Improving Schools Requires Fixing Communities First

During a visit to a school in South Chicago a principal made a lasting impression on me. She told me about how one of her 8th grade male students was shot and killed on the street because he was carrying two guns and pulled them out while running away from the police. She attended the student’s funeral where one of her 7th grade students came up to her and lifted up his tee shirt that had a gun hidden under it and he said, “don’t worry, we’re always prepared”. She then asked me to look out of her office window at a small park across from the school and said that on the previous weekend 11 shootings had occurred there.

I’ve never forgotten that day nor the impact that principal made on me. She was totally dedicated and was clearly working so hard to help the children in her school reach their full potential. In the hour I was with her she had to excuse herself to break up an argument when a woman who was the mother of 9 children fathered by 9 different men was screaming at her secretary. Upon returning to our discussion her phone rang and she was informed that only 12 of an expected number of 65 children showed up for the first day of a summer reading program. The principal’s reaction to that news was one of total disappointment and frustration.

The principal had grown up in that community, left and went to college, continued on to earn a PhD, and years later decided she wanted to return to try and make a difference in the lives of the youth in her community. She indicated how frustrating it was and that as hard as she tried she said, “I can’t fix the school and help the students until the community and the people living in it improve first.” That was such an impactful statement.

The fact is that until the people who live in that community and others like it decide to improve their own living environment, principals will literally be fighting a battle they can never win alone. Principals are constantly challenged by issues in their schools and surrounding communities involving gang behavior, drug dealers, poverty, crime, teenage pregnancies, unemployed parents, dysfunctional and one-parent families, family members who dropped out of school, and their students just being able to survive on the streets once they leave the school building. All these issues make it extremely difficult for youth to be able to concentrate on school during and after they go home. Not only did I discover that situation in Chicago but similar scenarios were described to me during visits to schools in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Kansas City, East St. Louis, Indianapolis, Baltimore, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta, and Trenton, New Jersey. Until all of the above mentioned problems are eradicated principals and their teachers will continue to struggle to improve the public schools they work in, as well as the safety, welfare, and academic ability of the children who attend those schools. Schools in at-risk communities can only improve once people living in those communities join together to address all of the social issues that affect the school and its students.

It was that Chicago principal and others like her that I met in cities throughout America that served as the motivation behind the creation of the Be Life Ready initiative. Hopefully, people will use the Keys to Be Life Ready material to facilitate Be Life Ready programs throughout communities in an effort to help young people and their family members reach their full potential.

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