Being a Sustainable Community School is both an amazing opportunity and a daunting challenge

August 20 Sustainable Community Schools training at Steinmetz High School.

August 20 Sustainable Community Schools training at Steinmetz High School.

What made the Sustainable Community Schools (SCS) Summer Institute valuable for our SCS Leadership Team was the way it established the values that should guide our work by concretely demonstrating our roles through practice. There was so much wisdom in the room, and much like the principle of building on community wisdom, we all learned from the experience and practice of youth, parents, community organizers and teachers. The principle of inclusion was modeled in every day’s activities. At Uplift, we are trying to bring what we learned to life in how our Leadership Team functions.

At the very beginning, Monique Redeaux-Smith from the Illinois Federation of Teachers and Teachers for Social Justice reminded us that the origins of this initiative come from the struggle of Black and Brown communities throughout Chicago for equity and self-determination in education. Jitu Brown from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, a Grassroots Education Movement partner, established the political nature of this work and how it is tied to a fight for a vision that is in direct opposition to school privatization and the elimination of affordable housing that is pushing Black families out of Chicago. With Sustainable Community Schools, we are fighting an ongoing struggle for the right of communities to define what schools should be, and to rebuild our schools as the anchors of our communities that they once were.

Every time our Leadership Team meets in a setting that includes new people, we use the framing we received from the Institute to build unity in the bigger picture. It is easy to get caught up in the nuts and bolts about which programs we are going to offer, but we want to remind ourselves that the goal is to be transformational. That means constantly foregrounding the larger vision and making sure that everyone’s voices are heard and every pillar is incorporated into our plans.

On day one, we were led through a series of activities and discussions by a group of very eloquent youth. What was really impressive was how well the student presenters were able to connect the dots between citywide issues and local school issues. It reminds us that we are not simply bringing some cool after-school programs in, but rather programs that offer students support in developing themselves as leaders in their communities and shapers of their own futures. We are excited to have youth performance arts organization Kuumba Lynx as our partner with its long history of practice in this kind of programming.

Another really impactful day was led by the parents. We were just in awe, and so amazed at their accomplishments for their schools. It made us realize how far away from that level we are at Uplift, and how much work we will need to put into the development of parent opportunities and parent voice.

One of our parents was especially struck by an activity done on the day led by teachers. The activity built from small group discussion of some graphics and text, to the development of a concept map of oppression and a larger group reflection on the topic. What affected the parent the most was not only the connection of ideas and issues, but the commonality of feelings that were brought out in the discussion. How do we structure instruction in our classrooms so that the learning process values the feelings, experiences and ideas of our students, and nurtures their ability to make sense of and act in the world around them? The teachers in our group who attended that day also found it powerful, but we know we are going to need help to develop that kind of educational program.

Being an SCS school is both an amazing opportunity and a daunting challenge. The Institute showed us that we need to look to the brilliance that lies within our own students, parents, teachers and community members to lead the way, and when we need help, there is a network of people connected through this initiative to which we can turn.

Karen Zaccor is a teacher at Uplift Community High School, one of 20 Sustainable Community Schools won through bargaining for the 2015-2019 Contract.

This article appears in the October 2018 issue of the Chicago Union Teacher.

Oct. 2018 print cover