Toward Quality Schools in Every Neighborhood
By Carlos Azcoitia, M.Ed. ‘75
Editor’s note: On Nov. 18, 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed alumnus Carlos Azcoitia, Ed.D., 62, Distinguished Professor of Practice in the National College of Education, to the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education.
The driving force behind urban education is a simple premise: education does not occur in isolation from the rest of a student’s life.
At NLU, we pride ourselves on opportunity for the underserved, an innovative approach to preparing teachers and top-notch curriculum, values that mold teachers who are active members of their communities, not just their schools. These values must also be implemented within Chicago Public Schools, a diverse school district with overwhelming minority and immigrant populations, in order to provide quality school options in every neighborhood in the city. It cannot occur unless we implement consistent accountability standards applicable to every school option available.
This approach toward educational and fiscal accountability standards for all schools needs to be supported by a “community school model” where the integration of school, families and communities become interdependent for student success. Chicago Public Schools cannot escape interdependence with outside factors that influence whether students learn.
The meaningful extension of the school day is all about strengthening schools’ external relations. Extended learning opportunities must provide a variety of academic, social and recreational activities to accommodate different learning needs and styles, meaning there must be a seamless connection between what classroom teachers do during traditional school hours and what happens after school. Family and community engagement can be fostered through high school equivalency, English as a Second Language, and literacy classes that reflect the needs of the community. A partnership with a health agency would allow a school to offer health fairs, conferences and services to families. Parents working as literacy leaders can teach other parents and community residents. Family support can be provided through counseling sessions and initiatives on financial education, neighborhood improvement, immigration rights and community safety.
In seeking out community opportunities, we cannot ignore the growing richness of diversity in our city. Immigration and community-focused schools reflect and strengthen the core values of democracy in America. Both are just and wise investments.
Due to economic pressures, immigration remains in the public eye. Dominant populations have always demonstrated a high level of anxiety while immigrants are arriving, yet as immigrant groups acculturate to the American way of life, the tension subsides – until new issues emerge and immigrants become scapegoats for a variety of social and economic ills. The immigrant population in its great majority is grounded on the value of hard work, family and faith commitments and the adaptation to America by learning English, all traits that can be tapped by schools for support.
It is estimated that immigrant youth will make up a third of young Americans in 2040. We need to focus on their educational and economic success for the well-being of our country. Therefore, the Dream Act, as it has been proposed in Congress, needs to be addressed. Community schools are a successful approach for addressing the needs of immigrant families. Students should advocate for issues they regard as vital and become involved in planning what they will be doing. Whenever they are involved with applying ideals such as fairness, equity and justice to their world, their engagement is powerful. Therefore, service learning opportunities enrich the curriculum and provide leadership development as students address community needs.
As Elizabeth Harrison, founder of NLU, said, “One of the chief joys of life has been to watch the sweep forward from the idea of education as a formal acquisition of material facts and philosophic theories, to the more vital work of creative activity and the significance of community responsibility.”
Achievement must be not only influenced by what happens inside the school but what happens beyond its walls. Chicago schools have the power to become the focus of the community, connected to daily lives and experiences and thus can share the educational responsibility with other responsible partners.