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Richard J. Oglesby Elementary School is a Chicago neighborhood school situated between the Englewood and Auburn Gresham communities on the city’s south side.

It offers grade levels from preschool all the way through eighth grade and services over 500 students. What sets it apart from other schools for Principal Kimberly Henderson are those students under her care. She looks like a proud mother when she talks about them. She glowed, “We have some amazing kids. Problems? Sure. Challenges? Sure. But they are some really great kids, kids who really want an education… They’re resilient. They’re smart. They’re talented.”

Recently, Oglesby received a grant from the New Chance Arts and Literature Fund, and you can already feel the impact that the grant is making. The first item on the agenda was to update the old school auditorium that had fallen into disrepair over the years. Updates included new carpeting and wall coverings, as well as a professional quality curtain. You’d be surprised what a difference pulling back a curtain can make during a school performance, of which there are more than ever. But they aren’t stopping there. Next up is fixing the spotlights to make sure the young artists are well lit and installing a new sound system to make sure the whole room hears them perfectly.

It was important for Principal Henderson to prioritize the updates to the auditorium in order to create a central home base for the expanded artistic opportunities the school is starting to provide. As visual arts teacher Julia Bonatz put it, “[The auditorium] makes the kids feel valued. If you have a nice, safe space they’re going to feel the energy and be excited to perform in that space.”

The space has already served as a performance venue for the expanded dance classes and a Black History presentation. Principal Henderson happily recalled an interpretive dance done by the preschoolers for that event. Enthusiasm filled her face as she described how the students made their own props and set, how they told the story of traveling the middle passage and picking cotton. “This is what Chance the Rapper has afforded us the opportunity to do,” she says thoughtfully, “and how he has inspired us to bring more arts to our kids.” Access to artistic educational opportunities for her students is something that Principal Henderson cares about deeply.

“Education is the civil rights problem of our age, right?”

She stated plainly, “So we may not have to sit at the back of the bus. We may not have to go to a school only for black students. We may be able to drink out of whatever water fountain we want. But there is no way that education is equal in this country, right? There’s no reason why students on the north side have access to some of the things that they do and students here in Englewood don’t.” She is making it her mission to ensure that her students have every artistic and cultural opportunity she can provide for them.

That mission is presenting itself through a number of different initiatives and programs that the school provides. The school maintains a partnership with the Chicago Children’s Choir and offers a drumline. There are dance classes in hip-hop, ballet, African American dance, and even ballroom dancing. In fact, a number of students from the ballroom dancing class may even have the opportunity to compete in a citywide ballroom event.

It’s not just arts instruction that is being impacted by the grant, either.

The school has been able to provide experiential learning opportunities that expose the students to aspects of the culture that they otherwise may not have the opportunity to experience. Most recently about half the school had the opportunity to watch the movie Black Panther together in the theater, allowing the students to see positive portrayals of African heroes in mainstream cinema. They also have a social and emotional support program that is all about mentoring. It pairs older and younger female students together and helps foster relationships. This character-building program has made an impression on preschool and Head Start teacher Jamesa Tate. She said, “I look at the girls and how they are acting, how their attitudes are changing, and how they are carrying themselves… They are carrying themselves like young ladies should be.”

The New Chance Arts and Literature Fund grant has helped the school enrich its facilities and its programming, and the school is planning even more in the years ahead. The effect has been profound. As one recent Oglesby graduate, Jamyah Smith, put it when she asked if she wanted to say anything to Chance the Rapper, “It’s important that he chose us. I’m glad to say I went to Oglesby.”

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Richard J Oglesby Elementary School

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