Late this summer,
Illinois passed landmark legislation reforming our inequitable and outdated school funding formula. Many would say this was a big win for our state. And yet, as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), I would say the financial realities in our district and state continue to have a negative impact on my school community’s morale and thus, school climate and culture. What is the connection between financial struggles and a school’s climate and culture? Well, imagine your teenager attending a high school built for 1,500 students, but the population has shrunk to a mere 100. Due to budget cuts, this school has less than a dozen faculty and a leadership with limited options. There are teachers who have to prepare for five classes and are instructing subjects and grades they’ve never taught before. The football team has to play both offense and defense. On top of it all, this school is scheduled for possible consolidation or closure for the following year. This is not a hypothetical situation. This is my reality as a high school math and history teacher in the Austin neighborhood—one of the most underserved in Chicago. And we are in a dire situation. But what’s even more troubling is that we aren’t the only CPS school
hemorrhaging students at a
frightening rate. Even with the passing of the new evidence-based education
funding formula, which should begin sending more dollars to traditionally underfunded districts as early as this year, the increase of families fleeing the city continues to create financial challenges for CPS. On top of all of this, as an increasing number of Chicago’s students are exposed to both acute and chronic stressors like violence, poverty, and other forms of trauma, financial struggles facing many schools mean that there are inadequate resources for much-needed social and academic supports. As a result, teachers absorb the extraordinary responsibility of providing for both the academic and social-emotional needs of students. This enormous responsibility coupled with the uncertainty of a school’s fate directly impacts the morale of the school’s community and in turn, further negatively impacts the climate and culture by eroding the ability of teachers to effectively teach students.
Solving Problems as a Community
With all of these stressors facing our schools, teachers, and students, we need an outlet that gives us the opportunity to move past stress and anxiety and instead identify and discuss solutions. We need space for educators to give feedback and create a dialogue with the district and community at-large. Community problem-solving forums would provide the collaboration necessary to address the challenges our schools face. Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a community Problem-Solving Forum hosted by Educators for Excellence-Chicago (E4E) in the Austin neighborhood. Sitting with me were teachers from all over Chicago’s West Side who shared the same desire as I did—to uplift our voices in our community, with our community. We talked about our struggles and offered solace to each other. It was cathartic. Hearing stories from other teachers made me realize how serious the situation is across the city, but it also began building a community focused on supporting our students. I was overwhelmed and reassured at the same time. As the night wrapped up, I knew I wasn’t alone. I left the forum reenergized and with a renewed hope for identifying solutions. As schools continue to face financial uncertainty and students increasingly must cope with trauma, we desperately need to create spaces for collaboration. Educators need to share their voices with each other, with local stakeholders and the community at-large in order to discuss how best to work together to effectively support students in a financially constrained environment. These community wide problem-solving forums provide a space for commiseration, collaboration, and activation in a solutions-oriented manner. The passage of school funding reform in our state was long-awaited and should result in more money going to districts serving high-need student populations, like those in CPS. As we start to see more funding from the state, CPS should prioritize the continuation of these problem-solving forums. Not only can they produce community generated solutions that leverage resources from within and outside of schools, but they could also result in creative and impactful proposals, supported by entire school communities, for how we spend new funds. Teachers are ready to become part of the solution for a new Chicago school system. We know blaming ourselves and others is counterproductive and what we need most of all is an opportunity to develop a unified vision, so that all of the students we serve get the education they deserve.
Steven G. Fouts, Ed.D., is an educator, op-ed writer and social entrepreneur with 20 years of experience spanning elementary through post-secondary education. He currently teaches history and mathematics at Fredrick Douglass Academy High School in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood and is active in building enterprises that can improve K-12 education. He is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union ...