Education is foundational to success. This is why education is one of the pillars of Together Chicago along with a partnership with Administer Justice to establish neighborhood gospel justice centers. Damien shares why equitable education opportunity is so critical.
That is how I usually greet my friends serving alongside me on the South and West sides of Chicago. I am referring to you as a neighbor based on a deeply felt commitment to help us recapture the #Village concept. Growing up in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, it was often stated that it takes a village to raise our children. When did we forget this? How did we lose sight of this?
At age 17, the concept of traditional education was not going to work for me. I needed to create a path for myself some other way. I started volunteering in the Special Education (SEPD) Department of my school, where I discovered that the star running back of our school, Dante, had been taking classes in a separate and secluded section of the school for most of the day. Dante’s peers saw so many great qualities in him, but the school system defined him by his deficits. This concept didn’t sit well with me.
As a result, I decided to pursue a degree in Special Education. While at the University of Illinois, there was indeed a disproportionate number of African Americans (especially males) labeled as behaviorally disordered and learning disabled. Dante’s story was the catalyst that started my journey as a freedom fighter for equitable educational opportunities.
After a long journey of trying to understand who I am called to be as a minister and teacher, I was blessed to connect with Together Chicago (TC). As a member of TC, I am able to live fully into all of who God has made me to be – i.e. a man passionate about Urban Education Reform.
I vividly remember when Mark, our CFO, had conducted very thorough research to better understand disproportionalities that exist within Chicago schools. A very fascinating component of his research identified schools like Sherwood (in Englewood) that were outperforming other Chicago schools with similar demographics. I encouraged the team that we needed to prioritize social and emotional learning (SEL) as a major part of our connection to schools, children and families.
Education through Mentor Training & Partnership
In the last couple of years, based on what we’ve learned, our focus now is to train the adults who are part of the kid’s #Village. When these nurturing adults are on the same page regarding the development of critical competencies of the child, that child can win in the classroom and in life! They are able to support skill building that makes an impact in and beyond the classroom – in homes and in the community. The work aspires to support parents, teachers, and community-based mentors to reinforce themes and skills (with children) at the same time. We want value added to the lives of our young people in all of the spaces they occupy. For this reason, we provide SEL Mentor Training for adults.
For 3 years we have partnered with Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Office of Faith Based Initiatives to solidify the Adopt-A-School Program for the district. With this partnership, my hope is to get qualitative and quantitative data that undeniably proves the impact our tutors and mentors (from local churches) are having in schools. We’ve witnessed multiple success stories and it’s a testament to the church and the school system that men and women of faith WILL make an impact in schools where there is great need.
Together Chicago Education Vision
The Together Chicago Education vision desires for the church to be mobilized to offer mentoring and tutoring in schools. As we partner with schools, we also seek to provide SEL training for Parent, Teacher, and Mentor #Champions from these local schools. Furthermore, when schools need additional support, strong church partnerships can allow for creative strategies.
More is needed
Finally, we must do something in response to the current state of education. Speaking recently with Allison Jack of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, I gained greater clarity concerning the spectrum of opinions when it comes to reopening schools. Based on the students circumstances, the thought of not returning to school causes great angst. This conversation led me into deep introspection concerning the perspective of the child who seeks refuge in the school. Many of our under-resourced schools serve students from under-resourced communities. The dynamics of dis-investment often show up in devastating ways inside the home. Where there is a relationship, we can hear the voices that need to be heard. Where there is no connection, sadly, the children and families whose voices should be elevated become muzzled.
All things considered, a mobilized and compassionate body of Christ is part of the change our school system needs. I strongly believe that a blend of mentor training, before, during and after school support, and creatively supporting other needs in partnership with the school and community, would greatly support CPS’ vision. Through these strategies, the church would have the necessary connections to help communities navigate trying times such as the season we are currently in. We must also keep in mind that “trying times” are exponentially magnified where there has been longitudinal dis-investment and injustice. In such schools and communities, the impact is compounded and the need is greater. I agree with MLK – “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There is a lot of injustice that we are uniquely positioned to help address. Enough said…let’s go!
Damien Howard is the Founder of a Character Development company – Clever Characters. With an aspiration for Education Reform in Chicago, emphasizing character development and academic improvement, Damien and his team serve 20 schools and several organizations on the South and West sides of Chicago. Damien’s motto is, “once we change who we are, we can achieve things greater than what we have ever imagined.” Damien now has his eyes set on supporting parents across the nation to support mental and emotional health of children and youth.