Editorial: A model for teaching low-income students through sense of community
The story of Sunny Hill Elementary School is really the story of a bold new model in education.
The focus of Tuesday's installment in our Generations at Risk series, Sunny Hill has become a community hub, the heartbeat of its small, largely Hispanic community in part of Carpentersville. A staggering 94 percent of Sunny Hill's families are low-income; more than half speak a non-English language at home -- and yet the school's test scores are 18 percent higher than other schools with the same low-income challenges. How has it done that?
The answer lies in many factors, not all of them replicable by every school facing increasing numbers of low-income students. Indeed, whereas minorities make up a sizable segment of Sunny Hill's population, not all low-income students come from minority cultural or ethnic backgrounds. The challenges facing different schools can vary widely.
But one component of the Sunny Hill formula appears to offer clear evidence that when a school tries to take care of the "whole" student, including his or her family, it has more than a passing effect on the child's academic performance. In Sunny Hill's case, that involves feeding some students three meals a day and sending bags of healthy food home with just about every student on weekends. It involves English classes for parents and dental clinics for families, home visits by teachers and an emphasis on making children equally proficient in English and Spanish.
"Instead of saying we can't control what happens outside of school, we say, 'What can we do?'" says Principal Irma Bates.
That is a compelling and innovative notion -- that the school takes some direct interest in affecting circumstances outside its walls that will have consequences inside them.
The wider name for this concept is "community schools," and it is being tried in some of the biggest urban school systems in America. It is based on the belief that kids can't learn as well if they are hungry or preoccupied by stressful conditions at home.
The community element is evident at Sunny Hill, and it doesn't come from the school alone. Someone donates the food for those bags. Volunteers sort it and pack it. Dentists and dental assistants work for free. Parents get involved, and when they don't come to the school, the school goes to them.
Supplemented by grants the school and its parent Barrington Unit District 220 have acquired, Sunny Hill provides an after school club and homework help sessions. Teachers make visits to students' homes, bringing learning games and advice about how parents can be role models who teach their children as they go about their day. Parents who don't think they have the time or the language skills to help their children learn discover they can.
"It's a little nontraditional," Bates admits. "But it works. It is all about reaching excellence in academics, but you won't be able to get to learning if you don't make a child feel comfortable, get food in his stomach and address their basic needs."
What Sunny Hill demonstrates is a new kind of pact between the school and its community, and that can be replicated. As more suburban schools grapple with the new, growing numbers of low-income students in their midst, the common denominator is how their relationship with the community is likely to change.
Fundamentally, we in the suburbs know how to do this. Suburbs have historically been very good at the concept of community. Our parents and grandparents left their tight-knit Chicago neighborhoods in the middle of the last century to make homes in the suburbs and in the process built education systems that are the envy of the rest of the state.
From the beginning, our community schools have been just that -- community. Now, as our communities change, we are finding we have to take new steps to involve and strengthen all elements of our society. Schools like Sunny Hill are showing us how.