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Dreams and Innovation Build Legacy of Community Learning Centers

     Imagine a school where the community comes together to learn – the children, the parents, the entire family – from 8am to 8pm. This school is a place where all sorts of educational resources are available in art, health, academics, literacy, leadership, and much more. It is a place where the families teach each other, and community organizations and school staff partner to form a supportive network of programs, resources, and services. It is the hub of its community. It is an LSNA Community Learning Center school.
      Almost two decades ago, LSNA began partnering with Logan Square schools and families to look for ways to bring more educational opportunities and support to students and their parents. The idea was that the learning environment of the school could be expanded in a vibrant hub of activity beyond the school day hours. Community Learning Centers (CLC) became the solution, beginning with Funston Elementary School in 1995.  Now, LSNA serves nearly 1,000 families each week - with staff mainly made up of parents and community members - in a total of five school CLC’s at Funston, Monroe, Mozart, and McAuliffe Elementary and Ames Middle Schools.
    Eva Calderon remembers when the CLC idea started buzzing at Mozart School. Mrs. Calderon began as a parent volunteer in 1975, when her four children attended the school. She remembers another parent taking her under her wing, helping her learn English so she could communicate more with the school staff, and teaching her ways to get other families involved at Mozart. In 1987, the principal saw an opportunity and asked Mrs. Calderon to be the School Community Liaison – to grow relationships between parents, Mozart, and the quickly-changing community.

    Mrs. Calderon worked tirelessly to make the school feel welcoming to parents, and looked for ways to “open the school doors.” She saw the need amongst families for access to more services, and for education for adults as well as children. She wanted something like her mentor for every parent. “I will never forget that help,” she says. “Those kinds of support are needed for us in the community.” And so the partnership began between LSNA and Mozart Elementary School to build a Community Learning Center that would fill this need.
    Stories like this one tell the history of each of the five LSNA Community Learning Centers. It’s what makes them a unique model of community schooling – they have all grown directly out of the dreams and innovation of community leaders, and the vision of the schools. From this foundation, a practice of drawing from and building on community knowledge and talents has emerged to make each of the centers a great success. Decision-making for the CLC’s is done through an Advisory Council made up of parents, LSNA staff, community members, school administration, and educators, so that a true partnership is formed between the school, the community, and LSNA.
    This partnership has expanded to include many organizations from throughout Chicago, who join with the CLC’s to offer a wide range of programs to students and their families. At two of the centers, students enjoy hot meals each evening from the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Kids Café program, while others benefit from cooking lessons with Purple Asparagus. On any given night, families may become artists and dancers with Art Resources in Teaching, Chicago Ballet, or resident artists from Mexico. While parents study English or for the GED exam with Malcolm X College instructors, students will be playing soccer or basketball with Go Girl Go or Girls in the Game.

    The diversity of community resources has attracted key support from funders including the Illinois State Board of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Elev8, the Community Schools Initiative, the Illinois Community College Board, and Chicago’s Department of Human Services. But for Mrs. Calderon, there’s more than just what activities are available that makes the CLC’s so successful. “There’s something that’s different about being able to come to classes and workshops here in the school instead going somewhere outside,” she explains. “We are a family here; this is our home, our community.”