieve overcrowding with new and expanded school buildings and to win places for Hispanic parents on reformist Local School Councils.

But in 1995 LSNA took it a step further.

“We developed a vision of opening the doors of ‘fortress’ schools and helping them function as centers of community,” remembers Joanna Brown, LSNA’s lead education organizer. It began at Funston Elementary when an innovative principal OK’d an LSNA proposal to train some Spanish-speaking moms in tutoring skills so they could supplement classroom instruction, often by pulling out kids in need of one-to-one or small-group sessions.

Charlene Campbell, 51, who raised seven children and chaired the Local School Council at Reavis Elementary, has entered the Grow Your Own program and hopes to teach at Reavis once she's finished.

Deborah McCoy, LSNA

The Parent Mentor Program worked so well that other Logan Square principals were quick to sign up, and even to add new wrinkles developed by LSNA. These included Literacy Ambassadors—parent-teacher teams that call on homes of students who are truant or falling behind—and Community Learning Centers, where parent-tutors provide after-hours help and enrichment to kids while their parents take GED or ESL classes elsewhere in the school.

The benefits proved two-fold. Parent involvement increased dramatically the academic performance of the children, a result confirmed by standardized tests. But just as important, it brought out the latent leadership abilities of hundreds of immigrant parents, especially of mothers who were isolated by language and culture from mainstream community life.

Little wonder other NCP communities and lead organizations—such as Enlace in Little Village and Southwest Organizing Project in Marquette Park—have sought LSNA’s advice in launching their own Community Schools programs. And little wonder other neighborhoods have been quick to recognize the potential of LSNA’s next big step—helping standout parent-mentors go on to attain the formal baccalaureate education it takes to be certified as a CPS teacher.

Grow Your Own
The parents-to-teachers process began tentatively in 2000 with a federally funded pilot partnership between LSNA and Chicago State University. Early success then bred formation of a statewide Grow Your Own Task Force that drafted and won passage of a GYO Teachers Education Act.

According to Anne Hallett, director of a successor organization called GYO Illinois, the 2004 law aims to: reduce teacher turnover; create a pipeline for teachers of color; and prepare teachers for hard-to-staff positions at schools with many low-income students. With the help of state scholarships and forgivable loans, a goal was set to prepare 1,000 GYO teachers by 2016.

Nancy Ballesteros has completed the life journey from low-paid single mom to Chicago Public Schools teacher.

Deborah McCoy, LSNA

That is requiring a scale-up of recruitment and resources, which is one reason behind GYO Illinois’ Statewide Learning Network Meeting, held Nov. 10-11 at National Louis University, located at 122 S. Michigan Ave.

Attendee Chris Brown, who oversees educational programming for LISC/Chicago—and who was named recently to succeed Susana Vasquez as director of the NCP—said LISC is right in the middle of the scale-up. For instance, the Elev8 middle-school enrichment program funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and managed here by LISC is making a $52,000 grant to expend parent-mentor activity in five NCP neighborhoods.

“We’re already doing Grow Your Own at Marquette School in Chicago Lawn,” Brown said of the hoped-for progression. “We’re trying to get parents more involved in Elev8 and GYO is a way to do that.”

Parents transformed
The transformative potential of that involvement is illustrated by Maria Trejo, a certified teacher and director of the Elev8 program at Ames Middle School in Logan Square. She was one of GYO’s first graduates and the first in her family to graduate from college.

“I did my [college] homework sitting next to my daughter at the dining room table,” Trejo told the GYO conference. “Now, 13 years later, that daughter is 20 years old and in her second year at Western Michigan University. My youngest is in her first year at Western Illinois. ... I’m very proud of my girls.”

A similar story was told by Nancy Ballesteros, who got involved with GYO through Enlaceand hopes to start teaching language arts soon at Madero Middle School on 28th Street, a few blocks from where she grew up.

A group of college professors and education majors gathered on Nov. 10 to learn about the potentially game-changing innovation in urban education developed in LISC/Chicago New Communities Program neighborhoods, most particularly Logan Square.

Deborah McCoy

And new GYO stories are waiting to be written, like that of 51-year-old Charlene Campbell. After 21 years working as a practical nurse at a downtown hospital, and after raising seven children, she’s been accepted to GYO and hopes eventually to teach at Reavis Elementary, where, as a parent, she chaired the LSC.

Now three of her children are in college, and Campbell says her goal as a teacher will be “to give all the kids at Reavis a college vision.”

Ripple effects
Elizabeth Skinner, assistant professor of education at Illinois State University and a co-editor of the new GYO book, told the gathering that, when she started 10 years ago teaching GYO’s teachers-to-be, she could hardly imagine what the program has become. 

She cautioned there is much work ahead and challenged schools of education to support GYO candidates “when and where they need it.” For example, participating colleges actually bring classes close to GYO students at venues such as Malcolm X College and Little Village High School.

It’s the ripple effects, though, that ultimately make schools programs like GYO the secret weapons of community development work.

Test scores have shown how parent involvement increased dramatically the academic performance of the children--and just just as important, it brought out the latent leadership abilities of hundreds of immigrant parents.

Deborah McCoy, LSNA

Said Nancy Aardema, who fostered the GYO concept from the start as LSNA’s executive director: “We didn’t want our schools to be separate from the community. Now our schools and our community are doing better as a result.”    

More information:
Anne Hallett, GYO Illinois,

Joanna Brown, LSNA,, 773-384-4370

Buy the book:

See more photos of the Nov. 10 event:

Posted in Education, Logan Square


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