Chicago 430 S. Michigan Ave.Chicago, IL 60605(312) 341-3500
Schaumburg 1400 N. Roosevelt Blvd.Schaumburg, IL 60173(847) 619-7300
By Laura Janota
When Nakisha Hobbs came to Roosevelt University in 2006, her goal was to develop skills and ideas for educating young children that she could apply as principal of her own private, independent school. Eight years later, the It Takes a Village pre-school that Hobbs started with her mother, a former Chicago Public School teacher, has 10 times its initial enrollment of 47, two spacious Chicago locations and a long waiting list of largely low-income youth, some as young as six weeks of age.
Hobbs, an advocate and practitioner of Roosevelt’s social justice mission, also has started a not-for-profit K-7 independent school in Chicago’s South Loop, the Village Leadership Academy (VLA), where she is principal. One of the first grade schools in the nation to provide students with a social justice-oriented education, VLA has an enrollment of 170 children, the majority of whom matriculate from Hobbs’ It Takes A Village pre-school system.
Hobbs credits her education and experiences at Roosevelt with helping her to develop a holistic independent school system, one of about 100 of its kind without religious affiliation in Illinois. Hobbs’ schools rely on tuition that is based upon what a family can afford, state and local grants and fundraising dollars as well as subsidies from the state of Illinois for low-income children, who make up about 80 percent of the system’s enrollment.
“My goal has been to create a program that empowers kids,” she said, “and Roosevelt University has given me the tools to make it happen.” Hobbs received her Master’s in Early Childhood Education from the University in 2008 when she was a member of a cohort of school administrators, primarily from the Chicago Public Schools. “What I learned at Roosevelt transformed our programs,” said Hobbs, who began immediately applying techniques, including working in small groups with children and focusing on each child’s progress individually, at It Takes a Village centers in Chicago’s Humboldt Park and in the South Loop at River City.
“Our schools are devoted to families and the community,” said Marquinta Thomas, director of the Humboldt Park location who received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Roosevelt in 2008 and a master’s in early childhood education from the University in 2013. “We have a commitment to make our kids lifelong learners. You can see it in the curriculum and in the fact that most of the families who enroll kids here keep coming back.”
The strategy at It Takes A Village involves starting early: The schools have classrooms with cribs for infants as young as six weeks old; children as young as three years of age are already learning how to read and write their own names; and by the time they get to kindergarten, many kids from the It Takes a Village program, on average, are at what the public schools would consider to be the first-grade level, and are frequently bumped up a grade level as a result.
Also, class sizes are small, an average of 16 students per class at It Takes a Village, which has an enrollment of 470 students. A little more than half of these students are African American, about a fifth are white, 15 percent are Latinos and 8 percent are Asians. The majority come from Chicago’s west side communities including Humboldt Park, Austin and East Garfield, though nearly half are from Chicago’s South Loop and neighboring communities. About 52 percent of these students hail from low-income families, while 48 percent come from middle-class households.
As for the VLA grade school, 70 percent of its students are African American, about a fifth are Latino, 5 percent are Asian, and 3 percent are white. The majority of these students and as many as 60 percent depend on financial aid and/or scholarships to attend the social justice grade school. On a daily basis, students at the school are learning about social problems, including strategies for tackling food deserts, domestic violence, community littering and the tendency for youngsters to drink too much soda pop, to name just a few community projects (see related story).
“I wouldn’t have my child at any other school,” said Erika Wilkins, whose 11-year-old son Brandon started at It Takes a Village at 1 1/2 years of age and is now enrolled in seventh grade at VLA. “He’s got a different maturity level than many other kids his age. He is able to sit with adults and have an intelligent conversation,” added Wilkins.
Essential elements in the innovative program include concepts Hobbs learned at Roosevelt and then put into practice, including tailor-making curricula to meet each child’s needs and assessing his or her growth individually.
“Ms. Hobbs is a hard-charging dynamo on a mission to do what’s best for kids,” said Rod Rakic, whose eight-yearold daughter Amelia has been in the program since she was three. “Today my daughter is reading whatever she wants to read, she’s been bumped up a grade level and I credit the principal (Hobbs) with seeing an opportunity to create and do something different.”
Thomas Philion, interim dean of Roosevelt’s College of Education, said Hobbs’ school system follows in the footsteps of elite private-education institutions across the country including the Francis Parker School in Chicago and the highly competitive Horace Mann School in New York City.
“There has always been a place in our education system for both public and private schools,” said Philion. “The difference between the two systems comes down to funding. Private schools rely on tuition. They are usually mission-driven and they have to meet the needs of those who are supporting them.”
In general, it is unusual for College of Education graduates to want to open a private school. “There have always been a small handful of education majors with an interest in being entrepreneurs, but really, it is quite uncommon. It takes a lot of agility, an ability to work well with people and a real head for business,” Philion said.
Hobbs credits her business partner and chief financial officer Anita Andrews-Hutchinson for being on top of details, while she focuses on the big picture that includes building a first-rate faculty and staff, some of whom are Roosevelt alumni and students.
Carrie Plourde, director of It Takes A Village at River City, received a Master’s in School Counseling from Roosevelt in 2011. “What brought me here is the mentality that all children deserve the best education they can get, and to do that, you must start early,” she said.Howard Sandifer, who teaches music at VLA, received a bachelor’s in music education from Roosevelt in 1973. “There’s a level of inquisitiveness and attentiveness among the students that you don’t always see,” the Roosevelt alumnus said.
In addition, a Roosevelt psychology student, Nawal Alomari, is on the staff of the counseling program at VLA. “Nawal has fit in well with our culture and the students love her,” said Stacy Frazier, who is in charge of the school counseling program at VLA.Another Roosevelt connection with the schools is that psychology students in a Child and Adolescence course taught by Roosevelt assistant professor of psychology Amy Roberts had the option of going into classrooms and working with kids at both It Takes a Village and VLA this spring. “It’s a place that is thinking about these kids and their education as a holistic process, including ways to develop them as socially conscious citizens of the world, and I’m excited that Roosevelt students can be involved,” said Roberts.
With more than 600 students in pre-school and elementary programs, Hobbs has big plans for the future. Next year, she will start an eighth-grade class for VLA students moving up from the seventh grade. In addition, she is currently seeking sites in Chicago’s South Loop as well as funding to build a high school for VLA graduates, beginning as early as 2015.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined taking this program so far,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without the curricula training I received at Roosevelt University.”