After more than a year of bringing the community experience virtually to Illinois State University students and faculty, the National Center for Urban Education (NCUE), is transitioning back to in-person programming. This summer, special education faculty from the Innovative Network of Urban Special Education (INFUSE) initiative visited NCUE partner communities of Albany Park, Auburn Gresham, East Garfield Park, Little Village, and Pilsen.
INFUSE is an NCUE program that focuses on the high need area of special education and involves faculty creating a strand of redesigned classes within the undergraduate course of study. Students involved in INFUSE take part in layered immersion experiences in Chicago, where they observe instruction in classrooms, interact with students and staff, engage in meaningful dialogue with local community organizations, take part in service-learning activities, and experience the linkage between strong community partnerships and successful urban schools.
The Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline (CTEP) team worked with lead Department of Special Education faculty, Dr. Debbie Shelden and Dr. Mark Zablocki, to collaboratively plan a one-week immersion visit in July involving six special education faculty members. Led by NCUE community partners, each neighborhood explored different topics that impact schools and families, ranging from food insecurity to rental assistance to trauma that results from systematic oppression. In addition, much of the visit focused on learning the ways that COVID-19 has transformed the community and how families and organizations are navigating life and systems in its aftermath. The five-day agenda from Monday through Friday featured community scholars, practicing Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers, and the rich history of each community, all to provide context and connections to culturally responsive teacher preparation.
INFUSE began the week in Pilsen with Kerime Alejo, NCUE community liaison at The Resurrection Project (TRP). Having worked with many of the visiting faculty virtually throughout the past year, it was meaningful for Alejo to meet everyone in person. The day started with a community walk featuring murals in the neighborhood guided by Luis Tubens. Next, Shermann Thomas, a TikTok historian, brought a unique perspective on different ways to engage younger generations in Chicago history, including its influence on today’s Chicago. The afternoon comprised a conversation with CPS special education teacher, Stephen Bennett, from Pickard Elementary, as well as a panel with TRP staff about their programming to support Pilsen residents that apply for rental assistance, noting the effect of evictions and displacement on families including the impact on neighborhood schools.
On day two, the INFUSE group visited Albany Park where they met with Elizabeth Rice from North River Commission (NRC). Rice led the faculty on an extensive walk around the neighborhood from the business strip on Lawrence Avenue to cultural landmarks like the Cambodian Museum ending with a shady nature walk along the north branch of the Chicago River. In the afternoon, the faculty connected with school partners, first visiting Northside Learning Center (NLC) high school. NLC is one of four CPS specialty high schools focusing on special education high school students who need intensive supports. NLC teacher Megan Hall shared strategies and innovative programs created to support students. The final stop was Roosevelt High School to meet with Dean Jose Rodriguez and learn about the restorative practices program he has been implementing with staff using an equity, healing, and social justice lens. As the day closed, Rodriguez asked faculty: “How can you be in solidarity with your students?”
On Wednesday, the INFUSE group visited Auburn Gresham and met Melanie Christion from the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation. The faculty had the opportunity to hear from a parent, a teacher, and community members about their neighborhood, and many shared a common message about entering into new spaces: be yourself and be well informed. No visit to Auburn Gresham would be complete without a visit to the Faith Community at St. Sabina, a church that supports community members, families, and youth. St. Sabina offers various resources for the neighborhood with a focus on social justice.
To wrap up, faculty heard from Illinois State College of Education alumna Lizzy Carroll ’17 who participated in INFUSE and other NCUE programming while she was a student. Carroll spoke about her experience noting how it planted the seed that she continues to nurture as she strives to be a resource to her students and community.
On Thursday, it was off to East Garfield Park to meet community liaison Gynger Garcia from Breakthrough. The INFUSE group started the day with a tour of the Breakthrough Family Plex. Continuing the theme of restorative practice, faculty heard from Ruby Taylor and Patti Jenkins from Taproots, two sisters who have implemented programming within the neighborhood schools, witnessing the transformative nature of restorative practices for youth. The next stop was 345 Art Gallery to connect with Corry Williams, gallery director and Chicago police officer who has created an astounding art space to inspire kids in the neighborhood. After a special lunch at Inspiration Kitchen to learn about their innovative food service employment program, the day finished at an East Garfield Park gem, the Garfield Park Conservatory.
The final day in Chicago was spent in Little Village with community liaison Esmeralda Gonzalez from Latinos Progresando. The theme for the day was community resistance, and faculty began their day at Adam Toledo’s altar. Adam Toledo was a 13-year-old child who was killed by a police officer on March 29, 2021. Gonzalez recounted the peace march that the community organized in response and the continued efforts to demand peace in their neighborhood. Community scholar Ana Mosqueda presented on the roots of the school to prison pipeline and how that system embeds itself within CPS. Next, faculty walked through Little Villita park to the Discount Mall, two spaces that showcase how the community must continually fight for resources. Lastly, Andrea Guzman, a community activist, shared her story as a teenager and helped to organize a hunger strike to demand the building of the Little Village Lawndale High School, and to speak of the continuing need to organize to demand resources community members deserve.
After a week full of knowledge imparted from communities, the INFUSE faculty left with a wealth of information and new ideas on how to redesign their courses.
“My hope is that I can create a space for my undergraduates to share and engage with the experience as well,” said Dr. Carrie Anna Courtad.
Central to the immersion experience is the importance of learning from communities in order to be able to change and transform the educational system.
Dr. Sarah Ballard described the week as “a transformative experience rooted in community advocacy . . . Deeply appreciated as I don’t think this level of understanding or appreciation can be garnered from just books, articles or other more standard types of (professional development). The authentic stories and lessons shared in the physical community spaces was a rich and powerful gift with clear implications for teacher preparation as well as restorative practices and culturally responsive pedagogy.”
INFUSE plans to create more powerful immersion experiences in the coming year for Illinois State faculty and students.