Monday, December 11, 2017

Building Cantigny's Future

by Matt LaFond, Executive Director, Cantigny Park

About a year ago, we announced major revitalization plans for Cantigny, the former home of Robert R. McCormick in Wheaton. We didn’t have a name for our project at the time, only big plans for the estate’s gardens, grounds and museums.

Project New Leaf is still years from completion, but progress came quickly in 2017. Just before Labor Day, the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park reopened after a 10-month renovation. If you’ve had a chance to visit, we hope you agree that our world-class military museum is better than ever—as an educational resource and as a tribute to those who served or serve today.

“Better than ever” aptly describes our goal for Cantigny Park overall. Through Project New Leaf, the McCormick Foundation is investing to ensure a superior guest experience for current and future generations of visitors.

Colonel McCormick, our benefactor, would want nothing less. We honor and share his vision for Cantigny as a community gathering place for learning and recreation.

More progress is on the way. Next spring our new farm-themed playground will open to visitors, followed by a grand reopening of the redesigned Display and Pond Gardens. These areas will be signature attractions at Cantigny for many years to come.

Our landscape design partner for Project New Leaf is Sasaki Associates from Boston, the same firm responsible for the new Chicago Riverwalk.

Changes are in store for Robert R. McCormick’s former residence as well. We envision the mansion becoming much more than a museum. Ideas under review include spaces for meetings and receptions and creating opportunities for civic learning and social engagement. Structural work on McCormick House is ongoing as we preserve one of Chicagoland’s most cherished historic landmarks.

As Project New Leaf enters its second year, we thank our guests for their patience and understanding. The park will stay open throughout 2018, and current plans call for the return of favorite events such as our popular outdoor symphony concerts and LEGO Train Show.

This is truly an exciting time in Cantigny’s history. The staff is energized, and feedback from park visitors is positive. They see and sense that a good thing is getting even better.

With much more work ahead, we hope for a light winter and early spring!

Schools Play Definitive Role in Students' Civic Development

by Shawn Healy, Program Director, Democracy

As a former high school teacher, I believe deeply in the premise that formal education can shape students’ civic development. The sustenance and success of our democratic experiment is dependent upon each generation being knowledgeable about both the issues of the day and the institutions of government, possessing the skills necessary to work together to resolve collective problems, and the belief that civic participation is both valuable and impactful.

The Foundation certainly understands that schools play a vital role in cultivating engaged and effective citizens. In 2015, the Foundation and other statewide partners helped pass legislation that requires all high school students to complete a semester-long civics course effective with the Class of 2020. Through our statewide civic learning and engagement work, including the implementation of the new course and the Illinois Democracy Schools initiative, the Foundation provides guidance and support for how high schools and educators can incorporate civic learning across disciplines.

Recently, I was asked by the American Political Science Association to write a chapter in a book entitled Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines. I highlighted the Foundation’s work with the Illinois Democracy School initiative and the related supports that must be in place in order to sustain a successful civic learning environment for students.

My research demonstrates that schools with sustained, systemic commitments to their students’ civic development have a handful of traits in common including: (1) strong civic mission statements and shared leadership in their pursuit; (2) challenging curriculum with traditional and innovative civic learning practices woven across grade levels and subject areas; and (3) leverage reciprocal relationships with parents and the surrounding community. Although these schools have room to grow in other areas, these indicators are vital to sustaining and systematizing school-based civic learning.

The chapter also looks at how civic learning and engagement opportunities in high schools (and even in the lower grades) help to strengthen the pipeline to college. Students who engage with civic learning practices, at a younger age, not only earn higher grade point averages but also have higher retention rates and are more likely to complete their college degree. They also demonstrate improved academic content knowledge, critical thinking skills, written and verbal communication proficiency, and leadership abilities. Challenges are acknowledged, but opportunities abound, as colleges and universities have an important civic mission that must ultimately form a P–20 continuum as we prepare students for informed, effective participation in our democracy.