Back-To-School Sound Off: A Look at Chicago Schools Through the Eyes of Students

Chicago’s political climate grants a soapbox and a stage for a variety of performers. As students around the city welcome a new school year, the political theatrics dealing with education have shown no signs of slowing down.

This year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials called for Gov. Bruce Rauner to fund public education, megastar Chance The Rapper donated over $2 million to CPS schools, members of the Chicago Teacher’s Union protested furloughs at City Hall, and Black and Brown students of color waged a direct action at the July’s City Council meeting against their approval of public TIF funds from the South Side being appropriated toward the Navy Pier renovation project.

Political activity, particularly dealing with education, is in abundance and quite normal in Chicago. However, out of the constant narratives presented in media, it is difficult to locate student voices that are impacted by the political forces that dominate news headlines daily.

Enter Iris Haastrup and Maxine Aguilar––two friends––who dwell in Chicago’s South Side but attend very different CPS schools.

Chicago Public School student Iris Haastrup

Iris Haastrup, a senior at Kenwood Academy High School, has had her academic experiences shaped by the city’s decision-makers and attends the neighborhood school. Maxine Aguilar is a senior at Jones College Prep High School. Aguilar lives in the Woodlawn neighborhood but attends the selective enrollment school in the South Loop.

Haastrup and Aguilar both answer questions about being a Black CPS student in their respective schools.

Can you describe the community in which your respective schools are?

Iris: Kenwood HS sits in the Kenwood-Hyde Park area. It’s an area that has undergone a lot of recent development because of the University of Chicago. Outside investors want to “make the community better,” but the actual student population doesn’t get to engage in the best way that’s possible. The new businesses don’t always hire students from Kenwood or they are not really welcoming towards students as patrons.

Maxine: South Loop. There is couple of colleges in the area like Columbia College. There are a lot of White families in the neighborhood. It’s just south of downtown so we have a lot of access to transportation. It’s an expensive neighborhood because it is in close proximity to the museums, Grant Park, and Lake Michigan.

What is student-life like at your school?

Iris: Kenwood student-life typically surrounds itself with a sports atmosphere. Football and basketball are two very strong pillars. The community at Kenwood is big on “leadership” in a very respectable way. It can be very cliquey at times, but if you don’t want to be in that scene, you can exclude yourself and be your own person.

 Maxine: It’s pretty good. We have good course selection. Every school has teachers who are not, but there are few of those at Jones. We have this parent organization called Friends of Jones. Wealthier schools usually have this because their parents have money to commit to the schools. When CPS was cutting a lot of art funding and teacher salaries, we didn’t have to fire any teachers because the parents donated enough money to supplement the salaries that would’ve been lost.

Do you face any challenges at home that can prevent academic performance?

Iris: I come from a fairly stable family.  But I know Kenwood is a neighborhood high school and a lot of people come with different baggage. Even though the school is predominantly Black, there are very different experiences within the Kenwood community. Some people are middle class. Some people are low-income.

Chicago Public School student Maxine Aguilar

Maxine: The challenges I face outside of school are limited to coming from a single-parent home and being from the South Side of Chicago. Outside of that, my mom does a really good job in equaling out that disadvantage.

Any difficulties you face as a student within the school?

Iris: Dealing with respectability politics within the school. Our school has to present themselves a certain way towards CPS so we get a lot of “Boys don’t sag your pants.” Girls have to dress in specific ways, even when other schools on the North Side have less strict dress codes because their schools are predominantly White.

Maxine: It’s not like overt racist things happen every day but sometimes things will happen on social media. I remember when I was a freshman; there was a girl who made a video saying the n-word over and over again. There is a Republican club. People would put up Trump signs. It’s not common because most of the school believes they are “woke,” but there are same people who don’t stand up for Black issues like they do for sexuality.

Another issue is engaging in activism in the school. Sometimes it is fostered but sometimes it gets pushback from administration who wants their school presented in the best possible way.

What do you think about the political climate you’re in as a student?

Iris: I’m glad that this is my last year. If I were younger, I wouldn’t want to deal with all of this. Kenwood has lost money from CPS and hasn’t reached its full potential because of it. It’s not Kenwood’s fault. I feel it’s CPS’ fault for not properly funding a school that has a growing reputation. We’re not given as much respect as a Jones because we don’t have the title of “selective enrollment.” As a person who went to a selective enrollment school, I know the education isn’t that different.  Kenwood should be getting more praise.

Maxine: I think it’s extremely unequal how funding is distributed in CPS. All the selective enrollment schools get resources. In order for a student to attend, they have to either test-in or live in a certain neighborhood. It’s very unequal in terms of who has access to the resources. This is where I can get the opportunities. It doesn’t sit well with me.

Is student voice supported?

Iris: Student voice is supported because of the connection you can have with faculty and administration.  At Kenwood, I can go into the main office anytime to talk with the principal or administration. Having access to administration is great; if a problem should arise, we can have dialogue about how to fix it.

Maxine: Kind of. If it’s tolerable. The school doesn’t tolerate anything that is too disruptive. They take things seriously if it starts to make them look bad.

Are you excited about the new school year?

Iris: Not really. [laughs] Yes, to get it over with.

Maxine: I’m excited to get into college but not excited to apply.


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