Empowering educators through empowering communities

To the Editor: 

Editor’s note: See Herald story – Educators, community discuss ways to strengthen school climate and culture.

Since January 2017, nearly 200 children between the ages of six and 16 were victims of gun violence in Chicago. As an educator on the South Side for the last 20 years, I see the human face of these numbers daily. The students that I teach experience violence, trauma, and poverty as a consistent part of their childhood. And yet, these same children are some of the brightest, most creative, and resilient children on the planet. We cannot let the challenges they face diminish the incredible potential I see in in them every day. Given the breadth of these challenges, we also cannot write this off as only a school’s problem to solve.

If we want to build nurturing, supportive schools that help all students succeed, we need to come together within our communities. When this doesn’t happen, we begin failing even the brightest, most resilient children. This was the case with a former student of mine, Jordyn.

In grammar school, Jordyn was liked by his peers, was a good athlete, and extremely intelligent. In addition to being a good student, you could always count on Jordyn for some risible comment whenever there was a tense moment or words of wisdom, which he seemed to have beyond his young years. Jordyn also played on the school’s basketball team, where he was one of the stars and had several offers from high schools to play basketball.

However, somewhere in the transition from middle to high school, things changed for Jordyn. His new school offered less supports at the same time that pressures from home began to build up. As he navigated his way into high school, somewhere the star basketball player and stellar student we all knew and loved got lost. As his behavior worsened and he struggled to connect to adults in his new school, it became all too easy for Jordyn to stop going to school and instead turn to the streets.

Without continued supports and positive role models, Jordyn met the same fate as so many of our boys who never got the chance to become responsible men. As Jordyn’s story demonstrates, even when an entire school is able to devote additional resources or time towards students like Jordyn, those supports don’t always follow them to their next school, out into the community, or when they return home. When schools lack wraparound services and communication is poor between school buildings, communities, and families, students are at risk of feeling disconnected from their schools and more susceptible to the dangers of street life.

However, when schools do have wraparound services negotiated by discussion and action between all those who care about our youth, then we have the freedom to do our jobs as educators: administer the transformative power of education. As teachers we also need resources and trainings to support our students with the trauma they bring into the classroom. A positive school climate and culture is one where students feel supported and cared for by their school and that addresses any trauma kids experience on the streets and at home.

Educators know where the gaps in resources, tools, and supports are within our school communities, which makes us uniquely situated to provide essential context for everyone working hard to support our city’s youth. Others like parents, community organizations, and elected officials bring valuable perspective beyond the four walls of a classroom or school. I wonder what would have happened if Jordyn had supports beyond what the school and I could offer. What might have happened if our entire community was set up to support students like Jordyn?

On November 8th, Educators for Excellence-Chicago, a teacher-led organization I am proud to work with, hosted a problem-solving forum in Hyde Park. This forum brought our community together, giving educators an opportunity to start a dialogue not only with each other, but also with our broader community. Everyone brought different perspectives, because collaborating together for lasting change is critical for the success of every student. I urge a continuation of these forums to provide much needed space to cultivate the healthy and positive school climates and cultures that our students deserve.

What could this accomplish? On the South Side, it could mean the school’s greater community collaborates together to determine which services our students need and how to provide them. This would mean that students like Jordyn could have an entire community’s support and strength; we could change the narrative for all of the bright, creative, resilient students and provide the opportunities they deserve to thrive.

-Shay Porter
Shay Porter is a member of Educators for Excellence and a public elementary school teacher who has taught at the same school for the entirety of his 20 year career.