Belinda Jones is a single mother who raised her six children—five daughters and one son—in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. All her children are now college graduates or current students. “Not to go to college is not an option in my household,” Belinda said, and then she added, “I can honestly say that it all started at Westside.”
“Westside” is Chicago West Side Christian School (CWSCS) in North Lawndale, a school for children from preschool through eighth grade. Belinda discovered CWSCS just when she needed it.
“The first three (of my children) were going to an elementary school in the area, and there was an incident: the school was on lockdown because of a drive-by shooting. I thought, ‘This is not going to work.’ I found a (partial) scholarship offered by the Children’s Scholarship Fund for private schools in the area, and I applied for it and was approved. I wasn’t aware of any private schools in the area, but I was literally walking down Pulaski and saw Westside. I went in and asked if it was a new school. They said it had been there for years. I met with Mrs. Harris, and the following Monday I transferred my three school-age children there. It was meant to be.
“The private schooling, the small classrooms—that’s what my kids needed at that time. They knew how to excel and succeed with the support of Westside and family.”
All her children excelled at CWSCS: they were all on the honor roll; two were valedictorians of their eighth grade class (Jasmine and Lyric); and one was salutatorian (Ebony). Each of them is also excelling now: Ebony attends Chicago State and is studying communications; CJ graduated from Roosevelt with a degree in business management; Brittney studied psychology at DePaul; Jasmine graduated summa cum laude from Baylor this spring with degrees in anthropology and forensic science and a minor in Spanish; Amber is in her junior year at Calvin as a communications and sociology major; and Lyric, the youngest, is at UIC pursuing sociology and social work. Mrs. Jones’ six children are doing well, and conversation with the youngest and oldest of them reveals they, like their mother, believe CWSCS has had great impact on their family.
Ebony, who plans to be a health inspector, said Westside definitely pushed her and prepared her academically—“Teaching wise, it really got me through high school”—but the school’s influence went far beyond the classroom. “Westside, for me, was like a family. It taught me that you didn’t have to be perfect in everything you do. It’s okay to grow. The first thing I think of when I think of Westside is family.”
Lyric, who works in CWSCS’s after-school program, agrees. “I can’t stay away from this place,” she said, laughing. “I’ve formed close relationships here; they’re like family now. Westside was always a safe place for us to be, and they’ve always made sure we were in good hands. There are people here I can rely and depend on, and whenever they need me, I can come.”
Lyric, along with older sisters Amber and Jasmine, attended Westside for all her elementary education. They never lived far from the school during those years, and many of Lyric’s growing up memories involve CWSCS. She remembers crying so hard her first day of kindergarten that Mrs. Ford had to call her sister to come from another area of the school. “She was the first teacher I put my trust in to take care of me.” Chocolate week in third grade, she said, “was the only time I liked math. We used M&Ms!” Fourth grade teacher Mr. Sytsma was her first male teacher, and he always made class fun. She wrote her first ten-page paper during middle school. “Mrs. Harris had us do all this research,” Lyric said, “and it’s still helping me now!” Ms. Wiltjer, whom Lyric said can “really be a friend to you,” was in her first year of teaching when Lyric was in eighth grade, and they learned together. And Ms. Perry was a presence through all her years at Westside, checking on Lyric every time she went into the office and joking with her. “When I graduated from Westside, I told myself I wasn’t going to cry, but as soon as I started my speech, I cried. It hit me that I was going to leave this building.
“I loved coming to CWSCS,” Lyric said, “I still love coming here. It’s a fun place to be. I tell students who are here now not to take this opportunity for granted. They should build relationships here because this is a place you can always come back to.”
But, like Ebony, Lyric says Westside prepared her to move on. “I got to go to a great high school because I was ready academically, and CWSCS also prepared me socially. The diversity at Westside was higher than it was at the neighborhood elementary school I would have attended, and knowing people from different ethnicities at Westside helped me to not have culture shock when I went to high school. Once you get to know people who are different from you, you don’t have to form cliques with only people who look like you. Because of Westside I wasn’t forced into a clique.”
Both Ebony and Lyric agree that another benefit is the travel they experienced through CWSCS. Westside’s 4th through 8th grade students visit various places in and around Chicago during the school year, and its 7th and 8th grade students travel to the East Coast to significant historical sites. “I was able to see a different side of Chicago,” said Ebony, “and the East Coast trip helped me know life isn’t just Chicago. It allowed me to experience new things, and that hasn’t stopped for me. I continue to travel; a lot of Westside alum do, all because of the experiences we had through CWSCS. All schools should do that.”
But Westside desires not only to prepare its students academically and socially but also spiritually and emotionally so that, as its vision states, “they are able to lead and serve as Christians in the world.” For Ebony and Lyric, the spiritual influence they received at CWSCS is ongoing in their lives. Westside’s chapels are some of Ebony’s favorite memories, and she says the Bible talks she heard will always be with her. Lyric says, “Westside definitely introduced me to Jesus. We were always studying the Bible, and in third grade I was able to really comprehend what the teacher was saying. That’s the year Westside gave us real Bibles. Then Amber and I got involved with YMEN (a Christian youth mentoring project that works with Westside), and Mrs. Trout became my mentor. Westside became my church home, too, because a friend and I started coming to the church that meets here on Sundays. Because Mrs. Post and Mrs. Trout go to that church, I wasn’t thrown in with strangers. They didn’t force me to believe anything. They just wanted to make sure we understood and wanted to know what we took from it personally.” A great part of what Lyric has taken personally is the desire to serve others as Jesus did. “I had an emotional breakdown in high school, and my best friend—who also went to Westside—encouraged me to meet with the school’s counselor, who then had me meet with a social worker. Being able to talk with someone and share and let out some of the stress was really helpful. That’s why I want to be a social worker working with kids and their families. I want to do that for other kids.” Through her classes at UIC and her work with the children in CWSCS’s after-school program, Lyric is already being prepared to do just that.
Belinda Jones is glad Westside is still a part of her family’s life. “At one time all six of my kids were there as students. I still don’t know how I did it, but they accommodated me when I needed help; they were an extension of our family. I knew, going to work, that my kids were safe. I knew they were being taken care of. I knew that on days when my dad couldn’t pick them up, one of the teachers would bring them home. We’re still involved. CJ serves as the head of the alumni committee, and Lyric works there. I think we always will be involved. I would recommend Westside to any family—I have recommended it. Westside will always be a part of the Jones’ family life.”