I have worked in some of the most troubled urban school systems in our nation – from New York City to Cleveland to Detroit – and now Chicago. From my experience I know the majority of children in each of these school districts face tremendous disadvantages.
They live in neighborhoods that have seen more than their share of violence. They often live in communities with inadequate health care services, substandard housing, under-resourced schools and few family supports and services.
But does that mean these children cannot learn?
These children may live in poverty, but they are not poor. They can and they do learn. They have the strength and fortitude to triumph over many obstacles.
I know that every child in Chicago Public Schools is born with the God-given grey matter and ability to succeed. My sister and I were those children, growing up in the General Grant housing projects in Harlem, N.Y.
I know it is not easy – but it is possible.
To do this, our children need a strong team of adults behind them. And that is what I am determined to provide for every child, each day, in every classroom across Chicago.
With Mayor Emanuel’s support, we have made great strides this past year by implementing a quality, full school day, getting a jump start on adopting more rigorous Common Core State Standards and expanding high quality school choices for parents – but so much more remains to be done.
I share many of the aspirations for our schools that have been proposed by the Chicago Teachers Union and others: A library in every public school; equal access to advanced technology; air-conditioned schools; a nurse in every school; more counselors; updated, current instructional materials and resources; and high quality after-school programs. I want our children to learn in safe, warm buildings with green playgrounds.
The question is not whether each of our children should have these things. The question is: How do we provide it to them?
I am a believer, but I am also a realist. I know we cannot do what is necessary for our children while facing a billion-dollar deficit. We cannot do what is necessary when we have almost 500,000 seats for a student population closer to 400,000 and buildings that are crumbling.
We must be willing to make the tough choices and critical investments that will best serve our school children. We also need to acknowledge that our District is not serving all the needs of our children because our resources are stretched so thin. When we consolidate schools that are underutilized or half-empty, we will be able to better invest those resources for every child across the District.
These are not decisions that can or should be made in a vacuum. Chicago’s public schools belong to the citizens and the community. We must make sure that the community participates in the decision-making process. We must be open and transparent. We must listen.
By law CPS is required to announce school actions by December 1, however I am working with state legislative leaders to seek an extension so we have the time needed to rigorously and respectfully engage our communities in authentic conversations around their schools. I will ask for a March 31 deadline to ensure all stakeholders have a voice in this process.
This extension will also give us time to work with the newly appointed Commission on School Utilization, an independent group of nine experts composed of elected officials, former teachers and principals, as well as faith, civic, security and community leaders who will help lead the kind of dialogue we need to have that ensures every community across Chicago is a true partner in this process.
Our goal is to have strong neighborhood schools in every community that provide our children with the high-quality education they deserve. And it is only through an open and transparent process that we can forge the consensus we need to build a District that will best serve the next generation of Chicago’s children.