Chicago schools equity chief promises new decision-making tool this summer

The man Chicago Public Schools hired to tackle racial disparities and other inequities in the nation’s third-largest school system promises he’ll produce an “equity framework” this summer.

In nine months on the job as the district’s first chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney hasn’t published any reports or unveiled any big initiatives targeting long-entrenched inequities in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse and segregated cities.

The former Tilden High School principal said that his office plans to begin showing its work sometime in the next few months, beginning with the equity framework, a tool for district leaders and educators to guide “how we need to think, behave, organize and do this work to get to equitable outcomes.”

Related: Here’s some advice for CPS’ future Chief Equity Officer in year one

Swinney said that work requires shifts in mindsets for district leaders to better identify and understand how inequities afflict students across the district, and resources to tackle the problems they see. But he declined to outline specifics of his plans and how he expects to accomplish the task as commissioned by schools chief Janice Jackson.

“She’s given a charge to myself and other members of the executive cabinet that this is about equity across Chicago Public Schools, and that we all have to take up this mantle to do this work,” he said. “And so how do other offices and departments interact with me and my team, and then act differently in order to disrupt systems?”

The city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has also pledged to examine how resources are distributed in schools. Lightfoot’s education transition team recently outlined a vision that moves away from strict student-based budgeting. In it, schools serving high-poverty areas, students in special education, English language learners and students enduring trauma would be first in line for the district’s limited resources.

Since September when Swinney was tapped to lead the district’s equity office, he said his department has kept busy holding listening tours, crunching data that illustrates the disparate achievement and health outcomes among student groups, with a targeted focus on achievement of African-American and Latinx males, which he emphasized as a tenet of the district’s five-year vision plan.

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Recently, he said, his team worked with the district’s budget team to push for $31 million in “equity grants” to soften budget cuts at scores of schools with low or declining enrollment, helping preserve some educators’ jobs.

“When you cut positions you start to cut relationships,” Swinney said.

His comments came Wednesday in an interview with Chalkbeat after a panel discussion at Loyola University Chicago hosted by the nonprofit Friends of the Children about tackling the cycle of intergenerational poverty, violence and trauma that Chicago students, families and educators wrestle with, particularly in some of the city’s most distressed, segregated and disinvested neighborhoods.

Related: Trauma can make it hard for kids to learn. Here’s how teachers learn to deal with that.

Swinney said the conversation around how schools can help youth dealing with trauma has to start with acknowledging that “traditional education is built on racist structures.”

“And that there is institutional and structural racism that has caused what young people are experiencing in their communities and in their families,” he said.

Also on the panel were Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of the Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital, which trains local teachers on how to identify and support students who have endured trauma, and Eddie Bocanegra, a violence intervention expert. The talk was moderated by Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

Panelists stressed that childhood trauma has causes other than gun violence, from physical and sexual abuse to the loss of a loved one to the challenges of living in poverty and more. They also emphasized the importance of providing mental health professionals in schools and training teachers to identify and address trauma in students, investing in community mental health resources, and mentoring.