When students’ education is on the line, having more options isn’t always better if it means that parents and their children are being forced to choose between non-negotiable fundamental values like community, academic rigor, and safety. Yet, many parents and their children face this predicament when selecting between public neighborhood, public selective enrollment, or private schools in Chicago.
To some, the fact that such a decision must be made is evidence of the unacceptable inequities in Chicago’s education system; but others frame the decision as one of personal choice and shrouded in privacy and individual agency. Parents are especially likely to put it in those terms when the parents in question have a stake in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In a 2011 interview with NBC Chicago, when newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked about his decision to send his kids to a private school, he responded with his notorious temper:
“The decision I’m going to make as it relates to my kids is one I’m going to make as a father, and not as a mayor…They’re not public tools,” he said. “Let me break the news to you, my children are not in a public position. The mayor is.”
Emanuel then unclipped his microphone and left after ten minutes of a twenty-minute interview.
He’s not the only government official to send his children to schools outside of the CPS system. Certain high-ranking CPS officials have done so too. Recently-ousted CEO of CPS Forrest Claypool, former CPS Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz, and former CPS CEO Arne Duncan sent their kids to private schools in Chicago. A 2004 Fordham Institute study found that thirty-nine percent of CPS teachers did the same.
Understandably, critics have pointed out that the decisions of the mayor, CPS officials, and even teachers to send their kids to private schools don’t bode well for CPS’ future. Others have reiterated that, in reality, the things that make CPS schools attractive—a sense of community, funding from the city, and diversity—are being systematically removed by the policy decisions made by CPS officials themselves. These policy decisions include school closings, disinvestment, and funding issues.
Meanwhile, CPS educators who support public schools through their work and advocacy often have an impossible choice to make between committing to that support and choosing what they feel is best for their kids. Moreover, CPS educators who are also parents have certain privileges in knowledge and experience that allow them to be better equipped at tackling selective enrollment processes or more discerning in finding ideal educational environments for their children.
To some degree, the future of CPS will be impacted by individual decisions—and how they can be used to either uphold a system of segregation and disinvestment or push for more resources and increased confidence in CPS’ schools, teachers, and students. As employees of CPS, do educators have a professional or ethical obligation to stand by their schools and send their kids to them too? Doing so would be a vote of confidence in CPS, but would also turn a blind eye to the widening gaps between CPS schools and alternative educational options—the private and public selective enrollment schools that are less harried by dwindling resources, lack of transparency, and unstable politics of the CPS.
The Weekly spoke separately with three CPS educators who sent their children to CPS schools about their respective experiences with CPS as both educators and parents. Their responses have been compiled below. The names of several individuals and schools were left out of this article to protect the privacy of the teachers who were interviewed in this piece and their families.
Tamela Chambers, a CPS librarian for almost eight years, cites her personal experience as a student in CPS schools as a large influence in her decision making process as a parent. She currently has three school-aged children—two in middle school and one in high school.
David Stieber is in his eleventh year as a social studies teacher with CPS. He has two children in CPS: one in kindergarten, and one that will enter pre-school next year. Stieber declined to name the schools his children attended for the sake of privacy.
Sashai Jasper, who worked in the district as a high school teacher in both a selective enrollment and neighborhood high school in South Shore, also worked in CPS’ central office for several years before resigning in March of 2017. Last year, she penned an Education Post blog post about how she pulled her daughter out of a private Catholic elementary school in order to enroll her into National Teachers Academy (NTA) in the South Loop. Jasper is now currently involved in efforts to save NTA from being closed and reopened as a high school.
Jasper: The reason I’m sharing about my background and intimate relationship with CPS is that if it’s difficult for me, I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people who aren’t knowledgeable who don’t know the ins and outs of the system. It’s difficult to navigate and that’s by design.
I’m interested in learning your thought process as an educator and a parent. How did you make the decision to send your children to CPS schools instead of private schools?
Chambers: I am a lifelong Chicagoan born and raised on the South Side, and I attended my neighborhood elementary school and CPS high school. I lived in a neighborhood where my teachers and even my cafeteria ladies were my neighbors, which created a sense of a strong community. We had a relationship. It wasn’t just a teacher, you were also my neighbor. It also made teaching a desirable profession—an honorable profession or something that I could aspire to. So when I had children of my own, it wasn’t even a second thought. It was great for me; I didn’t expect anything different for my children.
Stieber: Teaching at CPS can be a challenge because of all of the politics about how CPS is run. My wife is also a CPS teacher so we both try to make our schools better for our students. It can be really depressing because of what I want my students to get that they don’t have. Before I had kids, I loved my students more than anything. But now that my kids attend CPS, it puts more pressure on me to work continuously to improve the schools for both my students and my kids who attend. It puts me under stress personally and professionally.
My wife is against the selective enrollment process. She teaches at the neighborhood high school we live in and our son goes to the elementary school that will feed into that high school. I personally envision [that] our son will go to the school he’s at up till sixth grade and go to the neighborhood public school as a freshman. Our kids will be in public school and CPS as long as we live in Chicago. We want to make our neighborhood schools good as well and that’s a whole other struggle.
Jasper: The only reason [my daughter] was in a Catholic school is because St. Philip Neri was convenient, down the street, and had a strong community-like family feel. I felt like their pre-K and kindergarten programs were strong and better [than the other schools in the neighborhood], but not necessarily with their upper levels.
But it was very clear in my head that [St. Philip Neri] was a temporary place for her. She was going to be there to experience the socialization but I knew she was going to need to be challenged. As a parent, you know your kid and you know what they need and you think you know what they need. Once she was in kindergarten, I could see that she wasn’t being challenged academically. She also wasn’t being fed or receiving the messages to adapt socially and emotionally. She started coming home and not wanting to go to school. She asked me “Am I white? People are telling me that I’m white.” By being in a 98-99% Black school, she was confused and kids were othering her. Of course, I want to protect her, but I wanted her to be exposed to other cultures.
I was born and raised in Humboldt Park, and I went to Richard Yates Elementary which was in a predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood. We had Polish students, white students, so there was more of a mix back then. Chicago is hyper-segregated; in many ways, I feel like it’s gotten worse over the years. It wasn’t until I went to CPS high school that I truly felt diversity that I felt was unreal. I definitely wanted [my daughter] to have what I experienced in elementary school and she wasn’t getting that.
[My daughter] is not at Bouchet [Elementary Math & Science Academy] because it’s not diverse. I want her to be around other cultures, other classes. I want her to be open and cultured and she’s not going to get that at Bouchet. What NTA offers in terms of their programs and community involvement is so key to me.
Parents at NTA are so organized and have been very active. It’s a flat out lie to say that a select group of parents—or white parents—are the ones making the noise. Everybody is involved and everybody is making noise. I am not one of the most involved parents—I am just doing my part, whatever that is, whether that’s writing an article or going to a board meeting. It’s really a concerted effort by the community. There are people who are in this fight who don’t even have kids that go to NTA. It’s about equity—people are fed up.
Would you do anything differently? Do you have any plans to change as they get older?
Chambers: I’m pretty much satisfied with the experience. I didn’t bring them to the places I worked only because I wanted them to develop as their own individual person. I think if your child attends the school you work at it makes it difficult to establish their own identity. Other than that, I wouldn’t change anything about it.
Stieber: I believe in public education; it should be with great schools with teachers who care about their kids. And the vast majority of CPS teachers care about their kids a lot. But my kids are now experiencing having schools that aren’t being funded the way that they should be and not having enough staff. With the violence in our city, the odds are my kids are going to know people that have been impacted by violence. All that stuff is in your head and is scary, and I have various levels of privilege that shield me more than others because of my income and race, but sending your kids to CPS is scary on many levels because of the way it’s being run at the top.
What do you think it says when CPS teachers won’t send their kids to CPS schools?
Stieber: I understand the reasons why they might do that. Working in CPS for eleven years and seeing people who worked longer—how have people worked with the chaos of CPS? We’ve had eight CEOs in my eleven years of teaching. It’s one of the biggest reasons why CPS teachers send their kids to non-public schools—they don’t want their kids to deal with what their students deal with or what they don’t have in schools. I get it.
Jasper: I’m not surprised by that [thirty-nine percent] statistic. I would have never sent my daughter to [a neighborhood high school] when I was teaching there given what was happening in the area. The academic rigor wasn’t there because we were fighting other battles. There were many times when I would go to work and just focus on classroom management. It was very different when I went to South Shore International College Prep, which is a selective enrollment IB and AP school. The student profile there was different, parents were involved, there was a different culture, a different feel. There were teachers, assistant principals, and office staff that sent their kids there. I knew I wanted to work there because that spoke volumes to me that the assistant principal’s daughter was in my AP class. Or that the security guard and cheerleading coach also sent their kids there.
We invest in the school by sending our kids there. But I know for a fact that’s not often the case. Is that only the case for Walter Payton, Whitney Young? If that’s true, that’s sad. That’s sad that if you work at a neighborhood high school, you don’t feel that way.
From the eyes of both a parent and an educator, what could or should CPS do to incentivize CPS teachers to send their kids to CPS schools?
Stieber: Parents don’t want to look for schools—they want to send their kids to the schools right near them, they don’t want to deal with the selective enrollment because it’s stressful and time consuming. Improve the neighborhood schools. And I think a major first step is to have an elected school board—that shows that people care what parents think, along with no longer closing public schools, or cutting librarians and social workers.
Jasper: I think the biggest disconnect right now between our education and our community is that there is no real conversation. I think what we need to do is get to know our communities.
There is inevitably a disconnect when you have someone who lives in Beverly and works in Englewood. They go there as a job, not because it’s their community. When I went to Roseland every day from South Shore, it was different from me teaching in South Shore when I lived right down the street. When I go to Walgreens, I see my students. When I go to the gas station, I see my kids. They were my neighbors. Me staying for a basketball game or cheerleading practice was not a big deal.
Principals and staff need to do a better job of getting to know their community. Going to community events, bringing in neighborhood clubs for local school council meetings or open houses. There has to be more communication and openness, and it needs to be a partnership. I think that will change that mentality.
There needs to be a shift in the places where we go to every day. Your work should become an extension of you and your family. In the service of educating students, it is a service. You shouldn’t have the attitude that this is just a job. It’s about your willingness to invest in that community, regardless of whether you live there or not.