September 22, 2015 / All Stories

How to change the world: start small

If you’re going to conquer a big challenge, you’ll need a big idea. Finding the means to give every young person, no matter where they’re born, a quality education is one of our most urgent global needs. How do we even begin to tackle such a challenge?

It turns out the big idea is…start small. Really small. Like your own backyard. Or, in AbbVie’s case, in North Chicago, Ill., home of the company’s global headquarters. That’s where AbbVie has joined forces with North Chicago Community Partners (NCCP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that students’ needs, both in and outside the classroom, can be met for educational success.

Addressing an urgent need

NCCP’s innovative partnership approach shows how enormous strides are possible when a group of dedicated public and private groups — each invested in helping a community’s school district thrive — come together to provide a better future to underprivileged students.

In North Chicago, the educational challenges are daunting. The Illinois state board of education took control of the school district in 2012, after the district struggled for many years to meet the diverse academic needs of its students. The district, ranked among the bottom 10% in the state, also faces debilitating funding problems. In early 2015, nearly 1 in 4 North Chicago residents were living in poverty, and unemployment was as high as 9.7%; meanwhile the area’s property tax base is shrinking.

Lack of basic resources can be a major barrier to academic success. Just ask 9-year-old Estrella Perez, a nearsighted public elementary student without access to prescription eyeglasses. As a result, she could barely read her textbooks, much less the teacher’s notes at the front of the classroom. Unfortunately, her situation was all too common in her underfunded school district.

But North Chicago Community Partners does not let kids like Estrella fall through the cracks. Over the last three years, NCCP’s strategic partnership with North Chicago Community Unit School District has been remarkably successful. Thanks to resources provided by NCCP, vision and hearing resources are now widely available. With access to new school-based food pantries, students from needy families are less hungry. And due to NCCP’s active community outreach, parents have become more engaged with their children’s academic pursuits.

At the same time, the district’s high school graduation rate has risen dramatically— from 58% three years ago to 70% in 2015—while attendance, which was as low as 69% in 2012, has now increased to 90% at each school.

The power of partnerships

Crucial to NCCP’s successes are strategic partnerships with corporate and foundation groups that are deeply committed to investing in the community and supporting their employees who volunteer time as mentors and tutors at schools. 

“The majority of our students cannot compete with others from surrounding districts,” explains Jennifer Grumhaus, NCCP’s executive director. “They are so far behind and need help with homework and unconditional encouragement, which our volunteers and staff provide on a daily basis.”

Providing resources outside the classroom is integral to NCCP’s mission. Grumhaus explains that NCCP has created afterschool programs and Saturday enrichment programs to offer students the opportunity to participate in engaging, hands-on activities and off-site educational trips that expose them to topics or experiences that extend beyond what is taught in school.

NCCP has found a passionate corporate partner in AbbVie. While the AbbVie Foundation provides financial support, the company also sponsors year-round volunteer opportunities for employees. And during AbbVie’s “Week of Possibilities” — the company’s annual week-long global volunteer event — more than 1,000 employees in North Chicago volunteered to renovate libraries, staff lounges and classrooms; create a new early learning center; build a playground; participate in family events and teach classes.

“Before [students] can get interested in science, math, engineering and business, they need a strong foundation, and they weren’t getting that,” says Tracie Haas, AbbVie's Vice President of Corporate Responsibility, Brand and Communications. “Now that all these public and private partners are coming together, we're able to build that foundation, improve their education, and hopefully they will someday be our employees.”

It’s just that sort of public-private partnership that has Dr. Ben Martindale, North Chicago’s Community Unit School District Superintendent, so excited. After assuming his position in 2012, Dr. Martindale cultivated a strong bond with NCCP, and came to deeply appreciate the unique advantages of teaming with an outside organization.

“I rely on them as much as I rely on anybody in my central office staff,” says Martindale. “The skill set they bring to the district is extraordinary.”

Here’s a glimpse of what NCCP accomplished during 2014-2015 by teaming with AbbVie and 50 other organizations and more than 3,800 volunteers.

Remarkable results

Successes such as these provide a model for how businesses can begin to address our toughest global problems on a local level.

NCCP’s Grumhaus connects the dots between small, community-based actions and the big, lasting improvements in the lives of young people of North Chicago. Reflecting on the support AbbVie and its employees have provided, she explains, “The collective impact of their contributions is immeasurable.”

Learn more about how North Chicago Community Partners is working to provide a better future to underprivileged students.

Find out about AbbVie’s commitment to transform education around the globe.

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Mary Kathryn Steel
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