Being part of Families in the Loop has lots of perks. At the top of the list is the incredible group of Chicago professionals and business owners I’ve come to know over the past year. Each day they’re hard at work, achieving excellence in their industries and inspiring dreamy entrepreneurs like me to keep going. So this month I’m dedicating the Families in the Loop blog to these Chicago superstars. And since it’s the month of love, I’ve added a twist. I have asked these experts to share how love has factored into their career choice. Was it love at first sight? How about a breakup? Find out here, all throughout the month of February. Parents, it’s time to recharge our career batteries with FITL’s “Live It - Love It” career series.
An After-School Affair
~By Mandee Polonsky
As a little girl, I dreamed of being an architect. The funny thing is that the initial appeal had little to do with getting to plan grand buildings or map out cities. Instead, it had more to do with the prospect of working from home while looking out the window at my kids playing in the snow.
As time went on, I played out the doctor dream and a little of the lawyer one as well. Then, when I needed to narrow it down during my last summer of college, I started working at the Christopher House in Logan Square doing what I thought would be just resume building. There, I met several teen moms studying for the GED while their kids played in the next room. These young women had passed through eighth grade, and sometimes higher, in the Chicago Public School system and were functionally illiterate. I had grown up in the northern suburbs just a short drive north on the Edens Expressway, but it was clear to me how very far apart we really were. It was there that I fell in love with the idea of trying to bridge this distance.
I started with teaching. If I would ever figure out how to fix the system, it would have to come from the inside. When I walked into my New York City classroom, I entered a scene that was like something out of a movie we’ve all seen so many times: overturned, mismatched desks and chairs, chalk on a cracked blackboard, and the oh-so-obvious drip from the ceiling. It was not Kansas, or Northbrook. It was the Bronx — and I was in charge of 28 3rd graders.
Fast forward through three months of crying every day. Needless to say, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. When you graduate college, you think you can do anything. Teaching immediately made me feel like I knew nothing. The day my parents finally said I could pack it in, break up with the vision to transform education, and come home, I resolved to stick it out. I stayed two years and learned more from the kids than I imagine I ever taught them. I did learn that teaching was for much braver souls, so I moved back to Chicago and enrolled in policy school.
While in school, I started an internship at Chicago Public Schools in the Office of After School and Community School Programs and ended up staying eight years. I was able to develop a program called After-School All-Stars from a pilot at 23 sites to a fully fledged free after-school program serving 300 schools and almost 40,000 students. I also started a middle school debate league that is now in place in 22 schools across the state.
But I was entangled in that unhealthy relationship you just cannot shake. I had gone five years without a raise or a promotion. Even though I vowed not to be the girl who got beaten down by the system, I ended up becoming exactly that. So when an opportunity to join a start-up that created affordable after-school opportunities for kids and families called Right at School came along, I leapt at the chance. I broke up with the dream of fixing the system from the inside and am now content to carry the torch from a slightly more comfortable spot.
Looking back on those 15 years since I met those girls in Logan Square, I know now that my role is helping children have access to a safe place after school before their parents come home. And I feel good about that. It would be nice if we could all watch our kids from the window while we work, but as a mom of two boys now, I can’t even unload the dishwasher with them at home. That fantasy will have to remain one a little while longer.
More About Mandee Polonsky, Families in the Loop's Education Superstar
If you have questions about Chicago public schools, Mandee Polonsky has the answers. Having worked in the CPS system for almost a decade, she has collaborated with hundreds of principals, teachers, and parents to better meet the needs of students and to help our local schools. Mandee was formerly the Manager of Enrichment Programs in the Office of Student Support and Engagement at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and served as Executive Director of After-School All-Stars Chicago. Currently, she is the Education Director at Right at School, an innovative organization that provides meaningful enrichment programs to students before and after school. Mandee holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master of Arts in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. She is also the proud mother of a two young sons and is looking forward to the adventures of school with them.
Got the pic right here!