Why We Need Schools To Uplift Their Communities Now More Than Ever
As Helen Keller said, "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."
That's why on Wednesday, when Chicago Public Schools decided to shut down 50 public schools, along with either combining or putting others in a turnaround model, even the casual observer could see the absolute failure of our current public education system and its wayward reforms.
Closing 10 percent of the Chicago Public Schools' entire school system is no small feat. True, some schools don't do the best job possible for all children, but closing a tenth of schools signals a deep-rooted symptom of a system whose leaders refuse to do anything besides stick toilet paper-thin Band-Aid reforms on the problems. Instead of duplicating schools like the lauded University of Chicago Laboratory School—created by famed educator John Dewey and where Mayor Rahm Emanuel's children are educated—we settle for closing dozens of schools "for the sake of the children."
Even more foolish is reading the statement from Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett on the closings, in which she quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
"Cowardice asks the question is it safe? Expediency asks the question is it political? Vanity asks the question is it popular? But Conscience asks the question is it right?"
The irony is that the current crop of Chicago school closings affects more than 30 thousand students—87 percent from low-income families, 91 percent from underrepresented peoples. It angers me—and should anger you—to see schools closed that bear the names of American historic figures, specifically histories of people of color. Kids in Chicago recognize names like Louis Armstrong, Ana Roque de Duprey, and Jesse Owens as their elementary schools, not for their respective namesakes. The idea that our most impoverished schools get named after inspirational figures only to get underfunded, overcrowded, and shut down speaks to the dissolution of the mythical American dream, deferred to education deformers.
We need something new.
The future of public schools looks grim by many measures, and the only way to reverse the trend is to treat schools like the center of each community—and invest in that center. Blooming from the center of our communities, we can help students see themselves not as people separate from their surroundings, but people representing the potential for positivity in their neighborhoods.
These schools can then become beacons of knowledge and empowerment for our futures. From them teachers can teach students how to ask questions and navigate the blazing fast pace of the world's growth and creating solutions for sustainability in their local communities.
I refuse to believe that the opportunities we afford our most privileged shouldn't apply to our least fortunate. The strategy of wholesale closings—with a side of one-upsmanship on behalf of the big metropolitan mayors—hasn't worked, and continues to ignore the effects that poverty and narrow curricula have on our children. It's only reinforced the idea that access to education and the promises it holds for uplift aren’t for certain children.
At this point, it's not enough to just say "no" to reforms. We also need to have alternative solutions for our children. The first step is to create a committee of dedicated community members that survey the community's needs, can bring educators in who are academically and socio-emotionally competent for working with students of diverse backgrounds, and can ensure that the school has inner systems of constant reflection, professional development, and community building.
Districts can support schools by offering help (and not simply mandating curriculum or forcing a contradictory set of evaluations for performance) and fully funding initiatives that offer wrap-around services for children most in need. Key stakeholders should see themselves less as managers of smaller parts, and more as partners for a larger whole. Therefore, no matter what school children in poverty go to, they feel like they belong and they can learn.
We can look towards Deborah Meier's Coalition of Essential Schools, Boston's Mission Hill, or Los Angeles' Downtown Magnets High School for clear examples of this type of work coming to life. Plenty of schools around the country—yes, even private Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., where President Obama's daughters attend or the Lab School in Chicago—can serve as models for creating successful schools. However, without the right type of mentality around school reform, we will continue to have separate and unequal schools.
There has never been a better time for sustainable solutions. Case closed.