Raynard Gillespie is a nineteen-year-old junior at Camelot Excel Academy of Englewood. He’s frustrated with the public perception of CPS, as well as of his neighborhood. “It’s a lot of kids that go to this school, that actually want to change their life, and people just come to Englewood and just think it’s supposed to be bad people, people that steal, shoot,” he says. “I just want to be a person—the spokesman of all the kids—and make a change, and be the voice of them.”
Raynard is a member of CPS’ Student Advisory Council (SAC), a seventeen-member council that the district hopes will expand opportunities for student input into CPS policies. District CEO Barbra Byrd-Bennett announced the council’s creation last November, and it has met officially on a monthly basis since February.
“What we want to accomplish is to have representation of student voice, student involvement at the table so that [the students] influence initiatives that we at the central office are designing,” says Myetie Hamilton, deputy chief of staff to Byrd-Bennett. “The CEO wants to use this as an opportunity to support, develop, and mentor our students as well.”
Students on the council are divided into small committee groups, which meet twice a month to develop plans on topics that include restorative justice, college and career readiness, and negative portrayal of schools in the media. Advised by senior employees at CPS, these committees research policies that can be implemented and tested at their own schools, and present their findings to Byrd-Bennett and the rest of the council at each month’s general meeting.
Raynard stresses that it’s the responsibility of the council’s student members to develop solutions for problems facing the district. Byrd-Bennett’s leadership team “help[s] us by providing information, gathering information so that we can bring it back to the CEO, and so I can go to places and resolve issues that’s going on in CPS,” he says. “It’s our job to just find solutions and bring it back.”
Raynard’s committee group discusses community violence, and has worked on developing guided group interactions (GGI) and peace circles to foster student conversations about violence. Students at Excel have already started doing GGI, weekly thirty-minute sessions where they can express their anxieties, frustrations, and concerns about violence in the neighborhood. Lauren Huffman, a deputy press secretary for CPS, says that the program may be expanded to other schools, depending on its success at Excel.
“It helps us,” says Raynard. “Like, the mood changes. Some people might be mad, and it’s like, ‘Hey we’re going to GGI,’ and when they come out, they’re happy.”
Much of Raynard’s interest in the SAC revolves around his desire to serve as a role model for his neighborhood and family. He says his brothers are in gangs, but his younger sister follows his lead. “By her seeing me get up every morning at about five o’clock to go to school, and by me going far, she looks at me as a role model.”
Raynard also says that his experiences on the council have inspired his classmates to think more about their own connections with CPS. “They’re very happy. Every day when I come to school and I dress up, they’re like, ‘Where are you going? I wanna meet Ms. Bennett, I wanna be a part of it.’ ”