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A School, a Community Organization and a Health Care Provider Steer a New, Better Course

Marquette Elementary School, like the sturdy Chicago Lawn bungalows that surround it, can take a punch. It’s absorbed a few since opening 90 years ago, providing primary education to generations of working class Chicagoans on the Southwest Side. 

Marquette Elementary, a large public school in Chicago Lawn, is climbing out of a years-long slump with a new health care provider, new management, and a community organization that stuck with it every step of the way.

Photos by Gordon Walek

As one of Chicago’s largest public elementary schools, with nearly 1,300 students, and occupying a square city block at 65th and Richmond streets, Marquette is a formidable institution in a residential neighborhood. 

Down but not out

But just a few years ago, it was nearly down for the count. As a persistently rated Level 3 school (Chicago Public Schools’ lowest), it was in a state of permanent probation. As one of five schools comprising LISC Chicago’s Elev8 program, it had benefitted from efforts to increase parental engagement, expand after-school activities and improve student and community health through construction of a federally qualified health center in the building. 

But while that helped, it wasn’t enough to completely change the school’s academic fortunes. In 2012, CPS designated Marquette as a turnaround school. Teachers and staff were required to resign and The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a nonprofit school management organization, brought in its own teachers and administrators in an attempt to re-shape the school culture, improve test scores and re-engage parents. Such abrupt transitions are rarely pretty and often disruptive, even if sometimes effective over the long haul.

At about the same time, ACCESS, which managed the on-site health center, announced it was abandoning the school-based health center business and would no longer staff Marquette’s health center. 

That’s a lot for any school to deal with, but especially one that occupies such a critical position as Marquette with its large student body. In a sense, it was too big to fail. 

Jeff Bartow, SWOP's executive director, has been a big proponent of the value Marquette, and its health center, bring to Chicago Lawn residents.

And it didn’t. Today, Marquette has jumped two levels in CPS’s rating system, to 2+. Student test scores are improving fast (among the top 10 percent of schools district wide) and Esperanza, a health care provider, operates Marquette’s health center, providing services not only to students but to many neighborhood residents as well. 

A prescription for success

How did that happen? As with many instances of neighborhood and educational change, it’s hard to say exactly. But there’s little doubt that the relationship between the school and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), a Chicago Lawn-based community organization, forged through LISC’s Elev8 program, helped on several levels. 

“It would have been a terrible impact if the health center and school had closed,” said Jeff Bartow, SWOP’s executive director. “Families would have to send kids to other schools, across major streets. It would have left shuttered an entire block in a neighborhood just beginning to respond to the devastation of the foreclosure crisis.” 

SWOP, whose work generally involves supporting Chicago Lawn institutions, ranging from hospitals to schools to housing providers, has been essentially embedded in Marquette (through Elev8) since 2008, helping to initiate and run after school activities, parent-mentor programs, the health center, and other activities designed to create a stronger bond between the school and the community it serves. When the turnaround occurred, Elev8 was the only program that provided a link between the new school and the old. 

Shoshanah. Yehudah, right, was Marquette's Elev8 director when it was identified as a turnaround school. The good relations she established prior to the turnaround went a long way in ensuring a smooth transition.

SWOP’s Shoshanah Yehudah, who became the Elev8 director at Marquette in 2010, arrived just as the school’s sands began to shift. 

“They were going through a transition then,” she said. “You could feel the tension. Folks were unsure what leadership looked like. Teachers were struggling to improve the school, but they didn’t know if they had any support. Then, suddenly, the turnaround happened, and they wondered why they hadn’t received the resources they needed to turn it around themselves.”

Meanwhile, the AUSL crew moved in amid an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. 

“You don’t expect to be well received,” said LaTarsha Green, the new assistant principal under AUSL who has since become Marquette’s principal. “It was tense. The words ‘underperforming’ and ‘failing schools’ have meaning for children and the people coming to work, trying to do the right thing. You could just feel the despair.”

Green, a product of the Chicago Public Schools as a student, a teacher and an administrator, was no stranger to turnarounds. She’d been involved in one at Morton, an elementary school on the West Side. But that school was small – about 300 students and a staff of 25. Marquette was a different league. 

LaTarsha Green, Marquette's principal and a former CPS student and teacher, has a good feeling about the direction Marquette is going, but warns against being complacent. 

“I remember greeting children and the kids would just look away,” she said. “No eye contact. They wouldn’t speak. They weren’t ready to trust us.” 

Part of instilling that trust involved working with SWOP, which had connections with students and parents. Initially, SWOP and AUSL weren’t sure what to expect from each other.

Health center was key

“When conversations with AUSL began, it was the parents who said AUSL should talk to SWOP,” said Yehudah. “And they (AUSL) reached out to us for a meeting. After that we were invited to their weeklong training before school started. We sat down with Principal Green (she was an assistant at the time). What really helped was SWOP being involved in saving the health center. That gave us some credibility. It showed that we have a level of influence that maybe you need.” 

The health centers, built at each of the five Elev8 schools (Marquette, Reavis, Orozco, Ames and Perspectives Calumet), were a crowning achievement of the Elev8 program, offering students and neighborhood residents access to reliable, affordable health care. In a neighborhood like Chicago Lawn, with very few health centers, the Marquette facility was a big deal. For it to go out of business would have been a repudiation of the Elev8 principles and a major inconvenience for students and families who’d come to rely on it. 

When Brenda Bannor, a LISC health care consultant to Elev8, heard ACCESS was pulling the plug, she immediately called Bartow and Carlos Nelson (executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp., the neighborhood partner at Perspectives Calumet, whose health center ACCESS was also giving up) and began assembling a transition team of community organizers, representatives of the Chicago Department of Public Health, Chicago Public Schools, and others to create a strategy that would keep the health center open. 

As a LISC health care consultant working through Elev8, Brenda Bannor was instrumental in finding a new health care provider for Marquette.

“We understand this is no longer part of your strategic plan,” Bannor, Bartow and Nelson told ACCESS. “We’re not going to argue that. But you can’t just leave us high and dry. You must stay until we find someone else." 

ACCESS agreed. “That wouldn’t have worked if I just called,” said Bannor. “They wouldn’t have taken my call. But they responded to Jeff and Carlos.” 

Elev8 partners next started beating the bushes for a new health care provider to staff Marquette’s center. They developed a list of criteria for new applicants, an informational packet and an interview protocol. Esperanza Health Centers, which operates clinics in the Little Village neighborhood, was among the candidates.

“We looked at it with some skepticism,” said Dan Fulwiler, Esperanza’s CEO. “We didn’t have a school-based health center. You can have a hard time making them work. In the summer, students are gone and so are your patients.” 

But Esperanza staff was aware that the zip codes of many of their patients at the Little Village centers corresponded to Marquette’s Chicago Lawn neighborhood. 

“It’s a health care desert down there,” said Fulwiler. “Our strategic plan called for us to expand to the south, but we hadn’t gotten far in the thinking process.”

Esperanza kicked the tires, talked to school officials, SWOP, and LISC. It brought its board members to the school. “We were sold on the level of commitment from the school and SWOP,” he said. “They were in it for real. LaTarsha was there for every meeting. We knew her support would be there.” 

Dan Fulwiler, CEO of Esperanza Health Centers, was initially skeptical about getting into the school health center business. But since Esperanza moved into Marquette, students and neighborhood residents have been taking full advantage of the center.

Esperanza enlisted one of its nurse practitioners to set up shop at Marquette. She informed her Chicago Lawn patients she would be there. And Esperanza notified all of its clients that it was moving into Marquette. Meanwhile, Atlantic Philanthropies, Elev8’s funder, provided additional support to get Esperanza up and running. 

The center, said Fulwiler, hit its budget numbers within four months. Nearly 70 percent of its patients are neighborhood residents. The others are students, almost all of whom are insured.

“It’s not just a doc in the box,” he said. “You can’t just expect people to come in. That’s why SWOP is so useful. A big part of school-based health centers is getting consent (from parents so children can be treated). SWOP was very helpful.” 

For LaTarsha Green, who hadn’t previously worked at a school with a health center, Esperanza has been a boon. When she arrived at Marquette, 800 kids were not in compliance with required vaccinations. Now they all are. 

“Plus, we have the dental van,” she said. “You come to Marquette, you get glasses, you get your teeth fixed, you learn to cook, you work out. It’s one-stop shopping.” 

Community partner helps

None of which would have been possible, she added, without a community partner. “From my vantage point, it’s exactly what all schools should have,” she said. “It was nice having Elev8 and SWOP here. They knew the context. Like the kids, they wanted to know what we were all about. They were skeptical of us, and we of them. But I’ve been totally blessed having that collaboration.” 

Marquette’s hardly out of the woods. “The turnaround,” said Green, “is a moment in time. If you aren’t careful, conditions that create underperformance are still in your school. They’re in remission. We’re building the machine as we go, while it’s moving.” 

Neighborhood schools, says SWOP's Jeff Bartow, are "places where all members of the community can come together, through the health center or parent mentor programs, where immigrants and African American parents can share their experiences and learn the basic skills of public life.”

But there’s a palpable sense of energy and optimism in Marquette’s halls that was lacking pre-turnaround. Green is a strong, charismatic presence. Yehudah, who’s now working part-time at SWOP while attending graduate school, has turned the Elev8 reins over to Jamillah Rashad, who previously worked for AUSL. 

“There was a constant churning at Marquette,” said Bartow, “but that’s led to a new stability, a new sense of possibility. There’s a renewal of confidence and trust in leadership. And it’s a great thing that 70 percent of the health center patients are from community.” 

Local schools, he said, are obviously important for what they can provide children. “But they’re also places where all members of the community can come together, through the health center or parent mentor programs, where immigrants and African American parents can share their experiences and learn the basic skills of public life.”

Posted in Education, Chicago Lawn


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