Feature in Voyage Chicago's Most Inspiring Stories
We don't like to brag, but The ACE Project has the best team! Recently, Susan Klumpner, executive director and co-founder, was asked by Voyage Chicago to share the history of ACE, what challenges the organization has experienced, and how it plans to move forward, benefiting students and communities along the way. Throughout the interview, it was clear how influenced and motivated Susan was by those around her and that demonstrates the extraordinary strength of our team. Check out a few of the excerpts from the interview below, and feel free to read it in its entirety by clicking here.
Voyage Chicago: So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Susan: I didn’t have to wait long before the first roadblock stood in my way. In 2011, I began practicing as a school social worker in Dolton/Riverdale, IL where after-school programs were obsolete. This was a stark contrast to my experience growing up and I saw firsthand how it impacted the students: grades were low (particularly in math and English language arts), absenteeism was high, and there were social, emotional and behavioral issues in and outside the classroom. A few school staff began to stay after school to provide mentorship for struggling students but without a structured program, their efforts could not be sustained.
It wasn’t that the students didn’t want to be engaged in such a way; rather, they were also interested in opportunities to join together with their peers, to learn new skills, and most importantly for any child, to have fun. This volunteer model initiated by the school staff wasn’t able to offer all these aspects within one program but their efforts still counted for something. Their extracurricular endeavors revealed the importance of structuring an after-school model around a base activity that included crucial pieces; additionally, it demonstrated the necessity of recruiting school staff and community members to serve as program leaders since it reinforced trust among the students and adults in and outside the school. The question was asked: what activity could bring together the community in such a way to encompass all these moving pieces?
Life happened in the most serendipitous way. At that time, I was volunteering for Southside Junior Tennis Camp, a summer program that runs at The University of Chicago Lab School, organized by Friends of Chicago International Charter School Tennis. This experience, combined with my involvement throughout the years as a player and coach, helped me recognize how tennis could be utilized as the foundation for an after-school program that checked all the essential boxes. A friend and mentor, Vi Clark, encouraged me to create a community tennis association and then she connected me with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Midwest for further assistance.
Voyage Chicago: Has it been a smooth road?
Susan: Words cannot express how thankful I am to the individuals that helped me and The ACE Project take flight on this incredible journey. Like I imagine many teachers, administrators and coaches feel in under-resourced schools when trying to overcome barriers, a self-imposed weight of expectation was placed squarely on my shoulders as I considered how to lift this model off the ground. I had a chance to pursue my deepest passion but how would I engage an entire community around a cause like this? Though at times, it felt isolating and overwhelming to be accountable for overseeing the progress on so many fronts, an inspiring sequence of events happened: as I opened up more about my vision to other people, they expressed how they wanted to part of the ACE journey. They took responsibility for managing various aspects of the organization, from serving on our board of directors to leading kids on the tennis court at the annual Chase Return the Serve Fun Day in the summer. Each need that we discovered along the way begot an eager participant willing to tackle the challenge. Individuals from all walks of life joined together to make the dream a reality, with the shared vision of benefiting the students, their families and the communities in which they lived.
Voyage Chicago: So, as you know, we’re impressed with The ACE Project – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Susan: I believe what sets The ACE Project apart from other organizations is our ability to replicate this program to benefit students and mobilize communities. I am focusing my doctoral dissertation on the quantitative and qualitative evaluation of our Chicago-based comprehensive model in relation to the best practices I found early on in my research. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a little less than half of Latino, African American, and Native American students will not graduate high school on time, compared to approximately 17% of Asian American and 22% of White students nationally. Additionally, students who are both ethnic minorities and live in poverty oftentimes attend schools that are low-achieving, contributing to an even greater disparity. In 2018, the evaluation will begin as we track student attendance, grades, behavior, and other key measurements to determine the impact we are having through this program. If The ACE Project can definitively illustrate the validity and success of our model, we can package this comprehensive school intervention for schools across the country, helping to bridge the achievement gap within high barrier communities. If not, The ACE Project will continue to do what it does so well: evolve to better meet the needs of the students with high-quality, consistent after-school programs. In all, it’s a win-win.
Voyage Chicago: Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Susan: The one aspect of Chicago that disturbs me is how segregated the city is, particularly when considering the distribution of resources (or lack thereof) in certain neighborhoods. Some students benefit from ample after-school opportunities because their districts have the financial backing to provide these services; others are not so fortunate and it is important to recognize how it impacts the city overall and not just the students. If we, as a whole, cannot see the value in investing in future generations of low-income communities, we fail to see how diversity and equality benefit the rich tapestry of our city: young leaders aren’t able to develop their authentic voice, prospective community activists aren’t able to confidently mobilize a neighborhood and future social workers aren’t able to implement programs that help break the cycle. If there is one lesson I learned from the extracurricular activities of my youth, it is that we can only succeed by working together. Chicago is a thriving hub thanks to the loyal and determined residents who propel the city forward by bridging the gaps through unified effort. This is why I love Chicago more than any other city; it instills hope toward a brighter future.