West Chicago Dist. 33 partnerships help low-income students succeed
Faced with a growing number of low-income and at-risk students, West Chicago Elementary District 33 eight years ago received a multimillion-dollar federal grant that paid for a variety of services, including extra tutoring and social workers for students.
While that grant money has long since been spent, the coordinated system of care it helped create remains.
The initiative -- WeGo Together for Kids -- has enabled District 33 to partner with local agencies, businesses, churches and others to support the health, safety and well-being of students and their families.
So despite having its low-income population jump to 76 percent from 23 percent between 2000 to 2012 -- the biggest increase of any school district in the Daily Herald's circulation area -- District 33 already had programs in place to deal with the change.
"I don't think we predicted how high it (the poverty rate) would go," said Marjory Lewe-Brady, District 33's director of partnerships for wellness, safety and achievement. "What we had were people who came together to say, 'We need to do something about it.'"
With the help of its more than 40 partners, District 33 is able to "quickly and fairly easily" address changes in trends, according to Lewe-Brady.
"Because the partners have worked together so much," she said, "we have well-developed relationships that allow us to plan together, to leverage our resources, or to seek new dollars to meet the needs."
Examples of how WeGo Together for Kids has helped District 33 students include providing them with new winter coats, school supplies, backpacks and booster seats. There's also flu shot clinics, school and sport physical clinics, mobile food pantries and a mental health referral system.
"Students need to have their basic needs met before they walk in the door so they can focus on learning." said Kristina Davis, District 33's assistant superintendent for learning.
Thanks to a new federal grant, District 33 is able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all of its roughly 4,600 students, including preschoolers and kindergartners.
By including every child in the program, the low-income students and their parents don't have to deal with any stigma.
"It makes the kids all equal," Lewe-Brady said. "And all the kids are getting nutritious food, which helps with learning. You can't focus when you're hungry."
It's important for children to be focused because they are going to face high expectations and rigorous standards in the classroom, Davis said.
"Higher education is the way out of poverty," she said. "If we don't have a challenging curriculum for them, those doors to higher education could close."
To that end, teachers have been aligning District 33's curriculum with Common Core standards that Illinois adopted in an attempt to better prepare students for higher education and beyond.
Among the factors that contributed to higher poverty levels in suburban districts is the economic recession. Changing demographics also played a role.
In District 33, the Hispanic population increased to 76 percent from 51 percent, and the limited-English proficient population climbed to 53 percent from 29 percent.
"In many districts, that number of second-language learners would be considered a challenge or problem -- something to be remediated," Davis said. "We've looked at it as more of an opportunity by providing dual-language education."
In dual-language programs, native Spanish-speaking students join English-speaking pupils to form a class where they learn subjects in both languages. The goal is to eventually have all the students fluent in both English and Spanish.
"It's an enrichment opportunity because we know that the opportunities for students as they get older broaden if they know a second language," Davis said.
Once the school day is over, students in most of District 33's buildings participate in after school programs.
As part of those programs, kids get a healthy snack, homework help, nutrition lessons and do arts and crafts or other activities. Most of all, Lewe-Brady said, it's "a safe place" for the kids to be, especially if their parents are at work. "A lot of our parents are working two or three jobs," she said.
Teachers say the WeGo Together for Kids initiative has helped them reach out to families and improve parent involvement.
"My relationship with the families in support of the students has really been strengthened because I know that I can help those families with more than just the academics," said Laura Arvizu, who teaches bilingual kindergarten at Currier Elementary School in West Chicago. "I can be a resource for them."
Lewe-Brady said parents are "very appreciative" of all the resources that are available.
"I think that kids learn better," Lewe-Brady said. "I think parents feel more confident in raising their children. And it creates a healthier community."
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