Lack of area schools pushes Allied Drive neighbors to create their own sense of community

Allied Drive Learning CenterAllied Drive Learning CenterWhat makes a neighborhood a neighborhood? Many people would say neighbors, a sense of identity defined by a connection with others who live near one another, are essential to the creation of such a community. And a strong indicator of that identity often lies in a shared school.

Allied Drive and its inhabitants lack a single high school to foster community cohesion, a factor Ald. Brian Solomon argued affects neighborhood students the most.  

“There’s terrible cohesion among school-age kids,” Solomon said. “It’s just a huge issue. As long as the kids are split up among different places, it’s very difficult for them to feel any sense of connection.”

High school students living in the Allied Drive area currently attend a handful of different schools, including alternative night schools located downtown and others as far as Verona, more than a 45-minute bus drive way.

“This is one of the major problems with Allied Drive, that kids go to a number of different [high] schools, and middle and elementary schools, too,” said Ryan Estrella, a social worker positioned in the neighborhood. “There is no area school at all.”

Members of the community have acknowledged this absence of cohesion and are taking the matter into their own hands. 

Selena Pettigrew, president of the Allied Dunn’s Marsh Neighborhood Association, initiated the formation of two summer programs in the neighborhood targeted at school-age boys and girls. The boys’ group started up during the summer and met bi-weekly at a conference room in a local apartment complex. The group, led by several community members, discussed what Pettigrew called “real-life problems.”

The girls’ group calls themselves Girls Empowered by Motivated Sisters (GEMS) and has been up and running for two years. GEMS recently qualified for a neighborhood grant that has helped Pettigrew and other community leaders take the girls on funded field trips across the city, including a recent day spa visit. The group, nearly 25 members strong this year, focuses on topics like social media use, women’s health, and other topics the young women are interested in, Pettigrew said.

Pettigrew stressed the involvement of community members in both programs and noted the difference she has seen in the children, session after session.

“Both groups are led by women in the community, some are community leaders and some are just people living on the street who want to see something better,” Pettigrew said. “We provide [the kids with] a place to discuss ideas they don’t want to talk about with their parents sometimes, and these kids come back changed every session. You should see the changes.”  

Both groups are popular in the area, attracting between 10 and 25 participants at each meeting, a number Pettigrew said she hopes will grow.

Memorial High School, whose attendance area is comprised partly of the Allied Drive neighborhood, is facing cohesion issues itself, said Principal Bruce Dahmen. Memorial has hosted school events and parent-teacher conferences at the Allied Drive Learning Center on several occasions, though Dahmen noted the moves do not provide the same effect as events located at the school.

“Ideally, we’d like to see [families] in our schools,  because many times that barrier is that they haven’t been successful,  or school hasn’t been successful for their kids, maybe there are issues with multiple jobs, or transportation, or even having the time to visit [Memorial],” Dahmen said.

According to Dahmen, Memorial continuously takes steps to reach out to its families, both in the Allied Drive community and across other neighborhoods within its attendance area. The school has recently qualified for funding from the greater Madison Metropolitan School District to implement an after-school dinner for students involved in after-school activities, a strategy Dahmen thinks may help address students who aren’t getting enough to eat at home.

“A lot of our kids might be eating lunch here, and then they possibly don’t get a meal until breakfast here the next day,” Dahmen said.

Nearly 40 percent of Memorial’s lunch program is comprised of students receiving the meal either for free or at a reduced price. A large  percentage lives in the Allied Drive area.  Dahmen expressed his hope that the after-school dinner program will address those students.

Estrella said after-school programs like Memorial’s proposed dinner initiative might have good intentions, but will have little effect on Allied Drive students whose parents may have transportation issues or time constraints.

“The problem with that is there isn’t a school close to the Allied Drive area,” Estrella said.

Estrella addressed his concerns at a Madison Metropolitan School District public forum held at Allied Drive’s Boys and Girls Club this April, but has yet to hear a formal response from the district’s Board of Education.

Area residents have offered a few suggestions on how to bring students together. After holding a forum offering children the opportunity to discuss their concerns, the neighborhood association received feedback for a full basketball court to be installed in the area.

“Some of the complaints were that there isn’t a large space for teens to hang out, or even get together and have a team,” Estrella said. “In response, the neighborhood association has pushed for a full basketball court.”

Association members and city officials are collaborating on the project, but Solomon cited funding problems that have caused the proposal to lose traction.

In an area home to pervasive problems like transience and income stability, a sense of communityis just one issue of many for Allied Drive’s inhabitants. The neighborhood’s physical location, wedged between Madison and Fitchburg, does little to help the situation, Solomon noted.

“Allied is physically cut off from other places of the city,” Solomon said. “It’s just an island. Allied kids don’t have a chance to be physically connected to kids that they go to school with, and if that’s not bad enough, there’s that problem of them not all going to the same [school].”

“It’s a challenged neighborhood – it’s a low-income area, and it’s high rates of rental, and it just adds up to a lot of problems that are hard to fix.”

Despite the challenges the neighborhood faces, Pettigrew said community work like the boys’ and girls’ programs continue to bring Allied Drive’s students together in a neighborhood that is largely lacking a network to connect with one another.

“Because of programs like this, it helps bring students together, even though they don’t go to the same schools,” Pettigrew said. “They still live by each other. They’re still each other’s neighbors.”