The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.
Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the early 1990s, we were two Chicago Public School teachers with an idea: Social and emotional learning and academic achievement couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be separated.
We wanted to create a new school centered on this belief. So, over 25 years ago, with a $1,000 grant from the Chicago Teachers Union, in the basement of an overcrowded South Side middle school, we opened this small school-within-a-school called Perspectives.
We welcomed the courageous founding families and introduced 50 students to “A Disciplined Life,” an education model that teaches the mind and the heart. We offered a loving structure with high expectations for students as learners and human beings.
More families wanted in. If we were going to grow, we had to be entrepreneurial.
The charter school idea arrived in Chicago, and as we peeled back the myths of what a charter was, we decided this was the vehicle to drive innovation and give kids the school they deserved. After long days, we’d lug our 10-pound laptops to a neighborhood diner and dig in, imagining what real innovation could look like in a full-blown school.
We were awarded one of the first charters in the state, and opened our first campus in 1997. Today, our network of five public schools has nearly 2,000 students in grades 6-12 on the South Side of Chicago, in the Auburn Gresham, Bronzeville, and South Loop neighborhoods. Our schools stand at Levels 1 and 2+, the highest ratings awarded by Chicago Public Schools.
We’re ready to grow even more.
We’re so proud of our students, staff and progress. We’re humble too, because we’ve made many mistakes, and have learned so much from others who helped us make it this far. We’ve faced dire decisions, budget cuts and the crushing deaths of far too many students due to gun violence.
We’ve had many victories too, and here’s one: We’ve never sold out on our focus on the whole child. That stands above everything to us. It’s what keeps us going in the most challenging moments.
At this 20-year milestone, here are 10 lessons learned—insights for any leader who wants to do what it takes for more kids to succeed.
1. Create Your Culture
Our 26 Principles of “A Disciplined Life” help students develop positive self-perception, healthy relationships and the tools for productivity. This is the foundation for all we do. You must proactively create a school culture, then weave it into every conversation, lesson and decision.
2. Teach Moral Leadership
We aim to graduate ethical leaders. You must ensure there is a solid social and emotional learning foundation in the curriculum and then bring it to life. Instill it deeply through clear expectations, with student and staff input for increased personal accountability.
3. Strong Relationships = Strong Schools
Building healthy, authentic relationships matters. Model them, expect them and teach how to build them. Know your students and their families. Know your teachers and support staff. Ensure their voices are heard. Own your mistakes—it allows for others to do the same.
4. Exposure Matters
This is crucial to our students’ success. Expose kids to the world outside their five-block radius. Make sure they see people that look like them in positions of power and influence. Connect students in an authentic way to the community through internships, field studies and activism.
5. Know Your Brand, Communicate Your Brand
Define your difference and deliver on it. Take time to talk about who you are and what you do to your school, students and staff. Take time to tell your story to the wider world that needs to know why these things matter.
6. Honor Parents
Remember that our students’ first teacher is the parent. Listen to them. Ask them to keep you accountable. Equip parents with information that can help them help their children. Equip teachers with tools to build relationships with parents.
7. Catch Kids When They Fall
Teenagers are supposed to fall and we’re supposed to be there, picking them up and pushing them forward—with interventions, innovation and love. We don’t give up on our kids. This means knocking on their doors, meeting for breakfast, finding mentors and never quitting.
8. Data Drives
Numbers are one important way to know where we’re at and where we need to go. Invest in systems and people who know how to collect, interpret and use data to improve the school. Then, with a growth mindset, be patient but relentless as you use data to make changes.
9. Learn from the Best
Don’t create everything—you don’t have time. People who have figured things out usually love to share what they know. Leverage leaders, be open to partners’ ideas and pull from existing resources and other schools.
10. Connect to the Cause: Love for our Kids
Choose teachers who don’t just love the discipline they are teaching but also truly love young people and have a quest for justice. They see folks will stay—their stamina will surface because they approach the work as a calling, not a job. When we’re discouraged, we return to our favorite quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We must remember that it’s bigger than us. We’re changing things for young people. We never know where that change ends.