Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas Without Great Schools

It happens to me every year. December rolls around and everyone begins to hang out the holly…it’s Christmas. But, in the midst of all the cheer, I find myself working on organizing a school fair or reading a story like the one in the Chicago Sun-Times recently about parents desperately searching for a high-quality school environment for their children and I am suddenly transported back to the winter of 1998 and 1999 when I was in 8th grade. Suddenly, I am struck afresh by the stress of the school search process in Chicago. Thousands of young people experience it each year; stockings hang on mantels and lights hang on trees from 79th street to the loop…as their futures hang in the balance of a school admissions decision.

I didn’t really understand it when I was in the 7th grade. I mean, the teachers and the counselors told it to us over and over again from the beginning of the school year. “The grades you get this year and the scores you get on the standardized test will determine what high schools you get to select from.” They told us how high school was going to be the most important decision that we will have made in our young lives. But, we were 12 or 13 years old. We didn’t understand.

I understood it a little better when I came back to the 8th grade after summer vacation. All the talk from the teachers and the counselors now was about applying to high schools. My scores were in and they were great. My 7th-grade transcript was set and it was equally good. The beginning of 8th grade was a little emotional because all of my classmates either experienced the joy of knowing that you have a chance to get into the very best high schools that the city has to offer, or the onset of a real sense of worry. A lot of the options that some of my friends had dreamed about (or at least that their parents had dreamed for them) were off the table.

The question seemed to linger over every single day of 8th grade; sometimes spoken, more often not, “what high school am I going to attend”?

By the time I was in 8th grade, I understood in a deep and fundamental way that in Chicago, not all high schools are created equal. Some of the high schools in Chicago were among the best in the nation; kids went to the best colleges and universities after being built up culturally and academically in a safe and nurturing environment for 4 straight years. Other high schools thrust students into violent cultures of low expectations. Every year, certain students managed to claw their way out of those schools and achieve tremendous success. But, it seemed that those success stories happen in spite of the school and not because of it.

It was in that environment that I attended one of those high school fairs with a group of my grade school friends (the kind that I would one day plan) and worked my way through the “Options for Knowledge” booklet seeking to understand what would be the best high school choice for me. It was in that environment that I submitted applications to almost a dozen high schools, understanding that my outstanding grammar school record only secured me a shot at getting into my top choices…there were more qualified students than there were seats in the schools. So, ultimately a lottery would decide.

I was a part of the pack of “smart” kids in my middle school on Chicago’s Westside. We all submitted applications to a similar constellation of schools. We all went on Christmas break with the same sense of hopefulness…but with the same ominous cloud of doubt lingering. It’s hard to sing Christmas carols when your future is hanging in the balance of a lottery.

But the worst part came in January. And it is coming for thousands of students across Chicago in January of 2017. That’s when the acceptance/waitlist letters start coming out.

One of my best friends (who I will leave nameless because he still calls this city by the lake home) was also my academic equal. We had imagined, planned even, that we would be attending the same or similar high schools. That we would keep in touch and build successful lives side-by-side.  But, he did not get a lottery seat at any of his top choices. He ended up going to the neighborhood high school while luck dealt me a seat at Whitney M. Young, one of Chicago’s top selective enrollment high schools. From there, our lives took very different trajectories.

I don’t know all of the details of my old friend’s story. I do know that the last time I saw him, I was still in high school and he was hanging in an ally on the Westside doing stuff that it broke my heart to see. To this day, I am convinced that one of the biggest contributing factors to that outcome was the fact that he didn’t get selected for a great high school…the kind of school he deserved.

It will happen again this year. Friends and cousins and neighbors will be set on different life trajectories all because there are not enough great school options to accommodate every precious life. We have to fix this, if only for Christmas sake.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.

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