More than classrooms lost in school closings

May 22, 2013

Jen Kirby and Carrie Eidson

(WBEZ/Carrie Eidson)

A volunteer unloads bags of yellow onions, whose skins flake off onto the linoleum floor. Customers squeeze green bell peppers and drop them into plastic bags. Over it all you hear a juicer. Someone’s making fresh orange juice. 

Every other Tuesday, a food pantry pops up in an empty classroom at Henson Elementary in the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago. 

“We have apples today and bananas, so it’s a very healthy meal,” says Eular Hatchet, who helps out at the pantry.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository delivers these fresh fruits, vegetables and canned goods as part of its Healthy Kids Markets.  Last year, more than 80 Henson families took home shopping bags of food.

Chicago Public Schools is looking to close Henson, saying the school's enrollment is at a third of its capacity and the building costs $9.3 million a year to update and maintain. Students would be transferred to nearby Charles Evans Hughes Elementary. 

But parents and teachers question what it means to be underutilized.  Just look down the hall from the pantry. You’ll find one of three classrooms now used by Erie Family Health School-Based Health Center, a clinic run by Chicago non-profit Erie Family Health.

Erie hosts community workshops. At one meeting, moms sit together and talk about throbbing wisdom teeth, home remedies and never-ending colds. This session covers general health, but another could be about nutrition or resume writing.

More than 600 people visited the Erie clinic for medical services last year.  Henson parent Tina Smith says her third grade son uses the clinic, along with her mother and adult daughter. “People don’t have the resources or they just don’t take the time to go to the doctor,” Smith says. “Now, here... when it’s time for immunizations the ladies in the clinic, they’ll let you know. They’ll call the kids down from class. They give them their immunizations and they go right back to class.”

Beyond booster shots and Band-Aids, the clinic has a counselor on-site for students. The community can also use Erie computers to apply for jobs, look for housing or fill out applications for social services.

Marian Byrd, an Erie employee, says the clinic keeps parents close to the school and to their kids. “You have a place that you can come to and receive these resources and also be able to be in the building with your child,” Byrd says. “Kids tend to have a better day in school when they know their parent is actively in the school.”

Parents seeing kids succeed is just as critical. On the second floor of Henson, America Scores operates in a repurposed classroom. America Scores is a national non-profit that leads programs at elementary and middle schools in Chicago and in cities across the U.S.

At an editorial meeting for their school yearbook, two Henson eighth graders scribble down notes in big, looping letters.  Once in a while, when a really good idea comes to them, they slap hands and explode their fists. No parents are at this meeting, but when kids go home and report their progress, the parents respond. “They even feel a little more inspired because of the services provided by the school,” says Donell Ausley, coordinator for America Scores at Henson. “That’s giving them an expectation or a goal that doesn’t sound or seem as dreamy.”

Ausley is known as Coach D around Henson. The before- and after-school program he runs gives him the opportunity to engage parents.  “It gave me the ability to say to the parent, ‘Hi, how you doing, my name is Coach D, and your child is great,” he says. “This is now a different feedback than your child’s not listening, they’re not doing their grades.”

Ausley says that after speaking with parents he can ask them to join a fitness class or health program, where they can come and spend more time at Henson.

The Illinois State Board of Education awarded America Scores this grant for its work at Henson. The board says it expects the program to follow the students if they transfer to another school.

The futures of the Erie Family Health Clinic and the food pantry are unclear. The pantry will likely move to another neighborhood school, but the clinic would have to find a school with enough space to host its services—which may be a struggle without empty classrooms. Erie counselor Sandra Rigsbee says Henson’s possible closure and the potential loss of the services fuels a sense of abandonment for North Lawndale. “I think the experience is resources come, resources leave. They can’t be depended on,” Rigsbee says. “Often there’s a feeling of people come kind of for their own benefit but not with a real commitment to the community.”