Community School Welcomes All

By: Wendy Cullitan, Skokie School District 69

Published: July 18, 2016

When Sandra Herrarte moved to Skokie three years ago she vowed to be more involved in her daughters’ school. “I always wanted to be a part of my children’s school experience, but the Chicago Public Schools basically lock the doors during the school day,” she said. “So, when I got a flyer from COFI [Community Organizing Family Issues] about a parent leadership workshop, I went to the first meeting and have been involved ever since.”

The parent group that Mrs. Herrarte joined is part of District 69’s Community Schools (CS) initiative. This program was launched to create a hub of resources where multiple services and programs are available within the District to help meet the needs of students and families in a holistic way. District 69 and Y.O.U. (Youth and Opportunity United) are in year three of the initiative, piloting the model at Lincoln Junior High and expanding partnership programs at Edison and Madison Schools to integrate them into a CS framework. This important project is co-led by community members who are all equally invested in the success of the program.

“The concept of Community Schools is a growing trend within public education. The mission of a Community School is to engage and support families beyond the traditional school day,” said Director of Community Schools Erin Moore. “The guiding principles that we are trying to foster are shared ownership, local leadership, inclusivity and making schools into community hubs. To me the biggest success of the program thus far has been the way the schools, parents and community partners have embraced this work as a true collaboration. We are moving toward a shared vision, integrating academic, behavioral, community and family engagement. Now, shared services are considered core elements to the school experience.” Multiple community partners have engaged with and supported the Community School initiative, including the Village of Skokie, the Skokie Public Library, the Skokie Community Fund and the Niles Township ELL Parent Center.

Since it’s inception, the Community Schools work has focused on the three key areas of Family Engagement, Health and Wellness and After School and Summer Learning Opportunities.

Parents Lead the Way through Engagement

As part of the Parent Leadership Family Engagement Program, Mrs. Herrarte began volunteering at Edison where her oldest daughter was in fourth grade at the time. “That initial parent group was very welcoming and helped me set tangible and realistic personal and professional goals,” she said. “After much encouragement from the friends I made in the group, I applied and was ultimately hired as District 69’s parent liaison for Spanish speaking families. I am thrilled to be able to give back to the community by helping parents become better engaged with the District and all of the services offered.” Additional parent liaisons provide translation services for Arabic, Assyrian, Urdu and Hindi speaking families to better integrate them into the school as well as the community at large.

Herrarte is part of a group of 64 parents who have gained leadership skills by pursuing goals such as getting their driver’s license or learning English. Since the program’s inception, 86% of participants reported an increased sense of belonging and connection in their child’s school and the community as a result of participating in the program. “This parent leadership program resulted in the formation of the Parent Leaders Uniting Schools (P.L.U.S.) at Lincoln –  a parent organization designed to engage and support additional families in District 69,” said Superintendent Dr. Margaret Clauson. “PLUs has become an active parent group hosting multicultural nights, a community forum and an award-winning block party behind Lincoln Junior High last summer. Parents involved in PLUS report an increased sense of belonging and connection with District 69.”

The Family Liaisons serve as a bridge between school and community. They help to remove barriers to accessing school and school services, and the liaisons reach out to parents. Through the Liaison model, family engagement increases resulting in improved academic and social success.

Another important aspect of the increased effort towards family engagement is reflected in supporting non-English speaking parents. In collaboration with the District’s ELL teachers and Family Liaisons, several parent workshops and information nights focusing on topics such as literacy, technology and promoting positive attitudes toward learning have been held targeted toward an immigrant parent audience. This year the Family Liaisons also co-planned and implemented ELL Family Nights, assisted with the registration process and served as interpreters at over 50 individual and group meetings

Services Beyond the Classroom

In addition to the Parent Liaison Program, other key programs include expanded health services and after school/summer programs. To date, District 69 has collaborated with Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Mobile Care Unit to provide immunizations and physicals. In addition, in cooperation with the Skokie Health Department all students who needed a flu shot were able to receive one at no cost. Finally, an on-site dental clinic services students twice a year and optometry services are also available.

Thanks in large part to the CS program, the After School and Summer Programs have expanded to serve an average of 50-80 youth per year at Edison and Lincoln Schools. “The goal of these programs is to provide youth with academic, social and emotional support,” said Erika Alcibar, After School Program Manager. “We provide a safe space for students to positively engage with each other and provide them with tools for success such as homework help and enrichment opportunities. Recently, some participants decided to go to the local nursing home to spend time with the residents and make them cards. It was a meaningful experience for everyone involved.”

This summer students will have the chance to enroll in an eight-week program offering activities, such as circus arts, culinary group and STEM focused experiential learning projects and field trips.

“Looking ahead, we are excited to further develop our Community School initiative by forming a Community Schools Action Team (CSAT) – a group of stakeholders, including parents, school staff, administrators, and partner organizations. This team will assess the needs and assets of the community, sets priorities, and measure progress,” concluded Ms. Moore. “The work has been in a ‘pilot’ stage so far, and we are looking forward to formalizing our Community School vision and goals, and expanding programs through the CSAT, which launches in the fall of 2016.”

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