Data Drives School Improvement at Covered Schools

From ensuring students have the educational opportunities they need to reach their potential to planning strategically for the future of 100-year old community institutions, it takes a lot to run a school. Big Shoulders Fund’s Covered Schools Initiative steps in to support schools’ efforts in enrollment marketing, financial planning, scholarships, academics, and more to help them thrive for years to come. Now in its fifth year, the Initiative includes nine schools and has generated more than $1 million in operating savings. More importantly, this year alone, nearly 2,000 students continue to receive a quality education at the schools of their choice. Each of these schools is one more node in a bright network.

Each Covered School also participates in the 5Essentials Survey, a tool developed by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago CCSR) that aims to drive improvement in schools. With three decades of strong research behind it, the survey assesses five key effectiveness factors that reflect the culture and climate of schools, which then correlate with overall school success. Schools that rate strongly in at least three of these five factors are 10 times more likely to improve student learning.

“Using this research-based third-party tool, Big Shoulders is able to deepen its vantage point when looking at schools and tailor the nature of our support accordingly,” said Rebecca Lindsay-Ryan, senior director of academic programs and external affairs. “During the past several years, our team has used survey reports to identify a focus on increasing the use of collaborative practices among teachers. In the last four years, we have seen performance on this measure nearly triple. This data has provided an opportunity to make actionable plans and monitor progress over time to ultimately benefit students.”

One of the Covered Schools, Holy Angels Catholic School, serves the Bronzeville community under the leadership of veteran educator and Holy Angels alumnus Sean Stalling. In that time, the school has used data from the 5Essentials to determine areas of focus with the goal of improving the school’s culture and climate. These whole-school efforts have led to significant increases in “academic press,” which is a measure of how challenged students feel in class, and in the level of trust between students and their teachers.

“The 5Essentials is a well-thought-out way to approach school improvement,” said Stalling. “It touches on the areas that matter most, involves the stakeholders that matter most, and measures the strongest levers to help transform a school. The key is to use the 5Essentials as a tool for change. One should embrace the data it provides and grow from it. The change that results from using this information will make you a better leader and your school a better place for children.”

Since 2015, through Big Shoulders Fund’s Data Analysis Initiative with support from the Data, Outcomes, and Research Committee, Big Shoulders has developed use of the 5Essentials survey into a core offering, with the number of participating schools steadily increasing to 20 and plans to expand to 24 schools this year.

The Gift of Time: Volunteering Through Big Shoulders Fund

Big Shoulders Fund volunteers work on math skills with a St. Sylvester student during the Saturday morning tutoring program.

Volunteers are often the lifeblood of a school, providing skills, dedication, and time that otherwise would not be available. In turn, volunteers join in strengthening school communities across Chicago, broadening their own experience with the city.

Big Shoulders Fund offers a range of volunteer opportunities, with individuals serving as mentors, tutors, sports coaches, guest instructors, school board members, and more. The “Next Generation” of leaders who will guide Big Shoulders into the future includes two groups: the Auxiliary Board and the Chairmen’s Advisory Council.

The Auxiliary Board is now in its 12th year, with 200 (and growing) members who volunteer, fundraise, and publicize the Big Shoulders mission. This fall, the board is sharing its expertise through tutoring, test prep, essay review, and mock interviews across the Big Shoulders Fund network.

“St. Sylvester has benefitted from the generosity of numerous Big Shoulders Fund volunteers,” commented Principal Allyn Doyle. “From tutoring students in math and assisting teachers to landscaping, painting, and reorganizing classrooms, Big Shoulders volunteers have made a big difference in the quality of the education we offer to our students.”

Jeff Apel joined the Auxiliary Board in 2007 after seeking a charity focused on early education. “Big Shoulders stood out with its amazing leadership, impressive supporters, and great families,” he said. Apel joined the Epiphany Catholic School board in 2008 and is now its chair.

“My favorite thing about volunteering on the school board is being part of a team—the principal, teachers, parents, and other volunteers from the business community. Epiphany is in the top 10 schools for enrollment growth. One of the biggest drivers of that success is annual support from Big Shoulders.”

GATX employees, led by CEO Brian Kenney, installed new furniture at a school during a recent service day. GATX employees also mentor and tutor at their two Patron schools, Academy of St. Benedict the African and St. Margaret of Scotland.

Corporate Service Days offer companies a dedicated opportunity for a positive collective volunteering experience. Terry Donnelley, president and COO of ComEd and Big Shoulders Fund board member, recently brought 30 employees to Maternity BVM School for a day of service. Donnelley embraced the spirit of his surroundings by assuming the role of “principal” for the day, with the promise of a gold star or the threat of a detention based on effort.

The Chairmen’s Advisory Council (CAC) has grown to 160 members and aims to increase support for Big Shoulders and involvement of prospective board members. The CAC also supports the Chairmen’s Emergency Scholarship, which provides tuition assistance for families in crisis. In a new endeavor this summer, CAC hosted a Night at Wrigley. For each of the 225 tickets sold, the Chicago Cubs donated $5 to support the scholarship.

A fun program that benefits schools with financial support and the volunteers with some outdoor exercise is the Big Shoulders Fund Racing Team, which last year raised more than $100,000 at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and the Chicago Half Marathon. This fall, 69 individuals were part of the Racing Team, up from 31 members in 2013.

Auxiliary Board member and engineer Chris Goebbert shares his love of the markets with St. Agnes School through the Big Shoulders Fund Stock Market Program, which brings business professionals into eighth grade classrooms to teach basic concepts related to the financial markets, personal savings and investing concepts, and careers in the financial industry. “I took an economics class in high school that taught me the basics of investing, and it forever changed my life financially,” noted Goebbert.

“I owe that teacher a lot and wish he knew the difference he made on my future. I hope some of the lessons in this program resonate with the kids. If I can make an impact on even one kid’s future the way my teacher did with me, my mission will be fulfilled.”

Goebbert also served as 2018 Big Shoulders Fund Ball Co-Chair.

For information about volunteer opportunities, contact Kevin Pitts, Assistant Director, Volunteerism and Engagement.

First STEM Scholars Class Heads Off to College!

Big Shoulders Fund STEM Scholar Natalie Nieves attends a Saturday workshop in 2013. Today, she is a freshman at Wellesley College, where she plans to combine her STEM education with policy-making through a political science major.

Eight years ago, longtime Big Shoulders Fund supporters Wendy and Dave Dury grasped the necessity of improving children’s skills in science, technology, engineering, and math and funded a new scholarship, the Big Shoulders Fund STEM Scholars Program. Students receive scholarship support from fifth through eighth grades and participate in enrichment activities, including Saturday morning classes, science experiments, and museum visits.

This fall, the first class of STEM Scholars is heading to college. Many have realized the program’s original concept and are continuing to pursue an education in one or more STEM areas. Examples include Natalie Bucio, who is on a pre-med track at Loyola University Chicago, and Holy Trinity High School graduate Monika Romo, who is studying engineering at Saint Mary’s College. Big Shoulders continues to support Romo’s college education through a $3,000 grant, renewable for up to four years, from the Greer Foundation.

Jesus Zavala, who is studying engineering at the University of Illinois, served as an intern in the STEM Scholars program for multiple years and as a junior counselor in Big Shoulders Fund’s Brush Creek Ranch Science Enrichment Program. He attributes his intended college major and career path to his exposure to STEM in Saturday classes.

Natalie Nieves, a Holy Trinity graduate who plans to combine her STEM education with policy-making through a political science major at Wellesley College, recalled the program’s impact at a graduation ceremony for STEM Scholars:

“Fifth grade seems like such a long time ago. When I applied for the STEM program, I had no idea I was preparing to do something that would affect the rest of my life. …The Big Shoulders Fund STEM Scholars Program saw the budding geniuses in all of us and helped us evolve into well-grounded scholars who were better prepared for high school than most eighth graders. They want you to succeed!”

The Durys’ vision has inspired other programs, including the Exelon STEM Scholars and a $1 million endowment gift from the Grover Hermann Foundation to fund a significant portion of future programming.

Chicago Students Compete in First Annual Entrepreneurship Challenge

EY and the Big Shoulders Fund Launch a Partnership to Improve STEM Education and
Bring Entrepreneurship to Life


CHICAGO May 12, 2017 – The Chicago office of EY and the Big Shoulders Fund celebrate the first year of a new partnership to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs in the Big Shoulders Fund schools through Defined STEM. The program is an expansion of their three year I-Pad support, but now brings specialized curriculum into all 77 Big Shoulders Fund schools while providing students basic lessons in entrepreneurship.

“EY is committed to helping students prepare for college, and investing in STEM education is critical to college readiness,” said Lee Henderson, Big Shoulders Fund board member and Assurance partner at EY.  “I’m thankful to work for a firm that recognizes the important role the business community plays in supporting education. I’m excited to see how this program will make a meaningful difference in these students’ lives while inspiring them to be the next generation of Chicago entrepreneurs,” he added.

During the school year students from nine schools have been working, with the help of an EY employee mentor, to develop a product or service that would improve the Chicago community. On, Friday, May 12th the program culminated with a competitive team entrepreneurship competition. The students developed pitches, answered questions and explained how their idea was the one worth investing in. The winning project was given $500 investment and the Big Shoulders Fund EY Entrepreneurship trophy. The students in all the classes are excited to find ways to launch their idea and become the next successful Chicago entrepreneur.

“EY has been a strong corporate partner with a clear focus on employee engagement and education especially for underserved children.” said Josh Hale, President and CEO of the Big Shoulders Fund. Hale added, “We are so grateful for EY’s tremendous support.  They enable us to improve the mathematics education available to our students and integrate technology which is so essential to developing the workforce of tomorrow, and now are inspiring students to become entrepreneurs.”

About Big Shoulders Fund

Big Shoulders Fund’s mission is to support inner-city Catholic schools which provide a quality, values-based education, thereby contributing to a stronger community. For more than 30 years, Big Shoulders’ commitment to serving children has been unwavering in its belief that every child deserves access to a safe, high-quality education. Big Shoulders serves students from a vast range of ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds and each child has access to a first-rate education while attending one of the 77 Big Shoulders Fund schools.

Students at Big Shoulders Fund schools excel with compelling academic results. On average, Big Shoulders Fund elementary students perform above the national average on standardized assessments in math and reading by seventh grade, despite often scoring below the national average as third graders. Big Shoulders Fund high schools have a 95 percent graduation rate. Graduates then go on to enroll in college at rates above their local and national peers, as verified by the National Student Clearinghouse. A recent survey of a sample of alumni of Big Shoulders Fund schools showed African-American alumni graduated from college at a rate more than twice the national average and Hispanic alumni graduated at a rate more than three times the national average.

Big Impact From Big Shoulders: Principal Shares Her Experience with Valued Programs

Big Impact From Big Shoulders: Principal Shares Her Experience with Valued Programs

Big Shoulders Fund programs impact schools in a variety of ways. In 2015, St. Mary Star of the Sea (SMSS) School joined the Covered Schools Initiative, which provides a team of Big Shoulders staff and consultants to collaborate with the school on enrollment marketing, financial planning, scholarships, academics, and more. Enrollment has increased 49 percent since 2014–15, the deficit has decreased 42 percent, and 96 percent of 2016 graduates chose a Catholic or quality public high school.

Born and raised in the SMSS community, alumna, former teacher, and current Principal Candice Usauskas shares the ways Big Shoulders programs affect her day-to-day activities. “Having Big Shoulders Fund behind us is kind of like that breath of fresh air now. The overall culture of the school has changed, and people are coming back home.”

A participant in the Big Shoulders Fund Leadership Development Program, Usauskas receives financial support for pursuing her principal licensure and access to a network of mission-driven principals and mentors.

When dealing with financial, ethical, or legal issues, my confidence is strong due to the course work I have participated in through the Leadership Development Program. The network of fellow principals has been accessible in times of need. If I have a concern about discipline or a school policy, it is reassuring to have a support group. Keeping up to date on trends and research will help make our school strong. The entire Big Shoulders educational team is looking out for us as principals to ensure we are at the top of our game.

SMSS participates in the Big Shoulders Fund Math Initiative to bring rigorous curriculum and teaching practices to its students. 

Last summer we purchased new textbooks for grades six through eight. As part of the Math Initiative and its collaboration with the University of Illinois at Chicago, we receive the support of a math coach for the middle school teacher. The program allows us to work in a network of schools that have the same goal: improving math programs and test scores. The teacher receives professional development and collaboration and incorporates ideas she acquires into daily lessons. I am impressed to see the changes in her teaching style. She is more child-centered. The children own their lessons. The level of their math discussions has expanded.

The Big Shoulders Fund Data Analysis Initiative provides SMSS with coaching on how data can best inform instruction, including a value-added model and surveys that gauge school progress from year to year.

We have shifted to using the ACT ASPIRE to assess student learning. Thanks to the Data Analysis Initiative, we can use our professional development time to learn about the components of the test. We have begun to use data from the interim assessments to further drive student instruction and prioritized writing as an area for improvement. Through a partnership created by Big Shoulders, we gained access to the University of Chicago’s 5Essentials survey, which measures school culture and climate in effective leadership, collaborative teachers, ambitious instruction, supportive environment, and involved families. Last year SMSS was rated strong or very strong in all five areas. We surveyed teachers and students, and this year I hope to include parents. It is critical to have a strong school community with opportunities for interaction and feedback. I usually start my day by 6:30 a.m. to be available to speak to parents. I also walk through the school each morning for a quick assessment of the day, touching base with children struggling with assignments or specific subjects.

With the Big Shoulders Fund Summer Fellowship and Marketing Support, SMSS has access to a variety of resources to help with enrollment building, fundraising, and community awareness.

Monday evenings I often have planning meetings at school, and the marketing strategies I have acquired from Big Shoulders leadership have helped me more effectively get our name out to the public. Planning for fundraising is a large task, which takes time to build. I know that help is only a phone call away. Soon we will plan how best to use our Big Shoulders Fund Summer Fellow to help build enrollment and attract more community interest in our school.


This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 Edition of Shoulder to Shoulder