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La Casa will be ‘mi casa’ for college students

Communities like Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards have higher-than-desirable high school dropout rates and lower-than-desirable college retention rates. Those who attend college are often the first in their families to do so, lacking the benefits of parents with campus experience, and they’re often commuters.

For all these reasons and more, NCP lead agency The Resurrection Project has teamed with several partners to construct La Casa, a community-based college dormitory and “Live-and-Learn Educational Center” for students from any institution of higher learning that will open its doors for the fall semester. The 27,000-square-foot, six-story building will house 105 students, who are expected to mostly hail from the Near Southwest Side but could be from anywhere.

Photo: Ed Finkel

La Casa will provide mentoring for college students who, in turn, will be invited to help mentor high school and middle school students from Pilsen and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re responding to a student who would otherwise live in a crowded, two-bedroom apartment where the only quiet space they have to study is the bathroom or the kitchen, at midnight,” says Julio Guerrero, vice president of marketing and resource development at The Resurrection Project (TRP). “It’s kids who would otherwise live at home. We want students to have a conducive learning environment [of the sort] that their peers might have on campus.”

La Casa’s opening reflects the patient planning and dogged determination that TRP displayed more than six years ago, when it identified the development as a priority during its quality-of-life planning. That plan, completed through TRP’s engagement with LISC Chicago's New Communities Program, includes a section designed to “develop paths to higher education for youth and adults,” noting studies that showed only 6 percent of entering college freshmen citywide would attain a degree by their mid-20s.

The study, by the Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, found that Latino students had even lower rates of college attainment. TRP figured that La Casa, originally to be built on the site of the former St. Adalbert’s Convent, would allow some students to live closer to home in a supportive environment, which might then increase their chances of graduating.

 The top five floors of the new building, at the intersection of 18th Street and Paulina Avenue, will house the students in two- to three-bedroom suites with a living room and a kitchenette, with one resident advisor to a floor. The first floor will contain 1,460 square feet of leasable commercial space and a 1,200-square-foot resource center that will be operated by Instituto del Progreso Latino, a close partner of TRP in the NCP process as well as the Pilsen site for LISC Chicago’s Centers for Working Families.

Guerrero anticipates college students who live in the building will participate in that programming aimed at middle- and high-school students, called escalera (“the ladder”), aimed at providing mentorship, academic enrichment, leadership skills and information about applying to college and gaining financial aid.

Photo: Ed Finkel

“The workload demands and expectations are completely different" in college, says Julio Guerrero, vice president of marketing and resource development at The Resurrection Project. “We’re providing wraparound support services for them. Our on-site staff will organize and create workshops [about topics like] what it means to read at a college level.”

“Our community has a significant high-school dropout rate and low college retention rates,” he says, noting 2010 citywide figures that show 35 percent of Latinos dropped out of high school—but only 8.9 percent earned a bachelor’s degree. “We want to make progress in breaking those trends.”

In turn, La Casa will provide mentoring for its resident college students to ensure that they succeed, given that relatively few family members or friends will be able to relate to their experiences, Guerrero says. He cites research showing that “while students may have been succeeding in high school, they were not well-prepared for the rigor, discipline and demands of college life.”

“The workload demands and expectations are completely different,” he adds. “We’re providing wraparound support services for them. Our on-site staff will organize and create workshops [about topics like] what it means to read at a college level.”

An adjacent 6,000-square-foot building on 18th Place will contain an educational resource center, lounge, fitness and recreational space, classroom and meeting space where these workshops for the resident college students will take place, led by a new program manager from The Resurrection Project.

Other pieces of the “wraparound services” provided will be links to internship opportunities at TRP and area businesses, along with connections with young professionals from the community who can answer questions and help the college students navigate their new waters—much as the college students will be doing for middle- and high-school students through IDPL’s program, Guerrero says.

Photo: Cesar Nuņez

The Resurrection Project envisions a former convent as a home for Latino college students.

The $11.3 million project has received an $8.4 million capital grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity along with additional support from the Polk Bros. Foundation, JP Morgan Chase – Facebook Community Giving Campaign, Field Foundation of Illinois, John and Kathleen Buck, Jim and Kay Mabie, Cody and Deborah Engle, and Vive La Hispanidad.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held for the facility in March, at which point a model unit will be on display for marketing purposes in anticipation of the fall semester opening. TRP is partnering with several area universities to raise awareness of the facility and to work jointly on academically strengthening student performance, Guerrero says.

“We think we’re positioned, given our track record in the community, and our reputation and success, to be that trailblazing model—to show that this type of situation, especially for commuting students, can increase our [college] retention,” he says.

For an earlier story about La Casa, please click here.

For information about a kick-off press event for La Casa, please click here.

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