Photo courtesy of the author.
Eighth grader Jennifer Nava addresses the crowd at the 7th Annual Brighton Park Neighborhood Council Youth Summit in Chicago on Friday, May 20th. The original plan was for Jennifer and other youth leaders to introduce the politicians and adult speakers. But Jennifer, who led the testing justice movement at our school along with a half dozen other student-driven campaigns for justice, fought to change the agenda, saying:
“It’s not a real youth summit unless our voices are heard strongly.”
The crowd of some 500 students seems unsure what to make of the youth their own age, standing sub five feet tall as she begins to address them:
I grew up without a father, meaning my mother raised me and my siblings, we all went to Brighton Park. Some of the teachers that taught my brother who is now twenty one are still at Brighton to this day. I consider Brighton Park my second home, and everyone there is my family, even if we sometimes disagree on things. I am who I am today because of the people there. Mr. Dollear, my pre-K teacher, taught me that sometimes the best medicine for a bad day was a horrible joke and a smile. Ms. Zupancic, my fifth grade teacher, taught me to keep trying no matter how many times you fail. Mr. Vazquez, my sixth, seventh, and one of my eighth grade teachers now, showed me that the corruption in this world can be fought against if we join together. And Mr. Barrett, my seventh and now eighth grade teacher gave me the chance to fight for and lead others to fight for what we believe in. All of these amazing and brilliant people have changed my life in so many ways and I’m sure that statement can be said for all of you here. And now, our school, our second home, will lose some of its family members because of the greed in this world. It’s up to us to fight for what we deserve and believe in. I stand here to ask you, as a fellow student and human being, to stand together and fight back, to keep all these amazing people in our family.
Jennifer and 7th grader Tanya Guel begin to read a list of the proposed cuts to each school. As they list the impending destruction—most schools are slated to lose at least a half dozen positions—students begin to squirm in their chairs and a few shout profanities from the crowd.
There is an air of anger and disbelief.
Chicago Public Schools’ unelected leadership has begun talks with school principals in advance of budget cuts of up to 40% across the system. This round of cuts follows years of continuous cutting and the closing of over 50 schools.
As a teacher, I’ve worked closely on these issues with my students. We understand policy. We understand funding models. We understand systemic racism. But mostly, we just want to teach and learn. We fight admirably, and hope it’s enough. We are quite possibly the best in the universe at teaching and learning—we do it without nurses, libraries, janitors, or manageable class sizes.
But we are tired of the excuses from the same people who always pay their cronies before they provide money to feed students, clean schools, and ensure we have sufficient numbers of teachers, nurses, and librarians.
When we heard the news of the potential cuts, even before I knew it was likely to be my job, it was as if hearing that a meteor was headed for our city.
Cutting 40% seems like “No Child Left Standing.” What do we have left to cut?
Teachers do important, powerful work and deserve to be better treated and compensated, but the greatest injustice is to the students. How can we tell them to work hard, to overcome personal trauma to achieve academic and human success, when every time they do we disrupt their lives? What kind of thanks is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivering to these students by cutting teaching positions and snatching away another parental figure from their lives?
We hear the familiar, feeble justifications, “We have no choice. There’s no money. Everyone has to sacrifice.”
Our students know better. Last week, I assigned them to choose a political leader and give that person an evidence based performance grade. They showered “F”s and “D”s on Chicago Mayor Emanuel, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, and Chicago Public School CEO Forrest Claypool. They pointed to the crooked deals they’ve read about, and the cover up of the murder of LaQuan McDonald.
Now they’ve come to the Brighton Park youth summit to speak out. Tanya follows Jennifer’s speech with one of her own. She is unscripted and speaks off the top of her head and from the bottom of her heart:
“I want to remind you that this is OUR money that they are taking away because of things THEY have to pay back. That’s not right. These are our schools and we can’t allow people to take them away because of their mistakes. We have to fight for our rights!”
The students break off to join workshops on stopping community violence, promoting feminism, LGBT rights, and a half dozen other topics.
As the summit shifts into its closing lunch, the youth from Brighton scatter across the room to gather with other students and do the grueling, beautiful work of organizing. I couldn’t be prouder. They organized to get 80 students from our school to the summit, and now are growing their movement beyond our walls. They are using civic engagement, literacy and logical thinking like superstars.
Later, back at school, I get called down to the office. I wonder if I somehow lost a student between where I counted at the front door and their classrooms, but no, it’s something else. My principal asks me to close the door.
“With the baby coming, we thought you needed to know. Nothing is decided, and please understand that we don’t know anything for sure yet, but with the budget cuts, there’s a strong possibility that your position will be closed.”
It’s hard to believe. I’ve faced this multiple times before, but usually after challenging an administration for its lack of support for students.
“But I’ve got eight years in this system. I’m doing great,” I try to reassure myself.
My principal explains that with the extreme nature of the cuts coming to the school, she will need to cut the social studies program entirely. I teach writing, but my certification is in social studies. She apologizes a couple of times, and insists (and I believe her thoroughly) that it has nothing to do with my performance. I stoically ask a few more questions. I realize that if I’m hearing this, there will be many brilliant educators—mostly of color—hearing the same over the next couple of months.
I text my wife, a couple students, a couple colleagues. A few students are waiting in my room. I tell the students to not despair, but write and plan trouble. They leave. I cry.
I reach home. I start to write. My wife enters crying. “Is it the same terrible stuff I already know or something new?” I ask her. Earlier this week, she has learned that a student at her former school was involved in a major tragedy.
There are moments I question myself—what am I doing wrong? Why do I keep getting fired? In a small way, it drives me to be that much better each time I work with students to build these incredible programs that manifest their dreams.
But I also know this: it doesn’t matter how hard I work, how great of a teacher I am or grow to be—it’ll never be enough. The people who run our system would rather choke the life out of my students’ futures than swerve one inch from their profit-based agenda.
In fact, the more we teach our students to have higher expectations and demand equity, the more at risk we are. Righteousness won’t save us. Relentless competence won’t save us. Playing nice won’t save us.
Instead, we win by teaching students how to break down a system that harms them and to rebuild a system that grants them basic human rights. You can’t compromise with a system that wants to fund your education as if you were three-fifths of a person.
Our political leaders speak of decisions that end worlds with a calm business-speak as if they were discussing a monetary transaction over a trinket or plate of food. It is unclear that any of our leaders want to a functional Chicago Public School System at all. Many of those who push top-down “education reform” claim to care about “teacher quality.” But by their own metrics, our eighth graders are already walking out of classrooms college and career ready. They score off the charts in literacy.
If correlation were to equal causation, it would suggest that the most effective tool for student achievement is to support students in boycotting tests.
If the advocates for education reform – such as Arne Duncan, Campbell Brown, Bill Gates, and the Waltons – cared one lick about real students, they’d use their millions to prevent learning environments where students of color are thriving from ever being disrupted again.
I mark the latest appointment on my calendar. It’s an interview for a teaching job in my hometown. This was not our dream. My wife and I intended to teach in the Chicago Public Schools for many more years and to send our own child up the block to the neighborhood school. We don’t want to go anywhere, but we also want our kid to have food and health care.
I sit in the dark and spark figurative flames to paper, knowing that across our community students are doing the same. Tiny flames to burn down hateful structures and create new ones, flames that dance, converge, but never sputter and die.
Until they do. I limp off to bed and cry. Deep banshee wails come from my throat as my body convulses. I wonder if I will survive without my school family.
Part of me knows that I probably will, and some of my students may not.
Xian Franzinger Barrett is Chicago Regional Progressive Education Fellow.