In keeping with Barkada’s 2015 theme of education, I’d like to highlight an article that was recently published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ameya Pawar, alderman of the 47th Ward on Chicago’s North Side, wrote an opinion piece about Chicago’s test-based high school system.
He begins by telling the story of his father living in Mumbai, India in the mid-1950s. His father and other students spent their childhood preparing for one test to secure one of a few coveted seats in the right high school. It meant the difference between spending the rest of their lives in poverty or winning the lottery for a chance of getting ahead. Twenty years later, his father immigrated to the United States so that when he started a family, they wouldn’t be condemned to the same broken system. Fast forward to 2015 and we find the same broken system here in Chicago. Pawar describes what this looks like and feels like for the families in our City of Neighborhoods:
Children begin to prepare for Chicago’s selective public high school entrance exam as early as 10 years old – spending hours on homework and stressing over earning straight As. Test-shaming and peer pressure are the norm. Parents scrounge together resources for tutors and admissions consultants. Parents peer pressure one another. To what end? Each year 25,000 eighth graders compete for 3,600 seats across eleven selective enrollment schools. A near-lifetime of preparation to get into the right high school. In a system which serves a few and neglects the whole.
And so, like many families, Pawar’s father once again decided to move his elsewhere to seek out stability and equity, fleeing to the suburbs to find a stable neighborhood K-12 system.
According to Pawar, “Chicago is doing itself a tremendous disservice by replicating an educational pattern that helped force my family out of India. The narrow focus on selective enrollment high schools is stressing families, harming neighborhood high schools, and undermining long-term growth in Chicago.”
Urban education reform treats schools like businesses, but we know that most businesses fail. Pawar’s vision for Chicago’s educational system is where schools are the starting point for neighborhoods to come together and make change happen, because everyone has some vested interest in making sure that their schools are doing well.
He describes this initiative as having three pillars:
- Organize around the schools and change the dialogue in order to change the perception of neighborhood high schools
- Generate conversations one household at a time and connect these conversations to a plan
- Build community around the plan
For a community-driven initiative like this to be successful, the leaders have to be ready to do a lot of listening. By getting people to share stories with one another, they begin to realize that they are dealing with the same challenges and they all want the same thing for their children. They begin to realize that they will be more successful if they work together to make change happen around their schools to achieve stability and equity.