Every morning, I come to work thinking about our students. Not politics, or rhetoric, or the news. Just our students—all 12,000 of them. They come from every one of Chicago’s neighborhoods, as far north as Jefferson Park and as far south as Pullman. Most of them take public transit, sometimes multiple buses and trains, to get to school. Some of them walk while others catch a ride with a family member or neighbor. But each one of them, no matter how they arrive or where they come from or how long it takes to get to school, is exercising the same right: their right to choose. So much of the public education debate in our city and country is focused on the abstract. We talk about policies and ideas in technical terms, and occasionally those debates spill over into arguments. We get emotional, we take sides. Far too often we forget that school choice is ultimately a very personal exercise, and one that empowers families all across our country and city. I have the privilege of seeing this empowerment every day. At the
Noble Network of Charter Schools, where I work, our 18 college prep public schools exist only because students and their families continue to exercise their right to choose a better school for their children. If they didn’t choose us, we wouldn’t be here. Talk all you want about politics or ideas, but make sure you come see our students and talk to our families before criticizing their choice. Come ride each morning with Darrius and DeVon Clinkscales, twins from the South Side, who make the long trek every day to their Noble school on the North Side. Ask them about their senior year courses and how hard they work. Ask them how their teachers support them, push them, guide them. Then ask them about their acceptances to Ivy League universities. Ask them if exercising their right to school choice was worth it. Or spend some time with the family of Aloni Harris, a Noble graduate now in her first year at Yale University after four years at a West Side Noble campus. Ask her mother why they chose the high school they did. Ask her if it was worth it. I bet you can guess the answer. And maybe spend a moment taking in the scene at our downtown campus, where a diverse group of Chicago students arrives at the front door from quite literally every direction in the city. The trains spiraling out from the Loop trace the neighborhoods our students call home, but the choice they make each morning brings them together in one place. And if history holds, these future Noble graduates will enter college at rates equal to or exceeding those of their selective-enrollment peers. All because they made a choice. It’s enough to make me wonder why anyone would want to disempower these students and families. Who are we to tell them that they cannot choose a better school, that they are restricted by the social, economic and political barriers to the schools our society dictates for them? Who are we to tell a student that they can’t move to a “better” school district just because their family doesn’t have the money?
Then I remember the debate. And the rhetoric. And the arguments. I forget that most people are not fortunate enough to see what I see every morning—students and families, bundled up against the cold, streaming into our charter public schools from every corner of the city. Many of them will have siblings in other Chicago public schools of choice, like selective enrollment or magnet. All of them, together, choosing to do what is best for their families. That’s why, for me, school choice is not just about politics. We are talking about real families weighing their options and making real decisions that will have deep and lasting impacts on their children. And that’s what I see at Noble. Twelve thousand choices made, every morning, for something better. Each student and family empowered, their choices profound and unique to them. This isn’t just a policy—it’s personal.
Constance Jones Brewer is the president of the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago, Illinois. She previously served in executive leadership with the national KIPP Foundation. A native of North Carolina and the proud daughter of a public school teacher, Constance earned her undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master of Business Administration ...