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Race to Academic Achievement: Leveling Out an Unfair Playing Field

A Deeper Look Into the Failing Academic Institutions of the Chicago Public School (CPS) System

Faculty and families protest the closure of 50 public schools in Chicago.

In fall of 2016, I created a charity called VitalPacks. The organization gives care packages to the homeless population, with a primary focus on individuals living on the streets. At the end of our winter season, we had about 50 packages available, and we decided to contact a school in the South Shore area of Chicago, an area we worked in often, and asked them if we could organize a way to help some of their students. This was a local public elementary school under the Chicago Public School System. This city’s school district currently has over 18,117 homeless students, a growing rate yet with a declining district enrollment, per Chicago Coalition for the Homeless [1]. As the largest school district in the state of Illinois, Chicago Public school (CPS) is responsible for providing education for 396,683 students. With 664 total schools under the district regulations, poverty distribution is startling, with 86.02 percent of the total student body being low-income per U.S. Department of Education [3]. The majority of these students are put at a major disadvantage academically and socially, by being forced to attend the lowest 15 percent of elementary schools and high schools in the nation [2], which usually can’t even bring students up to the national grade-level standards. Academically, these inner-city children, from lower-income areas, are put at a much higher environmental disadvantage than their peers in the suburbs, such as Winnetka, or even city children from a middle-high income neighborhood. While historic discrimination on certain communities may have contributed to this, it would be ignorant to assume that de facto segregation is the sole contributor to this problem. De jure segregation, treatment occurring based on law, is the true illicit in the academic disadvantage of these poor students.

A small event in the gym was arranged on a gloomy day in March. The sun was hidden behind the clouds and the wind was carrying a sense of hopelessness and fear. Upon walking into the gym, you could smell the dust and bleach in the air, burning your nostrils. These middle schoolers were gathered in the gym, all in need of a hug. Some had their eyes down and some were talking amongst themselves. I could sense their awe of strangers coming in wearing a uniform and carrying big boxes. Their eyes lit up when they saw what we had brought them. A little boy, no older than ten years, came up to me and gave me a hug. I was taken back by surprise. I squatted down and asked him how school was going. He replied, “It is hard. My teachers get mad at me ‘cause I am tired. It is cold at home and I am just hungry. I want to be better but I don’t know how.” I could feel my heart aching for the poor child, as I had expected a more vulgar conversation. Illogical fear had built up against innocent folks who just want the same future as me. I gave him a hug then proceeded to give him a fist pump and tickling his stomach to bring up his mood.      

What these kids needed to succeed were essentials that they weren’t provided at school or at home—essentials, like food, safe transportation, a warm bed, and a nurturing environment to grow, which their wealthier peers were often provided with. I saw some of the parents in the back. Their arms were crossed with their hand over their mouth, trying to hold back tears. Many of these families were too "rich" to be on government aid completely but too poor to be able to foster their children’s mental abilities because they were forced to work long hours or two jobs. This sets the children back and enforced laws often promote these differences to grow. This lack of funds follows the student to school. Many CPS schools have little funding for programs like after-school clubs, provided breakfast, modern textbooks, and available technology to keep information up to date, and music programs which help relax students. Distribution of tax dollars has caused the district to be close to bankruptcy which causes many teacher strikes, robbing students of days or even weeks of instruction. This leads to overcrowded classrooms, labor agreements protecting bad teachers, and unsafe school equipment. All of these issues are the direct cause of current governmental laws and budgeting, not the fault of students.

This drastic difference in educational opportunities and standards between lower income inner-city students and upper-class suburban students is not the cause of the lack of effort of the children, as commonly assumed. In a study conducted in 2014, the primary reasons for students dropping out of school were grouped into seven categories: motivation (35 percent), study habits (17 percent), academic preparedness (12 percent), external factors (11 percent), attitudes (11 percent), instruction (10 percent), and relevancy issues (4 percent) [4]. This study was conducted by Abour H. Cherif, National Associate Dean at DeVry University in Downers Grove, Illinois; Margaret A. Martyn, Vice President of Academic Affairs at City Colleges of Chicago–Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois; and Jeremy Dunning, Professor of Geophysics and Dean Emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington in Bloomington. While the authors are quick to point out that the main reason for dropping out and doing poorly is linked to motivation, what they fail to grasp is the reason behind this lack of motivation. It is unlikely that a low-income student, even if they are talented academically, can move up the socioeconomic ladder. Lack of motivation can also hold different meanings for different groups of people. Lack of motivation can translate into a number of issues such as disinterest in the topic, lack of support to improve, feeling of disconnection with a topic, unapproachable teachers, few offered opportunities of application, financial issues which the child is aware of may lead them drop out, negative influences from community heads, etc. The authors behind the study point out that “motivation and study habits were mentioned most frequently as the root cause of student failure... This means that students are aware that the reason why they fail courses most often resides within themselves and are under their own power and responsibility.” When a child is aware he/she is unable to attend college due to lack of funds, the purpose to try is often dismissed. Also, most of the children that perform the worst in high school and college had their poor academic performance start at a much younger age, kindergarten for some. Early childhood education has been said to have a drastic effect on the brain development of children, and those options are not available to some families, due to lack of access or funds. If a child is two to four academic years behind in comparison to your classmates, and their teachers fail to take time out to focus on their specific needs for proper development, chances of a student catching up towards the middle or end of their primary education are drastically low. A student shouldn’t be expected to act motivated or even succeed as a student if they aren’t told about their weak skills and considerable effort isn’t placed in aiding that child past the hurdle.

I attended New Trier High School, an upper-class school in the Northshore suburbs, and I have had moments where I judged CPS kids for being less educated than myself. Little did I realize that, even though I came from a lower income family myself, I went to a school which exposed me to more opportunities than other schools would be able to. I was put on a lot of aid at my high school to make sure I had the same competitive edge as the other students. I could grow because of my teachers and resources, not because I am inherently smarter than anyone else. Academic excellence is a game and I just got an unfair head start.

Cited Sources:


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