Are We Missing Something?

This past weekend, Navy Pier played host to a large, citywide school options fair.  The aptly named “Chicago School Fair” was presented by Parent Power Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, the Archdiocese Schools and the Illinois Network of Charter schools making it perhaps the only fair of its kind where parents and students could meet and compare schools from across the range of systems and governance structures.  Thousands of families showed up.

This was the 2nd annual Chicago School Fair.  For four consecutive years before the first PPC event, thousands of families flocked to Soldiers Field on the last Saturday of January to take part in the annual New Schools Expo, a similar event that featured Chicago’s charter schools.  It is easy for those of us caught in the sometimes vitriolic back and forth around schools and school reform to become impressed by the well coordinated actions of affiliated interest (a teacher strike in Chicago or a huge pro-charter march in New York).  But, I think that we see in these school fairs a power demonstration from the unaffiliated masses.

What are they saying?

Well, I got the opportunity to walk around this weekend’s affair and talk to some of them.  Over about 20 or so random conversations, there were a few themes that emerged.

  1. “I’m just looking to find the right school for my daughter.”

Maybe we let ourselves get too down on parents.  Maybe we get too high on ourselves.  But, there can sometimes be a sense (on either side of the education wars) that the role of the schools is to save the child from the parent.  It is important to remember that there are many, many parents (I’d argue a majority) that care deeply about their children.  In fact they care much more deeply than any educator, administrator or advocate.  And that deep concern does translate into concern about those children’s education.  With so many things going on in the life of an parent, they need help to cultivate the child.  For these parents selecting a schools is the most important decision they will make in their child’s education.  And these parents take that decision very seriously.

  1.  “I thought maybe I could find something better.”

It is uncomfortable to discuss, but too many parents in Chicago don’t feel that their child is getting what they need from their current school.  Many of these are the parents of the tens of thousands of student that sit on charter school and selective enrollment school waiting list.  These families help make up the crowd at events like the Chicago School Fair.  Families desperate to find a different option that works for them culturally, geographically and academically use these events to take action on their children’s behalf.

  1.  “We like our school.  We just came to see what else is out there.”

Every school needs to deliver for students.  There’s no other way about it.  Instead of trying to create an environment where families don’t have options, demonstrate for them that they should stay.  More and more parents are out there testing the waters.

There were no picket signs or chants.  Just enrollment forms and a school mascot dance off.  But, this was no doubt a powerful demonstration.  I hope that all of us in education (the policy and politics) are listening.

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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.