As part of our work with the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation on education governance, Angela Romans – AISR’s former co-director of District & Systems Transformation – sat down with Beatriz Ponce de León, executive director of Generation All in Chicago, to talk about why community involvement in governance is important and what it looks like on the ground in Chicago. Below is the full interview; read the blog post here.

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Why does youth and community involvement and representation in governance matter?

1610 Beatriz Ponce de LeónWhenever you are either planning or just managing resources for any kind of public good, I believe strongly that the people who are impacted by that work should participate in some of the decision-making. They should inform the governance, especially when there are new things being introduced. There should be that opportunity for the users of the system, the people ultimately impacted, to give input into what’s happening. And, if possible, to help co-create some of the change and some of the decisions that are made.

For any school in particular, students’ participation in the decision-making is important because they often know what works and what doesn’t work, in terms of engaging them in learning, helping them to direct how they learn, and their education, which would better prepare them over time for whatever comes after high school. Because adolescents, in particular, are at an age of developing their own identities and what they care about in the world, they often have very strong feelings about their schools, about their communities, about their peers, and about what is important, and giving them an opportunity to bring those perspectives and that experience to decision-makers at a school or a district level will help the adults in the school, the educators, the administrators, to better create an education system that is really serving youth.

So rather than develop programs and make decisions about school policy that are based only on research, or based on current trends, having youth voice at the table from the beginning will make them much more relevant and more likely to succeed, because they’ll be informed by what young people think is important, or what they are concerned about.

Another piece in terms of youth is that by creating opportunities for students and for young people to participate in decision-making in schools, or at the district level, we are developing leadership skills and advocacy skills that those students can take wherever they go next. We see that a lot in Chicago in a variety of organizations that prepare young people to participate, in the skills that they learn – understanding how to address an issue, how to present an argument, how to talk to policymakers, how to advocate for things that they believe in – all of those skills are things that they can then use in their jobs, internships, college, or other post-high school opportunities.

Is there a particular example that comes to mind?

There are two organizations that we work with. Brighton Park Neighborhood Council is a community-based organization that does a lot of organizing around education, even though their focus is community development for the Brighton Park neighborhood. They work directly with youth in a variety of ways. Some of the young people that they work with are learning to be advocates and organizers. They really do a good job of understanding how to research an issue, how to analyze it, what connection it has for their personal lives, but also for their neighborhood, and for our city as a whole. Those students have been active in advocating for school funding, in highlighting the disparities among the resources that their high schools have versus others in the city, and also in reaching out to have meetings with people from the mayor’s office or from central office, at the district level.

So they come to it more from the advocate perspective. When we meet those students, who are part of that Brighton Park community, you can see how knowledgeable, how confident, how strong they are in what they believe in and in communicating it. And it’s very encouraging to see young people being able to use data that they believe in, in a way that’s not only emotional, but is based in experience and research and policy. The Brighton Park youth have begun to be more public with their work, and have helped make some changes for their community.

There's another group called Mikva Challenge, which was started as a civic engagement group for young people. And it was started [as a tribute to former White House Counsel, judge, and U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva and his wife Zoe, a teacher and lifelong education activist] in Chicago. Their work is also about getting young people to understand how policy is made, to understand how they can make changes in policy, and to look at the city’s biggest challenges and participate in making decisions and informing the policymakers and decision-makers about what to do.

Mikva has been around for a while, and is more experienced in this type of  youth work than most groups. And they’ve become very successful at teaching students these skills. The students go on and take yearlong projects that they work on as groups. Education is one of those issue areas. They pick a couple of things to focus on. And then they are very connected to the district administration, to other kinds of elected officials, and to city administrators. So they have the opportunity to work as a committee of youth with these policymakers and decision-makers in a partnership, not as much as advocates, but more as partners in making changes.

And they’ve done a really good job. They’ve had some projects that are more successful than others, some last longer than others. But the youth come out of Mikva with their leadership skills strongly developed. And they have a very strong sense of civic engagement and public service. They're known around the city for being able to have those working relationships with policymakers.

Now I’ll tell you a little bit about Generation All and the Generation All Youth Council. Generation All is new, an emerging initiative. But we launched a Youth Council this year consisting of 15 young people. The goal is for them to come together and raise awareness of, and begin to change the narrative about, neighborhood public high schools in Chicago. The neighborhood high schools are the ones that are open to anyone. And so they, in some ways, have become a default option for students, because Chicago has a very deep system of school choice. We have some of the best selective schools kids have to test into. We have a plethora of charter high schools. We also have this growing number of alternative or option high schools for kids who are being pushed out, or who might be dropping out of high school.

Then we have our neighborhood schools that serve people within a certain geographic boundary, although those boundaries are more and more fluid, as schools really work to have high enrollment. The work of Generation All is to revitalize these neighborhood high schools so that all kinds of students could really have access to high-quality learning opportunities, both in and out of the classroom.

Our Youth Council has taken that on. They are a mix of students from neighborhood schools, as well as some selective and some charter schools, and I think even one or two Catholic schools. But what's interesting is that all the students – they get the issue. They know that neighborhood high schools should be as good as any other school, and that they should have the same types of resources, and that they might need some extra support because of where they're located, and who they serve. So they see it as an issue of fairness, to make sure that these schools are doing well.

Almost all the students, regardless of what type of school they go to, have friends or relatives who go to a neighborhood school. To them, those distinctions aren’t as hard – their lines aren’t as solidly drawn. It’s pretty fluid, who young people associate with and where they go.

Our Youth Council has taken on two projects. One is that they're putting together a mini-documentary to show the disparities among the different types of schools, and also to highlight some of the positive things that are happening at neighborhood high schools, that it’s not all bad. They want to show a lot of the good that’s going on, but be able to highlight some of the disparities in resources and in facilities that they know exist among the different types of schools.

The second project is a conference that they're organizing. They very specifically didn’t want it to be a youth summit, because several of them have been to youth summits, and felt that sometimes young people get to come and talk about issues, but they don’t always see action after that. So they wanted to do a youth conference to celebrate neighborhood high schools and to showcase the good stuff that’s happening at them, the type of leadership and activities and resources that students are learning and doing. Also, to use that as an opportunity for workshops that would give students more skills and information to be able to work on making their particular neighborhood high school better. That conference is scheduled for early summer, along with the documentary.

Their role as a council is to advise us in our policy and advocacy work around their experiences. The next phase will be for them to take what they learned from the documentary, and from their conference, to connect with the policymakers and the decision-makers and be able to inform the district and others about the work that’s going on currently in Chicago Public Schools at the high school level.

Is there a story about particular students on the Council?

There have been several really fascinating young people on our Council. One is a young woman named Danely, a senior at Roosevelt High School, in the Albany Park neighborhood. Roosevelt High School is a fairly average sized to larger neighborhood school. It has an enrollment of around 1,000 to 1,500 students. They’re a pretty basic neighborhood high school, in that they offer a variety of programs. But they don’t have any selective criteria or any kind of special program. They serve a very racially, ethnically diverse population. And that community has a high percent of immigrant and refugee residents, as well as a really diverse group of community residents.

Danely is one of the most goal-engaged young people I've ever met. She loves her school. She believes very strongly in the need for our district to put more focus on neighborhood schools. She loves the diversity of the school on multiple levels, not just racially, but they have an LGBTQ Club, they have a group for DREAMers and other immigrants. They have a variety of sports and different clubs, although not as many as she would like.

But she really jumps out at us because she’s so committed to her school. She sees that it’s not one of the highest-performing high schools, even though she is a high-performing student. She just got accepted into many, many universities, including the University of Michigan. And she is definitely on a path to do well academically. But she has been a strong advocate for Roosevelt High School and for other neighborhood schools, and she’s been very involved. She’s student council president. She’s one of these students that really, on a leadership level, jumps out.

One of our interns interviewed her for a series that we did on the website, just to showcase people who are making a difference at their neighborhood school, adults and youth. And her interview was awesome. We saw her story, and we thought, Wow! She’s really doing everything.

She wanted to stay connected to us. When we formed the Youth Council, she was one of the first persons we reached out to. She’s on it, and now she’s a leader in the Youth Council. She’s helping to organize that Youth Conference, has a very clear vision about what she wants to do, and is very interested in pursuing work in public policy post-college. She has a great story from that perspective. She comes from a working class immigrant background, not necessarily from a family with a ton of resources or other opportunities. But her school served her well, and she’s on the way to make it work and to contribute to it as well.

There is another young man from Julian High School on the Far South Side. And he’s not necessarily a super outstanding student in the way that Danely is. But he has really clicked with Generation All and with our Youth Council because he feels so supported in a group that’s advocating for neighborhood schools. And he comes to every single meeting. He always is ready to share a perspective or an experience. He wants to get other young people involved. He’s beginning to show the signs of wanting to be a leader and to be connected.

What we found interesting is that he has had a lot of challenge in his personal life related to poverty and community issues, but he’s so optimistic. And now, being part of this group, he feels really supported and empowered to do more. We feel very lucky to have him involved with us.

At a systemic level, what are some concrete examples of community involvement in education governance?

I work with a planning effort. And a lot of the collaboration with the district or the unions came through that. This year, we've been in transition to begin to implement some of the recommendations that came in the plan. We’re at a point where we’re having a harder time now to stay connected with the district for various reasons. I will touch on that.

The vision of Generation All was a coming together of the district leadership with the union leadership to look at how to expand equity in education. We were given a grant to the Chicago Community Foundation by the Ford Foundation, which was looking at equity in education. Before I was hired, the proposal was that we would bring the district and union together and form a steering committee to come up with a new vision for equity.

Eventually, that became a focus on neighborhood high schools, because people saw, when we look at what are the biggest gaps, and what area of education in our system hasn’t been really addressed or supported, it was at the neighborhood high school level. [Neighborhood high schools are] the most open and accessible, and have just over 40 percent of our total CPS high school population. And they tend to serve students who are struggling in a variety of ways, whether it’s through poverty, or special learning needs, or because they're recent immigrants. Neighborhood high schools are distributed across the city, but many are in struggling communities where students face a variety of challenges.

Our steering committee is a good example of including community in the governance space. About half of the group we convened were students, parents, teachers, and principals, people who are in schools every day. The other half were very senior-level people from the school district, the union, the park district, the library, and the Department of Family and Support Services – the kind of city institutions that work on and make decisions about programs that impact youth and the schools, and youth service organizations that provide afterschool programming or enrichment activities.

That is the group that was chosen to study, plan, and debate a vision for how to expand equity in education by focusing on neighborhood high schools. The plan resulted in three major areas of work – practice, policy, and public engagement. With practice, we looked at evidence-based strategies for school improvement, and building strong, healthy schools that support youth. One recommendation is around student-centered learning. There is another recommendation about investing in a time for educators to work together and to learn. The third is about exploring and building on the community schools model. The fourth is ensuring that all neighborhood high school students have post-secondary advising and counseling, because we currently can’t assure that. The last is creating safe and supportive school environments for both students and adults through things like restorative practices.

But we knew that to get to those practice areas we had to address some policy issues. The first was to have a citywide but neighborhood-informed plan for where schools need to be. In our research we found that the City of Chicago has too many high schools and not enough students to fill them. Part of that is that, for the last 15 years, there was a huge push to open charter schools. It was part of a movement called Renaissance 2010. We opened 100 charter schools – many of those were high schools. And yet we have a declining city population and a declining student population. So we currently have more seats than students. And by having a very robust system of school choice, many of our neighborhood high schools are struggling with enrollment. So that’s one policy recommendation.

The other is to look at equitable funding for schools, not equal funding. Although we have issues with state funding here in Illinois at the city level, we are encouraging the district to rethink how they fund schools, not just on a per-student basis, but to really take into account the needs of a school population based on the community that they’re in and the population that they serve, and look more holistically at what they need to do to fund those schools, which could involve a variety of things – a weighted formula that is different than the one they currently have, or actually guaranteeing some core positions at certain schools.

We have schools that don’t have a college counselor or don’t have even a part-time nurse. The only thing they’re really guaranteed is a principal and a clerk. And the positions are tied – now they’re just based on the per-pupil allocation. Principals have discretion to choose how to move those funds around. And in very small or under-enrolled schools, that often means a reduced teacher pool, so the variety of courses that they can offer is a lot smaller.

The last section of the work is around public engagement. We found that in general, people in Chicago are very mistrustful of the school district, either because there have been some bad policy decisions in previous years or that they were just implemented very quickly. Our CEO was, unfortunately, indicted for corruption.

Chicago Public Schools [CPS] is under the governance of the mayor, and the mayor also appoints the school board. So there is no opportunity for people to have more local control. We do have local school councils at the majority of our schools. But the authority of those local school councils, in recent years, has been reduced to some degree. If they were on academic probation, for example, they no longer have the authority to hire the principal or to fire the principal. It’s been kind of a mixed bag with the local school councils. But that is an opportunity for community engagement.

Part of our work, then, is to look at deepening that community engagement with parents and other people. Senior-level people from CPS were there with us, as well as from the union and from these other types of organizations that I described. We launched a plan this year in April. And then we began to look at how to roll that out and what to focus on first.

And here is where the story changed. Because what we found was, especially as we really began to push on the two policy areas about the community-informed citywide plan and about the equitable funding, the district, even though they had been a partner, began to pull away, because they had other things in mind. And a lot of their planning comes in collaboration with the mayor’s office. So I think our work, by putting an emphasis on neighborhood high schools, and by talking about equitable funding, shifts the attention away from school choice to school guarantees. And that’s uncomfortable – it’s not the norm in Chicago. Our city has a very strong school choice system and culture.

We’re in the position, right now, where we’re trying to balance: How much do we become stronger advocates pushing for policy change? Or do we continue to look for common places where we can work with the district in more productive ways that don’t challenge them in as threatening a manner? And that’s disappointing, because collaboration was promising moving through the whole planning process. But, at a certain point, the gap between their work and our effort became very evident.

Is the steering committee still meeting, in spite of the different goals?

Yes. I think that is where the disengagement has happened. For example, we wanted to work on the plan – the Citywide Neighborhood and Forum kind of decision-making around schools and facilities and where they need to be. [The district] backed away from that. That’s not something that they want to engage with now. And in order to push that further, we had to decide, do we mount a more public movement to have that happen? Or do we try to work with the district in a more collaborative way?

We are on the cusp of deciding, as an initiative, Do we become a more public advocate versus an inside-outside partner, which is how we had been operating along the full trajectory? I think it’s an interesting time in Chicago, because funding has changed. The district is in a huge budget crisis because the state has a budget crisis. And it has had implications for the city. We’ve had a lot of incidents, very public incidents of community violence in different neighborhoods, and gang violence. Our homicide rate is up. There’s so many other issues going on, that in some regards, even the school system has been kind of quiet about what they’re doing. But they're not willing to take on really big changes – things that are a little bit more destabilizing.

One new thing that has emerged is that the school district announced a single application process for high school. In Chicago, people are guaranteed a school, the neighborhood school. You don’t have to go there, but you have a guaranteed place there. And then we have 11 selective schools that people test into and dozens of charters. And we have a lot of specialty programs that are in neighborhood high schools. A neighborhood school might have a selective program that you apply to and test into. So there is a lot of choice. And that’s partly why neighborhood schools have suffered drops in enrollment, because people want to choose a new option. And a lot of money and attention and resources have gone to those options instead of investing in the existing neighborhood schools.

So the district announced an effort to make this process easier for families: a single application process. What we did then was an example of trying to navigate that insider/outsider space and relationship. I was part of a high school working group that the mayor’s office and then-CEO convened a couple years ago. Within that, the single application idea came up. And in the end, we agreed to support it, with the caveat that the district would do a significant public engagement process to hear from families and students and from school administrators – what they thought about this process, and what questions they might have, or ways to make it fair for neighborhood schools in particular.

The district was rolling out the application process, but they haven't yet put together this public engagement process. They have funding to do it; they’ve talked about doing it. But it hasn’t actually happened. And so we reached out to them, to see if there’s a way to be a partner in that public engagement, or just to learn what their plans are about it. And they’ve been very hesitant to share that information.

We put together a policy brief in which we showed the results of these [single application] processes in other cities. Generally, what they find is that school quality doesn’t improve, because you're not creating more high-quality seats. Some students might match to a better school than they might have originally gone to. But it ends up just contributing to the stratification of students because there will always be a portion of students whose families either don’t use that application, don’t engage in selecting anything new, or just don’t want their kids to travel, so they still pick whatever is closest to home.

And if you're not doing anything to improve those schools that are closest to home, then you might actually be concentrating fewer resources and higher challenges into neighborhood schools. We’ve been using that brief to raise awareness of the issue and to try to push CPS on their public engagement promise that they made about this particular single application process. It’s a challenge – it’s slow.

What should other districts or cities know about involving community members in governance issues?

I would say we have a very healthy ecosystem of organizations in Chicago that do education advocacy. There are many of our community-based development corporations. So even though they were originally founded to work on neighborhood improvement, many of them focus on education as well. They’ve organized parents around issues in support of their local schools – organizations like Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Logan Square Neighbors Association, the Southwest Organizing Project, Communities United, and Northwest Side Housing Coalition. All these groups see schools as institutional anchors in their communities. And they want the health of those schools to contribute to the health of their neighborhoods. So they’re very active in working on those issues.

In terms of public engagement, those are the groups that we see going on a regular basis to the monthly public meetings of the Chicago Public Schools Board, which are open for people to come and comment. And that’s a very important piece of public engagement, in that organizations such as the ones I talked about, as well as anyone, a parent, a student, anyone, can come and make a statement, raise a question, or ask the district for some action on something. We’re fortunate in Chicago that we have these groups that do education advocacy that are present and speaking up at these Board meetings on a regular basis.

There’s a very strong parent group that is also a partner with us – Illinois Raise Your Hand. They were formed by a group of parents who were concerned about a handful of things. But they have become a very strong voice in support of equitable school funding and a variety of other issues. You can count on them to be present at the CPS Board meeting, and at other kinds of hearings that CPS traditionally does, like for the budget, or for big changes.

What we would like to see different, in terms of community engagement for public schools, is that the district would, when they're contemplating a new policy such as the single application for high school, or opening or closing any schools, that they would start way earlier with public engagement, and that they would partner with organizations like Generation All or Raise Your Hand or Logan Square Neighbors Association, and really see these groups that already have access to families and parents that are interested in education – see them as partners in doing the public engagement. Because if you can start early, and you can go to groups that are connected to communities, then it’s a more transparent and authentic process, versus the way that CPS has done it traditionally in these big spaces, very much about one-time statements, and often very close to when the new policy or program is going to be enacted. That leaves little room for actual change, based on people’s input.

The other issue is connecting neighborhood-based community engagement with a city-wide perspective. In some neighborhoods, there are local groups that work on education. And they advise CPS in one way or another. They’re local efforts, sometimes around the opening or closing of one particular school. But those local efforts aren’t connected to a city-wide vision. And I think that’s what's missing. That brings us back to our policy recommendation about not opening or closing any high schools until we have a city-wide vision that is neighborhood-informed, but also city-wide, so that you understand the implications of what happens among the rest of the community of schools in the city.

That’s an opportunity for CPS if they were to partner, again, with a group like Generation All or with one of these community-based organizations, to really bring people together, not just for their particular neighborhood, but understanding for their neighborhood and for the city as a whole what we need.

I would say CPS has done a few good things recently with student voice. They have an office or Department of – it might be called Civic Engagement – with students. And it is helping young people connect to create student voice committees. Not all schools have a Student Council – some of them, instead of a Student Council, which has some requirements for what they can do and the support they need, they’ll have a committee called the Student Voice Committee, which is more student-led. And it’s also about students voicing their concerns and their ideas for their particular school. CPS has done a nice job of trying to support those Student Voice Committees and doing it through partnerships with Mikva and other similar groups. In some areas they’re doing a good job of trying to engage young people. But they could do a better job across the board.

Is there anything else you’d want to share with other districts about partnering with community members?

I don’t know how unique our situation is compared to other cities, in that in our school system, the CEO is appointed by the mayor’s office. And the Board is appointed by the mayor. So we have very direct mayoral control. And when you have that, it’s more challenging to have authentic public engagement and decision-making. If that is the situation, then you have to find alternative ways to bring the voices of parents and students, and even the schools, teachers, and other educators, to the decision-making table. So that’s where organizations like ours, Generation All and other intermediaries to some degree, can have a role.

If we have access to policy space, or if you as an organization have access to meetings that have to do with the mayor’s office or the district or a foundation, we could bring in the voice of the students, the parents, the educators, by bringing them to the table in different ways. So it’s the responsibility of district leaders to find ways to work with and bring in community voice and set up those structures. But it’s also an opportunity and a responsibility for other types of organizations to do that.

What I found in the planning process, leading up to where we are now, is that often a group like Generation All, because we have access to some of the grasstops groups, could try a grassroots/grasstops approach to making change. Because we also have our feet on the ground and are connected to the grassroots community, we could be a bridge in bringing voices that are important and perhaps less threatening than the people marching in front of the Board meeting. These folks have very valid things to say, yet might not be listened to as much because they’re very strong public advocates, so intermediaries like Generation All can help them be heard. It’s a strategy, but it’s a tricky one to balance.