Fixing Chicago Public Schools should be a priority

Fixing Chicago Public Schools should be a priority

My child is not yet three years old. Recently, my wife attempted to warm me up to the concept that we will have to pay application fees (potentially nonrefundable) to apply for a spot in a good preschool. So after taking time to research schools, tour the schools and send in applications on behalf of a three year old, my wife and I will have to write checks and cross our fingers.

Whereas in many suburban communities, children just strap on their backpack and walk to the public school down the street. There is little, if any, jockeying for position in a preschool, elementary or high school class; students in the suburbs just show up.

Until city school children can walk to their neighborhood school and be confident of a good public school education, without parents having to wiggle children into a slot in a magnet school, then Chicago’s public school system is broken.

We should not be satisfied with our schools until we can just send our children to the school down the street.

Reader "JohnM3" commented recently about Chicagoans having to ask ourselves hard questions regarding our schools. He said:

The Mayor will not have been successful fixing the schools until he and other parents with the means to afford alternatives are comfortable sending their kids to their nearest neighborhood school. In the city, it seems that unless you can get your kids into an elite magnet school, you have to pay for private or parochial school. I do not think that is the case in most suburbs.
Let's ask the hard questions:

1. Should we let students go to school outside of their own neighborhood?
2. Should we put resources into elite magnet schools or phase them out and push those resources to neighborhood schools.
3. Should we add a year to elementary school and a year to high school to allow time for students to be able to learn the increasingly complex skills needed to be prepared for life?
4. Should we work closely with industry to devise a quality vocational program or focus more on college prep.
5. Should we identify and remove discipline problems from schools (and segregate into specialized schools) so that teachers can focus more on teaching rather than policing?
6. Should we give paperback textbooks to students that they can write in and retain after the school year rather than try to reuse hardcover books?
7. Should we go to a system where students citywide watch the same class via video and classroom teachers focus on assisting individual students?
8. Should we institute tracking so that all students are at close to the same level in a class. Set performance based standards rather than age or time to allow advancement. Allow for students to spend extra years if needed to attain a high school level of achievement rather than let them drop out or receive a debased diploma for hanging in for 12 years?
9. Should we require school uniforms across all grades and all schools?

We should not accept that city schools should be inferior to suburban schools on average. That does not serve the interests of the entire metro area and is one of the most critical problems we need to address in the Chicago area.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. My wife and I are frustrated seeking the answers.  Is moving to the suburbs the easiest option?  That option certainly doesn't solve-- or even address-- the problem.  Until Chicago children are able to walk down the street and get a quality education, I think we are obligated to keep asking why that is not happening.

I had a spirited debate on Facebook a couple weeks back regarding who is ultimately responsible for educating children.   Ultimately, it is all of our responsibility to ensure our children receive a good education.   First, we are responsible for our own children.   But we are also responsible for the children around us.  And we should want that because the better education our children receive, the better communities we live in. 

I have heard a lot about what our schools need from leaders with ideas-- be it Mayor Emanuel, Jean-Claude Brizard or Karen Lewis.  I have not heard from teachers.  They should have input on what they need to make their jobs easier.   Are there too many bad apple teachers?  Are there too many bad apple students?  Does Chicago lose good teachers because of the pay scale?  Are parents involved?  What are the problems?   

I have had the opportunity to read positions of our leaders on-line and in newspapers, but I think we need to hear from teachers.  Let’s have a conversation. If you are a Chicago Public School teacher and interested in getting together for brunch and discussion on what needs to happen to make our schools better, I’ll buy brunch and write about your thoughts. Please email me at if you are interested. Your comments at brunch will remain anonymous. We’ve heard a lot from John-Claude Brizard, Mayor Emanuel and Karen Lewis– we should hear from you. You’re in the classroom– how can you be more effective?

Please email me if you’re interested in telling us all how you can be more effective.

(Additionally, since I don’t have a city checkbook from before they actually kept track of the balance (or Mayor Emanuel’s), I unfortunately will have to limit the amount of attendees to roughly a dozen.)


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  • I'm not a CPS teacher, but I am a CPS parent as well as an Education Consultant who helps parents navigate the complicated waters of applying for Chicago Public Schools.

    I wonder if there is any large, urban district in which those with means actually prefer to send their children to the public schools? I am not sure that's the case even in Finland (which is often held up as the gold standard in public education.)

    Anyway, I was recently asked by a reporter what *I* thought CPS/the Mayor/Mr. Brizard should do to improve our public schools. And honestly, I could not answer that question. Ultimately, the problem isn't the teachers or the curriculum or the bureaucracy or even the budget (although the fact that Illinois is 48th in the nation w/r/t public monies spent on education.)

    The problem is poverty. Until you solve poverty, you are facing an uphill battle with the public schools. Sure, there are individual schools with a high percentage of students living in poverty that make it work, and very successfully. But they are few and far between.

    So there you have my 2cents and you didn't even have to buy me brunch!

  • Brian - if you look at the solutions being put out there for public schools most of them have to do with the fact that the kids that attend these schools have little to no support system at home or in their neighborhood. A large majority come from single parent homes. A large majority live in areas with heightened levels of gang and drug activity. Poverty is a huge issue.
    It's hard to sit here and talk about reforming schools when it's the culture that needs to be changed. The successful urban prep academies have high rates of graduation and achievement because they seek out students and families that value education and don't look down upon achievement in the classroom and in the workplace whether they be poor or not.

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    I agree that this problem is significant not only in Chicago but really in any city. Unfortunately my belief is that the only TRUE way to solve the problem is if our government were to address the institutionalized societal problems that have run ramped in our nations cities all over. The impact poverty has on learning and the responsibilty of the government in making the necessary changes seems to be an issue that has yet to be properly addressed. In both the Obama and the Bush administrations, the federal education department has alrgely avoided addressing the socioeconomic challenges that impact schools. Instead, they've championed reforms like performance pay for teachers, raising academic standards and creating charter schools. AT WHAT POINT does poverty get addressed when the literacy development of small children in low income school systems shows tremendous deviance from those testing scores of young children in middle-class or upper-class school zones?? Huge changes must first be made nationally on a poverty front in order for inner-city education reform to be considered....

  • Thank you both for reading and commenting. And although I agree with you about poverty being an issue, that is an issue that will never be solved. Unfortunately, there will always be poverty.

    And it shouldn't be the reason why kids can't get a decent education.

    Further, bad or below average schools are not exclusive to Chicago neighborhoods where there is high poverty. I think JohnM3 (the commenter referred to above) really might be on to something when he asked whether students should be able to go to school outside of their neighborhood. Allowing students to go to school outside their neighborhood can lead to parents who give their children more support to leave the neighborhood school, meaning that support system (and when many students leave a neighborhood, many systems) leaves the neighborhood school too.

    I had a conversation with a parent in my neighborhood earlier this year about our neighborhood school as she railed against parents searching for classroom seats outside of our neighborhood being a cause of our neighborhood school being average.

    And Gucci you're right. But rather than just having the Urban Prep type school out there that searches for students and families that value education and want to learn, our neighborhood schools should have a greater ability to expel students making the atmosphere difficult to learn. (JohnM3's #5).

    I don't know what the answers are. But, I'm certainly not happy with the status quo.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  • I feel very lucky that my kids can walk to their neighborhood school and receive (hopefully) a great education in the city of Chicago. The success in the school is a combination of the parent involvement, dedicated teachers and principal. I'm sure more schools can turn around with this support.

    If everyone moves to the suburbs we won't have this similar support and the system will continue to be broken.

    I don't think allowing kids to go to schools not in their neighborhood is an answer. There are already 32 kids in my son's kindergarten class which I think is too many. Without boundries the classes would be unmanageable.

    My kids' and I are only beginning this process, I do think their is a city school that would be a good match for your family.

  • I am a product of CPS schools, all 12 years. I also attended City Colleges to start my college years. There were problems at the schools we went to like no library books to speak of, social issues of drugs and dropouts, etc. Graduated w/ honors though and always walked to and from my neighborhood schools.
    My children now attend a large public school district in the suburbs and they CANNOT just strap on a backpack and attend the neighborhood public school for preschool. My son attended for special needs but I paid for my daughter to attend for 3 months as a typically developing student. Then w/ little notice they said they had no room for typical students, paying or not. Luckily I knew a director at a local church pschool where I could pay again for my daughter to attend. Now my children attend a school 2 blocks away but we ride the bus since there's no sidewalks to connect. I knew all this going into buying my house but I wanted you to know educating a child is never easy, suburbs or not. Parenthood is full of decisions every minute. Nobody straps on a backpack and goes.

  • If the our city wanted to end poverty, it would have. When people blame poverty for students' struggles and they say "end it," it's a distraction so we all can think something is being done to end poverty. If this city, this country, wanted to destory poverty it would have. Poverty is a natural consequence of capitalism.

    As for parenting, some parents are bad. But not all of them. A student can also have great parents but still not have a good school to go to. There is no college prep on the Southwest Side and lots all over the city. Establishing a relationship of equals with parents--even in low income neighborhoods--is possible. I've done it successfully and students have changed and succeeded. If you get a chance, Brian, check out my blog The White Rhino on here. It presents some solutions from a teacher's perspective.

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