By Lynda Lopez
Yesterday, I got up bright and early to join Kelvyn Park High School students, teachers, and community leaders to speak out against the unjust budget cuts. This year, students will lose their college counselor and clinical social worker, among other crucial positions. I felt proud of standing next to a school in my own community, but felt angry that students need to be fighting for the most basic of resources. CPS blames the budget cuts on the current situation in Springfield and the pension crisis, but this is just rhetoric to hide the reality of the inequities that have existed for a long time, much of it orchestrated by CPS leadership.
I went to the Chicago Public Schools K-12 and I was always abstractly aware of the disparities in the educational system. In elementary school, I knew there were “better schools” in the so-called “white areas,” but I didn’t feel the indignation I now feel. I had internalized certain beliefs about education and privilege from an early age. Good schools were seen as a right of the rich, while the poor had to somehow earn the right to obtain as good of an education. I didn’t yet have an understanding or awareness of systemic and structural inequities. I still believed that hard work enables you to have all the opportunities to succeed.
As a high-scorer on standardized tests, this message of hard work and merit was reinforced throughout my childhood. I received invitations and offers to take tests for admittance at gifted schools or apply for scholarships at boarding schools. Not understanding the long-term implications and facing financial obstacles, I didn’t pursue those opportunities in elementary school. It wasn’t until high school when I started to more critically think about education and resource distribution. Even within my own high school, the honors programs seemed to have more resources than the rest of the school (though still being under-resourced overall). On a larger scale, I wondered why it was a given that the selective-enrollment schools should have more resources. The connection between my future social mobility and my education became more tangible. I thought back to those missed opportunities in elementary school and wondered why I hadn’t pursued applying to those elite private schools. I blamed myself for not understanding what going to those elite schools could mean, but I really should’ve been challenging the system that makes it so difficult to access a world-class education.
Determined to attend a top-notch institution of higher learning, I did all the “right things” in high school. I went through the International Baccalaureate program at Prosser Career Academy, was involved in a diverse array of extracurricular activities, and finally obtained a scholarship to the University of Chicago. Going to the Chicago Public Schools and entering a place like U of C radicalizes you in a way few experiences can. Many of the students that end up at U of C have had good schools guaranteed to them from the time they were born. Coming from a place in which a good education seemed like the exception, not the norm, U of C was an environment where I was confronted with questions of privilege and merit. Many of my peers came in with skills and knowledge that I just never had access to. I graduated the U of C with a fuller understanding of my place in the world and with a fiery determination to fight back against all that stands in the way of people reaching their full potential.
Now back in my own community, I see how my local neighborhood schools are starved and think about the stark difference in Hyde Park. Every day during college, I would pass the elite University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, a school renowned as the place for the most privileged, such as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children. Beyond its good education, many come from families that will provide them with a pathway to success. As one U of C administrator put it, “Those kids can sit under a tree all day and still be guaranteed success.” Walking by Lab every day for about 3 years and now walking by Kelvyn Park High School in my community, I feel it is a personal responsibility to fight until students in places like Hermosa can be ensured just as good an education. When students have to hold a press conference to demand a college counselor, I know this is far from being a reality.