TribNation Conversation for Chicago Public Schools CEO too easy

I bought a ticket to the TribNation’s Chicago Forward conversation between the Tribune’s Editorial Page Editor Bruce Dold and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Bryd-Bennett yesterday thinking, “This should be interesting.”

The Chase Auditorium had lots of empty seats when I arrived minutes before it started.  Many people greeted familiar faces.  Most of the audience was white, many looked to be in their 50s.  Why, I thought, are they here?

Dold began his conversation asking Byrd-Bennett about growing up.  An easy one for her to answer:

  • Grew up in Harlem
  • Parents did not graduate from high school: father a U.S. postal worker, mother stayed at home and worked at a shoe store
  • Graduated high school at fifteen; was a student who “could not wait for the bell to ring”
  • Ninth grade economics teacher taught her that classroom has freedoms of democracy and she should always behave as if parents were on both sides of her
  • Realized the only stable places were schools and churches
  • Was going to be a lawyer but decided best place to make an impact was in schools

Byrd-Bennett explained how she received  a degree in English, not teaching, and taught in East Harlem.  Successful in the classroom, she later moved on to write curriculum and then, when a principal needed throat surgery, she took over and opened a school, which she led for eight years.

Had she always found success? I thought.

When someone accepts to lead a troubled school district like ours during a contentious time when she could, probably, retire, I wonder if having the opportunities she’s had convinced that she cannot fail.

Dold should have asked, “What, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, have your life experiences made you realize about success and failure?”

Shortly after, when school closings came up, he asked her how CPS got to fifty schools.  Easy answer.  She outlined the process, something I’m sure she’s done a million times.  However, I wanted to know what she thought and what she felt when she walked the path that students from closing, or as she said “consolidated,” schools would walk.

Dold should have asked, “What did you see?”  I remember one time that when the mayor visited a school I worked at, people showed up hours before him and spray painted the bushes green.  Had city services brushed away the broken glass?

Byrd-Bennett mentioned her two grandchildren who, she recognized some would say, live a privileged life.

Dold should have asked, “What if the children you love had to make that walk each day from a closed (or consolidated) school to a receiving one?”

On at least three occasions during the conversation, Byrd-Bennett used the future tense:

  • Students “will have what they deserve and need.”
  • She “will set up a process to re-purpose empty school buildings.”
  • She “will have a student advisory panel in the fall.”

Near the end she outlined her logic:

  • If we believe in children,
  • If we provide resources,
  • If we remain true to our five pillars and core values,
  • If we are transparent,

“We should,” she ended, “be able to move the performance of consolidated schools.”

We should.

Why didn’t she use the future tense, we will, there?  Dold should have asked her why not?

Perhaps this is why Byrd-Bennett is determined.  She’s created a plan for her leadership that will succeed no matter what.  “We should be able to” she says, but if they aren’t, the wording will still tell a story of success.

Dold ended by saying that people want her to succeed.  People should want her to.  As a former teacher, she should be able succeed in this leadership role.  She should be able to make decisions that are undeniably good for students.  She should.

But she hasn’t.  She should, instead, recognize that closing schools is disrupting families.  She should recognize that transplanting or transitioning children from school to school carries the same risks.  She should recognize that per-pupil funding sounds like autonomy but is creating more limits for schools.  She should recognize we know Chicago politics, too.  Her humble origins story, she should recognize, has gotten old.

And, she should recognize, if her plan fails, then so will schools, and communities, and kids.  Only then might she be able to accept, much too late of course, that she should have listened to what the people most affected by her decisions had to say.


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