2015 was a very tough year for Chicago. Our headlines were filled with violence, scandals, and tragedy. And, there are no signs that things will be different in the year ahead. We haven’t done enough to address the corruption, the violence, the deep inequities, the fiscal challenges, and the fundamental mistrust that often exist in our community.
However, as we start 2016, I want to balance this negativity with a message of hope. It might not be reflected in the popular narrative, but there are great things happening in our city—truly inspiring progress that should motivate us to keep pushing, keep fighting for a better future.
At A Better Chicago, we believe that everyone deserves a great education. Unfortunately, our city’s education system has suffered from its fair share of turmoil in the past year, which makes progress all the more challenging. The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) abruptly resigned last summer and has been indicted on corruption charges. Additionally, CPS is facing a $500 million gap in its FY16 budget, with no clear plan for filling this. It is very possible that CPS will need to make significant cuts early this year. And more recently, the Chicago Teachers Union voted to authorize a strike, which could come as early as this May.
Despite all of these challenges, I remain firmly optimistic that we can deliver a world class education to every Chicagoan. Why? Because out of the limelight, I’m witnessing some pretty incredible things. I’m seeing social entrepreneurs like those at Intrinsic Schools who are blending great teaching with technology to provide students with a more effective and customized learning experience. I’m seeing parents and community leaders in places like Englewood and Ravenswood who are stepping up to improve the quality of their local schools. I’m seeing nonprofits, foundations and CPS rally around higher standards and more accountability. I’m seeing how ground-breaking research from the University of Chicago is advancing our understanding of how to educate kids. And, I’m seeing how all of this hard work is driving up CPS’s high school graduation rate, from approximately 50% a decade ago to 70% in 2015, which is enormous progress for a system of 400,000 students. Yes, our high school (and college) graduation rate is still far too low. We are nowhere near the finish line. And yet, despite all of the setbacks, budget shortfalls and scandals, we are making real progress on a critical issue because Chicagoans are taking affirmative steps to make a difference. If we can move the needle on education, then we can do it elsewhere.
Chicagoans have faced adversity before. We will face more of it in the coming years. In some respects, things might get worse before they get better. But the most important thing is that we keep resilient. We keep pushing forward. It is our greatest strength. We will never accept the problems we see in our society, and we will never allow them to stop us from realizing our potential. Stay strong, Chicago.