As Chicago Public Schools kicked off the 2021-22 school year, CFF and our partners were on the ground across Chicago, supporting back-to-school efforts, providing resources from the Compassion Fund to remove barriers to students reengaging with learning, and bringing additional enthusiasm and energy to the exciting back-to-school season.
Joy and Generosity in Action
Here are just a few examples of our school communities’ enthusiasm and the impact of our partners’ generosity as CPS students headed back to school:
Students at Arnold Mireles Elementary started their school year off proud, with brand new backpacks and school supplies provided by Office Depot and Boise Papers. These partners’ Start Proud! initiative equipped 1,000 students at 3 elementary schools to thrive this year.
Students and families entering CPS Back to School Bashes were greeted with cheerful faces and ample amounts of PPE, much of which was donated by CFF partners. Partners providing essential PPE to supplement CPS’ substantial investments included Bank of America, Grainger, Home Depot, SC Johnson, along with many more.
Cradles to Crayons donated 10,000 backpacks and a trove of other school supplies, making sure every student at 22 different CPS schools started the year with new materials and increased confidence.
Uber Freight‘s Chicago team donated and delivered essential school supplies to Piccolo Elementary.
Team members from Office Depot, CPS Network 12, Mireles Elementary, and CFF confer on preparations for the StartProud! back to school event.
The International WeLoveU Foundation brought backpacks, supplies, and tons of enthusiasm to Spencer Elementary’s back-to-school cookout where students had the opportunity to meet their new teachers before the start of the school year.
Section 8 Chicago – the Independent Supporters’ Association (ISA) for the Chicago Fire Soccer Club – activated their supporter community’s enthusiasm to collect and distribute school supplies for Dr Martin Luther King Jr Academy of Social Justice in Englewood.
This summer, an all-girls team (new to #MinecraftEDU) won 1st place at the #Chitown Showdown, an esports competition hosted by CPS’ Early College and Career Office and the Department of Computer Science. CME Group Foundation supported this event and 5 others like it, funding an esports pilot for our CPS students as they reengaged with STEM learning and readied themselves for the school year.
Principal Randle-Robbins of Mireles Elementary in South Chicago, with Mica from CFF.
CFF at Daley Elementary‘s back-to-school event, visiting a longtime partner and helping with distribution of Cradles to Crayons’ backpack donation.
CFF visited schools to help with back to school efforts. Here’s Sadie, our ED, at Hitch Elementary in Jefferson Park.
CFF visited Ravenswood Elementary and saw students and teachers finding creative ways to collaborate and interact while maintaining social distance.
CFF team members Hutton and Luke organize school supplies at a donation distribution event during the first week of school.
Ravenswood students enjoy lunch outdoors.
In partnership with the Chicago Sun Times, WCIU, and CW26, CPS and CFF initiated a campaign to raise awareness for COVID-19 vaccinations, emphasizing the availability of the vaccine for students ages 12 and older.
To continue to support CPS school communities, please consider donating in these ways:
To honor our students and educators as they continue to return to school, we’re asking those who are able to support the CFF Compassion Fund and help ensure students have the resources needed in and outside of the classroom.
For those looking to build a 1:1 lasting relationship within a specific school, learn more about CFF’s School Partnership Program.
Select “Children First Fund” as your charitable organization of choice with smile.amazon.com, or explore other ways to Give Through Partners on our website.
Back to School 2021: Meet CPS’ StartProud! All Star Teacher
While we can’t predict what this new year has in store, we know students look to schools for far more than academics –– and that our schools rely on the Compassion Fund to address unexpected circumstances.
Our partners’ generosity helps equip our schools to weather the challenges of tomorrow. As students and families encounter various needs, thanks to the support of our community, we’re able to provide resources to help our students and schools succeed.
In Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, Saray spent the 2020-21 school year navigating the everyday challenges of a first-year college student: balancing studies and social interactions, learning how to manage her time with greater independence, and tackling initial courses in her chosen discipline (for her: pursuing a Nursing degree).
But she also had a whole slate of challenges that many college students experience but many others do not: figuring out the complexities of a university and parsing financial aid policies as the first in her family to attend college, and helping care for four younger siblings while her parents juggled work schedules and financial stressors. All this in a global pandemic, which made even “everyday” challenges much more daunting. Through it all, she persevered – and excelled.
Growth in postsecondary education for CPS graduates
Saray isn’t alone in her determination or success. In steadily increasing numbers, Chicago Public Schools students are planning for, pursuing, and succeeding in postsecondary education.
At the same time, students face complicated and unfamiliar challenges to obtaining their desired postsecondary credentials and careers. Chief among them: rising educational and personal costs, multi-faceted family responsibilities, and the continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resources for seniors graduating during the pandemic
In response, CFF developed the Compassion Fund’s postsecondary access program, partnering with CPS Office of College and Career Success (OCCS) to provide resources supporting graduating seniors (and those recently graduated) beginning in spring 2020 and throughout the 2020-21 school year. The power of timely, targeted emergency aid is well-documented, especially for students from backgrounds of limited financial means. Oftentimes, a few hundred dollars can mean the difference between a student matriculating directly to a postsecondary institution or stalling (and, more often than not, permanently discontinuing) their educational journey.
Students and the school communities who support them have navigated an array of challenges, meeting COVID-era transitions to postsecondary education with resilience, flexibility, and determination. Educators and CPS leaders responded to student needs identifying and expanding the needed, targeted supports. Philanthropic partners including Crown Family Philanthropies, PepsiCo, and Fifth Third Bank Foundation contributed college success funding – emphasizing equity, empathy, and rapid-responsiveness in their generosity.
CPS Counselors, College & Career Specialists, and Network and Central Office staff worked nimbly, building a nomination system and aid application review process from scratch. CFF contributed fundraising, project management, and financial expertise to assemble necessary resources and get them to the students who needed them most.
The results were remarkable – at a macro level, 338 students received an average of $432 in emergency financial relief. These funds provided laptops for students who suddenly had to learn remotely when they’d planned to utilize on-campus resources, bus tickets for student transportation to orientations and move-in days, and covered mandatory enrollment fees or other financial hurdles to students’ education.
Saray was one of these students. Graduating in 2020 with a successful high school record, she’d been admitted to her first choice school – North Park University, located only a few short blocks from her family’s home. But then the pandemic hit, and money became even more scarce in her household. A relatively small balance (at least compared to the overall cost of attendance) of $1,008 remained after her financial aid package. Even with a monthly payment plan, this burden felt nearly insurmountable.
Throughout her summer before college and into her freshman year, Saray maintained contact with staff at her CPS high school, and with “Ms. Jenny,” the College & Career Specialist supporting postsecondary efforts at her school. Hearing of the financial obstacles to Saray’s postsecondary plans, this team encouraged her to apply for CFF’s postsecondary success funds, and then connected her with the additional resources from the Continued Transition program. It’s hard to say who smiled widest – Saray, her mother, or Ms. Jenny – when they saw her bursar balance’s updated total: $0. A few weeks later, Saray even received a refund of the payment they’d already cobbled together for their original installment plan. With these funds, she covered the cost of a textbook and online fees for another class – yet another expense she had yet to figure out how to pay.
OCCS devoted significant time and resources to these efforts, and simultaneously collaborated with CFF to get additional funds to students, creating an initiative directing additional advising and financial support to a cohort of schools, thanks to the generous donation of another longtime CFF partner. OCCS’ Continued Transition program also garnered positive results, especially in re-engaging students who’d indicated plans to attend college but hadn’t immediately matriculated in the fall of 2020.
Addressing the details for success at scale
Meeting diverse and specific needs is messy, complicated work. Making this large-scale postsecondary success a reality for students involved educators and administrators tracking packages across Chicagoland to help students locate their pre-loaded debit cards, problem-solving for families with unstable and shifting financial circumstances, and anticipating unique needs of transient populations such as Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS). In more than one instance, someone had to meet or reroute USPS deliveries.
Impact on postsecondary options and experiences
All of this labor and dedication provided invaluable support, advising, and personal connection points — vital to encouraging students, caring for their social and emotional well-being, and helping them navigate a complicated life-transition in an unfamiliar landscape. But the impact went beyond advice and encouragement thanks to the generosity of our philanthropic partners. Meeting needs both social-emotional and practical/financial has the potential to dramatically improve students’ educational and professional trajectories. For hundreds of CPS ’20 graduates, our philanthropic partners recognized and supported that transformative potential firsthand.
Thanks to our partners’ continued generosity, these enhanced supports are again available to CPS students graduating in 2021. Having seen the immense impact of these postsecondary success funds for our alumni, we hope to replicate and expand this initiative in years to come.
Interested in supporting CPS students’ continued success?
In unique circumstances, our community has responded with extraordinary support. Throughout this tumultuous year, partners and supporters have rallied around CPS students. As part of CFF’s broader work on behalf of Chicago Public Schools, our Compassion Fund has raised over $11M for COVID-19 Crisis Response, plus millions more from in-kind donations. Resources contributed to the Compassion Fund provide direct emergency relief for schools and families.
An outpouring of generosity
An immense network has united in partnership, helping ensure CPS families are safe and supported – and that students are equipped to succeed despite changes to their learning environment. Since January 2020, Children First Fund has received support from over 1,200 individual and organizational donors. Donations reflect the diversity of our community of supporters, with contributions ranging from $5 to over $1M.
Support that extends beyond the classroom
Students and families have long looked to CPS for support that extends beyond the classroom, particularly in times of crisis. That’s apparent this year more than ever. Amidst skyrocketing unemployment and a daunting public health emergency, CPS students have shouldered immense personal and family responsibilities – all while pursuing their own educations and adapting to dramatic changes in their learning environments.
Each day, Chicago’s dedicated school leaders and educators help their school communities process and deal with the pandemic’s sweeping impact. Alongside COVID-19, students have confronted numerous other crises, including increased national awareness about racial violence, civil disobedience, and waves of civic unrest. Innovative and empathetic as ever, Chicago’s educators offer their communities practical, mental, and emotional support.
To meet acute, unpredictable needs with responsive, flexible funding, Children First Fund has collaborated with CPS principals throughout the pandemic to equitably distribute resources to hundreds of CPS schools. Established relationships with principals paved the way for school leaders to request support from the Compassion Fund throughout the crisis.
Laura Lemone, EdD and Chief of Schools for CPS’ Network 14, says she “appreciates the simplicity of the process” created for the Compassion Fund’s COVID-19 Response efforts, which she describes as a “godsend” for families in Network 14 experiencing “sudden — and, unfortunately, often multiple — challenges” throughout the extended crisis. She underscores the importance of leveraging school leaders’ strong and trusting relationships with families in their communities: “when hardship comes, the schools know and try to quickly connect the family” with the resources they need. And turnaround time is crucial, as families’ needs and situations can shift rapidly.
“We are very quickly able to gather referrals from schools and approve and distribute resources quickly,” continues Lemone. “A quick response of flexible aid can ensure families have groceries that week or their utilities stay on.”
Emergency relief: widespread and individualized
With emergency relief that is both widespread and individualized, the Compassion Fund aims to help meet and ease the divergent, unpredictable challenges of our present moment. Distribution has prioritized support that empowers families to address their most pressing needs and meeting these needs in a responsive, equitable manner requires constant collaboration with school communities and their leaders. All along the way, it’s been resourced by an outpouring of generosity from our community of friends and supporters.
“The staff is going to be so excited and you better believe I will pull out all the stops. It is wonderful to know that someone is truly listening. In my 30 years of doing this work, this feels so refreshing and gives me something to look forward to as each new day presents its challenges. You guys are truly family.”
Principal Freeney, Kellman Corporate School, sharing about a staff appreciation grant to boost morale for essential workers
CFF Compassion Fund support for CPS students during 2020
Through donations to the Compassion Fund, Children First Fund has been able to equitably distribute resources directly to hundreds of CPS school communities, including over 12,000 technology devices, 30,000 culturally relevant books, and 4,500 pre-K-2nd literacy kits. District-wide investments in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) aim to help students process trauma and grief. Our partners’ support has brought Rainbows’ “Silver Linings” program into over 300 schools and trained 750+ educators, with additional trainings scheduled for early in 2021.
“Receiving this Chromebook will truly help my child to finish his 8th-grade year strong! I am very happy and pleased that Chicago Public Schools was able to make this happen.”
Parent, Ellington Elementary School
Aid has reached families and communities as well, with emergency financial relief of $100-$500 for over 1,000 families facing extenuating circumstances and microgrants given to 350 graduates from the Class of 2020 to ease their post-secondary transitions.
Back-to-School: Equipping Students for Remote Learning
In preparation for the school year, our community of supporters united to equip CPS school communities for a year unlike any other. CFF equitably distributed resources, ensuring our students and schools had the resources to meet this historic moment.
Partners working with CFF through the Compassion Fund’s Back-to-School initiative supported CPS students in novel ways. They helped furnish dedicated home learning spaces with desks, tables, lamps, and other essentials. In addition to CPS’ massive distribution of learning technology, hundreds of students received new headphones to help them focus and engage while learning at home.
The monumental Chicago Connected effort endeavors to empower over 100,000 of our neighbors with internet access. Partner initiatives have supported Child Learning Hubs for families of essential workers. Through aid to the District’s meal distribution efforts, our supporters have provided tens of millions of meals for Chicago families.
Tangible donations like these have been critically important. But it is impossible to overstate the power of intangible support from our community. CPS students, teachers, and staff know that their neighbors and their city is supporting them through this difficult time. We are truly grateful to the companies, foundations, institutions, and individuals who have rallied together to lift up our school communities.
Bringing practical support and encouragement to CPS school communities
During the pandemic, the Compassion Fund has helped bring practical support and encouragement to thousands of students and families across our city. Flexible emergency relief has empowered CPS schools and principals to the heightened needs of their student body–fostering community, boosting morale, and helping students continue learning. And, although they’ve often been concealed behind face masks (including in-kind donations of more than 2.5 million cloth face coverings from CFF partners), we’ve seen an inspiring growth in another essential resource: smiles.
What is the CFF Compassion Fund?
The Compassion Fund supports CPS students by allowing Children First Fund to act immediately when CPS families need us the most. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to move to remote learning, our community responded with an outpouring of generosity. Record numbers of support went to students for computers and headphones connectivity, remote work desks and early reading kits, multicultural books, meal distribution and food delivery, SEL wrap-around services, direct family relief and more.
Moving forward, immense needs persist in our school communities. Whether students move to in-person learning or remain in remote learning, the pandemic continues to have a pronounced impact on the life circumstances and educational needs of our students. While exacerbated by the current public health crisis, most of the needs addressed by the Compassion Fund existed long before the pandemic.
We’ve seen this past year how rapidly our circumstances can shift. In an unpredictable environment, flexibility is crucial for rapid responses to emergent needs. Through our partners continued investments in the Compassion Fund, CFF is positioned to provide precisely this kind of support to Chicago’s students.
To those in the Chicagoland area and beyond who have given with such enthusiasm and compassion, thank you for joining us! Your continued partnership is vital to addressing systemic, local, and individual issues and fulfilling CPS’ Mission, providing a high-quality public education for every child, in every neighborhood, that prepares each for success in college, career, and civic life.
Mars Food's VP of Corporate Affairs reflects on a recent visit with CPS high-school students.
by Caroline Sherman
In January of 2019, organic seed and food company Seeds of Change™ partnered with the Children Fund to award $500,000 to Chicago Public Schools. Since then, the grant has helped CPS schools across Chicago develop lush learning gardens, innovative farm-to-table education programs, substantive professional-development opportunities, farmers markets, and summer gardening jobs for high school students.
Over the summer, Mars Food—parent company to Seeds of Change™—hosted 15 CPS student interns for a botanical/horticultural program that was funded by the same grant. That program culminated in a student visit to the Mars Food North America headquarters here in Chicago, where students got an in-depth look at jobs in the food industry.
Caroline Sherman, VP of Corporate Affairs for Mars Food North America, offered the following reflections on the visit.
As a native Chicagoan, I’m incredibly passionate about ensuring every citizen in our city has the same access to opportunities, especially our children. That’s why I’m so proud to have been a part of the Seeds of Change™ team that granted $500,000 to Chicago Public Schools through the Children First Fund for school gardens and educational programs.
Caroline Sherman and members of Seeds of Change™ pose after their garden build at Walter Dyett High School.
Since the partnership began in January 2019, I’ve been honored to play a direct role in supporting those grants, first by helping to build a new vegetable garden at Walter Dyett High School, and most recently by hosting a group of bright summer interns at the Mars Food North America headquarters.
During the students’ visit to our office, Mars Associates from a range of departments got to spend time and speak directly with these future titans of the food and agricultural industries, offering them glimpses into many of the career options related to growing, cooking, and enjoying healthy food.
CPS student interns interviewed Mars employees about their lives and careers.
While the students got a lot of value from their time with Mars Associates, I have no doubt that it’s our Associates who benefitted the most. It was truly a joy to get to know this group of ambition, curious, and highly capable young adults.
CPS student interns prepared their own lunch in Mars’s fully equipped office kitchen.
The greatest part of the day, at least for me, though I’m sure the students would agree, was lunch. Cooking and eating together can be an incredibly powerful way to learn about and bond with people. Together, we made a delicious, four-course vegetarian meal, featuring plenty of fresh veggies, herbs, and Seeds of Change™ food products. And the interns left with some healthy recipe inspirations to bring back to their families.
The day ended with a game designed to emphasize the importance of sustainability. This was a perfect way to close out a mentorship day. Through the game, the students could clearly see how everything they are learning about horticulture and botany, including how to sustainably grow and harvest food, relates directly to the broader food industry.
Sustainability is something Mars has prioritized for years. We are adamant about creating a better world tomorrow through better food today, and sustainability is at the core of that pursuit. Sustainable growing practices and nutritious food are critical to ensuring the future health of people and the planet for generations to come.
My reflections on the day would not be complete without mentioning the infectious enthusiasm of these students. Their drive and energy make me proud and optimistic about the future of Chicago. I returned to my day-to-day activities with a renewed inspiration because of the time I got to spend with those 15 CPS students.
Before I end, I’d like to address our student interns directly and say thanks. Thanks for taking an interest in what we do, and thanks for giving us back as much as (or more than) than we gave. I am so excited to see what the future holds for each of you.
Caroline Sherman (center), CPS student interns, and members of the Seeds of Change™ team celebrate the meal they’ve prepared together.