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Chicago Defender – ‘Lean In’ to Ensure CPS Delivers on its Promises

By Andrea L. Zopp

Last week, I voted, along with five of my colleagues on the Chicago Board of Education to close 49 schools. That difficult decision came after an extensive, thorough, emotional and unprecedented process of analysis, review, investigation and community engagement.

A few have questioned how the head of the Chicago Urban League, a 96-year-old civil rights organization focused on creating economic, educational and social opportunity in the African American community, could vote to close schools in predominantly African American neighborhoods. For me there was no conflict between my decision as a CPS board member and my role at the Chicago Urban League. As hard as it was, the decision to close schools was necessary to enable CPS to better focus its limited resources on delivering a quality education to every child.

The Chicago Urban League has a long history of fighting for reforms that improve the quality of education for students in the heart of the city. Our mission is to ensure that every child has access to a quality education.  The Urban League’s focus on educational opportunity is evident in many ways from our educational programs that include leadership development, academic support and STEM skills development to our civil rights litigation challenging the state’s public education funding formula.

Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to close schools, the fact is that right now, in our communities, a significant number of our kids don’t have access to a quality education.  CPS has made assurances that the “welcoming schools” displaced students will transfer into are higher performing and will support positive environments leading to higher academic achievement. The focus going forward should be on how to ensure our children are provided the best education in a safe environment and holding CPS accountable for delivery on its promises. Yes, I include myself in that accountability index.

“Lean in” has become the catch phrase of the day to describe the relentless, uncompromising commitment to advancement, access, game-changing and success in business. It’s time for parents, teachers and educational leaders to pull up a chair and “lean in” for our children’s sakes; for their right to the education we have promised them.

The closures will allow the district to redirect funding for badly needed resources at schools with higher utilization rates and academic outcomes. That includes creating more libraries, technology and science labs, and art centers, and making sure students learn in air-conditioned classrooms. These are all resources our children need to receive a quality education that will position them to compete in the 21st Century workplace.

Of course there will be challenges as displaced students are incorporated into new schools. But children will take their cues from adults. What attitudes will they see?

As a large number of children, most of them African American, will head to new schools in the fall, the concerns parents have about safety are very real. We must partner with CPS to make sure there are clearly defined plans in place to ensure our children’s safe passage. We must also encourage parents and community members to support these efforts and to work together to overcome arbitrary disputes and rivalries that threaten our children’s safety.

I recently visited an elementary school that is on the closing list that will be consolidated with a school no more than 500 yards away. The schools share a playground. The adults told me that the kids from each school don’t get along, so they can’t use the playground at the same time. What’s even worse, some of this rivalry is perpetuated by parents who hold perceptions about neighbors or neighborhoods on one side of a cross street versus the other side.

If adults accept and perpetuate that kind of “us” versus “them” mentality, how can we be shocked and amazed when we see young people who don’t value life?

Parents, teachers and other stakeholders must adopt attitudes of inclusiveness and work together to build positive cultures at our schools – not tolerate or perpetuate divisiveness.

I know this transition will not be an easy one. But we must challenge ourselves to work together as a community to make sure our children get the best education possible, one that leads to opportunities for them to succeed and contribute positively to society. It’s time to lean in.

Let’s commit to working together to turn this challenging time in our educational environment into an opportunity to set aside boundaries and, for the sake of our children, work together to strengthen our education system.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. For more information on its educational programs and partners, visit www.chicagourbanleague.org.