Each day, as students at Hope Learning Academy Chicago file into their classrooms, sharpen their pencils and begin to engage with teachers and peers, they’re taking part in something special. In this collaboration school between Chicago Public Schools and Hope, a national nonprofit organization that supports individuals with special needs, 280 K-5 students from 32 ZIP codes in Chicago learn in inclusive classrooms.
Hope Learning Academy is a general education Chicago Public School (CPS) contract school that serves learners of all abilities. The school’s continuum of services includes general education classrooms, special education classrooms, paraprofessional educator support and related service team member support, which enables all scholars to shine and develop into productive and empowered learners, according to Michael Jakubowski, principal at Hope.“This inclusive model helps our special education students, and it also helps our general education students become ambassadors for classmates and friends who may learn differently but are all part of the same community,” says Jodi Ogilvy, director of communications with Hope.
As a CPS demonstration school now in its 11th year, Hope Learning Academy is showing the educational community how inclusive learning can take place successfully. The school is currently working very hard to expand to include middle school grades, too. “We have found that the abrupt departure at the fifth- grade level can be very difficult for our students,” Ogilvy says.
Strong and trusting relationships are at the heart of the education at Hope, a model that helps students and families build a home environment within the school so students can feel comfortable enough to focus on learning, says Jakubowski.
“Our scholars may come from previous school challenges, but they find their second home at Hope,” Jakubowski says. “We take time for relationships. Relationships before everything else — that’s all that matters. When the time comes, we dig into content and social and emotional learning.”
And, because schools are stronger when they are supported by the wider community, Hope builds partnerships with a number of community organizations for better student outcomes. It is mindful to partner in a way that is essential to the school’s social-emotional curriculum.
Hope partners with Gads Hill Community Schools to provide afterschool and summer programming at no additional cost to students, as well as one-on-one support for at-risk kids. Tutoring Chicago provides one-on-one tutoring and mentoring through mindfully matching students and tutors to support the most constructive relationships. The collaboration between Tutoring Chicago and Hope is mutually beneficial because Hope provides the physical space for Tutoring Chicago to help students across Chicago — not just those at Hope Learning Academy.
Together Chicago supports Hope through its mission of economic development, education, violence reduction and community mobilization and is poised to support Hope’s growth through afterschool mentoring programs to strengthen self-esteem and community connection for students as they grow toward young adulthood. The collaboration has expanded to include parent empowerment training and mentoring, too.
In one of the longest-standing community partnerships with Hope, individuals from Mindful Practices provide weekly yoga and meditation instruction specially modified for students’ ages and abilities. In a knowledge-sharing model, classroom teachers learn valuable exercises to center and focus the students for effective self-regulation.
Within Hope is a University of Illinois Chicago school-based neighborhood health clinic that provides health care services to the students and the wider community. Here, parents and Hope staff can learn key health and wellness strategies and families can receive preventative health care to support future wellbeing. In addition, medical practitioners lead small group interventions for children at risk for certain health conditions.
All students, particularly those with sensory processing disorders or autism, enjoy spending time in the specially designed sensory gym. “There’s a ball pit, a rock-climbing wall, and structures to build, climb and move,” Ogilvy explains. “There’s a sensory swing and the entire space is quiet and dimly lit. Students who start to experience sensory overload can go in any time they want and get back in touch with where they need to be. It’s a very calming atmosphere.
A strong parent community, too
Because Hope Learning Academy understands the needs of working families, students can join fellow students in before and after care. “When parents go to work, they feel safe knowing their kids are learning, having positive experiences and being cared for,” Ogilvy says. “It’s a very nurturing environment that we provide to students and families.”
As a community hub, Hope Learning Academy has resources for parents, but specifically for parents and families of children with special needs. Parents can access reading material, attend parent training sessions and benefit from support services, too. “Sometimes, what families need most of all is community. So, parents have come together to form a parent group at the school because they feel so strongly about supporting each other and the school,” Ogilvy says. “There’s a high level of parent participation and advocacy, which is very special.”
What’s also unique about Hope Learning Academy is the number of students who attend because of personal recommendations from other Hope families. Because students from all geographic locations in the city of Chicago are eligible to attend, the school has become a strong community of siblings, cousins and friends who are all seeking the same high level of inclusive education.
Jakubowski speaks for the faculty and staff when he shares the passion for learning at Hope Learning Academy Chicago. “It’s not a job, it’s a calling to serve those who go unserved in other schools or communities,” he says. “Our educators are loving, caring, passionate, collaborative and deeply skilled. I work at Hope because my staff inspires me to be better every day.”