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Data Processing: Know Your Neighborhood

The community portal Chicago Voz, published by The Resurrection Project, used Census and housing data to show how gentrification may be the reason for the loss of more than 1,000 students in Pilsen schools.


Big data holds big promises for neighborhoods. To get there, though, start small – or at least local. That’s the lesson from a series of articles that ran over the last few weeks on the websites and community portals in four Chicago neighborhoods.

Last year, WBEZ published an article that detailed how Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) neighborhood elementary schools were losing students to public charter, gifted and magnet schools and programs. In 2000, 74 percent of students attended their assigned neighborhood school. By last year that number had dropped to just 62 percent. 

By digging deeper into that same CPS data, four community organizations participating in a LISC data journalism project found four very different local outcomes. 

  • The community portal Chicago Voz, published by The Resurrection Project, reported declining overall enrollment in the Pilsen schools – more than 17 percent of their total student body in the last six years. Census and housing data shows how gentrification may be one reason for the loss of more than 1,000 students. 
  • Little Village, on the other hand, is holding on to its local students. Out of a total of 456 CPS elementary schools across the city, just 49 had an increase in the percent of students from within their attendance boundaries – and six were in Little Village, reports Enlace Chicago.
  • In Englewood, more than a half dozen CPS elementary schools were closed in 2013. Teamwork Englewood’s community portal looked at how three remaining schools have adjusted to new attendance boundaries and what it takes for families to navigate the changing local education landscape.
  • CoNNect, the community portal published by the Near North Unity Program (NNUP), covered the sharp drop in enrollment at the two local elementary schools after the closing of the Cabrini Green public housing high rises. Today, only a minority of students at either school live in the Near North neighborhood. 

Docia Buffington, the development director at Enlace, said that the local focus gave her group some important new insights into the neighborhood.

“We knew that our local elementary schools were doing well, but we didn’t know about the good enrollment from the attendance area,” she said. “Combined with demographic data, it really showed what is working in Little Village, especially the impact of our community schools.” 

Sharon Wheeler, manager of the Near North Unity Program, said that the peer-to-peer interaction in the data journallism workshops was as useful as any one day’s curriculum. "Access to quality neighborhood information is so important to our work,” she said. “Being in the room with different organizations, collaborating and dealing with the same topic would inspire me to think in a different way than I typically would. The whole project has had a huge impact.”

Citywide data, local focus 

LISC has had a keen interest in the power of data and civic tech since launching the Smart Communities program in 2009. The data journalism project, funded by the McCormick Foundation, was designed to help lead agencies in LISC’s New Communities Network find, evaluate, explain, and illustrate the detailed information that is increasingly available from government agencies and other sources.

“Being able to analyze local data and put it in context for the community can shift attention to an issue in a neighborhood or help a group rethink what it wants to work on or what a program has achieved,” said Taryn Roch, LISC’s director of program assessment. 

When LISC first convened Enlace, Teamwork Englewood, The Resurrection Project and NNUP earlier this year to collaborate on the project, local elementary school enrollment patterns weren’t the obvious topic to explore. But they learned one of the first rules of data journalism: Start with what you want to know, not just poking around in readily available data sets looking for interesting tidbits.

After some discussion, the consensus was to find out more about the intersection between local education and neighborhood trends in housing and demographics. Over the next several months, the team met regularly to discuss everything from how to compare statistics to data visualization to interviewing local experts who can put the numbers in context. 

By approaching the research from a data journalism perspective, the groups learned how to use the data in a clear and persuasive narrative about what’s happening in the community.

Like Buffington, Sharon Wheeler said that the peer-to-peer interaction in the workshops was as useful as any one day’s curriculum.

“Access to quality neighborhood information is so important to our work,” said Wheeler, the program manager at NNUP. “Being in the room with different organizations, collaborating and dealing with the same topic would inspire me to think in a different way than I typically would. The whole project has had a huge impact.” 

The groups also learned that resource-stressed community-based organizations that know what data they want can get a hand with the gritty work of finding and mining it. Organizations such as DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies, the Woodstock Institute, and of course LISC Chicago can be engaged partners. 

“Different organizations around the city do different work," said Roch, "but there are a lot of experts who can help play a part, and LISC is ready to serve as an intermediary.” 


CoNNect, the community portal published by the Near North Unity Program (NNUP), covered the sharp drop in enrollment at the two local elementary schools after the closing of the Cabrini Green public housing high rises. Today, only a minority of students at either school live in the Near North neighborhood.


Putting the data to work 

With the stories now being published – each community did a two-part series to capture all the information – the organizations are aiming to have a local impact.

“I absolutely see this as an advocacy tool. We can use this to fight any cuts to the schools that might come,” Buffington said. “And I’ve already used the data and the concise charts that tell the story in a few grant applications.” 

In Near North, a merger between Jenner and Ogden elementary schools was proposed just as CoNNect’s stories were being released, an idea that NNUP has supported and was included in their quality-of-life plan which was released earlier this year.

Wheeler has included writer Michele Dreczynski’s articles in outreach for a community meeting with local aldermen and school principals around education in the neighborhood next week, using the information to make the case for why the merger will be a win for neighborhood families. 

In Pilsen, where schools stand to lose nearly $3 million in this year’s CPS budgets, which more closely tie a school’s funding to its enrollment, the stories can help spark a conversation about what it takes to support strong local schools. 

The data journalism project isn’t finished, either. In the coming weeks, each group will publish the results of a survey of local residents that is embedded at the end of each story – more data – to keep the conversation going. Additionally, each group will research and write on another important local topic, putting into play all they learned to date. 

“This project is just one part of LISC’s efforts to help our local partners improve their expertise in using data – that local capacity improves their programs and ultimately improves their communities.” Roch said. 

For more information contact Taryn Roch, troch@lisc.org.

Posted in Education, Englewood, Little Village, Near North Side, Pilsen

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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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