Challenging times in large urban districts are not uncommon. Reflecting over previous years at CPS, I recall difficult financial times years ago, when the school district faced extreme financial hardship and was unable to pay its bills. As a result, the School Finance Authority was created to oversee, scrutinize and monitor all district expenditures.
We do not want to have to return to that situation. We must all face this harsh reality and be in control of our financial destiny as a district. Currently, people question why so many difficult decisions had to be made, with the closing of schools and the reduction in school budgets. No one can deny the pain when employees lose their jobs and have to look elsewhere or retire. As a former principal of a community school and a father whose children attended their CPS neighborhood school, I understand and empathize with this dilemma. But whether we accept it or not, there is a big financial deficit and it must be addressed now.
In spite of these challenges, CPS must provide equity and excellence in education to all students, but especially to the students, families and communities who have the greatest need. The quality of an urban school district has to be based on the success rate of all children, but especially those who have to overcome the greatest number of challenges.
Many positive signs have emerged and others will be unveiled which will lead to an improved school district for all students. Among the positive signs:
- Full-day kindergarten for all
- Graduation rates, freshmen on-track and college scholarships are up
- Curriculum and instructional support to implement Common Core standards
- Teacher and principal leadership initiatives
- Upgrades for neighborhood schools that welcomed displaced students
- Expansion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and International Baccalaureate programs
- Expanded arts integration
- Additional after-school programs
- Safe Passage routes to keep children safe in troubled neighborhoods
- Student achievement is on the rise at many schools
- More district support for high-needs schools
- More schools for dropouts who want to re-enter the system
Many more initiatives are being implemented, including a single accountability system for all schools, including charter and contract schools, based on academic growth. Several charters have been placed on the academic watch list. Big investments have been made in many neighborhood schools.
For success to continue, leaders in all types of schools must collaborate to serve entire neighborhoods and engage community partners. They must also be instructional leaders and school community activists so that poverty and inequities can be ameliorated.
Successful neighborhood and community schools must be replicated. Schools must also establish outside partnerships instead of lamenting the outside, adverse influences on students. Perhaps some of the closed schools can be re-purposed along these lines as community service centers. Overcrowding relief in neighborhood schools must also be a priority.
Getting parents involved
But whatever changes are made in the system and in schools, there is another essential ingredient for achieving equity and excellence for all students: parent engagement.
Parent engagement can bring positive results such as higher grades and achievement, higher graduation rates, and more student motivation and self-esteem. Research has indicated that family participation is twice as predictive of students’ academic success as socio-economic status. The most consistent predictors of students’ academic achievement and social adjustment are parental expectations of academic success and parental satisfaction with their child’s school.
For parents to engage in their child’s education in meaningful ways, they must be aware of what students should know at different stages of learning and the support that is available to address learning gaps. Parents also need to know what support they should give at home. And the earlier parent involvement begins in a child’s schooling, the more powerful its effects.
But parents must perceive that their school wants them to be involved and will provide the guidance and support to make parent engagement happen. Local School Councils should also become fully aware of their school’s academic achievement status and share it with their school community, in order to fulfill their school governance responsibilities in a proactive manner.
We have to continue to address the disparities in opportunities which exist for so many students. Better articulation between grades, with appropriate staff development between middle grades and high schools, must be implemented.
We must also capitalize on our students’ cultural identities, to develop their academic identities and prepare them to be successful in post-secondary education. Academic identity is nurtured by how students perceive their school, their sense of personal connection to their education and their social interactions. It is a critical factor for academic achievement and motivation to succeed.
It is up to us as a broad school community to counterbalance the pessimism in some circles and concentrate on what education is about – optimism and hope, with concrete results. We must be engaged, not only during good times but also in challenging times. We must also take a stand for the quality of our public schools. After all, CPS has the highest-achieving schools in our state.
As Elizabeth Harrison, founder of National-Louis University said, “One of the chief joys of life has been to watch the sweep forward from the idea of education as a formal acquisition of materials and facts and philosophic theories to the most vital work of creative activity and the significance of community responsibility.”
Carlos M. Azcoitia, board member, Chicago Public Schools
Distinguished Professor of Practice, National-Louis University