Panelists discuss education in low-income neighborhoods

Emily Chin, Assistant Campus Editor

About 25 percent of the educated population still believes the sun revolves around the earth, Doug Low, vice president and director of development at Kidz Express, told a panel at the Roberta Buffett Center on Thursday.

The talk, hosted by American Enterprise Institute on Campus, the Center for Civic Engagement and Supplies for Dreams, brought Low; Michael McShane, AEI research fellow; and Sophie Wharton, Illinois Network of Charter Schools data strategy manager, to discuss education reform.

Low, who also serves on the Community Development Advisory Board of the U.S. Treasury, works with kids in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago. Many of the students he works with don’t see value in education, he said. He said poverty is the most fundamental issue with education in neighborhoods like the one he works in.

Many of Low’s students are more concerned with being shot than going to school because they live in such dangerous neighborhoods, he said.

Wharton argued that the most effective method of education reform is through charter schools. Students in charter schools in Chicago are 40 percent more likely to enroll in college and more likely to stay in school through sophomore year, she said.

Wharton works with charter schools and credits their success to the training teachers receive. In addition, she said charter schools have standards to maintain and a mission to live up to even when leadership changes.

“With the government and with a big organization, change appears to be really, really slow,” she said. “This work is hard and takes time, and you can really only make a lasting impact if you have sustained efforts. And districts don’t have the same ability to do that.”

She acknowledged, however, that charter schools don’t solve all problems and that the discussion should be based on what does and doesn’t work with school systems, rather than just whether a school is a charter.

McShane countered both Wharton and Low’s ideas by arguing that education should be a broader, more political issue.

He talked about how the government’s No Child Left Behind Act led to the implementation of Common Core State Standards Initiative, or common grade level expectations, with the goal of improving literacy rates. Although having such standards are necessary, the thing being contested is how to meet the standards, he said.

Having education, McShane said, gives people more opportunity and can bring them out of the “dehumanizing” experience of poverty.

“What I want to do is give people as much power over their lives and to make their own decisions,” he said. “The additional ability that we have to give people the dignity, the power over their lives, has an intrinsic power in it that we should talk about it.”

Despite differences in opinion over what the best solution is for education reform, all three panelists said the school system in America as it is, with public and private charter schools, is broken and needs to be fixed.

“Education is simply a holistic approach to community development,” Low said. “It’s a critical anchoring in the idea of political development. We need to sit down and say what is the goal of education.”

Weinberg senior and AEI summer institute student Wilson Shirley, who helped set up the panel, said he was pleased with the turnout and that people were interested in the topic. He is going into Chicago on Friday with a group of Northwestern students to visit Rowe Elementary School, a charter school, and Kidz Express, Low’s after-school kids program.

“I thought that education would be something that’s very important to all Northwestern students because we’re in an educational institution, so everyone obviously cares and has an opinion,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the area in which students in charter schools are 40 percent more likely to enroll in college and stay in school through sophomore year. This statistic applies to students in Chicago. The Daily regrets the error.

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