Teams with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission

Class Uncovers Historic Census Information

By David Toan's Seventh and Eighth Grade Class, Near North Montessori School, Chicago, Illinois

Students from Near North Montessori School in Chicago, Illinois, were asked to do a project with the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC), a regional government agency in Illinois. NIPC works with this school and other Chicago public schools on planning issues and also teaches students how to use ArcView GIS as a tool to do analysis. The purpose of the project was to help NIPC fill holes in early census population information for roughly 90 communities of the Chicago metropolitan area. NIPC uses this census data to interpret past trends and to make projections into the future. NIPC assigned the project to the students because they brought energy to it and, since it was the class focus, the students were very efficient.

Middle school students from the Near North Montessori School teamed with their area planning commission to unearth historic census information and produce informative maps such as those shown below.

1900 population by municipality 1920 population by municipality
1960 population by municipality 1996 population by municipality

For the 1999-2000 school year, most of David Toan's seventh and eighth grade class curriculum centered around one major project, the Municipal History Project. This project was important not simply because it required a lot of work and effort, but also because it was a project to come along once in a lifetime.

Getting the Information

During the summer of 1999, the students' teacher, Toan, took three students to the URISA conference in Chicago to help them understand the upcoming project. The conference introduced the students to ArcView GIS, the computer software they would be using in the upcoming year, and gave them a better understanding of what they would be doing. Then, in the beginning of the school year, the class made a series of trips outside of school to find missing incorporation dates of the municipalities. The first place they went was the Cook County Maps Office. There, they got incorporation dates for all of the municipalities that were in Cook County. This was the first time they had to do deep and thorough research for the project. They had to look through what seemed like an infinite number of boxes that contained original incorporation documents.

The next phase of gathering information was making phone calls to municipalities. The students called the city halls for each community and tried to get ahold of the information they needed. Some municipalities had all the information, but others couldn't help the students. Next, the students went on field trips to libraries to search for information. They went to the Harold Washington Library and the University of Illinois in Chicago Library. Here, again, they were dealing with original documents. The documents were so old they were literally falling apart. As one of the students said, "the pages were disintegrating in your hands." The students then knew the big responsibility they had for the municipality's census information. After several trips to the libraries and after hours spent on the phone, the students finally found all the necessary information.

Making the Maps

After collecting the information, the students had to put it in a form they could use. With guidance from Beth Meier and Hubert Morgan from NIPC, the students used the program ArcView GIS to display and map the census information. ArcView GIS can make maps of many different things. For example, it can make maps showing where African-Americans lived during the 1940s or where people who owned homes lived in the 1900s. ArcView GIS is also capable of labeling the roads and streets as well as showing all the train or subway lines.

The class first used ArcView GIS to show the location of the communities they were researching. Then they made maps showing how to get to each of the communities from their school. This familiarized the students with some of the possibilities of the software. Afterwards, the students generated maps that showed population density in the Chicago metropolitan area from 1900 to the present.

These maps were very important to NIPC. Most of the people in the class said that making the maps was fun. At first they were a little bit frustrated, but in the end they were making maps in minutes. The students are only beginning to explore the possibilities.

"It was a cool project because we got to see how our city started and we got to use real cool software," said student Jack Lenehan.

Documenting the Project

Hoping to impress on adults that kids can do real work, like what adults do, the students wanted lots of people to learn about what they had done and what others could do with geography. Therefore, Judy Cole, a freelance producer and a parent of an eighth grader in the class, made a short film about the project. The students helped to film and edit the documentary, so this also taught the students about film making.

What The Students Learned

During the Municipal History Project, the students learned many skills in the process of finding and using information. They learned about people and phone skills, mapmaking, and alternative ways to research. Sarah Chang, a seventh grader, said she learned how cities work, what it means to be incorporated, and how one goes about becoming incorporated. Ingrid Abbott, an eighth grader, said she learned research skills, to be patient, and to keep working even when you can't find information at first.

The Municipal History Project also helped the students to learn about the history of Chicago and its architecture. At the end of the project, the students went to the Chicago Historical Society and saw an exhibit about the impact of the railway system on the development of Chicago. They also went on an architectural tour of downtown Chicago that taught them the popularity of the skyscraper in Chicago was, in many ways, due to the rapid population increase in the City during the early 1900s. Now the students are reading books about Chicago.

In the project, the students also learned that you can use maps in many different ways. Maps can be used not just to locate a town or a lake. The students learned that you can see the course of history through a series of maps, and the maps showed how population distribution was affected by history. Maps can be used to graphically display information, which can be interpreted for trends of the past in order to make predictions for the future. The students have learned to see maps in a different way than they previously viewed them. On the whole, the Municipal History Project taught the students about people skills, research techniques, how to use the ArcView GIS software program, film making, architecture, and the history of the City.

According to one student, the project was a fun new change from just the normal work that they do in school.

"It was something we can always look back on and say, 'I did that.' It was something permanent. It was something special," said Jacob Murphy.

David Toan's 1999-2000 class:
Ingrid Abbot, Sarah Chang, Stella Brown, Jason Soo, Amy Cade, Oliver Langrall, Becky Blair, Jacob Murphy, Jack Lenehan, Gabby Emig, Alex Lipman, Eric Seifkas, Reid Smith, Morgan Gaynes, Abigail Rundquist, Luo Yao, Teddy McGuinnis, Madeline Novak, Sarah Bieber, Katherine Koch, Zachary Skinner.

Report compiled by: Jacob Murphy and Jack Lenehan.

For more information, please contact Beth Meier, NIPC (tel.: 312-454-0400, ext. 604; e-mail:, Hubert Morgan, NIPC (tel.: 312-454-0400 ext. 603; e-mail:, or Near North Montessori School (tel.: 773-384-1434, Web:

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