Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and they can be vastly different. For more than a decade I worked in Chicago Public Schools on the West, Southwest, and South sides of Chicago. The only things these communities had in common were they had a high rate of poverty, typically over 90 percent, a perception of a high rate of crime, and rarely any white people living in these neighborhoods. In July of 2015 I transferred from being principal of a school on the Southwest side to The Ogden International School of Chicago, the only school in the Gold Coast neighborhood, one of the most expensive parts of town to reside.
When I first made the move I got a text message from a former supervisor, who must have thought I had lost my mind. Counting interim principals, I would be the sixth principal in three years. The school had hit a rough patch the past few years and developed a reputation as being so high-maintenance it ground down principals until they broke, quit, or were run-out of the position.
I was content at my former school, and even had a renewed contract to stay another four years, but I had grown weary of believing I could control for poverty as the principal, especially with school budgets that decreased every year, preventing the hiring of specialists and support staff that children dealing with poverty need most. So I ran away, but to the complete opposite side of the tracks. At my former school numerous people expressed concern when I initially began walking two blocks to the local Dunkin Donuts for my coffee each morning, believing I would be mugged or worse (spoiler alert: I never was, and I always felt safe in every neighborhood I worked in Chicago, even when I was there past midnight). In contrast, not many kids have recess across the street from the Barney's New York store, as they do at Ogden.
When I began at Ogden everyone warned me about the parents. They were described as the most extreme breed of helicopter parents. They were not only helicopter parents, they owned helicopters! Within four months, I found quite the opposite. Yes, the parents can and will email you like no other set of parents around and yes, they can be demanding. Although, I found a similar ratio of high to low-maintenance at every school I've worked at: the vast majority is perfectly tolerable, with only a handful requiring large amounts of your time.
The dedication of the Ogden community was revealed when our school, already suffering from nearly $500,000 of budget cuts during the summer, was facing another $367,000 to upwards of a million more in cuts on the 20th day of school. We were going to cut two teaching positions and combine classes, but instead, parents suggested we have a fundraiser. They asked how much we needed to keep these two teachers. I explained we needed $130,000, and we needed it in less than one week.
Now, I'm no amateur in fundraising and grant writing. I've raised $20,000 for a mural, and helped raise $30,000 for part of a playground, thousands more in smaller grants, and even been part of two separate teams that each won a $1.5 million dollar grant.
But grassroots-fundraising $130,000 in less than one week? That was a new challenge. Yet, in less than 24 hours, Ogden parents, students, and teachers had rallied to raise more than our goal. Students brought in their allowance money. Teachers, still waiting for their first paycheck after a long summer of unemployment, donated money. Parents donated in both small and large amounts.
The two largest donations came from two families, each donating $15,000. Many of the Ogden families can afford private school, they instead choose to be part of Ogden and pay nearly private school tuition through their donations for a public school education. After our fundraising was criticized in social media and in some press, I decided to interview the moms from these two families. I knew their families a little, but they didn't know each other until I sat them down to learn more about why they donated to Ogden. Coincidentally, they were both named Sarah.
Beyer: Each of your families can afford to send your kids to private school, or live in the suburbs where the quality of education is never in question. So why do you choose public school?
Sarah A: Let's see, first off, my husband and I were both raised in public schooling, so we have an appreciation for that. But actually, the choice was very deliberate. We researched our options and even applied to private schools, but when push came to shove, we really did want to have, if we were going to live in the city in Chicago, our children exposed to what the city brings, the diversity of the city. That diversity includes people from different walks of life, different socioeconomic backgrounds, people from different corners of the world, let alone the city and the state, and we really wanted that. The other aspect is that, in elementary school, I grew up in a neighborhood where I walked to school every day and I really wanted that for my children. I like that when they go to ballet, or to the grocery store, or a park that they run into some of the kids they go to school with. I didn't even have a question in my mind that that's something I wanted for my children. I felt, when we started looking at options, that it's something that Ogden could really bring, while not sacrificing the quality of education.
Sarah B: My husband and I are both products of the public education system. He grew up in Brooklyn, and I grew up in Rockford. Both of his parents were educators in public schools, and my mother is an educator in a public school. It was a deliberate decision for us as well. We looked at many neighborhoods in Chicago, we visited schools, including private schools, and we were so excited when we found a place to live that we loved in the Ogden school district. We were so excited to think that our children's education would be taken care of from K-8 in a neighborhood school that we could walk to! (Unfortunately it is no longer a K-8 school due to overcrowding.) And, I loved the diversity that I thought Ogden would provide, and has. When we visited some private schools, they said "we're so diverse", but as I looked around, all I saw where white kids. So, we decided to try Ogden, and we've had the best experience. Our oldest daughter is in her third year, and she loves school, and she loves Ogden. When she overhears us talk about the possible need to switch schools due to the craziness that is going on right now, she yells, "I'm not changing schools!" Public education is very important to us. It helps our kids understand people from different walks of life, and different types of families, and we want this to continue to work.
Beyer: Each of you donated a very generous, significant amount to Ogden. Do you think this is how public schools should operate, dependent on donations from generous families?
Sarah B: No, public schools should NOT be dependent on these donations, but it's definitely a nice perk and I don't think there is anything wrong with it. There are many public schools in Chicago. What about all these schools like Blaine that are doing this? It's happening all over the place. And why not? But, no we should not be dependent on donations. We are a Chicago Public School, we all pay our taxes, and our kids should be guaranteed a public education with ample staff. If parents can donate, that's great, it benefits the entire school.
Sarah A: I agree. It would be silly to say there should never be outside donations or benefits to the school. I think that is a wonderful community aspect we must nurture: showing we care by giving money or time or talent, it's something that I want to teach my children, I want to teach my neighbors, I think it's a part of the fabric of our existence that we all give, and we take, each in our own way, and we have that ebb and flow. And the same thing goes for our neighbors that are corporations or are small businesses in our community. I think we all benefit from that give and take. But should a school be dependent on that, should I feel we have to step up to help save, what I consider to be, a very essential part of my child's education? Perhaps not. I think there is a difference when you're talking about enhancements versus an essential part of educating our children. For example, it is a core thing to provide a teacher to a classroom or provide arts or foreign language. To me, those aren't enhancements, those are part of the core of a well rounded education, the promise of America. It's a basic education. Donating should be something that happens because we want to see those core areas enhanced, and supplemented, but not necessarily provided (by the donations).
Beyer: With your donation, what do you think it accomplished?
Sarah B: This specific donation saved staff. My original reaction, was "oh my gosh, we need to save these teachers." But it became bigger. After the Andersons started things off with a challenge grant, it got people on board, and we came together as a community and raised a lot of money in just a short amount of time. It brought our community together during a time when we NEED to come together. From budget cuts to overcrowding to special ed. cuts, we are facing a LOT right now.
Sarah A: I couldn't agree more. I'd be remiss not to mention that it directly affected two of my three children. But I also saw it as a bigger picture issue because it was really deteriorating the fabric of our community, and our fabric our teaching staff. That is ne of the things I love most about Ogden: the staff and teachers. I just don't look at GreatSchools.com scores and what are the test scores. I get that it can be an indicator for some people, but not in particular for me, perhaps because we did take the jump and the risk and have experienced Ogden. I have never met a more dedicated staff, a more experienced staff, I mean, they just go above and beyond, and care about my children like they are a family member. It's just outstanding. And when I think about this nucleus of teachers seeing one of their own, basically thrown to the wind, by their own school system, I think that is a very bad place for morale, in terms of the teaching staff, having to work in an environment like that. They have enough to worry about educating the classrooms they already have, let alone worrying about their own jobs, the pressure of adding in new students, and the social and emotional upset that it causes in all of the classes. So that was what I was responding to. What I hoped to accomplish was, when you give, I just think there is a very interesting banding together, which is why I believe in giving, that it creates a community. Because when we all give, it's like Stone Soup. When we all throw in something in the pot, and it doesn't matter what you bring, some of us can bring more economic help, some of us can bring more talent, maybe just in who we know and with whom we connect. There are so many ways we can contribute and donate. So I think that also creates the community in which we live. It's the complete fabric.
Beyer: I agree, last week it felt like we all came together. I was afraid people would be upset that I was asking for money.
Sarah A: You're going to upset someone any time you ask for (or do) anything. Any time you make a decision, there is going to be a group of parents that disagree, and that includes myself, which I recognize. But you either get people on board, or not, that's part of the process. And, as Tom (Sarah's husband) says, it's a 70-30 process. We're not always going to agree with Dr. Beyer as much as we'd like to but hopefully we do at least 70 percent of the time.
Beyer: So as we've seen just recently, the recent article about donations and there is a clear segregation in the city, some schools like Blaine on the Northside that are very solidly middle class, upper class, what not, the average in CPS is about 70% of the school has students from low-income families, whereas here at Ogden it's only about 30%. Related to that, we can afford to have lower class sizes, and across the city it's about 32 students in a class, and it seems to me the sentiment is, everyone should have lower standards, lower expectations, and it's unfair if anyone has more than that. It feels like we're getting to the point in public education where we're saying, we'll give you the bare minimum, and if you're not happy with that, you shouldn't expect more. This seems to be related to the criticism of Ogden that we manage to do a bit more, through donations, the leased parking garage, etc..
Sarah B: Yes, our school is in a very nice neighborhood, but that doesn't mean that every family has money or that our school is populated with rich white kids. That just isn't the case. I've spent a lot of time at the school with my daughters, and I see the students, and the diversity in the classrooms is wonderful. We should NOT lower our expectations or expect less from CPS. THAT is unfair.
Sarah A: I think, unfortunately, disparity is going to happen no matter what. Unfortunately, where there are boundaries, often there is disparity. I see people try to address that challenge with charters, with magnets, but that is a question for someone with more experience and education on that topic. And I think you're hitting on a much more philosophical question, about school systems in general, and whether they should be expansive to an entire city. This is an urban area, this is one of the largest school systems in the country, that's a behemoth to logistically allocate resources properly.
Beyer: So with that question of boundaries, I don't want to put you on the spot so let me ask you this way. Let's say this Ogden-Jenner merger, let's say it goes through, either next year or the year afterwards, do you think the Ogden community and how supportive it is, do you think it will change?
Sarah A: I hope it does.
Beyer: You hope it does?
Sarah A: Yes. I hope that we can elevate and become an example of overcoming a fear based society with other human beings with whom we live, work and play in the exact same region, the exact same community. I think that it is very natural to have a fear of "the other" and of "the unknown". However, when you break it down to individuals I am always surprised by how much more you have in common, than you have dissimilar. And that the dissimilarities actually create a much more compassionate and knowledgeable and principled group of people that exemplify the IB ideals we teach here at Ogden. I love this about where my children go to school, and I think we can, as parents and a staff, embrace that even more. I actually don't think the merger will impact us negatively to the severity the more alarming arguments seem to say. I think when you're talking about such a small ratio of change per classroom. That kind of thinking seems narrow-minded but it's understandable. If you've never been in a very diverse area, or had a bad experience, it's easy to carry that with you. And listen, I get they all won't be beautiful experiences, but right now even in a more homogeneous community they aren't all beautiful experiences. So, yes, I hope things do change and create an even more open-minded and real world experience for our children and our parents.
Sarah B: I think the majority of the supportive Ogden community will stay supportive, but for me personally, my fear or concern isn't the Jenner student body, or the Jenner neighborhood. I think that addition would enhance our student body and our diversity. For me, I am disappointed that our campuses will have to be spit up. I think it makes it harder to instill that sense of community. I'm not saying it can't be done, but for me it's not ideal.
Sarah A: When I came to this school, I was so blown away by all of the parents and how excited they were to meet other parents, who love their kids and their school and their neighborhood and living in Chicago, as much as I did. And it was just like, yes, this is so cool, let's make this great. There are different types of people but I'm a bloom where you're planted type of person. Here I am, I chose to be here. There will be some lumps, there will be some great things, and I'm going to work to make it as great an experience as I possibly can. So whether that's by donating, or speaking up, or chatting with my teacher and finding out what's going on. I don't think that is necessarily going to change by adding Jenner or adding Jenner parents to the table. I can't wait to see how those two groups of people nurture each other.
Beyer: Before I came to Ogden I had heard of its reputation. I had heard it was this fancy school, that it was a school for the elite, I read someone online describing it as 99% white, and now that I'm a part of Ogden, only for three months now I find it to be a really wonderful place. It gets messy, but kids are seeing democracy in action, for good and bad. What is one thing you want people to know about Ogden?
Sarah B: We are not a fancy elitist white school. Yes, the building is new, and it's in a fancy neighborhood, but once you walk in those doors, you will see what makes it special. It's not the Barney's across the street or the new brick and mortar....it's the kids and staff. We are a CPS school facing some of the same challenges that many fellow CPS schools are facing. The staff is incredible. They deal with so many kids, and they don't have aides, and they're here, and they're smiling and it's a really special school. The IB program is also really special. The children follow principles to help them become well rounded citizens in our community and world. We should all abide by these principles.
Sarah A: It is, it's a nice slice of humanity, it's a microcosm. I agree, the number one thing that pops in my head are the teachers and staff. Gosh, these teachers, it just blows my mind how dedicated and thoughtful and experienced they are. Even the newest teachers.
Sarah B: And how they work together.
Sarah A: They apply the principles that I want to see with working with my students. They treat my student as an individual and that makes me so happy. I'll say another aspect of diversity that I want people to know is, when people think of diversity all too often we narrow it down to black and white, or minority and Caucasian, and for me, diverse learning is much more encompassing, and diverse community is much more encompassing. I think you can be emotionally diverse, diverse in your interests, diverse in how you learn, how you intake information and how you express it, in socioeconomic ways and in how your family is comprised. When I say this community is so diverse, I don't just mean there are a lot of international students, there are students that may have behavioral challenges or disabilities or students who are extremely talented but they are all in the same classroom and they're all friends and they support one another and enhance each other's educations. That mirrors what I experience as an adult in the world, especially in an urban area. You are going to run into lots of ways to think, lots of ways to interact in your community, and still learn to reach your own goal. That is what my daughter experiences in her little classroom and what she'll need in life and I just love it.
Sarah B: Sarah is right. Diversity isn't just about the color of your skin. The teachers deal with diversity each day in the classroom in more ways than one. It's amazing what they do with the kids at all of the different levels of learning. They group them, and encourage the students to help each other. The teachers have to get creative when they may have 30 students, and they are all at different learning levels. This teamwork and coming together teachers our children so much that can't be learned from a textbook. The kids are learning to interact with others that may be different from them. It helps them embrace diversity. The way they are taught at Ogden is really cool.
Sarah A: It really breaks down a lot of walls. There are some parents that don't want their children with a diverse range of learning styles, but I don't think that way, I think it is the fabric of this school. I have three children and they are each so different and they have to learn how to get along. And when you go to school, you learn how to exist with other human beings, and how to achieve your goals in the presence of other people, and hopefully you learn to achieve it together.
On November 2nd, the Ogden Local School Council will consider whether or not to support the consolidation of our school with Jenner, a school that serves 240 students from the Cabrini Green housing projects. Regardless of what the LSC decides, it is the generosity and dedication demonstrated by not only Sarah A and Sarah B but all Ogden families that needs to be replicated and fostered across the landscape of public education, instead of scared away by ever-shrinking budgets and public scandals. We shouldn't have to rely on fundraisers and student fees to make public education viable, because not every community is in the Gold Coast. Instead, public education needs to be funded at sufficient levels to encourage more people to see past race and class, and seek to build strong schools for every child. Our goal should be to make public schools competitive with the best private schools, instead of allowing public schools to wither away, a foundation for participation in our democracy crumbling due to neglect by public officials.