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I’m a longtime education advocate. Here’s why I’m hopeful about Chicago’s next chapter.

Students in the hallways at North-Grand High School in Chicago. Photo by Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat; Taken May, 2019
Students in the hallways at North-Grand High School in Chicago. Photo by Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat; Taken May, 2019
Stacey Rupolo

I’ve lived in the City of Chicago more than three decades. There have always been concerns and issues with the schools, but there was a time that I remember when the schools chief would stay after a board meeting until every parent had been heard

I remember when Richard M. Daley took his whole cabinet out into neighborhoods and stayed until every parent was listened to. They would not leave until people were done speaking. Whether or not requests were granted, I don’t know.

That approach is the personal — you show that you’re attending to people’s individual needs and concerns. The challenge is that it doesn’t deal with issues systemically or equitably.

I do not believe in just addressing issues ad hoc. In Chicago, we need an approach that is both a personal approach and a paradigm shift in how we deal with the system.

When I was asked to be on Lori Lightfoot’s transition team, I really was blown away. The request was that we approach everything through fundamental values, beginning with equity.

It felt different.

I have been working closely with education issues for many years as executive director of the Latino Policy Forum. Since its inception in 2008, the forum has focused on early childhood education, working to ensure greater participation of Latino children in early ed programs.

We’ve developed alliances among Latino and non-Latino organizations to advocate for funds and policies that increase access to and improve the quality of early childhood education programs — and we emphasize policies that attend to the needs of English language learners.

Four of us were selected to be co-chairs of the education transition team. When we were handed the committee list, it was initially around 40 people. We looked at the list and said, There are a lot of holes here. There are a lot of education issues that aren’t represented here. The list went from 40 members to 60 in two days.

I’m not saying it was perfect, and I’m not saying there still weren’t gaps. But it was a noble effort to be inclusive. Ultimately, we asked around 100 people to submit in a short time frame a two-page memo on their key education issues, and we designed a survey asking anyone in the city to give us their perspective. In a week, some 1,700 people responded. We had the survey translated into five languages, and over 100 parents and community folks responded in Spanish.

These Chicagoans expressed gratitude for the skills and heart of the educators who serve our young people. But those same Chicagoans raised another salient point: Too many of our young people are growing up in communities punished by institutional disinvestment and bear the burden of our city’s legacy of inequality, racism, and exclusion.

It’s unacceptable that opportunity gaps persist, especially for Latino and African-American young men, our diverse learners, and our English learners.

The first of our recommendations was to engage in continued dialogue with our communities — to say that those most harmed by history must have input as to our direction forward. Because so much of what happens in Chicago schools has been behind closed doors, because we don’t have open dialogue and debate in board meetings — that’s why we feel so much discontent in Chicago and why so many people are calling for an elected school board.

We feel like there is no accountability, and we see decisions that are inequitable — for example, how resources are distributed throughout the system — and we don’t see things happening in a fair, transparent way.

Another recommendation is to be intentional about making sure that our teacher workforce reflects our student population. There is a growing body of research that says that when you have teachers who look like you, it impacts your performance as a student. I did the analysis, most of which ended up in the report, that says we are so far away from that, we would need 3,000 more African-American teachers, 5,000 more Latino teachers, and 150 more Latino principals.

We’re not going to get anywhere close to that without an intentional effort to build the pipeline and to increase the respect and impact of the profession and how it impacts our children’s lives.

In all, we offered Mayor Lightfoot seven recommendations for Chicago Public Schools. In the commitment to transparency, documents including meeting notes and survey feedback materials are available here.

In my time in Chicago, I certainly have not witnessed anything this broad, this inclusive, or this deliberate to make sure diverse voices in our city are heard.

I am a glass-half-full kind of person or I wouldn’t have been doing this kind of work as long as I have. But I’m also jaded enough to say that, while it’s an incredible effort with a lot of promise that I think is definitely going in the right direction, rhetoric without action doesn’t get us anywhere. Now we need to see how recommendations will be put into action.

I also want to acknowledge that the culture shift is very challenging and very difficult. Expectations are very high. Things are not going to change overnight. But there is a concerted effort to really address them – and I’m waiting with anticipation and excitement and willing to lend a hand.

I’m a pragmatist and a realist, and I know that this is not all on CPS and this cannot all be on the new mayor. We had 60 individuals on the transition committee representing about that many organizations, and they are all doing education work in the city. If we can harness their collective skills, will, and tenacity — and if we can figure out how to have more cohesion among those groups, including parent and community members — we will have something very powerful.

Sylvia Puente is the executive director of the Latino Policy Forum and a member of the state’s Early Learning Council. She was one of four co-chairs of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s transition team.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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