Narrator: Built in 1898, this brick schoolhouse on the southwest side of Chicago has seen good times and bad.
Arne: Twenty years ago, we were called the worst school system in America. I don't know whether that was true or not, but we definitely didn't have a school system we could be proud of. And we've come an extraordinarily long way, particularly since the mayor took over in 1995. And I absolutely am convinced that where school becomes the true heart, the true center of the community, our students are going to do extraordinarily well.
Narrator: One of Chicago's most successful new initiatives began in this old schoolhouse in 2003. It's a pre-kindergarten through high school learning community called Spry, where test scores are on the rise and the graduation rate hovers around 100 percent.
Student: I pledge to myself to do only my best and to lead by example for all of the rest.
Narrator: To alleviate overcrowding and avoid conflict between younger and older students, Spry devised a unique schedule. K-8 students start the day at nine a.m. and the high schoolers' first class starts at eleven.
Tim: Okay, similes. What is a simile?
Isamar: It's good, because I'm not a morning person.
Tim: Get specific, you understand? Go the extra step.
Narrator: High school students put in a full eight-hour day, and many participate in afterschool programs. They also attend sessions on Saturday and throughout the summer in order to graduate in just three years.
Isamar: I'm a sophomore, but it's like we also call each other "sophners" because in a different school, we would actually be juniors. We have to come during the summer. I thought at first it was going to drag, but it's gone by so fast. It's like, I can't even believe it that next year, you know, I'm going to be a senior.
Tim: All right? Again, the details of pictures come in. So Cora, which one did you use?
Cora: The room is crowded like a mall on a Saturday afternoon.
Tim: Oh, the details.
Carlos: We aim for 100 percent graduation. We have the highest expectations. And our theme is that the greatest influence on the student is the family. And the greatest influence on the family is the community. So it is very important to develop a school to meet community needs.
Narrator: The school takes advantage of many community resources, like a local hospital, where Isamar Martinez and several of her classmates spend three mornings a week as interns.
Tim: The internship is a very special part of what the school is. And it's important for a number of reasons. Number one, getting them out there. Number two, giving them the opportunity to see what may be working is all about and the kind of difficulties you're going to face.
Arlyn: Put together discharge kit.
Arlyn: Right now, the students are scheduled and assigned in all different departments. They work with information systems, finance, medical records, telecommunication. And everybody enjoys having the students here with us.
Isamar: I work with the pediatricians. And if I finish early, I get to watch them do like everything, like take the temperature. And I like that because, I mean, not that I don't have anything to do, but I like the fact that I get to watch them do what they do, you know?
Tim: Some kids, it's a success from the get-go, and some kids, they're going to fall on their face sometimes or not do what they're supposed to do. But I think that's why it's valuable. I mean, I think you learn more from your mistakes than you ever do from just being successful all the time.
Narrator: Some high schoolers get to experience the successes and failures of teaching, serving as tutors for the elementary kids.
Claudia: If you see that they're still struggling giving you a good summary, ask them questions.
Claudia: It has been so helpful, especially with the newcomers. They enjoy it, because they're, you know, they could relate to them and they know they're language. They're also bilingual.
Student: Who wants to keep reading on the third paragraph? Go on.
Claudia: And I've noticed that as soon as they start working with the high school kids, you get more interaction, you get more involvement, so they enjoy it more.
Carlos: Sometimes when we describe our model, some people ask, "You're going to have high school kids and elementary kids together? That's not a good practice. That's not safe, you know. That's why we have high schools separate." Well, I think our work is incomplete if we think that after eighth grade, well, we're done. And then suddenly, they go elsewhere, and many of them are not successful.
Student: And then choose one--
Carlos: We work with the high school students saying that you are role models to the elementary children. You represent what they would like to be. So there's an added degree to personal responsibility to this.
Ana: Move this window down over here, just for a--
Narrator: Another program that links elementary and high school studies is a national afterschool program called Miracles, which offers a project-based curriculum in an all-inclusive computer lab.
Ana: Miracles is a two-hour program three times a week. The students have access to computer and they learn Word, Excel, PhotoShop, Publisher. And so that gives them an advantage, as opposed to the other students in their class who are not members of Miracles.
Ana: So you do need to crop this.
Narrator: Designed to boost math, reading, technology, and life skills, Miracles requires students to commit to a six-hour per week program that begins in the sixth grade and continues through high school. Sixth grade students illustrate the life skills they learn by creating claymation movies.
Adrian: The first thing you have to do is to draw it, so see how it looks on the computer in Paint. And then we get the clay for it to be hard and steady. So and then we move it, we take more and more pictures for it to look like a movie.
Narrator: This movie illustrates the life skill, friendliness.
Adrian: So he's walking and then he falls down. And then he sees that he's fallen, so he picks him up. He is the person that helps another person without asking. So then that's a life skill.
Ana: How many pegs does it have?
Narrator: In seventh grade, they build Lego robots.
Ana: Basically, I just kind of watch that they don't get sidetracked, or that-- if I see that they're stuck, just kind of guide them a little. Because the beauty of this program is that they can be creative with it.
Narrator: The Miracles lab also serves the community with adult literacy and computer fundamentals classes offered on Saturdays.
Narrator: It's just one of the many out-of-school time offerings at Spry. By partnering with agencies like the Boys and Girls Club directly across the playground, Spry offers everything from adult math to computer science and salsa. [music] Spry has become the fulfillment of its principal's dream, a community where learning happens everywhere, all the time, and everyone has a stake in it.
Carlos: This trilogy of school, family, and community is very important. Because if you take a look at our school and you see the potential when they move to the local church, to the Boys and Girls Club, when they go to their homes, and the message of education is reinforced, then the opportunities for success are greater. I think it empowers us. And we know it's extra work, but we have to share the work, and that's what counts.
Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to edutopia.org