Community schools can make a big difference for Chicago’s youth

Studies show that community schools — with activities and resources for students and families — improve student outcomes. Ideally, every Chicago public school would be a community school, Stacy Davis Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union writes.

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Parents and students arrive at Willa Cather Elementary School in East Garfield Park for the first day of school, Aug. 22, 2022.

Parents and students arrive at Willa Cather Elementary School in East Garfield Park for the first day of school, Aug. 22, 2022. Chicago needs more community schools, Stacy Davis-Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union writes.

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After a grueling election season that proved most of the pundits wrong, I am looking forward to the next four years with hope and excitement — hope that better days are ahead for our students and their school communities, and excitement because we have a partner in City Hall who will work with educators to address the challenges facing our city and its public schools.

I am hopeful because I believe that most Chicagoans want the same thing, regardless of who they voted for. We all desire safe streets, good schools, good paying jobs, affordable housing and other public services that improve our quality of life.

That’s not to say the next four years will be all sunshine and roses, because our city faces many difficult, intransigent problems with no easy, overnight solutions. So, where do the big, long-term solutions begin?

As any educator will tell you, it starts with a fully-funded classroom and high-quality neighborhood public schools.

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Imagine if the youth who flood downtown on warm weekends had jobs or community centers in their neighborhood, and downtown or sports or other extra-curricular activities to engage them. Imagine if their schools were flush with career and technical programs that helped them see a future, with a living-wage job to support their family.

Imagine if young people attended schools that feed their bodies and their souls, with enough adult support to tackle their academic, emotional and social challenges. Young people need libraries and librarians that help open up the world for them, but today, only 90 CPS schools have those resources. They also need social workers, nurses, and counselors to deal with the everyday stress of being a teen, let alone violence or pandemic-induced trauma.

Bring back community anchors

Decades ago, schools served as community anchors. Neighborhood children went to the neighborhood school. Parents knew each other, served on parent committees together and looked out for each other’s children. But decades of competitive school choice have decimated neighborhood schools.

Children now travel great distances all over the city to attend a “good school,” which often simply means a school with more resources than the one in their own neighborhood.

We need to rebuild our neighborhood schools and fully fund our classrooms. Fortunately, a model for this exists in our Sustainable Community Schools (SCS) program. Twenty SCS schools across the city function as the embodiment of “It takes a village to raise a child.” They are community hubs, providing wrap-around academic, health, and social support for the entire community beyond the traditional school day.

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The schools receive extra district funding, but also leverage community assets, resources, and external partnerships in a community-led and community-driven approach to provide support for students and families. Together, students, parents, educators and school staff work to promote the health and well-being of the entire school community.

Rather than a small pilot program in 20 schools, CPS needs to expand the SCS model across the district. In an ideal world, every public school would be a Sustainable Community School.

A positive impact on academics

With far too many Black and Brown students in this city traveling away from their neighborhoods every morning for school, more Sustainable Community Schools are the neighborhood solution this city needs. According to a number of studies, both in Chicago and throughout the country, community schools improve a range of student outcomes, including academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and reduced racial and economic achievement gaps. These models are also known for their stellar ability to increase attendance and student and parent engagement.

But we know our world is far from ideal here in Chicago. CPS is $1 billion short of what the state says is required to provide an “adequate” education. Think about that. Our mandated goal is to provide just an adequate education for our young people.

And we wonder why young people from our most vulnerable neighborhoods continue to struggle.

Here is the truth: We cannot police our way out of the challenges facing Chicago. We must begin investing in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods and in our people. We must ensure that all Chicagoans have the resources they need to not just survive, but to thrive.

That’s a tall order, but educators are used to doing the impossible. With a teacher in City Hall, I’m confident we can do it.

Stacy Davis Gates is president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

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