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25 October 2010

It's official... I'm a sap (some thoughts on Chicago Public Schools)

On Friday night, I attended a meeting at my kids' school. It was a public hearing about the possibility of opening a high school that will be affiliated with the elementary school (our school is pre-K through 8th). This has been bubbling around for a while. There are five selective enrollment high schools in the city of Chicago. Aside from a few specialty high schools (performing arts, etc.), these are really the only good choice for public high school education. However, now that so many more parents are choosing public schools for their kids, admission is becoming nearly impossible. Apparently, kids have a 4% chance of getting in to one of those schools. According to our principal, that is harder than Stanford admissions. Many families end up moving to the suburbs for high school, or they switch to private school. I don't love either one of those choices, so I'm thrilled that we might get another option.

Initially, the plan was to build the high school on the existing school property, but that plan didn't get approved. The new plan is actually much more exciting. The new school will lease space from an existing Catholic high school. The gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium will be shared. 500 students will be accomodated, and all student at my kids' school are guaranteed admission.

The most amazing thing about this school is that will be funded by a private family foundation that is owned by a family at our school. Their 7th grader is autistic, and they have created the foundation to provide integrated, public education programs for kids on all areas of the autistic spectrum. The elementary school currently provides this, and it is truly amazing. However, without the high school, these kids are kind of stranded after 8th grade. With this high school, they will be accomodated through 12th grade. It's pretty amazing.

So... .that's where my sappiness comes into the story. I attended this meeting on Friday night, and I was a teary mess the whole time. Listening to the parents of the autistic kids was the first thing that killed me. They explained how other schools had failed their children. They then explained how these same children are positively thriving at our school now. Without the high school, most of these families would have to consider leaving the STATE (not just the city) to find an integrated, public option that is comparable.

My next wave of tears came from listening to the students who spoke. Both typical and autistic kids stood up to speak (a note: the word typical sounds so off to me, but that's what everyone at this meeting used, so I'm assuming it's OK). One 7th grader stood up and said, "My best friend has autism. I never would have known him if I attended another school." Another kid stood up and said, "[This school] to me is like a second home. Everyone's got your back."

As we enter another awful Chicago winter, and I sit and watch all of the crappy politics, it is very easy to complain about where we live. We have bad weather, corrupt leaders, pot hole-filled streets and crime. But... we also have amazing neighborhoods with people who stand up for each other. We have public schools that are diverse, and challenging and meet the needs of all sorts of students. It's pretty frickin' cool, and I expect I'll continue to be brought to happy tears quite frequently as long as we live here.


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