Christopher House Breaks Ground on Innovative Middle School

As a toddler, Camilla Ruelas had a life-saving liver transplant. She’s now a sixth-grader at Christopher House Charter School, with her sights set on college at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and later, medical school.

“I hope to learn more about the human body and anatomy to become a doctor someday,” and perform those lifesaving transplants herself, she told a group of VIPs, including Sen. Dick Durbin and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, at the recent groundbreaking for Christopher House’s new middle school.

The new middle school, named for longtime board member JoAnne L. Cicchelli, will include six classrooms, a rooftop garden, a performance arts studio and lab spaces for students to learn more about environmental studies and STEAM–math, science, technology and the arts. In October, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the charter school a $1.2 million grant toward the middle school expansion. Christopher House Charter currently serves about 400 predominantly Latino, low-income students. The new building will allow space for another 200 students.

Christopher House boasts a long track record of supporting young children and their families, coupled with splashy new data showing 75 percent of their 5-year-olds entered kindergarten well-prepared. Their graduates now in the charter elementary school are making some of the highest gains in the state on the tough national PARCC exam. With the new middle school, Christopher House will build in the final piece of the puzzle to ensure its 8th-grade graduates are ready to succeed in Chicago’s top high schools, move on to college and graduate.

Creating a “seamless” transition to kindergarten and beyond

As is common in ambitious charter schools, the classrooms are named after the colleges their teachers went to. The kindergartners in Arizona State University, led by teacher Kelsey Nelson, watch a video that reads aloud the classic children’s story “The Carrot Seed,” about a little boy who plants a seed that grows thanks to his patient care and despite the doubts of his family members.

After a discussion, the kids return to their grouped tables to draw, and where possible write, to show the characters and the setting. They describe the plot by drawing pictures on a story train. Children have “sound cards” and use a system of gestures associated with sounds to help themselves spell words. “You can just stick with one letter for now,” Nelson tells a boy.

Pictures illustrate the concepts of characters, setting and plot. To illustrate plot. Nelson has drawn a roller coaster with cars marking the beginning, middle and end.

She previously taught in the preschool program, where teachers are “very prepared,” she observes. Nelson herself taught about a quarter of her current kindergartners as preschoolers. At the end of every school year, preschool teachers meet with the kindergarten teachers to give them a heads-up about the children they will be teaching and plan support strategies as needed.

“It’s seamless,” Nelson says of the transition. Although she still faces a spectrum of academic and social-emotional preparedness in her classroom, “the band is narrower. Especially from the preschool, the kids are much more prepared, especially socially and emotionally. Their families are involved. A lot of them are really excited to learn.”

Sen. Dick Durbin reads the New York Times-bestselling kids’ book, Grace for President, to a first-grade class at Christopher House

That continuity persists beyond the kindergarten year. Fourth-grade teacher Jordan Reece taught her current students before, as second-graders. “I know families really well. There’s an immediate level of trust,” she says. In her current class, only three students left between second and fourth grade. Overall, about 43 percent of the elementary school’s students started as preschoolers.

Recently, Christopher House has made more deliberate efforts to continue excellent practices and curriculum from the preschool into the early grades. The preschool follows the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, elements of which now continue upward through second grade. To deepen their knowledge of the approach, early elementary teachers (grades K-2) traveled to Reggio Emilia for a week-long residency.

The Reggio Emilia influence shows up most obviously during STEAM time, when student questions and interests help determine what to study. Reggio Emilia also emphasizes observation, arts and a well-organized classroom environment.

Grateful parents appreciate the continuity

Parent Shavon Hale has been involved with Christopher House since she became pregnant with her second child. Her older child is now a first-grader at the elementary school. Hale serves as the liaison from the Parent Policy Committee to the Christopher House board of directors. The experience has served her well, she says. “I feel like my voice is really heard. I know how to fundraise, run a committee and read a budget. I know what’s going on and I’m really appreciative.”

She also deeply appreciates the experience her children are having, especially compared to her own experiences as an elementary student. “We didn’t have the technology they have now. We had really old books, no computers. It was a really old school. The teachers were old. It was just stuck, old-fashioned.”

She’s grateful her children are experiencing 21st-century learning and looks forward to a state-of-the-art STEAM lab in the middle school. “Being a low to moderate-income family, we’re getting a lot of advantages” at Christopher House. “I’d like to keep them for as long as possible.”


Top photo: A new building will create continuity from preschool through eighth grade and prepare kids for top city high schools. Photo credits: Sarah Elizabeth Larsen Photography

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Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is a senior writer and editor at Education Post, but before that she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of an elementary student at Chicago’s Namaste Charter School. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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