Visits to Chicago Public Schools

Last week I had the opportunity to visit four schools while I was in Chicago for the Arts Schools Network conference.

Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)

ChiArts, Chicago’s first public school for the visual and performing arts, is only four years old and I had heard that it’s very similar in mission and vision to Boston Arts Academy. During my tour with Principal Terri Mislap, I saw ChiArts’ core values posted around the hallways: Humility, Balance, Perseverance, Community, and Iintegrity. There are also conduct standards on the walls around the school: Places, Harmony, Collage, Direction, and Arrangement.

ChiArts conduct standards

Students take their academic classes from 8am until noon and then there is a nearly two hour lunch/study hall/advisory block when students can get some air outside in the courtyard, eat, and get homework done. Even though this block could seem unstructured to some, I got the sense that it worked well for students (and faculty.) At 2pm the conservatory part of the day begins. Students take arts classes in one of four majors (vocal and instrumental music, visual arts, dance, or theatre) until 5pm each day.

ChiArts students taking their break in the courtyard

I had the chance to meet with the arts department heads and we discussed some of their worries about their emerging school: how to ensure a positive school culture; how to support the adjunct faculty’s professional development (all the arts teachers except the department heads are part-time); and how to deal with the pressure to produce conservatory-ready graduates when, as the music teacher lamented, “We don’t necessarily have access to students at a younger age and they come in without much background in music!” Similarly, the dance teacher said his department struggled with the definition of success. He felt success needed to be measured by the number of students accepted into conservatories, yet he recognized not all of his young students would actually go on to a career in dance. Sound familiar?

ChiArts musicians

I also met with Jose Ochoa, the school’s Executive Director. His responsibilities span from setting the scope and sequence for the artistic vision of the school to fundraising and finance (the school raises $2.5million a year from its Board and galas and, like at BAA, the privately raised money is crucial to run the school, as their per pupil district allocation is not enough to support an arts and academic curriculum.) There are 600 students at ChiArts and 55% are eligible for free lunch.

ChiArts Principal Terri Mislap and faculty

ChiArts faculty and staff

Calmeca Fine Arts and Dual Language Academy

Walking into Calmeca Academy in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago was a bit like walking back in time for me (I began as a bilingual teacher in the late ’70s when being bilingual and bicultural was celebrated!) I was so happy to see that Calmeca had found a way to fight the backlash against bilingual education to become a dual language school. The vision of Calmeca Academy is “to empower all students to become competent and literate adults who are life-long learners, critical thinkers and achievers who maintain high expectations in the areas of academic and global diversity.”

Our day began with a presentation of dances from students in 4th-8th grade. We watched two dances from VeracruzEl Zapateado Jarocho and La Bruja – where the dancers balanced a candle on their heads as they moved, and a third that was a danzon with Afro-Cuban influence.

Veracruz dance

The costumes were exquisite and the students’ confidence and commitment to the intricate steps even more impressive. Next came a Project Runway show of clothing made from recycled materials and inspired by both indigenous Mexican culture and countries in Africa. The first contestant was the principal, Frances Garcia, dressed in a vibrant blue dress that seemed to symbolize both the importance of music and the arts as well as the culture of Mexico. Subsequent contestants also displayed the dresses they had made. As Principal Garcia said, “Arts help show how smart we are whether we speak English or not.”

Project Runway contestants

Principal Frances Garcia performs in Project Runway

We went on a whirlwind tour of the classrooms. The school is brand new and breathtakingly beautiful. Many of the nooks and crannies of the corridors were bursting with student work and exhibitions. The library rivaled anything I’d ever seen, with lots of reading corners and comfortable chairs. In every classroom, students were hard at work.  Creativity and focused energy abounded. The school uses discretionary funding to ensure that there is a full time visual arts teacher and full time music teacher on staff. They also partner with Columbia College and the National Museum of Mexican Art. During the tour, we also had our pictures taken by two 4th grade photographers on the Yearbook staff.

Yearbook photographers on duty

There are 837 students enrolled at Calmeca. 93.3% are low income students, 10.2% are Special Education and 52.8% are English Language Learners. The largest demographic at Calmeca is Hispanic, 95.2%, mostly of Mexican descent. It seemed that the majority of teachers were of Mexican descent as well. Everyone exuded pride in their building, their curriculum and their school. I left feeling proud too!

Telpochcalli Elementary School

The mission of Telpochcalli Elementary School is to integrate arts and Mexican culture into an innovative academic and social experience. In addition, the school intends to develop fully bilingual/biliterate students in English and Spanish. The school embraces its small size (280 students in grades k-8) as part of its mission and proudly serves the predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American community of Little Village on Chicago’s southwest side.

All the materials we were given were written in both Spanish and English. The school’s PR brochure names six advantages of being bilingual:

  • more creativity
  • more mental flexibility (better understanding of concepts)
  • well-developed problem solving skills
  • more ease in learning yet another language
  • self-confidence and pride in the culture
  • there are many jobs that require bilingual employees—so more job opportunities.

We were met by principal Tamara Witzl, who was one of the founding faculty in 1993. The school developed from the Small Schools Workshop of the University of Illinois, developed by Michael Klonsky and Bill Ayers. Tamara proudly discussed the extensive artist-in-residence program supported by Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, CAPE (a local community arts organization) that brings in musicians, visual artists and performing artists to work with teachers in arts-integrated projects wherever possible. Given the longevity of this collaboration as well as the stability of the teaching staff, teachers (and artists) are adept at developing projects that both meet academic curricular needs and develop artistic skills.

Example of a mural in the school created by artists in residence and students

Telpochcalli Community Education Project (TCEP) is another community-based organization that has grown from the school. TCEP grew from the needs of the larger school community (parents and neighborhood residents) to have classes for them such as ESL, sewing, aerobics, leadership development, and training in non-violent interventions. Parents wanted more involvement in the school, but Tamara had no vehicle to raise funds to support that involvement. The social and economic needs of parents were overwhelming and the school faculty and administration knew that for students to be successful, parents couldn’t be in continual crisis. TCEP fills that void, and also receives grants to support after school programming for the students. Given the severe budget cuts in the Chicago Public Schools, Tamara hopes that the TCEP might also raise funds to help with the continued professional development of her faculty and the resident artists. Tamara is sanguine about the need for more funding in order to sustain the excellent work of her school and the not-for-profit TCEP. “Without funding, we cannot meet the needs of our students and their families.”

We also had the opportunity to catch the tail end of an artist-in-residence working with students. The students were working on print-making for a unit that would culminate with Day of the Dead artwork. The young artists were excited to explain to us about their work and the meaning of Day of the Dead.

Artist-in-residence and student both explain their process

Lindblom Math and Science Academy High School.

From Telpochcalli I went to visit Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, on what seemed like the “other side” of Chicago. Given that this school is part of the consortium of schools involved in Qatar Foundation International’s (QFI) network of schools teaching Arabic, I was eager to see the school in action. Unfortunately, the day was ending as I arrived and the yellow school buses already lining up. Only 11% of the students are from the neighborhood in which the school is located; Lindblom is one of Chicago’s nine exam schools.

Principal Alan Mather graciously took me around the school so I could feel the energy of the students. And, I did. Many students stay late in the afternoon for extra help, clubs, sports, arts activities.

Students working on their math homework

Students working on their college applications in the college and career center

I was impressed with how spotless the school was and also the relaxed atmosphere in the hallways.

Students socializing after school

Alan says that the school decided not to ban hats or hoodies in favor of working on other issues of school culture that seemed more substantive. I was struck by this since my experience at BAA has convinced me of the importance of helping students become more aware of professional dress (i.e. no hats and doo rags). Our argument has always been that students need to know how to present themselves professionally, especially because there are such prevalent stereotypes about artists not being professional. On the other hand, we do spend a great deal of energy on the no hats policy—albeit with just a few students. I wonder what would happen if we went the “Lindblom way” and stopped focusing on hats and gum and if, as Alan said, it would help us focus on the larger culture and climate issues. I’m not sure.

Alan also discussed his desire to keep growing a better school without the constant focus on test scores. “We talk about data differently here,” he told me, and shared the essentials that he felt were at the center of school improvement: college persistence, involved families, a supportive environment for all learners, collaboration among teachers, effective leadership and ambitious instruction. One of the focus areas for the faculty is to provide instruction in a way that students feel challenged and supported. Even though students test into the school, there is still a wide range of learners. This is a familiar theme to me. At BAA, STEAM teachers are also looking at how to support and stretch their students.

Another of Alan’s challenges is to help move Lindblom so it’s not seen as a island in the community. Lindblom has a rich history; it was built as a vocational school in the 1920s and then became an exam school for the African American middle class in the 60s and 70s, but the neighborhood demographics have changed over the last decades. Alan sadly remarked that his students now have to be escorted by security personnel to the public bus stop if they aren’t taking the school bus home.  I was fascinated by this dilemma since Lindblom clearly has a history of community connections.

How can schools serve as a resource to their community while also serving the needs of their current students? Schools may be one of the most effective ways to revitalize neighborhoods, but what are the most effective ways to develop these collaborations? I would love to know how others have thought about this question.


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