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In Chicago as in Detroit, revitalizing neighborhoods, schools proves tough work

Editor’s note: A selection of staff and trustees from The Skillman Foundation recently visited colleagues from the Chicago Community Trust and the MacArthur Foundation to learn more about their efforts to improve troubled neighborhoods and fix broken schools.


Last week, a team from The Skillman Foundation stood on a quiet street corner in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, surrounded by stately brick homes that looked as if they held a vibrant past.

Now, at least half were boarded up and vacant.

There, we listened to a Chicago community organizer explain how his organization, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, has tried to combat the foreclosure crisis in that neighborhood.

As he talked, a car came to a stop and a man stepped out to earnestly listen.

He furrowed his brow and crossed his arms as he inched closer to the group. Finally, he spoke up, explaining that he had served a lengthy prison term and had returned to the neighborhood four years ago.

And after those years locked up, what was his reaction to coming home, to seeing his neighborhood again?

The fact is: this work is tough, and change takes a long time, generations, to take hold.


Too many kids hanging in the streets. Those vacant homes. A lack of jobs. Violence.

He shook his head, and his voice rose as he said, “Why can’t they hire the kids to board up these houses or to tear them down?”

It was an intense learning moment, to see a real resident respond so openly and emotionally to his neighborhood surroundings.

Why are circumstances in neighborhoods like Chicago Lawn so dire? Especially when there is a major philanthropic push to strengthen them; the MacArthur Foundation, through its New Communities Initiative, is nearing the end of a 10-year plan to revitalize 16 distressed Chicago neighborhoods, including Chicago Lawn.

The Skillman Foundation’s Good Neighborhoods program, a 10-year effort to change the odds for children in six Detroit neighborhoods, is a similarly intense place-making strategy.

The fact is: this work is tough, and change takes a long time, generations, to take hold.

That was one takeaway from the learning trip, which was planned as a chance to compare notes with fellow professionals doing similar work.

Other learning moments came during a frank panel discussion with Dr. Charles Payne, an accomplished school reform expert and professor at the University of Chicago.

Payne started his presentation by noting that we should not compare the Chicago educational landscape with Detroit’s — because both are failing students.

“We’re not failing quite as bad as you,” Dr. Payne said. “But neither one of us are anything to write home about.”

That comment set the tone for a let’s-get-real discussion about what can cause real change to take hold in school reform.

He talked about the way we often use ineffective metrics to measure school or student achievement.

“If you’re an eighth grader and you meet the state standard in the state of Illinois, your probability of getting a 20 on the ACT — a minimum gateway score — you have a 13% chance,” Payne said. “I tell you, that’s not predicting anything.”

And after years of touting that instruction is at the heart of what will make a school and its students succeed, Dr. Payne said he’s changed his tune.

Now, he said he’s convinced it’s all about culture.

“Dysfunctional schools have dysfunctional cultures,” he said. “The way in which people think, their belief system, their leader system — we have to change that.”

While in Chicago, we also toured two schools in the Noble Street school network, a place where culture is working and kids are succeeding. The public charter network of 12 schools included seven of the top 10 public high schools in Chicago last year — including the top six.

What are they doing right, we wondered? How are they achieving measurable results like one school topping 21 for its average on the ACT? (And this was a charter that served higher percentages of minorities and students needing free or reduced lunch than public schools.)

The leaders from Noble said it’s about intentionality. They sweat the small stuff. They do not let anything stand, if it doesn’t align with their mission and culture — including ineffective teachers or principals.

That reaffirmed what we’ve done with our work in Detroit, where, for instance, we’ve helped get groups like Data Driven Detroit and Excellent Schools Detroit off the ground, efforts to ensure we have solid data — the right data — to tell us the truth about what life is like for Detroit’s kids, from the broad picture down to the smallest detail.

Because as we saw again in Chicago, we know when it comes to rebuilding communities, improving schools and improving outcomes for children, no detail is too small to sweat.

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