Suburban, city students band together for school funding reform

Sabrina Walker attends Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep on Chicago's South Side.

The school's name sounds swanky, but the experience is far from it.

The walls need painting and the washrooms don't always have running water or soap.

Sometimes there aren't enough textbooks for every student and, when there are, it's not unusual for the books to be more than five years old. Keeping up with the technology is also a problem; computers are still operating on Windows 95, she says.

"It affects the mentality of students," Walker says. "And school does not equip them with the skills to get them out of this life."

The contrast between schools like Brooks and well-supplied, pristine suburban schools led a group of Chicago and suburban teens to join forces to fight inequalities in public schools funds.

Walker is a member of the newly formed Illinois Council of Students (ICS). The alliance members strive to transcend school district boundaries and funding disparities that separate them.

ICS members were with Chicago public schools students and their supporters during a rally to raise awareness about public schools funding inequality during a Chicago Cubs playoffs game last month. They had hoped to get national attention on the problem. Now ICS is plotting its next move.

ICS formed in response to the Sept. 2 demonstration at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka protesting unequal school funding and access.

Led by state Sen. James Meeks, D-Calumet, almost 1,000 Chicago students and parents boycotted the first day of class in Chicago and went to the New Trier High campus to register for classes. 

The protest highlighted a disparity in school funding. Seventy percent of school funding comes from property taxes. As a result, CPS spends $10,000 per student, compared to $17,000 at suburban school districts.

Matt McCambridge, president of the New Trier student government and founding member of ICS, said he and his classmates wanted to respond positively to the issues being brought up. He and several other New Trier students took a bus at the end of the school day to the post-rally at Harmswood Terrace in Skokie.

High schoolers (l-r) Edwillis Wright, Ada Sochanska, Amanda Cohen, Matt McCambridge, David Walchak and Sabrina Walker formed the Illinois Council of Students to fight inadequate school funding and resources. Not pictured is fellow student founder Brandon Saunders. / By Natasha Wasinski

That's when Chicago and Winnetka teen-agers met and began sharing stories about their education experiences, realizing the stark differences in funding, resources and opportunity.

The city and suburban kids decided to stay in touch and collaborate to fix the problem.

ICS founding members include Walker, McCambridge, New Trier students David Walchak, Ada Sochanska and Amanda Cohen, Brandon Saunders of Morgan Park and Edwillis Wright of Rich South High School in Richton Park.

Tasha Harris, spokeswoman of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, where Meeks is pastor, says the legislator didn't help form the students' coalition, but he supports it.

The students developed a mission statement, created strategic goals, and launched a website. They wrote a Student Bill of Rights outlining what they believe every public student is entitled to, including "the right to an emotionally safe environment" and "the right to participate in clubs and sports."

Sharing personal stories with the public is one way the student will raise awareness and encourage more action to promote education reform, Cohen says.

For example, Walker says that there are some city students attending schools worse off than hers. She remembers how students from another city school in the neighborhood jumped and beat her up her freshman year.

She thinks she was attacked simply because she attended the "better" school.

"The students are shaped by their environment," Walker says. "Kids are killed in the area. They can hear gun shots outside."

At New Trier, it's much different. McCambridge says most of his classmates come from middle to upper class families where the notion of college is built-in because they don't have to worry about sub-par educational structures.

New Trier instructor Tom Kucharski says many of his students are "conscious of their own privilege within education and their place in world." 

"They understand the kind of changes they can make because of it," says Kucharski, an educator of more than 20 years.

Kucharski, as a member of the Illinois Education Association, has lobbied the Illinois Legislature for years on issues of school funding inequities and faculty pensions.

But years of teachers' lobbying for education reform have yet to produce results. In a sense, he says,  "We adults have failed." 

"It is essential for students to get involved in their issue," Kucharski says, adding he is "very excited about the potential of this group."

ICS members agree that improving public education is key to solving many problems facing the United States.

"If we educate all students, we can fix the war, we can fix health care and the economy," Walker says.  "But only if [we are given] the skills to make the changes."


FRANK EDWARDS, 11-03-2008

We can learn a lot from these young people.