Black Leaders Push for Equitable Representation in School Board Maps

Photo: Group photo with members of IAAFER, the West Side chapter of the NAACP, the FOI in support of Abdul Muhammad, and Troy LaRaverie, President of the Chicago Principals Association, among others. (Photo: Nicole Jeanine Johnson). 

By Nicole Jeanine Johnson

The battle to approve an equitable map for the proposed Chicago Elected School Board continues. 

On Thursday, a coalition of Black community activists, elected officials, and educators convened a press conference outside the Chicago Board of Election meeting. The group gathered to illuminate the challenges that Black students face in Chicago Public Schools. It demanded sufficient representation in the forthcoming Chicago Elected School Board by creating an equitable map and a legally binding Black Student Achievement Advisory Board. 

An equitable map is critical to ensure that those elected to the school board will prioritize Black students’ needs and be accountable for improving their academic achievement. 

Held at Austin College & Career Academy on Chicago’s West Side, the meeting was the first one to take place in the community in four years.  

The proposed map was presented by the Illinois African Americans For Equitable Redistricting. The group touts that “this is the most fair map,” says Valerie Leonard, IAAFER founder. 

Valerie Leonard, founder of Illinois African Americans For Equitable Redistricting, showcases the map that provides equitable representation for all of Chicago’s communities of color. (Photo: Nicole Jeanine Johnson).

It features 10 districts, each comprising five contiguous city wards. Leonard affirms that this key element ensures that every school within a district will have seven elected officials, five alderpersons and two school board members to support its success. 

This will allow concentrated collaboration to meet a district’s most pressing needs. 

The Fairest Map of Them All 

The IAAFER map provides representation for all communities that represent Chicago Public School’s population. 

“When we drew these districts, we looked after the interests of Black districts first. We also made sure the Latino community had theirs, the Asian community had theirs, and made sure the Jewish community had their influenced districts. No other group, not even the state, has done that.” Leonard assures. 

IAAFER has good reason to propose an equitable map. 

Although Black student achievement has nearly returned to pre-pandemic performance, according to the 2023 Illinois Assessment on Readiness, only 17.3% and 7.8% of Black students meet or exceed expectations for English Language Arts and Mathematics.   

On May 5, the Illinois Senate and House Democratic caucuses released a map that included 20 districts, but boundaries were drawn based on the city’s population. Parents and community members urged them to revisit the maps so that they reflect the city’s diversity. Based on the state’s map, the elected school board would have overwhelming White representation. Additionally, six proposals have been submitted to the Senate Special Committee, including IAAFER’s map.

Springfield Veto Session Battleground 

The maps were supposed to be confirmed in the spring, but the General Assembly blew past that deadline. After waiting for the new mayor to be sworn in, the legislators passed an amendment to extend the deadline in July, granting an additional nine months to approve a map. 

Whether they use all nine months is yet to be determined. There is speculation that a decision could be made during the upcoming veto session. On October 3 & 12, approximately two weeks before the session commences, the Senate Special Committee will hold virtual hearings on proposed maps. During these sessions, previously submitted maps and new proposals will be presented to the committee.

Support from Black Elected Officials 

The IAAFER map received support from various West Side elected officials, two of whom were present during the press conference: 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts expressed that she’s there to “work with her community” and do the job she was elected to do. 

In recent months, Mitts has been quite vocal about elevating the issues her residents face. In July, President Biden declared the West Side, which includes her ward, a disaster area due to heavy rain and flooding from earlier this summer. She worked with the federal government to ensure that her constituents were eligible to receive relief funding and that they knew how to file appropriate claims and appeal if necessary.  

28th Ward Ald. Jason C. Irvin expressed his support for the map: “This [map] keeps our Austin together and doesn’t stretch our communities all the way to Ukrainian Village, which is proposed under the state [map]. This map helps us have a voice.” Irvin’s support is noteworthy as he led the charge for the city’s map redistricting in 2022 while serving as the City Council Black Caucus Chair.  

Having Black elected support spoke volumes to the community organizers present. 

“When we see our Black elected officials stand up for us, this is the type of support we need to move our communities,” said Black Community Collaborative co-founder Natasha Dunn. In her remarks, she promoted a legislative-bound standing committee on Black student achievement for the elected school board. 

The current elected school board legislation mandates a Chicago Board of Education Non-Citizen Advisory Board and for Special Education but does not include comparable provisions for Black students. 

Dunn said, “The fact that you do not see it necessary and important to create a Black Student Achievement Committee while witnessing [our] children in CPS struggle and flounder through the system and receive an inferior education, witnessing reading and math scores plummet to the lowest it’s been in thirty years…it’s almost like you’re enabling systemic racism to continue against Black students and Black neighborhoods.” 

CPS Board Response

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez prepared a response to these concerns with a proposed Black Student Success Plan to be included in the district’s new strategic plan. 

As Martinez rolled out the plan’s vision, he honed in on its impact on Black students: “[A] dedicated sustainable Black student success plan that’s going to address closing those historical gaps. That includes a comprehensive advisory team that reports directly to me. They will listen and respond to the needs of the community, set universal goals, and make actionable recommendations that will lead to the creation of a multifaceted district-wide strategy.” 

The Advisory’s findings will be included in the district’s forthcoming five-year strategic plan. 

Although this designation will be a priority for the current administration, it lacks the legal foundation that protects the interests of non-citizens in perpetuity. As the law stands, Black student achievement would not be a legal priority for the board.

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