The Tale of Two Cities
This week, Chicago’s Public School doors are closed…just like they once were several years ago when Rahm Emmanuel was the Chicago Mayor. At the end of 2019, before the dawn of a new decade, the Chicago Teachers Union and their comrades at Service Employees (SEIU) Local 73 have retaken to the picket lines.
I was a student of Chicago Public Schools. I graduated from Chicago Vocational High School in 2001. I remember most of the excellent teachers I had throughout my most fundamental years. There was Ms. Rome, who first introduced me to the Greek gods and mythology in fourth grade. Mr. Davis, my 6th-grade science teacher, encouraged us to read by claiming reading created new neural connections. Mrs. Johnson, my eighth-grade teacher, was the first person to point out my inherent leadership qualities. My high school English teacher, Ms. Bash, gave me a deep dive into the written works of African-American literary giants such as Richard Wright and Lorraine Hansberry. Sergeant First Class. Webber’s jokes and, at times, inappropriate war stories unknowingly prepped me for my time in military service.
Those are only a few stories about the teachers and educators who helped shape my young mind. In 2011, after graduating from the University of Chicago, I became an administrator for Chicago Public Schools. I saw firsthand what I inherently knew as a child: that Chicago was indeed the tale of two cities. I witnessed how a school like Jones College Prep or Walter Payton High School could prepare its students for a limitless future. They had a wealth of resources available because of the zip codes in which those schools resided. Yet, as an intern at South Shore High School, I saw several hundred students have access to just six hardly functional computers in the school’s barely stocked library. All because that school was located in the wrong zip code.
During that time, I met countless teachers and school administrators. I found that many teachers became extended family to their students. As unofficial big brothers and sisters, they spent numerous hours and much of their own resources to help students complete school projects and courses. They were the caring adults who could listen to a student’s recent non-school troubles. My good friend’s mother was an elementary school science teacher and a pillar of the community until her retirement in 2014. Many after-school and summer programs kept youth off the streets and occupied them with rewarding activities and field trips.
One day, in 2011, a young man injured himself during an after-school pick-up basketball game. I was tasked with transporting him home and had to get permission from his mom first. The school itself didn’t have a full-time nurse. The school didn’t have a full-time counselor or social worker either. However, it did have two full-time cops and metal detectors at every entryway. Black kids needed to be policed, not treated for injuries, or counseled or viewed as humans with immense potential. Apparently, just a select few black kids were worthy of that type of respect; this reality was on full display when I watched school leadership put on a dog and pony show for Mayor Daley, only letting him interact with a group of specially selected students. As for the rest of the students, well, they couldn’t allow the good Mayor to interact with them. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel later called CPS students a “product,” while Mayor Lori Lightfoot currently has the same team of negotiators as her predecessor.
I learned that the old South Shore high school wasn’t an exception. It was the rule. Many schools in Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods lacked a whole staff, including nurses, librarians, and counselors. If they did have these professionals on staff, they were often provided by non-profit organizations. Students’ favorite teachers might be laid off every summer due to budget cuts or school closings. I had friends who hated that they had to destroy a seven-year-old child’s passion for education by letting them know they didn’t score high enough on a corporate-funded standardized test. I saw charter schools take the best and brightest pick of the students and displace so-called “low achieving” students to other schools far outside their respective neighborhoods. What made this worse is for students crossing neighborhood boundaries, it could be a matter of life and death thanks to street gangs and gun violence. I saw classes like music, gym, and art all cut to make way for more standardized test prep classes.
I had the privilege and pleasure of working closely with many students from Chicago Public Schools. Some of their stories were similar to my own: growing up in a rough neighborhood, being a foster kid, not having a place to stay for the night, and attending the funeral of a friend before graduating high school. Through their struggles, I saw their beauty and brilliance, that same brilliance that many teachers on strike today see as well. Opportunities and resources shouldn’t be reserved for students who happen to be born into families with the right class background. Chicago Public Schools should provide a well-rounded education for all its students, whether they live in Roseland or the Gold Coast. Chicago is one of America’s most segregated cities, and Chicago Public Schools is a glaring example of that separation based on class and race.
As the Vice-President of the Progressive Workers Union and a native Chicagoan, I stand with the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU. I’m not a father, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think that every student deserves the best chance to learn and grow. The students of Chicago need teachers who are well-paid and respected. Every school needs nurses because young people get sick. Every school needs counselors, social workers, and psychologists to help young people deal with a range of issues they may face outside of the school walls. Every school needs art, music, and physical education. Every school needs a library and librarians.
At the dawn of a new decade, Chicago faced many of the same struggles when I attended my first class in 1989. But I am optimistic that justice will win and that the students and teachers will get the Chicago Public School system they all deserve.