Steans Center > About > News > Service Learning and Education

Service Learning and Education

Spencer Technology Academy, Austin Neighborhood
Spencer Technology Academy is a recipient of a five-year technology grant from the Chicago Public Schools and DePaul University has played a central role in the grant’s implementation. Support by DePaul’s Egan Urban Center (EUC) and Steans Center has helped to provide a two-way conduit between Chicago's Austin community and the school. “DePaul’s partnership with Spencer Technol-ogy Academy is a good example of how a university pools it's resources in order to support quality public education, says Chad Williams, Assistant Director for Community Development at the Steans Center. “This partnership between DPU & CPS technology academies exemplifies the ability of large institutions to create meaningful local change.”

Our role has been to work with teachers, parents and the community to cultivate a more congenial environment. We work with the school and community, and aim to help provide indigenous resources to the school

The five-year, $11.7 million technology grant, which is sup- ported by the U.S. Department of Education, targets schools in five Chicago communities – Austin, Roseland, Englewood, Woodlawn and North Lawndale. The goal of the grant is to expand academic options and increase student engagement and achievement in low-income communities. Spencer serves 791 students as the largest elementary school in Austin, a low-income West Side neighborhood that is 90% African American. The Egan Urban Center’s funding is to strengthen the schools by increasing parent involvement and establishing links to community organizations through parents who serve as community liaisons. “Schools are often closed systems,” says John Zeigler, EUC’s director and coordinator of the multi- year grant from CPS to support schools in the five communi- ties. “Our role has been to work with teachers, parents and the community to cultivate a more congenial environment. We work with the school and community, and aim to help provide indigenous resources to the school,” says Zeigler. “A school is more than just bricks and mortar.  As a key component of DePaul’s work with Spencer, the Steans Center places service learning students strategically in classrooms to assist teachers in raising reading and math scores in preparation for the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). CPS elementary schools with an ISAT composite score less than 50% are placed on probation, which initiates a school improvement plan, but could also lead to a school closing. CPS rates schools using a three-tiered system from Level 1 to 3, ranging from "excellent standing" to "good standing" to"probation." schools with an ISAT composite score less than 50% are placed on probation, which initiates a school improvement plan, but could also lead to a school closing. CPS rates schools using a three-tiered system from Level 1 to 3, ranging from "excellent standing" to "good standing" to "probation".​

Our approach is an asset-based methodology that involves utilizing major assets in the community and looking at the community from the inside-out


Like many schools in underserved communities, 
Spencer has been hampered by a dearth of ​​technology resources. Now, through the grant, they feature state of- the art technology and a myriad of other resources as well as new staff. DePaul’s grant– formally titled the Voluntary Public School Choice Magnet Makeover–is an initiative of the Office of Academic Enhancement of the Chicago Public Schools. “With the partnership between Academic Enhancement, DePaul, Spencer and other schools, we’ve tried to enhance, expand and create a sustainable community and parent engagement program,” says David Schwab, Project Manager with the Office of Academic Enhancement at CPS. According to Schwab, DePaul “has really been on the ground level, managing the community components and doing a lot of training. They have a long history in these communities.” Schwab adds that “the spaces themselves are being used in some outstanding ways. In that respect, it’s really taken off.” One example is the parent resource center at Spencer, a place for parents to meet and mobilize while being part of the school’s community. “Parents are coming out more to the school,” says Anna Ferguson, a parent who volunteers at Spencer during the day. “It’s so important that they have a presence here.” According to Cynthia Smith-Peterson, who works as community liaison coordinator at the school, through the grant, the partnership has paid off. “The students have a lot more available to them – they’ve been exposed more to technology. The same is true of parents.” Spencer Principal Shawn Jackson, who is from Austin, says that before the grant, there “was a lack of resources and less community involvement.” What students–and families at other schools may take for granted in 2011, Spencer and other schools served by the grant may experience as major challenges. “We see technology as a key to the social divide,” says Jackson. “Less than half of the families whose children come to our school get internet at home. That has so many implications– for example, you can’t give assignments to families if they don’t have a computer.” 

Numerous DePaul students have participated in service-learning activities at the schools since the grant began. According to Charlotte Phillips, Steans Center Student Development Coordinator, DePaul students have a unique opportunity to work with Spencer students toward discovering innovative ways of thinking about community engagement.” Karen Zumba, a junior who is majoring in history, did her service learning at Spencer through CSS 201: Perspectives on Community Service, the foundation course in DePaul’s Community Service Studies minor.The class echoes the asset-based approach to communities. “In my class," Zumba says, "we are learning about communities that appear to be needy, but it’s not good just to see the problems–you have to look at the assets. If you look at a community as a glass half empty, it’s going to create more problems.” Zumba adds that a key part of her work as Spencer is to “find out what the strengths of students are.” Phillips notes that “with a heavy emphasis on college readiness, partnership with Spencer Tech means that DePaul students learn to ​​understand why tutoring sessions are critically important assets for preparing students for high school and beyond​ Zumba worked with about thirty first-graders at Spencer, helping the teacher, sounding out words, working with students on math assignments, and more. In the classroom, she explained, “I was paired up with one student who needs extra help. He is working at a kindergarten level. I got to know his personal situation, and I worked with him one-on-one. He’s trying, and it’s important to find intuitive new methods to get through to him and other students.”

Gary Daniels, a finance major and graduating senior who also took CSS 201, says he comes from a situation similar to many students at Spencer. “When I help a kid and they greet you with so much love–those are unique experiences. I hope I can volunteer here after the class is over.” Spencer Principal Sean Jackson says that students at the school through the Steans Center provide valuable one-on-one assistance to Spencer students– and serve as role models for them as well. Jackson adds that changes at Spencer in recent years–whether that means new technology, greater participation from parents, more staff, support from the community, and the involvement of DePaul students–are making a difference at the school. “It’s easy to get behind a winner,” he says. “When you see positive things happen at the school, more people in the community are going to notice.” Meanwhile, between 2009, when DePaul service-learning students began working at Spencer, and 2011, the school’s ISAT scores increased from 51.6% to 62%. During this period, 59 service-learners and a paid coordinator were placed at Spencer to improve learning outcomes in math and reading. As a result of increased ISAT scores, during fall 2011, CPS elevated Spencer to a Level 2 school in good standing and off probation.​​​