(Ashlee Rezin/For RedEye )
Alongside approximately 600 volunteers, Christian Rivera, 15, helped beautify Jean D. Lafayette Elementary School in Humboldt Park on Monday as part of City Year Chicago's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service.
A Lafayette alumnus who grew up within blocks of the school, Rivera, now a freshman at Roberto Clemente High School, said Lafayette is a staple in his neighborhood and revitalizing the school will bring positive energy to the institution and help the neighborhood shed its reputation of violence.
"People think this is a bad neighborhood but, as a community, Humboldt Park is strong, and the people here care about their students and their schools," said Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, plays football at Clemente and wants to be a poet. "Look how many volunteers showed up today, it's amazing."
Of Chicago's 513 homicides in 2012, 17 occurred in the majority Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, according to RedEye's homicide tracker, but news coverage of the community is often limited to shootings and gang violence.
"This school helped make me who I am," he said. "A lot of the students here have awesome potential, but the school was kind of rundown with paint coming off the walls—I wanted to be here to help so I could leave my mark and help make it a better place for the kids."
City Year Chicago, a partner of AmeriCorps, organized the four-hour beautification of Lafayette as part of an annual nationwide campaign for community service projects on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Starting at 9:30 a.m. with an opening ceremony, volunteers from all walks of life worked together to revamp Lafayette by painting murals and doing light construction projects, such as building benches.
"This is a great investment in our community; to have a neighborhood school be a focus for a day of service is a big deal. We are really trying to revitalize the school and make it a place that everyone wants to come," said Lauren Albani, principal of Lafayette Elementary. "Research shows that the school environment influences student learning, and we want kids to come to school and say ‘this is my school' and be proud of that."
"Seeing the kids' reaction on Tuesday morning should be really exciting," she said. Albani became principal in July and said bringing City Year to Lafayette was one of her target initiatives when taking over the school.
At the end of the 2011-12 school year, Lafayette had 484 students with more than 93 percent low income. The school is on probation and was included on the Chicago Public School board's list of 330 underutilized schools. Home to approximately 100,000 empty seats, the district's underused schools are being made a target for the next wave of school closures. During the day of service, teachers and staff of Lafayette were passing around a petition to demand a moratorium on school closings.
"Bringing hundreds of community volunteers from all over Chicago to Lafayette Elementary tells the Humboldt Park community that your fellow Chicagoans care about your community and especially your children, particularly in light of all the violence that has occurred of late," said Lisa Morrison Butler, executive director of City Year Chicago.
City Year is a national education-focused nonprofit founded in 1988 with more than 2,500 corps members in 20 communities across the country. There are 188 corps members providing academic support to at-risk youth in 20 Chicago schools.
"This is a positive message that we are united in the hope and promise of service, particularly on (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) of all days," Morrison Butler said.
At least one teacher hopes the day of service and expression of support will motivate the neighborhood to rally around Lafayette.
"We are fighting to keep our school open, hopefully parents and people from the community will see how beautiful the school looks, and they will be inspired and will support us," said Brunilda Guzmán, 54, a first- and second-grade teacher at Lafayette.
Born in Puerto Rico, Guzmán has been in Chicago for 34 years and has worked at Lafayette for 25 years. A mother of four who lives within three blocks of the school, all of her children attended Lafayette and she said she's taught generations of families in Humboldt Park.
"I think the students will feel more welcome in the school and maybe feel safer; all of the City Year volunteers and good energy around Lafayette will have a positive influence on the kids," she said. "When there is positivity for the kids in the classroom they're going to take that home with them. It's a chain reaction that will help our community."
Ashlee Rezin is a RedEye special contributor.
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