This article appeared in the Winter 2012–13 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline “Coming together for Austin.”
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Austin is considered one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. But what no one is talking about is the groundswell of positive change happening right now — amazing work being done by people who live in the community, along with partners like Erikson.

“The biggest issue for Austin is not that there aren’t enough nonprofits working in the community,” says Amara Enyia, executive director of Austin Coming Together (ACT). “The issue is that there’s no system to coordinate all the different activities of these nonprofits.”

ACT, a community-based organization founded in 2010 with the support of JP Morgan Chase, seeks to build the needed coordination and collaboration among Austin’s nonprofits, community leaders, schools, and social service agencies.

They turned to Erikson for help with a vital component: creating a community-wide system of support for young children and their families.

A team of Erikson’s early childhood experts, including faculty, researchers, coaches, and facilitators, have begun working on several coordinated projects to help the Austin community achieve its goals of giving children the opportunity to succeed in school and beyond.

Identifying the need

Last summer, Tonya Bibbs, research associate for the Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy, Jana Fleming, director of the Herr Research Center, and Aisha Ray, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, conducted a community needs assessment. After interviewing a wide range of community members — including parents, teachers, principals, child care providers, clergy, social workers, juvenile justice specialists, police officers, and community leaders — they identified what the community perceived as its greatest strengths and needs.

Included in their key findings was recognition that the entire community — not just parents — had great faith in their children. There was a universal
acknowledgement of children’s potential, enthusiasm, and excitement about learning.

However, Bibbs, Fleming, and Ray also found that community stakeholders recognized that young children did not always come to school with the foundational skills and experiences they need for learning. They needed support to effectively cope with social and emotional challenges they encountered in their young lives.

Another key finding was that many community members, especially parents and teachers, felt overwhelmed by the stress caused by the economic challenges, crime, and joblessness faced by the community. “Both parents and teachers are invested in the children and their success,” says Bibbs. “But in many cases, they’re working in very stressful conditions.”

In the needs assessment, Bibbs, Fleming, and Ray provided recommendations for developing a comprehensive approach to early childhood development from birth to age eight in Austin, a plan that included strategic community partnerships and special services.

Connecting school and community

In tandem with the needs assessment, Erikson’s New Schools Project is partnering with three Chicago Public Schools: Oscar DePriest Elementary, Edward Kennedy Ellington Elementary, and Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School.

Over three years, Erikson coaches and facilitators will work with the schools to establish effective learning environments for children in prekindergarten through third grade.

Teachers at these schools know all too well the challenges their students face.

“I don’t leave this job at the end of the day. It’s with me all the time. I’m thinking about these kids — worrying about them — all day,” says Pam Patterson, a third-grade teacher at DePriest Elementary. “I have kids whose only meals are at school.”

Even with the challenges, there are bright spots. Marella Croom, a second-grade teacher at Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School, says most of her students’ parents are involved and supportive, and she values her relationship with them.

“You can get a lot more accomplished when you’ve got a good relationship with the parent,” she says. “When the parent is on your side, the child sees that and will be a better student.”

With the guidance of the New Schools Project, Croom and her colleagues at Circle Rock have strengthened the school’s “community of learners,” a culture that values and shares everyone’s knowledge and experience. Teachers and administrators learn from one another and their skills and techniques are shared with other partner schools.

Parents and children are part of this community as well. As Croom picks up new teaching techniques, she shares them with parents when she needs their help to support a child struggling in a certain subject.

“The parent might want to help their child improve in reading or math, but they’ve forgotten how they learned it themselves. At this point they just know it, so it’s great to pass on some techniques they can use to help their child understand.”

Croom says her teaching has improved as well, bringing her not only increased knowledge but also an awareness of intentionality in all of her activities, like pulling out teachable moments while reading to her class.

“Working with the New Schools Project has definitely been a positive experience,” she says. “They’re an invaluable resource.”

Gathering momentum — and data

The Austin community is working effectively together to achieve their shared goals for their children. More than 40 of ACT’s partners gather each month to share updates on ongoing projects and announce new services.

At one of the summer meetings, a minister invited other organizations to tell senior citizens about the free retirement planning classes at his church. Another organization announced a job-training program for employed and unemployed people who need to update their technological skills. An assistant U.S. surgeon general encouraged organizations to promote public health and wellness by providing information on nutrition, prenatal care, and substance abuse to their clients.

Erikson faculty and staff are active participants in many of these meetings and serve as contributing members of the Austin Early Childhood Collaborative, a subcommittee of ACT focused on children from birth to age eight.

In addition to facilitating face-to-face meetings, ACT is developing a comprehensive online database of available services and community organizations. In partnership with Google and Social Solutions, ACT also has created web-based tools to help its partners collaborate on projects, collect, and analyze data, and measure outcomes.

Gaps in services identified by Erikson’s needs assessment are beginning to close as the word gets out about the supports and opportunities already available in the Austin community. An increasingly coordinated effort is helping community members access the variety of supports that can benefit their often complex educational, health, and career challenges.

“Anyone doing this type of community work is motivated by a desire to help that community,” says Enyia, the head of ACT. “You have to see yourself as part of something bigger and work toward the interests of the broader community.”

Investing in each other

In the past several years, many Chicago philanthropists have come together in support of Austin. Recently, Erikson received a $200,000 challenge grant supporting its work in Austin, which will double new and increased gifts made before April 5, 2014.

Bibbs, a member of Erikson’s needs assessment project team, sees this support as encouraging not just for nonprofits and schools serving Austin, but also for the families who live there. “This community is made of good people who are worth investing in.”