It Takes a City to Nurture Scholars at Sullivan High School
The following op-ed was published by the Chicago Sun-Times on March 30, 2016.
On Friday, Chicago will be filled with voices of protest and we will all hear more about the distrust, disrespect, factions and political fights over education. The one-day teachers’ walkout and resulting headlines make it hard to see how such a seemingly divided city can come together for our children.
But this week I witnessed something that made me hopeful. I spent the day at Sullivan High School and got a glimpse of how the city can truly come together to do something right for our kids.
Sullivan High School is an open-enrollment neighborhood school in the Rogers Park community. It is one of the most diverse schools in Chicago with students from 35 countries who speak more than 20 languages. Many of Sullivan’s scholars survived refugee camps, generations of institutionalized racism and poverty.
A few months ago, Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the Emerson Collective, issued a national challenge to educators across the country to reimagine what it means to go to high school. The competition is called XQ and what has happened in Chicago in pursuit of this prize is truly inspirational.
Sullivan’s principal, Chad Adams, is leading his team in applying for the competition. Based on all of his success over his first two years as principal, he could have tried to go it alone. But Principal Adams understands and values the input of the community. And so Sullivan partnered with Thrive Chicago, a collective-impact organization that leads citywide collaboration on high impact initiatives for Chicago’s young people.
As a result, more than 20 education nonprofits have been working with Adams over the last three months, offering expertise, guidance and support. And Adams is listening. He is listening to his students. He is listening to his teachers. He is listening to his community. And without discrimination, he is listening and learning from what works in public, charter and private schools. As Adams says, it doesn’t matter where or who these ideas come from, it only matters if they can help our students.
The way the city has come together in support of Sullivan High School is remarkable. What is also important is that the idea Sullivan submitted for the competition is grounded in the principle of strengthening community ties, relationships and trust. The proposal is designed by Sullivan’s students, teachers and leaders with input from a broad range of nonprofits including LEAP Innovations, Umoja and Schools That Can, with additional support from the Chicago Public Schools district office and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The submitted high school concept outlines a trajectory for Sullivan scholars that begins freshman year with a focus on understanding one’s self, followed by sophomore year when students contribute their ideas, labor and passions to service in their communities to solve problems. This expands to a similar approach at a national level junior year and to a global level senior year. Each scholar’s path will be unique, informed by personal academic and career interests, enhanced by academically rigorous coursework and opportunities for experiential and work-based learning along the way. The foundation of the concept is that scholars begin by discovering what they can contribute to society and then apply themselves to specific issues at a community, national and global level.
It would be incredible if Sullivan were to win the $10 million XQ prize to execute on this vision. But after meeting with the students, teachers, leadership team and multiple community partners hard at work in Sullivan, it is obvious that no matter what happens, they’ve already won. They are an example to all of us on how powerful it is to listen and bring in voices, sometimes those that disagree, and forge a path forward together on behalf of our children. Even if it makes the process harder, it makes the result that much better, and the win that much sweeter.
Beth Swanson is vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation, and chair of Thrive Chicago.