When Michael Beyer, EdD Urban Education Leadership, Cohort 7 at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education, first arrived as principal at Morrill Math and Science School on Chicago’s Southwest side in 2011, he found a school in physical disarray.
“One teacher compared it to Gotham City,” Beyer said. “Classroom paint was chipped, the floors were ugly and messy, and we put a lot of money into transforming how the school looked inside. It gives people the feeling like this is a place where you can come to learn.”
Now Beyer is moving beyond the school walls, securing a partnership with Openlands, a Chicago environmental organization, to recreate the school’s outer grounds’ purpose and image and to change the neighborhood’s environmental footprint. With financial support from Openlands, Morrill will renovate its all-asphalt playground to feature basketball courts, soccer fields, a running track and an obstacle course. In the neighborhood, Openlands will provide more than 500 trees for planting along a corridor that runs from Morrill to Gage Park High School. The tree-planting began with the planting of 10 trees on October 10, attended by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Morrill has already opened a community garden in conjunction with organization.
The aims of these projects are multi-pronged. In a community with diverse environmental and social needs, the school’s partnership with Openlands seeks to address many of these issues. While the City of Chicago continues its Deep Tunnel project to improve the city’s ancient sewer systems, neighborhood flooding continues to be a problem, including the neighborhood surrounding Morrill. The new community garden reduces a previous area of asphalt and is modeled to provide a natural sluice for rainwater to travel towards.
Beyer sees the tree-planting as an opportunity to change the image not only of the neighborhood but also the struggling feeder high school a half-mile north.
“A lot of our graduates go to Gage, but no one wants to go there,” Beyer said. “It’s considered a low-performing school with gang issues, where too much nonsense goes on. We don’t want schools to be considered dumping grounds, so we are working to transform the image of Gage Park, to create this green corridor that is more inviting.”
The addition of playground equipment and athletic fields will address unique challenges. Openlands is currently partnering with the University of Colorado to study how appropriate play spaces reduce injuries at recess and reduce student behavioral incidents. Further, Beyer says the current blacktop boundaries around the school turn into “no-man’s land” after school hours, occupied by gang members using or selling drugs. Neighborhood children must walk at least a half-mile in any direction to find the nearest park, and Beyer says many parents are leery of risking their children crossing strictly-established gang borders.
“I’ve been fighting for this since I began at Morrill more than two years ago,” Beyer said. “This will encourage parents and kids to participate in what I call positive loitering; it will discourage gangs from being so active.”
At a school with a student body composed of 55 percent Latino students, Beyer says his school faces
enrollment challenges from area charter schools specifically catering to Latino students and families. The creation of a soccer field gives the school a tool to compete with area charter schools that often emphasize access to soccer to Latino families.
Beyer says his years in the EdD Urban Education Leadership program have guided his leadership in seeking to build a school that focuses on the whole child.
“UIC helped me realize the focus was on the entire school community, and that includes parents, local community organizations, businesses, churches—you have to get everyone on board,” Beyer said. “If we can do something to help neighborhoods stabilize and become healthier places to live, this will help all families and every child.”