My daughter, Rileigh Jasper, is a first-grader at National Teachers Academy (NTA) in Chicago Public Schools. The school holds the district’s top rating, Level 1+. My husband and I, both career educators, were immediately impressed with the school’s culture and academics, and we even pulled our daughter out of private Catholic school to enroll her.
Unfortunately, though, our school is slated to close and be converted into a high school in the fall of 2019.
The school is special for a number of reasons. Not only does my daughter receive a wonderful education there, but in Chicago—one of the most highly-segregated cities in the country—there has been a consistent trend in limiting access to high-quality school options to low-income, underserved communities of color. The school stands out as a strong option on the city’s South Side, especially for families who constantly struggle to find convenient and affordable environments where their children can learn and thrive.
For the last several months, a group of parents and I have undertaken a number of measures to stop the closing of our top-rated school. We have organized, collected petitions, held community meetings and even given public testimony at school board meetings.
I decided to get involved not just because my daughter attends this amazing school and I want others to receive the same opportunity. I also see that when the parents in these communities advocate for their options, their voices are being ignored. And that is wrong.
Instead, students in our neighborhoods are victims of a persistent achievement gap. Instead of heading to college, many of them traveling the road of the school-to-prison pipeline. They’re falling through the cracks of a system that has historically failed people of color.
When I appeared at the school board meeting in August, I spoke on behalf of all those who have spoken for me, and for all those who could not speak and too often go unheard.
I had two minutes to speak. Here’s what I said:
I want to address equity through the lens of access.
My daughter, Rileigh Sashai Jasper, is a proud Black and Brown, rising first-grader at NTA. She is one of 258 students who attends the school through the Options for Knowledge Program. But the question I want to pose is: Do we really have Options for Knowledge when you take away the options?
My husband and I are both products of and former employees of CPS. I worked in CPS for eight years as both a central office employee and a high school English teacher (neighborhood high school and selective-enrollment high school). My husband worked for 20 years as a teacher, assistant principal and principal.
Although we were expected to provide a high-quality education for others, we felt that we didn’t have access to that same education for our own child. As a result, we enrolled Rileigh in a private Catholic school while we endured the daunting process of testing, applying and then being waitlisted.
Now, Rileigh is finally in a high-performing elementary school—NTA! But that access is being denied almost as soon as it was granted. Where is the access and equity when you take away the options that are supposed to level the playing field?”
But two minutes was not long enough to really make the case on behalf of NTA families.
Because this fight is not only about academics. It’s also about identity.
You see, my daughter is proud of her school. She has gained confidence in her Black and Latina background because of the positive and affirming experiences at NTA.
Previously, Rileigh felt ostracized at her former Catholic school. After the first quarter of kindergarten, I realized that she wasn’t growing and learning as much as she should. She was also confused about her racial identification at a predominately Black Catholic school.
Socially and emotionally she felt like an outsider due to a lack of diversity, large classrooms with little support, and a disconnected school community culture. A few times she expressed that she didn’t even want to go to school.
I was not only concerned, I was extremely sad that I could not protect my daughter and help her see herself as a member of her school community. So, I made a decision to jump through the various hoops to get her into one of the district’s coveted selective enrollment schools.
I had her sit for the enrollment exam when she was just 4 years of age—she did not pass. But thanks to an educator friend who was also going through the same process, I was informed of a different public school application process (Options for Knowledge). This was my last shot.
Initially, Rileigh was waitlisted. Then, two weeks before school began, we were accepted to NTA. Because of her late birthday, Rileigh had to repeat kindergarten, but finally, she was part of a school community that valued her as an individual and was meeting her needs.
My family feels blessed to be a part of such a loving and accepting school community, and we are now a part of the larger family that is NTA.
Maybe the mayor and the school board members have data or powerful politicians telling them they should close our school. But we have experiences. We have community. We have kids who are learning and families who are thriving.
We have battled to get our kids into better schools, and those experiences and battles matter. Closing NTA will not just disrupt the tremendous progress my daughter and her classmates have made, it will shut off opportunities for so many in our community who need them most.
This is all about the kids for me. Can our city’s leaders say the same?