On the far South Side of Chicago, as far south as you can get — a traffic light away from neighboring Riverdale — the Ira F. Aldridge Elementary School is offering its students something rare in the forever-strapped Chicago public school system: opportunity.
With a grant from Chance the Rapper's charity SocialWorks, the school can now offer a more robust music program, ensuring an instrument in every student's hands.
"I remember Chance saying that his goal was to create options and opportunities and exposure for students who otherwise wouldn't have it, and that's exactly what it's doing," says Cynthia Treadwell, the school's principal.
Aldridge Elementary was one recipient of the New Chance: Arts & Literature Fund, a three-year, $100,000 grant to establish programs that aim to enrich students' education well beyond those three years. The school used the grant to purchase instruments, a concrete investment that can provide years of use. Partnering with groups like Hubbard Street Dance has added even more variety and options for participation; right now, Treadwell's students are learning ballroom dancing.
The school had considerable freedom in how to use the funds, Treadwell says. "You had to create an action plan, you had to identify what you thought you wanted to do, but we weren't pigeonholed into sticking to that." Beyond dance and music, they've been able to use funding for field trips and to put on productions of Annie and the indomitable classic The Wiz.
Chance the Rapper's charity has targeted schools in need. Aldridge is a true neighborhood school — the vast majority of its 200 or so students live in the same Altgeld Garden Homes it is nestled within. (Principal Treadwell can spot truants right outside!) To be eligible for the grant, Chicago public schools have to be low performing academically and also lacking an arts program. Unfortunately, Treadwell says, Aldridge at the time fit that bill.
According to SocialWorks, New Chance has raised $4.2 million, distributed across 40 Chicago public schools and impacting almost 7,000 students. That money has been used to fund arts programs to allow John Fiske Elementary School to bring itself up to International Baccalaureate standards, and to upgrade the dance studio and computer lab at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School. Chance the Rapper's foundation allows for the money to be used creatively, Treadwell says. The main requirements are that it needs to provide arts education, remain impactful after the three-year period, and be, first and foremost, for the students.
While she lacked the funding to do everything she wanted to do for her students, Treadwell was fortunate in that she had a music teacher on staff in Kassandra Brown.
Pianos, recorders, wind instruments, drums; Brown now has a stocked music room that allows every student a chance (so to speak) to play. With proper maintenance, they should last for years, allowing Aldridge to continue reaping the benefits of Chance the Rapper's charity long after the grant's run out.
Cynthia TreadwellIra F. Aldridge Elementary School Principal
“(Chance's) goal was to create options and opportunities and exposure for students who otherwise wouldn’t have it.”
With the new opportunities, Brown and Treadwell have seen an increase in participation and confidence. Kids who struggle in academics or athletics, or cannot find a way to stand out and have their gifts noticed, may flourish in music. "I did myself as a child," Brown says.
"They just feel like they're defeated in a lot of things throughout the day," Brown says. "And then they come to music and it's like, 'Hey, I can do this one. I know what I'm doing in here.' And it's a little kick for them."
One of Brown's former pupils is now attending the Chicago High School for the Arts, after auditioning for their vocal program. "That exposure to these programs ignited something in her," Treadwell says.
Exposure and opportunity are the key. It is a harsh reality — and one starkly clear in segregated Chicago — that opportunity is not equal for everybody. The city has a wealth of resources and programs, but they are inaccessible, or difficult to access, for broad swaths of the population. Chance the Rapper's charity is meant to rectify that inequality, giving students in the poorest performing Chicago public schools the benefits that arts provide.
"These kids want to learn," Brown says. "They just need to be given the tools to do it properly."