LINCOLN SQUARE — The creation of a comprehensive neighborhood k-12 school system on the North Side anchored by Amundsen and Lake View high schools is about to take another step forward with the announcement of a partnership with the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute.
In February, aldermen Ameya Pawar (47th), Pat O'Connor (40th) and Tom Tunney (44th) announced they were joining forces to strengthen their interconnected elementary and high schools as a means of taking pressure off the selective enrollment high school process and keeping more families in the city.
The group effort, dubbed Grow-Community, would include lobbying Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education for resources and curriculum programs.
The first result of that tag-team approach: a collaboration with UChicago Impact.
A non-profit arm of the Urban Education Institute, UChicago Impact provides schools with various curriculum tools, expertise and professional development aimed at driving school and student improvement.
"This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a myriad of supports come together at one time," said Amundsen principal Anna Pavichevich.
"I think it's a game changer ... in completing k through 12," Pawar said of the partnership.
"My job is to make sure that when resources are available, I'm fighting for them," he said. "Just as important is how to connect all these investments. U of C will tie all of this together."
Though the specifics of the initiative are still emerging, it will include a task force co-chaired by Emanuel. Members of the task force will also include the three aldermen, principals, teachers, parents and community leaders.
"It will be a forum to cultivate ideas" and a "shared vision of excellence," said John Gasko, UChicago Impact CEO.
The ultimate goal is to "create world-class high schools in the neighborhoods that will keep kids and their families anchored in these neighborhoods," he said.
UChicago Impact brings to the table 20 years of research on Chicago Public Schools conducted by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.
"We take best practices and partner with schools to create conditions that lead to more success," Gasko said.
UChicago Impact plans to roll out several programs within Grow-Community, including a focus on literacy for pre-k through third grade that evaluates comprehension, fluency and accuracy, among other skills, in order to identify areas of student strength and need.
Perhaps the most significant resource provided by UChicago Impact is the Urban Education Institute’s “6to16” college preparatory program, which shepherds students from sixth grade through their senior year of college (16th grade).
"It prepares kids in more exceptional ways for high school and then carries that language forward," Gasko said.
Gasko likened 6to16 to a GPS system that helps families navigate speed bumps and potholes — like applying for college financial aid — while at the same time promoting a college-going "super-highway" that begins in the elementary schools and extends through high school.
In practical terms, 6to16 gets the left hand (ie, elementary schools) talking to the right hand (ie, high schools), whether it's linking their STEM curriculum or IB programs, said Pawar.
Too often, students experience a rough transition between elementary and high school, and then again between high school and college, said Amundsen principal Anna Pavichevich.
"What are the skills that students in the eighth grade graduate with and are these the right skills for high school?" she asked.
"Right now, all through elementary school, we teach kids and test them on how to bake bread," Pavichevich offered as an analogy.
"Then they come to high school, and we teach and test them on how make dessert," she said. "Then they get to college and we tell them they've been making dessert all wrong."
The system is broken into silos and isn't necessarily continuously preparing students for post-secondary success — preparation that needs to begin well before junior year and the ACT test, Pavichevich said.
"Why can't we make it a fluid experience," she said.
Her hopes, Pavichevich said, are for UChicago Impact to facilitate conversations across grade levels and keep educators focused.
"It's helping us hone in on the right stuff," she said.
With so much already on their plates, teachers and administrators don't have the bandwidth to develop and implement the sorts of over-arching, system-wide k-12 solutions provided by UChicago Impact, Pavichevich said.
"Any time we have partners who can take over the logistical aspects, that's a godsend," she said.
Acknowledging that change takes time, Gasko said he envisions at minimum a three-year commitment by UChicago Impact.
"Our goal is not to be part of Grow forever" but rather to "provide the scaffolding and support" the schools need to achieve success, he said.
"Then slowly, over time, you remove the scaffolding and the schools stand on their own," Gasko said.
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