Melissa Carpenter, Y.O.U.’s director of community schools

On Oct. 23, the McGaw YMCA and Youth Organization Umbrella (Y.O.U.) sponsored a forum to discuss the Community School Initiative currently being piloted at Chute Middle School. Approximately 75 persons filled the Chinnock Lounge at the McGaw Y to listen to a presentation by Melissa Carpenter, Y.O.U.’s Director of Community Schools, and Jim McHolland, principal of Chute, and then to offer their views of long-term goals for the program. Bill Geiger, chief executive officer of McGaw Y, and Seth Green, executive director of Y.O.U., led the discussion.

Community schools are being established across the nation. The lack of progress in addressing the achievement gap has led many scholars, educators and parents to advocate for a more holistic approach to address the needs of students from low-income households. They posit that providing a network of services at a school and keeping a school building open from dawn to dusk six or seven days a week can improve student health, reduce impediments to student learning, increase student engagement, open doors to parental involvement, provide a more supportive environment for learning and create conditions for high student achievement.

There is no set model for community schools. They offer a wide range of supports and services, such as after-school learning programs; enrichment activities; sports activities; counseling services; physical, dental and mental health services; adult education programs; and housing and job assistance. Generally the services are provided through partnerships with community organizations. To make this work, it is essential to have a strong lead agency at each school that serves as the glue.

Bill Geiger kicked off the forum saying, “I think what this group represents is some of the hope and some of the promise of a community school. It’s the community all coming together that I think makes this very, very powerful work.

“Part of this work is successful because of the deep collaboration and partnership that’s required for success,” Mr. Geiger continued. “As Don [Baker, former executive director of Y.O.U.] has started us down the path, Seth Green has really helped us accelerate in the work of doing deep collaboration in our community, deep, deep partnerships and in this case it’s launching a partnership between Y.O.U, District 65, Chute Middle School, McGaw Y and soon others.”

The Community School Pilot at Chute

Y.O.U. has provided an after-school program at Chute since the 1990s. In its program, it provides academic assistance, enrichment activities, mentoring, and counseling services. Y.O.U. also reaches out to parents.

Because Y.O.U.s program is holistic, United Way gave it a grant to pilot a community school model at Chute in the 2012-13 school year. “At its very core, a community school is really a school that becomes a hub for all sorts of community programs, services, and resources,” said Ms. Carpenter who is overseeing the community school initiative at Chute.

 In the first year, Y.O.U. continued to offer its after-school program at Chute, but in addition it partnered with a number of community organizations to provide a variety of additional services to children and their families, said Ms. Carpenter. Y.O.U. is also continuing to work with parents, teachers and social service organizations – the “Action Team” – to define a vision and goals for the school community at Chute, she said. They will then determine what organizations and resources in the community they can bring to the school to help meet these shared goals. 

“The important thing is all the partners and service providers are collaborating to meet these shared goals,” she said.

“A big part of this is parent leadership,” said Ms. Carpenter.  “Parents know best about their kids and know best about their community. Our goal is to do parent leadership training to ensure the community school action team is really representative of all the parents at Chute. “

Ms. Carpenter cited successes achieved at community schools in other cities. One report, Elev8 Chicago, said students have an increased sense of belonging, parental engagement has increased, student attendance rates have gone up, high school graduation rates have increased, the number of disciplinary incidents has been reduced, and staff has assisted in managing student health and mental health problems.

Ms. Carpenter said they hope to use Chute as a model and to see what works and what needs to be in place to make the model replicable in other schools in Evanston. She said one challenge is to create multiple funding streams to sustain the program and expand it to multiple schools. 

The Principal’s View at Chute

Mr. McHolland said Chute had many after school programs, including Y.O.U.’s, before the “community school” pilot began last year. The new and expanded services brought in as part of the community school initiative “has really been tremendous for our kids,” he said. It has provided parents and grandparents support in how to raise a middle-schooler,” not just when things go wrong, but how to help things go right,” he said.

 “Everyone is in this together. It’s all about what’s best for kids and what’s best for families. We’re trying to expand to have it be that parents will not only come to school for conferences and events, but they will come to school for opportunities for the families, whether it be for tax preparation, financial planning, health and fitness components.

“Our families have been extremely supportive,” Mr. McHolland continued. “There’s been collaboration about what’s going on with the whole child, not just what’s going on academically, but what’s happening with them emotionally, socially, so that we can get kids and families to a better place.

“We have to continue to move forward and allow people to feel like it’s not only Chute Middle School, but it is part of the community and it is always accessible for when people need help. That really to me is the power for having the community school piece become more formalized and to have the opportunity for our kids and for our families.”

A Long-Term Vision for the Community

Mr. Green, executive director of Y.O.U., asked people in the room – which included representatives of School Districts 65 and 202 and many non-profit organizations in town – what they thought success would look like in ten years, what are the greatest issues facing the  community, and what resources in the community can be pulled together.

Chuck Lewis, an involved member of the community, said, “What can we do to create a college graduation goal?” He said he meant not just entering college, but graduating from college.

Taking comments into account that many students do not go to college, Mr. Green proposed reframing the goal as, “Post-secondary learning that gets you to a family-sustaining-wage job.”

A study sponsored by the ACT, “The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring All Students Are on Target for College Readiness before High School” (2008), concluded that in today’s world “college readiness also means career readi­ness.” To obtain a decent paying job with opportunities for career advancement “require[s] knowledge and skills comparable to those expected of the first-year college student,” says the study.

Candance Chow, a member of the District 65 School Board suggested a goal, “Every child being able to enter the school door in the morning ready to learn.” Mr. Green alluded to food and nutrition. Ms. Chow added “emotional supports.”

Joyce Bartz, director of special services at District 65 said, “I love the initiative in the middle schools, but I strongly believe that unless we start with our pre-school-aged families and children we are missing a big avenue for getting involved.” Mr. Green said Evanston has many early childhood providers, and that the Evanston Community Foundation (ECF) is working in this area. “It’s really how we connect to those resources that exist as well as build this out,” he said.

Because a great deal of brain architecture is shaped by early experiences by age three, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child urges that resources be focused on these early years.

Andrea Densham, executive director of the Childcare Network of Evanston, said, “I really support the discussion about early learning.” She said the pilot at Chute is a very specific example of something that “many of us are thinking about much bigger than that. Not only how do we begin at the early learning stage or pre-natally, but then how do make that bridge to District 65 for all the children in our community and from there to the high school and from there to a sustainable job?”

“The more we think about how we leverage together and coordinate our services,” Ms. Densham continued, “the better outcomes we are going to have, not just for our kids and not just our families, but also our neighborhoods.”

Marybeth Schroeder, vice-president for programs at ECF, said, “I think it’s a great effort,” but she added another dimension. She noted that 70 percent of Chute’s students are from low-income families. She asked, “Can we start helping parents get family-supporting wages?”

One woman suggested changing the paradigm from providing low-income families with services to teaching and helping parents obtain the skills they need to help in the education of their children.

A man who has volunteered at Chute for several years brought things down to the bone-chilling ground level. “One success for me would be not to have a conversation that I had. And that was a child who was in tears because he was being pressured to join a gang,” he said. “A success for me would be not to have our children pressured to join a gang.”

Mr. McHolland followed up. “We do have, and this is from my vantage point, we do have an issue right now in our Hispanic community with recruiting of Hispanic kids and they are really concerned as they get to high school age, what it means. I can only tell you what kids talk to us about. Essentially you get asked to join. If you don’t join you get beat up. The second time you get beat up a little worse. The third time you probably head to the hospital. It is that type of fear as they get older.”

“That is one of the things our kids talk about,” Mr. McHolland continued. “Kids don’t want to be in it. They really don’t. A lot of kids, I would say 98 percent, they don’t want to part of that. But the pressure is there.”

Mr. Green told the RoundTable that Y.O.U. is very focused on this issue and works with kids who are pressured to join gangs through its after-school program, counseling services and street outreach. He added that the City of Evanston has street outreach workers who work with youth and that other groups are actively involved as well.

In concluding the forum on community schools, Mr. Geiger urged everyone: “Take this thinking, this conversation to other groups you are in. Take it to your faith community, take it to your neighborhood group, take it to another board you sit on and let’s have this conversation broadly in this community.”

He asked everyone to “think how you could support this work.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...