Reclaiming the promise of Kenwood-Oakland

Randi Weingarten
President, American Federation of Teachers
City Club of Chicago
April 1, 2015

I. Introduction

I know that there’s an expectation that I would come here today to talk about uphill battles and long odds. But since you had Tom Ricketts here last week, I assume that topic has been covered—at least as it pertains to the Cubs.

II. From conversation to contention

This club has hosted no shortage of conversations about the children of this city and this country: Ellen Alberding to Arne Duncan, Barbara Byrd-Bennett to Karen Lewis and Dan Montgomery, Mayor Emanuel to Chuy Garcia. And while the conversations hosted here are civil, thoughtful and enlightening, when they move from this stage to our schools, they become politicized, contentious and, I would argue, counterproductive.

Believe me, I get it. The stakes are incredibly high. But this level of contention sets us back tremendously. It makes the more than 350,000 children currently enrolled in the Chicago Public Schools pawns in a political battle, instead of making them the sole focus of our efforts. And it makes our children’s future a political question, when there are so many elements of what children need that should be above, beyond and outside the realm of politics.

But since the education of this city’s children has, in many ways, become a political question—and one of the defining questions of this mayoral election—let me speak to that for just a moment. 

III. Chuy

All of us remember the 2012 teachers’ strike. While the media focused on money and teacher evaluations, I would argue it was really a proxy fight between two very different philosophies. 

Our philosophy revolves around the importance of public education and fighting for the investments necessary to nurture the whole child—each and every one. To us, schooling is about more than developing skills, as important as that is. It’s about promoting pluralism and a love of learning. It’s about preparing our students to be citizens of the world, and for college, work and life. And the schools themselves are more than just the places where learning takes place; they are hubs of the community.

In that context, we are responsible for doing more than saving our neighborhood schools. Good neighborhood schools are irreplaceable institutions—the glue that stabilizes our communities and secures our social compact. 

Mayor Emanuel embraced a different philosophy: one that elevated competition; one that created winners and losers; one that divested, not invested; one that shut down neighborhood schools rather than building them up.

Take Walter H. Dyett High School. In 2012, it was slated for closure. Before that, the school faced so many cuts that students took art and physical education classes online, and it had no money to create AP classes. The school’s closure means that children who don’t go to charters will need to be bused to other neighborhoods. When the final trickle of 13 kids graduate from Dyett this year, we’ll celebrate them but mourn the fact that their neighborhood will be left without a single traditional public high school.    

Of course, Dyett is far from alone. Fifty other schools have been closed. Closure after closure after closure. Neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood.

And in a city with lots of fiscal issues, closing down neighborhood schools is much more expensive than previously thought, has led to overcrowding, and, according to education researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, disorients students and disconnects parents. 

Seventeen-year old Parrish Brown, a 2013 graduate of Dyett, said it best: “They closed my elementary school, and now they’re phasing out my high school. One day there’ll be nothing in my community to come back to.”

And the more stories you hear like that, the better you understand why 60 percent of the residents of neighborhoods that lost schools voted against a sitting mayor, and 90 percent voted for an elected school board.

That’s in part why our union has supported Chuy Garcia. He understands that we educate kids in the context of community, in the framework of neighborhood, not in a vacuum. He knows that the key to success is to strengthen neighborhood schools, and to account for the out-of-school factors that affect educational attainment with an investment in wraparound services. He understands that we need to strengthen neighborhood schools and situate them in an ecosystem of support—including economic development and public safety. And he understands that when it comes to making tough choices, communities need not be your enemy—they can be your partner. And Chuy understands that it’s hard to plant the seeds of the future when the way you campaign, and the way you govern, leave nothing but scorched earth.

As CTU President Karen Lewis recently said, “Chuy will focus on our neglected neighborhoods, restore fairness to the tax system, negotiate humanely with our elderly public servants and reset our collective priorities to help all Chicagoans, but especially those who are most in need. Without him, our city will become more separate and more unequal.”

The fact is, when this talk was scheduled, the conventional wisdom held that I’d be speaking after the close of a mayoral election, not before the final stretch of a runoff. But the fact that we’re here a week out from an unprecedented mayoral runoff is very telling.

IV. What’s at stake beyond next week

A New Yorker doesn’t have to tell you what’s at stake next week. But even more than that is what’s at stake beyond next week.

Remember, the education of a child from kindergarten to 12th grade is three times as long as a mayoral term. So, while in one week, one candidate will be able to claim victory, we all need to start the process of reclaiming the promise of public education. This isn’t just a Chicago issue, and it’s not just an education issue. And it’s a conversation that’s already happening in cities across the country.  

For instance, last month, I was honored to participate in a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress with Hillary Clinton and AFSCME President Lee Saunders, among others. Bruce Katz, who runs the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, made a powerful case for the fact that schools can’t just be islands—even if they’re islands of excellence. They are inextricably linked to the success of urban centers, to investment in economic development, transportation and infrastructure.  

And then Glenn Hutchins—who founded Silver Lake Partners, a private equity firm, and sits on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York—gave a compelling analysis of the recent histories of Pittsburgh and Detroit. The cities had parallel experiences of seeing the decline of a major industry and everything that flowed from that. He asked what led to Pittsburgh being named as the most livable city in the United States in 2009, at a time when Detroit was still in massive decline. His conclusion: collaboration over contention.

In Pittsburgh, business, labor, university and government came together to invest in education, medical centers and preservation projects to drive growth. In Detroit, the opposite was true up until now, when we are starting to see the seeds of collaboration.

The takeaway was clear for cities that are increasingly returning to their role as this country’s economic engines: We must collaborate to compete, for our cities, our schools, our economy and our children to thrive.

So how do we undertake the collaborative process of reclaiming the promise of public education?

V. Reclaiming the promise of public education

It starts with working with communities and investing in strategies that will help children succeed. High-quality early childhood education is one such strategy. Each dollar spent on early childhood programs returns up to $11 in economic benefits. Your own Nobel laureate, University of Chicago professor James Heckman, has been a leading voice on the benefits of early childhood education, particularly its ability to level the playing field for disadvantaged children.

It continues with working to create and maintain welcoming, safe, collaborative public schools with engaging curricula that include art, music, civics and the sciences, taught by teachers who are well-prepared and well-supported, and have time to collaborate.

And on that score, one thing that Chicagoans may not know is that for 18 years, the CTU, with the Chicago Public Schools, has been helping its teachers achieve the highest credential a teacher can earn—certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Today, there are 2,200 national board-certified teachers in Chicago—including the CTU’s president, Karen Lewis. This is the largest program of its kind in any big city in the country.

These are teachers who demonstrate that they are masters of their craft, who mentor and support other teachers, and who are exemplars of our profession.

But even they can’t do it alone. We’re still faced with this mythology that the only thing that affects a student’s performance is the effort and talent of a teacher. Look, I’ve said many times that if someone can’t teach after they’ve been prepared and supported, they shouldn’t be in our profession. But when economists are now telling us that teachers—as important a role as they play—ultimately account for 10 percent of the variance in student achievement, then we need to focus on the other 90 percent as well.

Reclaiming the promise also includes multiple pathways to graduation, including career and technical education, or CTE. These programs give kids hands-on experience that prepares them for a competitive job market. I’m talking about offerings like Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy’s partnership with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 134. These students have a clear pathway from training to employment.

We should be looking at ways to continue building these and similar programs. Take the Peoria Pathways to Prosperity (PP2P) Initiative. This is a project of Peoria’s public schools, the local Chamber of Commerce, the local CEO Council, the workforce alliance and several other organizations that helps connect students to work-based learning and on-the-job training experiences—and helps teachers tailor their instruction.

Models like these can help stretch the Magnificent Mile into a Magnificent Metropolis.

If you want to get to excellence on more than an ad hoc, herculean or random basis, it requires wraparound services—where students and their families have access to healthcare, child care, workforce development, recreation centers, and other emotional and social supports.

Together, we can make that happen. And I mean we—all of us, collaborating.

VI. The plight (and promise) of McDowell County

And that brings me to a way in which I think we can make a strong, shared statement about our commitment to this city’s children.

For a sense of what’s possible in Chicago, let me first take you to a place in West Virginia called McDowell County. McDowell was once a thriving coal-mining community, but today it’s the eighth-poorest county in the nation. People are geographically and financially cut off from healthcare, social services, transportation and housing. In 2012, nearly 1,000 students in McDowell were classified as homeless.  For families with children, the poverty rate hovers at a dangerous 41 percent. Only half of all residents in McDowell County have a high school degree. More than 76 percent of its students, compared with 25 percent nationally, scored below proficient in math. Students are bused long distances to school. There’s little affordable housing. 

Like elsewhere in the nation, educational challenges are inextricably linked to economic ones. In a county so disconnected, the problems are very much connected. 

From here, McDowell County, as rural as it is, seems a lot more than 600 miles away—it seems a world away. But in truth, it’s only blocks away.

Though parts of Kenwood are experiencing an upswing, the North Kenwood-Oakland community on the South Side of Chicago is more of a mirror of McDowell County than most of us would like to imagine. Once a community with a thriving middle class—home to icons like Ida B. Wells, Nat King Cole and Redd Foxx—when the manufacturing and factory jobs left, the social fabric started to tear.

Today, 1 in 4 residents is unemployed. One in 5 adults in Oakland has no high school diploma. There has been an increase of crime and a loss of thousands of units of affordable housing. There’s a lack of adequate healthcare and not enough support for after-school programs, with very few constructive places for young people to congregate. 

There has been, in short, a wholesale disinvestment from the community—and it’s not the result of one mayor or one decision. But the aggregate effect is that a place that’s just minutes from downtown Chicago is largely disconnected from downtown.

Here’s what we did in McDowell. Starting in 2011, the AFT, working hand in hand with our state affiliate, AFT West Virginia, and former first lady Gayle Manchin, led the effort to revitalize the county by forming a partnership involving nearly 100 organizations, companies and unions—all as a part of an effort we call Reconnecting McDowell.

We knew that if we wanted to improve schools and boost student achievement, we had to focus as well on the unmet needs of residents in McDowell County. And that’s why a big part of the effort includes expanding schools into community centers that would give people access to the services they so desperately need.

Working with Shentel, a telecom company in the region, we were able to bring full broadband Internet access to every school and to 10,000 households. Working with the governor, a federal economic development agency and Connect2Compete, a national Internet nonprofit, we secured free laptops for every middle school student.

Working with the state’s Oral Health Service, we created a mobile dental clinic pilot program to give students, starting with pre-kindergartners, the oral examinations they need so that toothaches and cavities don’t result in higher absentee rates and lower achievement.

As I mentioned, for years, McDowell has been plagued by a lack of available, modern housing, causing terribly high teacher turnover and vacancy rates in classrooms. So we’re starting the first construction project the county has seen in 50 years. It’s called Renaissance Village, and it will provide teacher housing and other services to help recruit and retain great teachers and bring economic development to the county.

The list goes on and on.  

And because the community came together, the state gave the locally elected school board full control of the school system, something it hadn’t had for a decade. That move was a testament to the power and potential of a community coming together to take control of its future.

Efforts like that don’t have to be unique.

VII. Reconnect North Kenwood-Oakland

This morning, I spent some time in North Kenwood-Oakland with Jawanza Malone, the executive director of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization; Jitu Brown, the director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, and Jesse Sharkey, the CTU’s vice president. The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization—better known as KOCO—is the oldest African-American community organization in the city of Chicago. This is their 50th year. And I’m happy to have the Rev. Jackson, one of its founders, here with us today. Say what you will about its organizing tactics, its partnerships and programs—from youth development to housing services to emergency food assistance—are working small miracles each and every day.

But what if—like we are doing in McDowell—the neighborhood, community organizations, labor and business can create some big miracles by seeding real and broad partnerships? We can start by supporting the “Grow Your Own Teacher” program, developed by KOCO and a consortium of community groups. We can come up with new ways to preserve and construct affordable housing so that our kids can grow up in safe, livable neighborhoods. We can work to develop that ecosystem of support, including economic development and public safety.

This morning, while in North Kenwood-Oakland, we talked about the need for adequate access to healthcare, for a new emphasis on public safety, and for a community-driven (and thus community-supported) academic plan. We imagined what would be possible: Instead of Dyett closing, what if it becomes a sustainable community school, complete with a youth center? Imagine demonstrating through our work our recognition that these children are much more than a test score to us—they are the people in whom we’re placing our time, our talent, our faith and our future.

As the saying goes, to lead is to choose, and we need to choose to come together for this—and so many other—of Chicago’s neighborhoods. So that’s why the CTU, the AFT and KOCO have made this initial commitment. We hope that this will blossom, like Reconnecting McDowell, into a robust, vibrant and community-driven initiative that involves many of you in this room.

VIII. Conclusion: What kind of ladder?

And that, as much as anything, is the thought I want to leave you with. As both a history teacher and a union president, I’m supposed to talk to you about elections. But elections should be about connecting the aspirations of people to the opportunities of the future.

We often talk about the “ladder of opportunity.” I like that analogy, because the things that we think of as essential—health and housing, dignity and rights, education and good jobs—all form rungs of that ladder.

But the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to see that ladder as one of the ladders you see on fire escapes here in Chicago—a retractable ladder. One that if someone climbs up, they have to affirmatively hold it down for the next person, or it will retract and spring out of reach.

So after the votes are counted, and the ads disappear from the airwaves, work with us to reclaim the promise of public education. Work with us on this Kenwood-Oakland partnership. Let’s turn the focus from closing schools to improving them. Let’s turn our efforts from abandoning communities to revitalizing them. Let’s collaborate to compete.

Because that’s how we’ll create the Chicago that this club was founded to help inspire—a city of opportunity, progress and success.