Is it fair to ask poor kids to ‘do more with less?’

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As an educator and an administrator, I’m always thinking of ways to provide children with the best education possible. Public education is supposed to be “free” in Illinois, but we know this isn’t true. Someone has to fund it. Part of this responsibility lies with the state, which provides only 36 percent of school districts’ total revenues. The rest of the funding comes from local property taxes. When schools rely on property taxes then it stands to reason that schools in poor neighborhoods will be drastically underfunded.

This year, CEO Arne Duncan and Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins challenged Chicago’s public schools to “do more with less.” The statement made me think about the challenges I’m faced with as an administrator of an elementary school located North Lawndale.

I’m one of those people who came from a poverty-stricken neighborhood. I grew up in a single-parent household and lived in a two-bedroom apartment with three other siblings. My background is typical in the world in which I live and teach. I see myself in the children at school and in the community where I work and have lived most of my life. These children’s circumstances are different compared to those who are more fortunate—living in neighborhoods where homeownership and two-parent families are the norm.

Yet, they come to school every day with the potential to change their lives. I consider it my responsibility to help them to do this. It isn’t an easy task. Many of them move from one foster home to the next. Others are reared by grandparents—even neighbors—because their parents are incarcerated or strung out on drugs and alcohol. Doing more with less isn’t a novel idea in North Lawndale. We have been doing more with less all along, and not because we thought it was a great idea. We’ve been forced to.

Now, the recent round of school closings is threatening to take away more of what little we have. Students who have the bare minimum when it comes to educational resources are being punished for poor academic performance. They already do without art, music, computers and Internet accessibility because of inadequate funding. Now, Mayor Daley threatens to take their schools away from them. He is, however, providing funds to build new Renaissance 2010 schools every year, despite a projected $328 million deficit.

Am I missing something? Why can’t dollars that are being spent to build brand new, state-of-the-art schools be given to schools that lack adequate resources to be successful? How will closing these schools help children to be more successful on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test?

My greatest fear is that poor students will be left without any resources for a quality education. Parents in poor communities rely on their neighborhood schools because they are close to home. Many simply can’t afford to send their children to schools outside of the communities.

Schools that have been targeted for closing or restructuring are the foundation of our communities. They have developed, molded and educated successful people like myself. They aren’t just educational institutions. They are our homes away from home. Teachers and staff are a part of our extended families.

I welcome change, but when change tears away the fiber of my existence, it makes me uncomfortable.

Aren’t we faced with enough challenges? Haven’t we fought enough battles without having to fight for our schools to remain open, without having to fight for adequate funding for computers, art, and music—all the things that others seem to come by easily?

Do more with less? Isn’t it obvious that we’ve been doing more with less all of our lives? Many of us have beaten the odds and become productive citizens despite the obstacles put before us. It’s about time that some of these obstacles were removed. But if they aren’t, we’ll continue to fight as we always have for fairness and justice in a society that seems to be inherently unjust.

Sherryl Moore-Ollie is an assistant principal at William Penn Elementary School in North Lawndale. She is working toward a doctorate degree in educational leadership at Argosy University.