Sustainable community schools program empowers parents, students and teachers to imagine new, holistic vision for their Northwest Side school.

There’s some “mama magic” bursting on the scene at Schurz High School, thanks to a groundbreaking new CTU program that is out to transform Chicago public schools. And parents, students and teachers at the northwest side school could not be more excited about it.

CTU won funding for the program, called the Sustainable Community Schools (SCS) initiative, in the 2016 contract and secured its renewal in the new contract won after the historic 11-day strike.

Under the initiative, 20 schools partner with community-based organizations in neighborhoods struggling with concentrated poverty and disinvestment to reimagine schools from the ground up. The program provides a half a million dollars in supplemental funding to each school to help implement the SCS vision.

The SCS model centers on the belief that schools should be community hubs that address the unique and wholistic needs of the students and community at large, where parents, students and community members are key stakeholders and decision makers. SCS schools focus on engaging, culturally relevant curriculum; high-quality teaching not high-stakes testing; wraparound support services; positive discipline practices like restorative justice; and transformational parent and community engagement.

Remarkable parent involvement is at the heart of the program at Schurz, a school that sits in a wealthy, mostly white north west side neighborhood but serves primarily low-income Latinx students, nearly a quarter of whom have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The school’s community partner, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), has decades of experience mentoring parents in neighborhood schools.

“Through SCS at Schurz, black and brown parents are visible leaders in student offices and classrooms and are developing projects, services, and leadership opportunities for current students and families struggling to stay in the school and community because of gentrification,” Juliet de Jesus Alejandre, director of Youth Programming and Organizing at Schurz, said.

The SCS program supports 10 Parents in Action and a Parent Coordinator at Schurz, mostly mothers who receive a living wage working in the school to provide critical supports to students who are learning English, newly arrived immigrants and diverse learners.

“Their presence and work demonstrates the power of ‘mama magic’ to deepen connections to students socially and emotionally,” de Jesus Alejandre added. “They serve as extra eyes and hands in a classroom. Their wisdom has restoratively supported youth in crisis and their gifts of engaging youth in art-making have decreased lunchroom fights.”

During the first year of Parents in Action, she explained, the mothers responded to daily lunchroom altercations by bringing in art materials and engaging the students in “artesanias”–cultural crafts. The “magic mamas” taught them how to knit scarves, make friendship bracelets, key chains, greeting cards, custom stamps and so much more. After a few weeks, the fights began to diminish.

“Art brought peace to our lunchroom,” she said.

The SCS model also supports notions of racial and social justice through its emphasis on providing real equity to the children of color who make up the bulk of students in CPS. At Schurz, for example, the SCS team has developed student-centered, social justice-based curriculum and parent leadership built on the values of education as a tool for liberation.

By hiring a new restorative justice coach this year and developing the Social Justice and Cultura Teaching Cohort, SCS and LSNA are providing more opportunities for teachers to be reinspired by the practices and theories of liberatory styles of teaching, classroom management, student leadership and social justice making.

“In most CPS Schools, the imagination of teachers runs the risk of being flattened by the sheer demand of teaching and the culture of high-stakes testing and score attainment,” de Jesus Alejandre said. “At Schurz, we’re striving to make teaching and learning exciting. We want to empower our staff and our students to see themselves as change agents who can make our world a better place.”

The school is also addressing the very real needs of its immigrant community with a weekly Immigrant Resource Center, which de Jesus Alejandre describes as “a hug for our community,” run by LSNA. The center provides assistance with immigration applications, workshops, resources and legal referrals and soon will be supported by a new partnership with Erie Neighborhood House, which will provide a pro bono immigration attorney to handle more complex cases, she added.

The SCS program at Schurz also invests heavily in student voice. Young people are invited to apply along with an adult from the school community for mini grants providing the opportunity to shape their classroom and after school activities. This year grantees are planning to partner with local LGBTQ cultural workers for the Women and Femmes of Courage program; co-develop a public art exhibit at the school against hate and violence; provide uniforms for Special Olympics athletes; and create events that bring together students from the African American Club and Bilingual Interact Club to explore their common roots and struggles.

With almost a quarter of the student population diagnosed with special needs, the SCS program has partnered with Access Living, a disability rights and justice organization, to help develop policies that are truly inclusive of the needs of individuals with disabilities. The initiative also supports student mental health services provided by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois.

While these programs are vital, the SCS model is about more than just pumping money and services into a school. It’s about empowering members of the school community to be not just stakeholders but decision makers in school governance and policy.

The Schurz SCS leadership team includes two to three youth who are leaders at the school, PSRPs, SECAs, teachers, CTU representatives, parents and a member of the administration. The team makes decisions together about hiring, approving mini-grants and new programming, and strategizing about ways to expand and deepen the SCS vision and impact at the school.

De Jesus Alejandre says the administration is supportive of the SCS initiative and she senses a new spirit of unity between parents, students and teachers.

One very involved parent confessed to her–after the teachers strike–to never having considered the teachers’ frustrations with the lack of resources. “Through our trainings and thinking about education and housing, I realized how powerful we could be if we all supported each other–parents, students and teachers,” the parent said.

In year two of the program, the SCS/LSNA team at Schurz feels more deeply integrated into the school in the best way possible.

“Teachers, SECAs and students come in to our office with new ideas for mini-grants. They come to us when they want to engage in a tough conversation about racial equity,” de Jesus Alejandre said. “And they come to us as colleagues and friends.”

Editor’s note: After this interview, Juliet de Jesus Alejandre was selected as the new Executive Director of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA). Congratulations, Juliet.