Libby Elementary stands less than a mile away from my home on Chicago’s Southwest Side. The shocking fact about Libby isn’t its high poverty or intense concentration of students of color—it’s the 41 percent of students who move in and out of the school in less than a year. When nearly half the students in your school aren’t the same students in June that they were in September, it’s especially hard to build the relationships you need to teach them. That goes double when those students have been exposed to trauma.
Despite this, Libby’s middle school students report their teachers are challenging them academically. Much of the credit is due to Libby’s principal, Kurt Jones, who walked into Libby at age 30 and stayed for nine years. Jones will leave at the end of this school year to take the helm at Franklin Fine Arts, a magnet school on the affluent Near North Side. But no matter where he goes, he’ll be facing difficult decisions due to the state and district fiscal crisis.
Jones recently spoke with WBEZ about the tough choices he made at Libby this year, like pushing class size to 34 in eighth grade but cutting it to 22 for the seventh-graders. You see, in Chicago, seventh grade is the make-or-break year for grades and attendance, each of which counts one-third toward admission to selective enrollment high schools. So, to give his seventh-graders their best shot at a good high school, he had to sacrifice something for his graduating class.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with some parent friends last weekend. We all love our school and we all know we will be supplementing what it offers in various ways because it can’t provide everything we want for our kids. We talked about how to scrape enough money together to provide music instruction after school not just for our kids, but for their classmates and schoolmates who want music lessons and can’t afford them on their own. We also know our school is looking at five different budget scenarios based on what our state lawmakers decide is fair to do about funding public education in Illinois.
And, yes, our school is a charter school.
I’ve already heard the rejoinder: You can’t solve education problems by throwing money at them. But you can solve problems by spending money wisely. And you can’t spend money wisely if you don’t have it to spend at all. When lawmakers reneged on their pledge to support Chicago teachers’ pensions, we took our first steps down the road that led to talk of cutting school budgets 20 percent next year.
As a parent who has seen public schools of all kinds—charter, magnet and neighborhood—up close and personal, I’m amazed at what principals and teachers can do to make more out of less. I’m equally amazed at the efforts parents of means make to fill the budget gaps when their schools are strapped. But this could be the breaking point.
Public education in Chicago still works…for now. But the idea that public education is a right, not a gift, seems to be in danger. Some lawmakers continue to call Chicago a cesspool of waste, when the reality is its students have outpaced the state’s gains in academic achievement and high school graduates.
Over Christmas I went to Mexico City to visit my in-laws. On the flight home I read the magazine for Mexico City’s hipsters, called Chilango. It featured a top-100 list of the best elementary and secondary schools in the city. All were private. Could that be Chicago Magazine’s list in 10 years, I wondered?
If we take public education seriously, we have to pay for it. In Illinois today, it really is that simple. Our kids and our schools—from Chicago to Carbondale—deserve a fair shake. It’s time our legislators see fit to provide one.