Achievement Gap

Dear Janice Jackson, I Hope You’re Open to Honest Conversations with Parents in Chicago Public Schools

Janice, you and I know each other. I remember talking with you back when you were a principal at Al Raby High School. I know your deep commitment to all the kids of Chicago, regardless of neighborhood. I applaud you for taking on the huge challenge of engaging more deeply with parents of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students. I believe what you said in your recent letter to parents. “I want to know what’s working and what isn’t,” you pledged. You’re planning community meetings this spring to hear from parents. “It starts with open and honest communication,” you said. To create that kind of dialogue, I highly recommend you take a look at some honest conversation among Chicago-area Black parents, teachers and students. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LJJVctnBxk It makes some great points about connecting with parents. As teacher Kyla Matthews pointed out, “When parents are invited and they don’t show up, it’s a great opportunity to see if we’ve opened the door enough for them to actually come.”

How Wide Can You Open the Door to Parents?

I hope you’ll stay committed to opening that door wider than ever, but I also hope you are ready for what you might get back. Recently I conducted a little experiment on Facebook. I created a chat and asked 27 friends of mine who, like me, are parents or grandparents of Chicago Public Schools students—in charter, magnet and neighborhood schools—what they would want to say to you about their hopes for what you’ll accomplish in your new role as CEO of CPS. Many of these friends of mine are deeply involved in their schools. Some are even teachers and principals. I deliberately tried to invite a mix of people to the conversation. Though I didn’t keep out critics of CPS, I looked hard for parents who were less outspoken than those who often dominate the conversation. Still, the response I got back shocked me. Many of the parents I reached out to feel so burned by CPS administration they didn’t even want to send you a message. Three or four people left the group immediately. One friend said, “I’ll need to exercise, nap and do some guided meditation before I can even attempt an answer.” Two others agreed with her. The level of anger and distrust of CPS is even higher in the toughest controversies happening now, like the plans for high schools in Englewood and Bronzeville. Families in both neighborhoods have serious concerns about the current proposals on the table. In Englewood, older kids would lose their high schools and be given new options and free transportation to them, but parents continue, understandably, to raise safety concerns. A recent meeting to discuss the plan and how to help those older kids ended in chaos. A member of the new school steering committee resigned publicly, on the spot, and the meeting ended in a shouting match.

Are You Ready to Partner with Parents on Solutions?

Meanwhile, stormy meetings have gone on for months in Bronzeville, where the National Teachers Academy, a high-performing, majority-Black elementary school, would be sacrificed to create a new high school. A parent friend of mine has been deep in the fight to keep the National Teachers Academy open as the excellent elementary school it already is. I’ll spare you her harshest words, but she had a very important point worth sharing: “I would ask her to actually get into the weeds with us parents and develop some real, community-influenced solutions.” There are outside-the-box solutions available. I can think of some. In Englewood, what if higher-performing schools in the community, like Lindblom College Prep and Noble’s Johnson campus agreed to take in some of the older students and see them through to graduation? Sure, that breaks the usual rules about getting into selective-enrollment and charter high schools, but this is an unusual situation. In Bronzeville, why aren’t we giving Phillips High School a complete makeover? The sad truth is, we know a lot more about how to open up a new school and launch it well than we do about how to transform historically low-performing high schools. That’s really the root problem at the heart of both these controversies. It’s also a longstanding truth that Chicago Public Schools has had difficulty building real partnerships with the highest-need communities, both at central office level and in the schools (though there are school-level exceptions). My suggestions here are just that—suggestions. The real solutions will come from doing the hard work of planning with communities, not just making decisions for them. But as the recent Englewood meeting showed, the level of anger and distrust in the communities that are your top priorities runs very deep. I hope that you and your boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are open to changing course based on what you hear from those parents who are brave enough to risk an open dialogue with you.

Show 'Heart for the Education of All Kids'

Families have their eyes on broader issues, too. “This year I’m particularly seeing how Black and Brown boys in grades five through eight are treated in the school system,” said one veteran CPS parent who is also now a grandparent. “If there is not more compassionate attention to their needs, we’re about to lose another generation.” Then she asked the most important question: “When do we show heart for the education of all kids?” Janice, I’m rooting for you. I know you have that heart. I hope you’ll have genuine opportunities to let it show in real, solutions-focused dialogue with parents. And I hope parents and community members can overcome their understandable distrust and give you a chance.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an ...

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