When Principal Bridget Cheney looks at Congress Elementary School she sees a vibrant community following on the heals of the decade-long revitalization happening in the neighborhood surrounding it.
That wasn’t the case five years ago just before Cheney was assigned to a school few neighborhood residents considered a first option for their children’s education. The school’s test scores were lagging then, but that’s turned around since a partnership was struck between the school and local neighborhood association.
The East Hills Council of Neighbors has taken the school under its wing, making the school a priority in its efforts to sustain the positive energy happening in East Hills where the school is located. Cheney notes the efforts seem to be paying off with enrollment at the school leveling off after years of decline.
“We’re starting to get an influx of neighbors who are starting to consider Congress their neighborhood school where before it wasn’t even on their radar,” Cheney said. “We’re also seeing some stability in that families who have been at Congress are now staying at Congress.”
For good reason
Congress recorded the most improved test scores in the district two years ago and the third most improved scores last year, Cheney said. Last year’s MEAP scores showed improvement in all subject areas in all grade levels.
Rachel Lee, director of the East Hills Council of Neighbors, said her group recognized a strong neighborhood school as a valuable amenity for the growing number of people choosing to live in the neighborhood where rentals can be highly competitive. Lee said the partnership has led to a campaign dubbed “East Hills Loves Congress” and a series of community outreach events contacting hundreds of families aimed at acquainting residents with the K-5 school.
“We’re talking about the feasibility of a dual English/Spanish immersion program and the feasibility of a K-8 program there which would help keep the pipeline open in the neighborhood,” Lee said. “We have this incredible neighborhood and we feel like we have this incredible school to go with it so our goal is to have Congress School the choice for residents of East Hills.”
Among its other efforts, the association worked to get the school added to the Fairmount Square Historic District as part of a strategy to protect the building’s architectural integrity and strengthen its connection to the neighborhood.
They’re trying it elsewhere, too
The East Hills effort has proven so successful it’s become the model for community engagement dictated by Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal’s Transformation Plan. Mulick Park Elementary Principal Lisa Minnella began working two years ago on partnerships with neighborhood associations in her area.
The challenges differ at Mulick Park in that its neighborhood doesn’t have the vital business community that’s stepped up to support Congress. Minnella instead has reached out to her neighborhood’s faith community for support which is providing mentors and volunteers, not to mention positive buzz about the school.
Minella noted the school’s back-to-school events four years ago drew about 200 people. Since neighborhood churches like Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed, Hope Reformed and East Minster Presbyterian got involved four years ago, attendance at those events has grown to some 850.
“People who came when I first got here didn’t even know Mulick was their home school,” Minnella said. “It’s helped just getting the word out that Mulick is a viable choice, that we’re ready for students to come and we have teachers at our school who care for them and want them to learn.”