A Part of Us is Dying in Chicago

I can’t reconcile the deep sense of community that filmmakers Amy and Tom Valens have captured in their 10-part video series about a year in the life of a public school in Boston, with the painful public clashes we’re witnessing in Chicago – where 54 of the city’s schools will soon be shuttered.

Indeed, although the nation’s attention is fixed on the historic fight for marriage equality in the U.S. Supreme Court, a part of us is dying in the Windy City – and no one in the mainstream media seems to care.

No one disputes the fact that Chicago, like so many American cities, has real problems to solve. Population is down. Money is tight. School choice is growing. Tough decisions must be made.

By the same token, can anyone dispute that we have reason to worry about the state of our civic discourse when Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, allows the announcement of something as contentious as 54 school closings while he is on a ski trip in Utah? And can anyone blame local community leaders who wonder what to think of the Mayor’s plan to hold additional hearings on the issue? “If nobody is going to be heard at the hearings, what’s the use of having the hearings?” said Marshall Hatch, a local pastor. “If it’s a done deal, then stop wasting everybody’s time.”

A part of us is dying in Chicago because so many of us are so increasingly convinced that on the most important issues of the day, we are voiceless. We know changes need to be made – and we are increasingly abandoning, or giving little more than lip service to, our historic commitment to make those changes democratically, deliberately, and delicately. The issues in Chicago are complicated, from tax policies to population declines to legacies of race-based oppression, but the willingness of elected officials to confront those challenges in a spirit of co-construction with their constituents has become as laughable as, well, the Cubs winning the World Series.

Which takes me back to A Year at Mission Hill, and the ways in which this series is quietly and consistently demonstrating the generative power of a community in which everyone’s voice is valued and actively solicited. Mission Hill is a public school with charter-like autonomy. Its teachers are all unionized, and everything the district requires of its other schools, it requires of Mission Hill. Yet this is a school where, as teacher Jenerra Williams puts it, “We take the state test, we prepare for the state test, and we don’t get consumed by the state test.” This is a school where we see teachers repeatedly working together to diagnose, support, and engage kids. And this is a school where we see highly committed and skilled adults in an ongoing dialogue with each other about the only question that matters: “Of all the things we can do together, what must we do?”

Watching what’s happening in Chicago makes we worry about the extent to which we remain committed to the “we” in that question – We the people. What’s happening there is a national tragedy, and an example of what happens when powerful people recall the first half of the famous quote by Winston Churchill – “Democracy is the worst form of government” – and conveniently forget the second half – “except all the others that have been tried.”

As Mission Hill demonstrates, democracy is messy, it is inefficient, and it is slow. But as I watch its students practice calligraphy and study honeybees, as I listen to its teachers share strategies and struggle to improve – and as I ride my bike past the throngs of demonstrators for and against marriage equality outside the Supreme Court – I’m reminded that examples of our inextinguishable commitment to the spirit of individual liberty and equality are all around us.

Mayor Emanuel, are you watching?

(This article originally appeared in Education Week.)

Categories: Democracy, Learning, Organizational Change

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