Mini think tank surveys Chicago neighborhoods to implement promising public policy

University Communications

Chad Broughton admits it was "a pretty audacious goal" to think that he and his class of undergraduate researchers could advise the City of Chicago on education policy in several of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

But their thoughtful analysis earned the attention of city policy-makers and University leaders, said Broughton, Senior Lecturer of Public Policy Studies in the College. City and University officials now say they are hopeful the work will lead to the creation of a "Promise Neighborhood" - a carefully selected area where youth receive rigorous education and life-skills training, from birth until they graduate from high school.

Broughton discovered at the start of the research that the University's Office of Civic Engagement was actively supporting similar efforts in Woodlawn, led by Bishop Arthur M. Brazier at the Apostolic Church of God. The class worked closely with leaders in the civic engagement office and the University's Urban Education Institute to sharpen their ideas.

After brainstorming with analysts in the city's Department of Family and Support Services, Broughton's class of 60 students fanned out to assess four of Chicago's poorest communities - Englewood, South Shore, Washington Park/Woodlawn and Little Village - and offer recommendations on which could be transformed into a Promise Neighborhood.

The idea was to identify areas that could fit the model of the Harlem Children's Zone, a widely admired anti-poverty initiative for children in New York City. That program hit upon a formula for making progress. Find communities with large populations of children and at least 40 percent living in poverty. The community must be centrally located to permit expansion of the program to nearby communities, and it must have access to resources like health centers and public transportation. It also must have a strong presence of community organizations dedicated to addressing social issues associated with poverty.

Leaders in Woodlawn already had useful experience with the model. Starting in early 2008, Brazier successfully garnered support from officials at the University's Office of Civic Engagement, Chicago Public Schools and local community development organizations for incorporating aspects of the HCZ model into all of the community's schools.

The collaboration has led to the creation of an independent organization, the Woodlawn Children's Promise Community. So far, it has received a $50,000 grant and is preparing to submit proposals for larger planning grants in order to hire staff and launch a program directed toward improving parent-teacher relations.

President Barack Obama first introduced the idea of expanding the HCZ model during the 2008 campaign, and the administration recently announced a year of federal funding for community-based planning grants. Congress is considering whether to provide additional funding for implementation grants.

In June, after five months of surveying residents, interviewing community leaders and conducting focus groups, the public policy class members- made over as the Chicago Policy Research Team - published and formally presented a 184-page report detailing their findings.

"Our work with Chad and his students was mutually beneficial," said Ann Marie Lipinski, Vice President of the University's Office of Civic Engagement. "I certainly learned a lot from their insights and I hope our work in several of the communities they were studying was useful to their research. A number of us at the University have been working hard at supporting an ambitious local education initiative that has tremendous 'promise zone' potential."

Anthony Raden, Deputy Commissioner of the city's Department of Family and Support Services, said this initiative is a high priority and "the City of Chicago looks forward to partnering with non-profits in the development of a Promise Neighborhood in Chicago."

The New York program has produced enviable results. Since its creation in 1970, HCZ has grown from a modest truancy prevention program into a multimillion-dollar cluster of programs, including three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school known as Promise Academies. In 2008, at least 93 percent of elementary school students "tested at or above grade level on the state math exam. The average across New York City was 74 percent," the Chicago students' report noted. 

The program's focus on small class sizes and highly competent teachers helps students reach such achievements. But choosing the right neighborhoods to take part also makes a big difference, researchers believe.

Raden said a lot of thought and discussion went into which Chicago communities the students would study. Communities that demonstrated the most need for intervention-based on crime rates, school performance, poverty level and a sense of the organizations within those communities-were suggested. In keeping with the HCZ criteria, location is a strong consideration as well since possible expansion into other communities is a key factor in the program's model.

"We knew the students had to focus their research and couldn't cover all 77 communities in Chicago," he added. "They did a great job of narrowing the scope of their analysis. We're enthusiastic about trying to replicate some of the positive findings of the Harlem Children's Zone here," said Raden.

Related Link

The Chicago Policy Research Team

By Kadesha Thomas