Chicago's Southwest Side Needs Better School Choices

This past summer, I served on a Neighborhood Advisory Council that reviewed charter school proposals for Chicago’s Southwest Side. The most important decision we faced was whether to support a new Noble Network charter high school in our neighborhood. A neighbor who has children at Noble had invited me to join the council, a group of volunteers that advises the Chicago Board of Education on charter school decisions. I wanted to see what Noble’s schools are like. My middle son is in eighth grade this year and he wants a good school close to home. He has the grades to go to a selective enrollment high school, but he doesn’t want to travel that far. He and many other young people in the neighborhood want a Noble Network high school close to home. In the end, our advisory council voted 3-to-2 against the Noble proposal, but that vote left out an important voice: the voice of parents whose primary language is Spanish. When I first participated in a required Chicago Public Schools training session for new advisory council members, about a dozen other parents were there who, like me, mostly spoke Spanish. But while we were provided with an interpreter then and at later meetings, the written proposals for charter schools were made available to us only in English. That made the proposals hard to evaluate for those of us who spoke only Spanish. None of those parents stayed except me. I stayed for my son. I wanted to know what kinds of schools we might be getting. We need options. To understand the written proposals, I spent a lot of time with my older son, who was home for the summer from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. We spent a lot of late-night hours talking through what the proposals said. His help was crucial to my understanding. When our advisory council met to vote on the proposals, the biggest surprise for me was that some council members argued that Noble did not have the capacity to operate a school. Some said that Noble had no track record. How is that possible? That is incorrect. Noble has demonstrated its capacity to help students. It gets good results, particularly around college entrance and completion. College completion is definitely the most important measure, and Noble has a track record of success there. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions in the community. Sometimes community leaders misinform people to win support. They confuse us and create division. But we need to know the truth. People were saying you can make it to college from any high school you attend, but that’s not entirely true. The high school you attend has a lot to do with whether you can go to college and succeed. At the public hearings, some people seemed to feel they were in competition with Noble. Good education is not a competition. Noble is a part of the community, too. What type of governance a school has is less important than having good schools.  The conflict in our community, expressed at the public hearings, made the hair on my arms stand up. We need to stay focused on education. Without resources, we cannot move forward. Leaders of our community need to focus on resources for all schools. If we exercise our rights, we can win a lot. It would be better to unite and fight for more resources for everybody. And everyone should respect the right of our students to have a choice. Our students need the right to choose a school that best fits their needs. We also need good school choices closer to home. Many of our students choose selective enrollment schools or existing Noble charter schools, though the schools are far away. If they had closer options, that would be better. Our students should not have to spend two hours, three hours on buses to find a quality school. Aside from all the politics, there is a real need for a school like Noble in our community. At a one-day retreat at the end of ten weeks of study, our advisory committee discussed letters of support for Noble written by various politicians. I asked, “What is more important: the support of political leaders, or the voice of the community in favor of education for their children?” My family and I are not political. We need a good school option close to our home, and Noble is offering us that.  
Maria Esquivel is a mother of three who lives on Chicago’s Southwest Side. This commentary was translated from Spanish and originally appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.
Maria Esquivel is a mother of three who lives on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

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