Thursday, April 12, 2018

Chelsea Keenan

UI alumnus Jake Chung plants seeds of hope in community garden


There’s a neighborhood garden in Arlington Heights, Illinois that is growing more than just fresh produce. It’s bringing together residents of different socioeconomic backgrounds and cultivating a sense of community.

“It was great to see how the garden was able to transcend the financial divide that was there,” says Jake Chung, who helped spearhead the project. Chung is the assistant superintendent for personnel and planning in Arlington Heights and a University of Iowa College of Education alumnus (BA ‘96).

The northwest Chicago-suburb of 75,500 people is fairly affluent – the median household income is close to $80,000 a year – but pockets of poverty still exist.

The community garden – which sits on a once-empty school district-owned lot – is between two distinct neighborhoods. One is filled with shiny row houses while the other is an older run-down apartment complex where a man’s torso and legs where once found in a dumpster.

But the garden gives residents a chance to interact and find common ground. More than 60 people came together to get it started in May 2017, and now it’s full of flowers, tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables.

What’s more, the garden is part of a larger project – The Dryden Place Project named after the apartment complex – that has taken root in Arlington Heights to help about five dozen low-income students succeed in school and their families be more secure overall.

The Arlington Heights school district is made up of about 5,600 students, 800 employees, and nine schools. Chung worked as a teacher and school administrator for many years before taking on his current role three and a half years ago.

These days, he mostly deals with human resources issues, but when he noticed that a majority of the kids living in that particular apartment complex were underachieving, getting into trouble, or in need of more support, his superintendent gave him the time to change the dynamic.

“I understand that the reason why we’re all here – whether you’re working in a district office of working as an administrator in a school, or a classroom teacher – we’re all here to support the kids we work with,” Chung says. “When this challenge presented itself, it seemed a natural fit for me. … In the long run, if we can find ways to break the cycles of poverty, it doesn’t just benefit the school district, but it benefits the community as well.”

His parents moved to the United States from Korea in the late 1960s, originally landing in Louisville, Kentucky. But Chung and his family moved around quite a bit based on his parents’ employment – he attended seven different schools by the time he was in eighth grade. 

Chung also credits his time at the University of Iowa, and especially his experience as a student teacher in Aldine, Texas – a suburb of Houston – for forming his passion for helping marginalized students. About 95 percent of the students in his Texas school were on free-and-reduced lunch.

“They were kids who struggled with basic essentials – food, clothing, parent support,” he says. “That experience really impacted me and has carried forward throughout my educational career. It challenged me to never forget about those students.”

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Two years ago, he got a group of teachers and community members together to figure out how to better support the children and their parents. What followed was a comprehensive program that brought the families of Dryden Apartments ways to read and exercise, jackets to stay warm in the winter, and food to keep them full over the summer holidays.

Coming together as a community

It was amazing to see the community come together and step up, he says: a not-for-profit organization sponsors a free-breakfast program over the summer, and a hospital will soon sponsor a lunch program, the Rotary Club donated bikes while an individual member bought children in need winter coats, and the police department held an outreach event so the families could have positive interactions.

“We also found that in order to address some of the situations at the apartments themselves, then we needed to reach out to the apartment managers,” Chung says. “To our surprise, they were willing to address some of those situations. They worked with the village, they worked with us and the residents to improve some of living conditions that were there.”

Community not-for-profits, social service agencies, and city services were already offering strong programs, Chung adds, but too often, these groups work in silos. The Dryden Place Project gave all of these entities a chance to work together and share information rather than duplicate efforts.

“The apartment buildings were not in great shape – there are gangs there, the police would get called, and kids would come to school and say they heard the police last night or gunfire or the sound of an ambulance,” says Shelley Fabrizio, principal of Windsor Elementary School in Arlington Heights.

Fabrizio has worked for the district for 12 years and has been at Windsor Elementary for the past seven. Of her more than 515 students, 10 percent are on free-and-reduced lunch and about 15 percent are English language learners.

She came on board to the Dryden Place Project fairly early, she says, since so many of her students live in the complex.

And Fabrizio says there’s a noticeable difference in her students – already there has been a 42 percent drop in 911 calls over the past year.

“It’s a feeling of being in a safer environment,” she says. “We don’t start until the beginning of August – so having breakfast every day gets their brains working and ready to face whatever the day is; they can come to class and don’t have to worry about if the heat is on in their apartment. To have those basic needs met helps them focus and feel loved.”

Read more of the College of Education's 2018 Alumni Magazine