SCHOOLS | January 27, 2022
Last spring, sixth-grade reading and social studies teacher Ms. Layla Treuhaft-Ali added a new role to her many responsibilities at Claremont Academy in West Englewood: recess monitor. For 20 minutes, she was in charge of ensuring that students were staying safe while playing with each other—a task that wasn’t always easy.
“At Claremont, we have two big empty fields and then a really tiny public playground across the street. The students would beg me to go there even though it’s meant for much younger kids,” she said. “And so they would climb on the fences and try to make dead trees into a jungle gym and pretty much give me a heart attack. I kept wishing there was a playground that was appropriate.”
This wish connects back to the reason Ms. Treuhaft-Ali became a teacher three years ago. She wanted a career that was intellectual but also relational, one that allowed her to collaborate to solve some of the problems—violence, racism, poverty—that she had seen directly in the world.
When she started teaching, her perspective was to try to emulate the excellent public education she felt that she had received. Over the past few years, she has tailored that approach slightly to be more connected to what her students were interested in learning about.
“While I want to give my students the sense of intellectual empowerment and social connections that I had in the classroom, I think, as teachers, we shouldn’t just stick to like, well, this is what worked for me and what was meaningful for me,” she said. “I’ve found that Claremont kids have pushed me to become a better teacher and a different teacher every year because every group of kids is different.”
Thus, the quest for a new playground ended up being an incredible addition to her curriculum. Even before she learned about the Chicago Works Community Challenge—the initiative that ended up funding the project—she teamed up with an architecture professor at the University of Chicago. Students studied various play areas around Chicago and built prototypes based on their research.
“One of the things I loved about this project was that I had students who never wanted to participate in class who suddenly could not stop raising their hands,” she said. “Sometimes, people can think of play as a luxury or something that we’ll get around to if we have time. But, in this context, my students were players and users but also researchers. They embraced that this was an investigation and they were going to come back with what could or could not work for our school.”
Ms. Treuhaft-Ali sees herself as an educator who prioritizes building relationships with families and Claremont’s surrounding community. Those bonds certainly came in handy during the Chicago Works Community Challenge. Parents were eager to attend community meetings about the project and share its accompanying surveys with everyone they knew.
“There were a lot of moving pieces to this project, and it was daunting to involve more and more people because that only added more moving pieces,” she said. “At the same time, this wouldn’t have been possible if we did not act like community organizers. The kids and I both learned a lot about rallying a community behind a project.”
After Claremont was named a semi-finalist, two of Ms. Treuhaft-Ali’s students presented their research about their school’s need for a new playground in November. They highlighted disparities that existed between their community and other neighborhoods in Chicago. Then, it was a waiting game. The students would ask if they had won nearly every day. Earlier this month, Ms. Treuhaft-Ali was able to give them the good news.
Even after the students learned they would be getting a new playground, Ms. Treuhaft-Ali explains that they also displayed some skepticism. Because they had been so involved in the process, they wanted to make sure that their vision for the playground would be adhered to, especially in terms of safety. This showed how their contributions to the project had helped them develop into leaders, and Ms. Treuhaft-Ali hopes they can keep growing their community-mindedness for years to come.
“Claremont is a fairly new school, so my hope is that Claremont students come back to the West Englewood community. Maybe they’ll open a business, or send their children here, or even become a staff member here,” she said. “Now that we’ve going to have this new space, I hope they see that it’s possible for them to make a huge impact.”