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Everything That’s Right and Wrong About Education Reform, I Learned at My 25th Corliss High School Reunion

At my 25th high school reunion dinner recently, I found myself upset. I had a major conflict of interest, where my loyalties were challenged and the realities of today battled against my feelings of nostalgia.

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With my three BFFs from Corliss High School class of 1992.

As we cut our reunion cake and hugged our old classmates, I was forced to confront the truth: My beloved George Henry Corliss High School on the Far South Side of Chicago is now a shell of what it was when I graduated in 1992.

I had managed to attend the Friday night mixer and the all-day Saturday reunion picnic without addressing the issue until Corliss Principal Ali Muhammad gave his opening remarks at the Sunday evening reunion banquet.

Muhammad, himself a Corliss graduate of 1989 and principal of the school for only five months at the time, tamed our school spirit fervor by asking us to get involved in Corliss because the school we remember as students is nothing like the one that exists today.

Corliss Principal Ali Muhammad is also an alumnus. He says the school has deteriorated greatly since he graduated.
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The beautiful, Olympic-size pool where we learned to swim is now a gigantic storage tank full of junk.

The horns and drums that our award-winning marching band used to set our souls aflame during football game halftime shows are now unusable—broken and battered.

And the Corliss we knew had more than 1,200 kids, but the Corliss of today barely has more than 300 students.

Then Muhammad alluded to the charter school (he refused to say its name) that has taken over half the building and has all new equipment with nearly 650 students enrolled this year.

The room went silent, except for the audible groans of the proud 25-year alumni.

I sat there and lamented the slow death of what was once a vibrant neighborhood school—the Corliss Trojans, the mighty black and gold. Our swim team and our music program were two crown jewels of the school, our sources of abundant school pride. How could the school district allow Corliss to deteriorate into such poor condition?

Then I got annoyed.

Estranged Bedfellows

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Christopher Goins, principal of Butler College Prep.

That nameless charter school Muhammad referred to is Butler College Prep, and its principal is Christopher Goins, an award-winning educator and a good friend of mine. In fact, earlier this year I published a Q&A-style blog with Goins about his approach to educating Black boys. The piece went viral.

Moreover, when my baby brother graduated from eighth grade last June, I never once considered sending him to Corliss; I emphatically encouraged him to enroll at Butler (which he did), the school that Chicago Magazine ranked as the top charter school in the city last year.

So how could Butler—which is barely five years old—be blamed for the wholesale deterioration of Corliss High School’s 43-year-old tradition of excellence in athleticism and music? Among other things, Butler’s school budget is about the same as Corliss’ despite having twice the number of kids.

The Corliss-Butler situation is the perfect lens by which to examine 25 years of education reform in Chicago—and perhaps in the country. Like thousands of inner-city high schools in America, Corliss’ decline can be linked back to racial and socioeconomic segregation that lead to concentrated poverty, governmental disinvestment in the community and poor school management (many retired teachers at Corliss have pointed to an infamously bad school principal who reigned from the late-90s well into the 2000s).

At the same time, a new generation of educators like me swept into the void on the charter school wave, resulting in the stark inequalities visible in having Corliss and Butler under one roof: One of them gleaming with the promise of support, resources and success, and the other one dispirited, hollow and adrift.

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The certificate I received at the reunion.

In a small way, I might have played a role in fostering this outcome.

As I worked to build my career as a news reporter in New York City, I never once came back to Corliss to share my story with the kids.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I quit my job and returned to Chicago with hopes of giving back to my community by becoming a public school teacher. The nonprofit organization, Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), provided me with a relatively smooth transition into teaching by offering me a one-year teaching residency, a $30,000 living stipend, and a tuition-free master’s degree in education in exchange for a five-year commitment to work in AUSL contract schools. (Corliss wasn’t one of them.)

As such, I was a union-member teacher at three AUSL schools, but after five years, I got frustrated with the bureaucracy and poor school leadership. As my last ditch effort in education before leaving the profession altogether, I took a job teaching at a charter school. At that point, I had given up on the traditional school system in hopes of finding the freedom to blaze a more creative path toward excellence in public education.

Butler College Prep is a charter school operated by the Noble Network. It shares a building with Corliss, a district-run Chicago public school.
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I eventually began the “Charting My Own Course” blog at Education Week, and was named the 2013 Education Blogger/Commentator of the Year by the Bammy Awards. I never thought to take my trophy to Corliss so that students could see themselves in my success.

And when I volunteered to speak at Butler’s “Success Looks Like Me” career fair in 2016, I didn’t bother to ask Corliss administrators if they’d like me to breach the dividing wall to speak to their kids, too.

Worse, when I discovered last spring that I had a cousin who is the chief information officer for the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, I invited him to Chicago to inspire students here. Butler was our first stop on a four-school speaking tour. After he spoke at Butler, I didn’t take him to Corliss. Instead I took him to at another Noble network high school that was several miles away.

Here’s the problem: When Butler came along in 2012, I convinced myself that it was the new Corliss. I blocked out the sad fact that Corliss and Butler are two vastly different schools existing under the same roof.

How we got here has a deep and fascinating history. Education reform in Chicago started in 1987 with then-U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett’s blunt assertion that Chicago schools were the worst in the country. Then there was the 1995 state law that placed the school district under mayoral control, followed by a decade of Paul Vallas/Arne Duncan years of district leadership that ended social promotions, expanded charter schools and began neighborhood school closings. Then in 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board shuttered 50 schools, the largest mass school closings in American history. This history of has fueled the narrative that district schools in poor communities are inherently inferior, and that any other kind of school (contract, charter, magnet, etc.) is a better alternative.

As one who entered the teaching profession in the 2003, I subconsciously bought into that line of thinking too. As such, I had avoided and ignored my alma mater, the very school that gave me the best memories of my adolescence. Apparently so many others did too, and Corliss became a self-filling prophecy for failure.

It’s time to end the “us versus them” mentality and realize that heritage matched with innovation is a formidable team.

Essentially, everything that’s right and wrong with education reform, I learned at my 25th high school reunion. It’s time to end the “us versus them” mentality and realize that heritage matched with innovation is a formidable team.

I’m asking both Principal Muhammad of Corliss and Principal Goins of Butler to find a way to preserve their autonomy while working together to improve outcomes for the nearly 1,000 students under their roof.

Corliss offers a STEM curriculum and a digital music studio, while Butler has access to band instruments and other extracurricular clubs and activities. Neither school has one crucial educational amenity: swimming instruction. No wonder Black children are five times more likely to drown than White children and that 70 percent of African Americans never learn to swim. The lack of access to swimming pools is a persistent problem in the Black community that dates back to the days of Jim Crow!

A robust Corliss-Butler partnership could be the flagship model of a successful district-charter collaboration for Chicago—and the nation. As a campus alum with a deep ties to both schools, I’m begging both principals and their bosses—network chiefs in the district and Noble charter network administrators—to work together for the best interest of the students. I’m praying for it.

Stay tuned for Part Two, a Q&A interview with Ali Muhammad.

All photos courtesy of author, except Butler College Prep interior shot courtesy of Noble Network of Charter Schools.

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