When he was an assistant principal, Gerardo Arriaga knew that when he got the chance to lead his own school, he wanted it to be a community school. Now principal at Enrico Tonti Elementary School, a preK-5th grade school located on Chicago’s southwest side, he has seen how providing an engaging academic environment in combination with services that meet the needs of children and families can turn a struggling school into a high-performing one.
“I know the importance of involving parents and the importance of connecting home to the school,” says Arriaga. “It’s something I believe in.”
Before Tonti became part of the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Community Schools Initiative (CSI) five years ago, it was on academic probation—sitting at the lowest level in the district’s school quality rating system and considered in need of “intensive intervention.” Now it has earned the district’s second highest rating, has an average daily attendance of over 96 percent and serves as a neighborhood hub for parents and community members. “Parents feel that they are not just dropping off their children,” Arriaga says.
Metropolitan Family Services is the school’s lead partner organization and provides a variety of counseling and social services to students and their families. Full-time resource coordinator Yomara Lazaro, who works for Metropolitan Family Services, collaborates with partners to bring in a wide range of support and enrichment programs, including mental health workshops, day and evening English-as-a-second-language sessions and cooking classes. With programs like book clubs and Zumba, she looks for ways to appeal to the interests’ of parents because they often forget their own needs, she says.
Lazaro is part of the school’s leadership team and participates in a variety of school committees to stay plugged in to parents’ concerns, the teachers’ goals for students and the opportunities provided by partners. Because teachers provide many of the school’s afterschool programs, there is close alignment between the classroom curriculum and the skills and topics emphasized outside of the classroom, and the school has partnered with LEAP Innovations to provide teachers with professional development on how to personalize learning for students.
As part of CSI, the school is also able to provide a four-week summer program for students who need academic intervention. The program includes field trips and recreation programs but also continues the counseling services students receive during the school year. When he became principal, Arriaga felt many students were in need of anger management and conflict resolution skills. Now, because of the multiple efforts in place to build students’ social-emotional skills, there are “very few” discipline problems, he says. “We feel our whole school climate has been transformed.”
There is a strong emphasis at Tonti on developing both the mind and body. A Girls on the Run program helps girls develop social-emotional skills while preparing for a goal, such as a 5K race. There is also Zumba for students, gardening and cooking classes and a Girls in the Game program that teaches leadership and sports skills. The school is part of the Healthy Schools Campaign and has achieved Healthy CPS status on its school progress report. And when the school was lacking a playground, Tonti’s teachers led a fundraising campaign, and with the help of Disney volunteers and KaBoom!, a nonprofit organization, there are now play structures available for both Tonti students and other children in the community.
Some of Tonti’s strongest partners include nearby churches that make their space available for parent activities. The Maranatha Assembly of God church donates backpacks to students at an annual back-toschool event. Other partners, including the Chicago Children’s Choir, give students exposure to the arts, and 3rd – 5th graders in the school’s band come early every morning to prepare for performances during parades and other events.
Tonti’s students are active partners in creating the kind of school they want to attend. Arriaga leads a student council with representatives from each 4th and 5th grade class. The students also participate in WE Schools, which involves youth in addressing global issues and planning ways that they can benefit their community.
“Part of my success is that I have a team of people who know I can trust them,” Arriaga says. “We have to empower people.”