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Photo by Mario Ortiz


swa ld asel l O ua Du n n M y r by Hila phy by Josh ra Photog

Marquette Dunn is not the sort of man who beats around the bush. A community leader in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood and a City of Chicago Water Management employee, Mr. Dunn has lent his strong voice to local issues for decades. So he wasn’t about to stay silent when he learned in the early summer of 2006 that a local charter school group planned to bring a high school to a busy residential corner of his neighborhood. “I was irate,” he says. “How dare you attempt to come into my community and tell me what you’ve decided?” The school in question was CICS Ralph Ellison, a much-needed high school for Chicago’s South Side. But it wasn’t the school that bothered Mr. Dunn. It was the site: the corner of 80th and Honore, where CICS had purchased a former Catholic elementary school and where $15 million in planned renovations would transform the building into a high school that would eventually accommodate about 600 students. CICS had just overcome one obstacle in the quest to build a high school on the South Side. Facilities are extraordinarily hard for charter school organizations to find because the state does not provide start-up monies for charter groups to buy, build, or renovate buildings. CICS had been searching for several years before it found this old building on the South Side, where a college-prep high school could do some real academic good.

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But about six months into their planning, CICS had a new challenge: Mr. Dunn. He worried about more traffic and less parking. He worried about community safety. He worried about logistical problems, such as how the school would manage the extra trash it generated. He worried about students crossing gang boundaries to get to school. And he worried about the elementary school students just across the street from the proposed site. So Mr. Dunn did what Mr. Dunn knew how to do: He talked to his fellow community members, most of whom had only found out about the school when they received a letter from a local law firm about a proposed change in the corner’s zoning. They too were angry, and when they approached their alderman in the 18th Ward, he agreed to host a meeting where the community members could voice their concerns and CICS leaders could respond.

Clockwise from upper left: 18th Ward Alderman Lona Lane with Marquette Dunn. Marquette Dunn (right) talks to community member, Leon Bailey. (L to R) Emma Cunningham, JR Williams, Ald. Lane, Rochelle Starks, and Ellen Kennedy.

“It was an extremely explosive meeting,” says Ellen Kennedy, director of external affairs for Civitas Schools, the education management group that CICS hired to run Ralph Ellison and several other campuses. “I can remember a resident saying, ‘I will burn you down before we will let you build a school here.’”

And the pastor from the church next door to the site stood up and said, “I’m your next door neighbor. You didn’t even knock on our door and let me know that we’d be neighbors.” “It caught all of us on the CICS team offguard,” Ms. Kennedy admits. The team tried to explain the value of having a college-prep high school in the community, but their words fell on deaf ears. The residents weren’t against a new school or better education for their children; they were against putting the new school in a place that would make life harder for themselves and their neighbors. Even the CICS team’s surprise frustrated Mr. Dunn. “I was appalled at the fact that they never consulted us, and then had the audacity to be surprised when we were upset and against it,” he says. Chicago International’s leaders realized they had made a terrible mistake by assuming they’d be welcome wherever they decided to construct the school, so they began building the relationships they should have built months earlier. “We quickly contacted families with children who might be coming to the school, and we continued on page 16

“How can you improve a community if you don’t know anything about it?” —Marquette Dunn 14

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started to build alliances with parents,” Ms. Kennedy says. They knocked on residents’ doors and invited them to walk around the building, so CICS leaders could share the school’s plans and listen to their neighbors’ concerns. And eventually, two months after that first disastrous meeting, about 25 community members, Mr. Dunn among them, agreed to form an advisory committee that would monitor the school’s progress and present the community’s view. “We just wanted a chance to prove to the residents that we would respond to their requests,” Ms. Kennedy says.

Lessons We Learned •

Give the community input into the building’s design, the school’s name, and other big choices. It not only shows respect for the neighbors, but it also gives the community a vested interest in the building and the school.

• Find out who the local leaders are, and schedule a meeting with them to discuss the neighborhood and their response to a proposed school site. •

Get to know the builders. You’ll need to have strong communication with the construction team in order to keep the residents up-to-date on the building’s progress and on any short-term inconveniences they’ll encounter during construction.

Better education appeals to nearly everyone, but remember that other issues might take precedence, especially for community members who don’t have school-aged children. Be sensitive to the other challenges facing a neighborhood.

Be ready to explain the structure and benefits of your charter school, as many people still aren’t familiar with what a charter school is and how it differs from a traditional school.

She estimates that it took a year before the community members began to trust her. But as time passed, the advisory committee and the CICS team figured out solutions to each one of the community’s concerns. The school will put up extra lighting and cameras for security. The building will have a secure parking area. Garbage will be compacted and picked up daily. An attendance boundary will give priority to students who live within a certain proximity to the school. And CICS leaders asked the Chicago Transit Authority and the 6th and 8th police districts to provide extra surveillance. The advisory committee continues to work to make this happen when school starts this fall. Ms. Kennedy learned early that anticipating residents’ concerns would help protect their hard-earned trust. She talks to the construction superintendent frequently. “I’ll call a few members of the advisory committee and tell them that a crane will go up tomorrow, for example,” she says. “It really takes 15 or 20 minutes, and they appreciate it so much.” Leon Bailey, who has lived in Auburn-Gresham for more than 30 years, still serves on the advisory committee, which meets the last Monday of every month. He’s candid about his feelings: “I think the school will be a boom for education, but I think there’s still some concern about the population explosion during the school day and how that will affect the neighborhood.” Mr. Bailey, Mr. Dunn, and their fellow residents are watching closely to see that CICS upholds its promises to take Chicago children’s education seriously in an era when urban education is crumbling in many areas. “I think their feelings are: ‘You said you were going to be great, and now we expect to see greatness,’” Ms. Kennedy says. “There’s no doubt that they’ve worked with us for the sake of the students, and we need to show that work was worth it.” Ironically, as the fight over the CICS Ralph Ellison campus heated up in the summer of 2006, 152 incoming freshmen were preparing to begin their high school careers at a temporary site while the building was renovated. This fall, halfway through their high school careers, these juniors will “finally have a place to call home,” Ms. Kennedy says—a place that is stronger for the battles and eventual resolutions that preceded its opening. Mr. Dunn can’t wait for the students to arrive: “I think the school is one of the greatest things that’s transpired in our community,” he says. “I think we’re going to have great leaders in our community from this school.”

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“Never underestimate the power of the community, even in your planning stages. Before you name the school, before you purchase the property, talk to people in the neighborhood. Don’t assume that because you’re bringing something positive to the neighborhood, you’ll be welcome.” —Ellen Kennedy

Neighborhood watch: Marquette Dunn at the corner of 80th and Honore, the location of the Chicago International Ralph Ellison Campus.

Building Schools Building Trust  

CICS and Auburn-Gresham leaders collaborated in an effort to open CICS Ralph Ellison.

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