Feature photo by the Bay View Compass

As Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union battle over reform and funding and with a teachers’ strike imminent, many Chicagoans may question how the city has managed to fail so badly and persistently on educating the city’s more than 400,000 students. Conventional thinking seems to be that troubled schools need more money, smaller class sizes, and revamped curricula.

Some argue that it’s the amount of schooling kids receive. At only five hours and 45 minutes, Chicago Public Schools have one of the shortest school days nationwide. Only in his second year as mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has been pushing for a longer school day and school year, a promise he ran on during his mayoral campaign.

But the mayor faces some tough opposition.

Chicago’s teachers initially demanded more pay for the increased work hours, something City Hall said it couldn’t accommodate. Besides fixing the education system, Emanuel has also been trying to pull the city from the brink of economic ruin.

In a deal brokered in late July, the teachers union and the mayor decided to hire 477 teachers who have been laid off in recent years. But even that’s come up against recent challenges.

Nonetheless, the classroom is the scene of the crime being committed against many of Chicago’s youth.

Race, wealth and access to a good education are all connected in the United States — and in a city like Chicago, especially. The Windy City, embarrassingly enough for its inhabitants, is widely known to be the most segregated city in America. Yet, Chicagoans kid themselves by pretending that the level of segregation isn’t as reports make it out to be, and that the problems involving crime and violence and failing schools aren’t caused by segregation.

Photo by Bill Rankin / Chicagoist.com

Allocating more funds or hiring more teachers simply won’t be enough to undo the harsh realities many of Chicago kids face every day. Neither will extending the school day and the school year — it may help somewhat, but students will have to go home to their neighborhoods eventually.

No teacher is an island; and what’s more, no school is an island. A lot of these failing schools are located in communities that are themselves failing — failing under the weight of crime, violence, poor health, gang activity and drug abuse. It’s not that darker skin color and discount clothes make it harder for a kid to learn. For the most part, Chicago’s so-called “dropout factories” are smack-dab in the middle of economic deserts and drug war zones — neighborhoods that make Juarez, Mexico, look like Wilmette.

 

Photo from ChicagoMag.com

In America, low income and low academic achievement go hand in hand. Even looking to receive a solid education in a decent neighborhood is difficult enough, so it’s a seemingly Herculean task in Chicago’s most plagued communities. Whereas a normal child worries about doing homework, completing long-term assignments and passing tests, poorer kids — disproportionately black and Latino kids, at that — are forced to tack on extra worries, like surviving the walk to and from school, having something eat at home, or even having a place to go home to.

If we want to save these schools — and save the students who attend them — we need to attack the root cause of failing schools. What remains to be seen is if we’re brave enough to admit the realities of the situation, and willing enough to tackle the problems that lay before us.

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