As public schools face budget cuts and reduced funding for co-curricular activities, community organizations are stepping up to fill in the gaps.
From violence prevention to singing lessons, private organizations are providing some extras. One such group is Communities in Schools of Chicago, which acts as a liaison matching 170 schools in need with available services in the community. The relationship is one of collaboration, said Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools of Chicago.
Schools petition to join the network, and the organization interviews school administrators about their programs and their needs.
“It gives us a road map of where to go in the community to find the right programs and service providers,” Mentzinger said.
One such school benefiting from the relationship is Austin’s Catalyst-Circle Rock, an elementary charter school at 5628 W. Washington. It partners with many local groups to hold conflict resolution seminars and after school care.
At Circle Rock Charter, relationships with community arts groups have given students access to ballroom dancing and choir, along with musical instruction from Ravinia. The school’s Renaissance Enrichment Program seizes upon local talent to bring art back into the classroom.
Whether students are singing in the choir or dancing on stage, “they’re doing something they’ve never done before, something they never dreamed they would do,” said Sharon Morgan, the school’s community outreach director.
Last year, the school teamed up with May I Have This Dance, a social dance school in Chicago, to provide ballroom dance lessons to students.
“It’s opened up new worlds,” Morgan said. “They’ve seen things other than this neighborhood.”
As the education director of May I Have This Dance, Margot McGraw Toppen works with between 60 and 70 Chicago schools. The dance school also aims to provide a creative outlet for children and give them an opportunity to practice their social skills. While many schools are turning to community organizations, staffing considerations also affect the programming that a school can provide.
“What schools can do with their staff only reaches as far as the diversity of talents they happen to have,” Toppen said. Outside groups, she noted, can bring in talents and abilities not necessarily available within the school’s staff.
Morgan agreed. “It’s all of us working together,” she said. “No one can do it by themselves.”
Circle Rock isn’t the only Chicago school looking to its surroundings for real life learning. Stuart G. Ferst School, a therapeutic day school for severely disabled elementary and high school students, stays connected to its North Chicago community through field trips, walking tours, and visits with local police officers and firefighters.
“We really try to integrate into the community,” said Diane Kush, the school’s principal.
The school also draws from a network of volunteers and interns from local universities, including Loyola and DePaul, in addition to the Anixter Center, a nonprofit organization that provides services to individuals with disabilities. Demand for services varies among schools, although Mentzinger said that violence prevention remains a top priority for many of the partner schools. For others, arts and mental health top the list.
Among the groups providing the training and education are Abraham Low Self-Help Systems, Auditorium Theatre, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Chicago and Shedd Aquarium.
Like Mentzinger, Morgan views the ‘school and community partnership’ as both sustainable and essential.
“It takes three things to get our kids where they need to be: parents, schools and communities,” Morgan said.