Arlington Heights Elementary School District 25 is leading an effort to integrate students from low-income families into their community through a batch of new programs and amenities, including community gardens and summer meals.
Called The Dryden Place Project, the initiative serves five apartment buildings along Dryden Avenue, east of the village's downtown and within the boundaries of Windsor Elementary and South Middle schools.
Launched last year, the program's resources are proving helpful for the students, officials say.
"The apartments have a reputation of being really run-down, crime-ridden and had landlords that really didn't support its tenants," said Jake Chung, the school district's assistant superintendent for personnel and planning.
After becoming aware of academic and behavioral difficulties some students from the apartments were facing, District 25 officials decided to provide multifaceted support. They've been joined in the effort by the village of Arlington Heights, fire department, police department, Rotary Club of Arlington Heights, the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, Northwest Community Hospital and other organizations.
"(The project) has really allowed the community to consolidate its efforts and centralize its resources," Chung said.
For example, Northwest Community Hospital is funding a summer lunch program for students, and Arlington Cares, a local nonprofit, has provided a grant for breakfasts. The library's bookmobile stops at the apartments weekly.
Back-to-school picnics have been held to connect members of the police and fire departments with students.
"We found that the only time that they interacted with (police) was when something bad happened," Chung said. "We wanted to change that stigma."
Community gardens also are an integral part of the effort. Last year, organizers built 21 plots behind the Miner Elementary School playground. They proved to be so popular that six more plots were added this spring.
Besides providing the apartments' residents an opportunity to grow food, the gardens have become a place to socialize with their neighbors, as residents of nearby rowhomes and townhouses are invited to utilize them as well.
"Even if there are language barriers, gardening and garden techniques are a universal language in bringing communities together," Chung said.
While garden plots offered by the Arlington Heights Park District cost $45 to $54 a year for residents, the Dryden Community Garden charges $10 for a plot. Seeds and equipment are provided.
"The nominal fee is to make sure there's some accountability there to make sure that they're going to take care of their plots," Chung said.
Among those at the gardens last week was Nathan Zoumboulis, a Prospect High School senior who is completing his Eagle Scout project by building storage unit benches there. His mom, Laura, works at Windsor School and suggested he involve the gardens in his project.
"They're are not going to be made and then sit around, they're going to be used," Nathan said of the benches.
His work is one of several examples of individuals pitching in on the project. Last year, a member of the Rotary donated winter coats to students living in the apartments.
"Honestly, that made such a huge impact, because they were able to go outside for recess and not be freezing cold," said Larry Joynt, a Windsor teacher. "They were able to walk to school comfortably."
Joynt, along with South Middle School teacher Kevin Steck and Daniel Mendoza, a facilities operations supervisor for District 25, were recognized for their work with the project by the district's board of education last month.
"It boils down to kids," Chung said. "Sometimes kids struggle with basic essentials. One of our responsibilities as educators is to help students in whatever way possible."