Religious Leaders meet new CPS/CEO who says reforms are on the way

Seeks plan to find 60,000 ‘lost’ students

By Chinta Strausberg


Chicago, IL – Dozens of religious leaders attended a special meeting Wednesday at the Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist Church, 5141 S. State Street, to welcome and hear the plans of Chicago Public School’s (CPS) new CEO, Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who on her 11th day in office vowed not to close any schools until she has adequate input from the community and to implement a plan to find 60,000 “lost” students who simply disappear from the system.

After being welcomed by several ministers, Dr Byrd-Bennett painted a picture of her life saying she grew up in Harlem in the Grant public housing projects and remembers when she moved from the tenements “it was like the Jefferson’s, we had moved on up.

“We were so proud to be in the public housing projects where the walls were smoothed and animals that were not our cats were not around and where the water was always hot and the toilet flushed,” she recalled as the religious leaders laughed.

She said her parents, who did not have a high school education but that her grandparents taught her to “find your dream, chase your dream, capture your dream and live it but the only way that would happen was through education.”

Her parents made it clear that the only way she would ever get “what they called an American Express Gold Card” that would give her access to places, knowledge, and an opportunity to give back was with an education.

When she felt like going astray, Dr. Byrd-Bennett said, “What they taught me was each time I wanted to walk on the wild side and do all of that stuff…, some hand pulled me back….  It was because of those values that my parents instilled in me and because of my faith” that she is successful today.

After introducing herself to the clergy including outlining her career as a teacher at East Harlem, NY 40-years ago including being a principal, Dr. Byrd-Bennett said she and Mayor Rahm Emanuel share the same vision when it comes to education and she comes fully equipped to handle similar academic and fiscal problems.

Her experience as school official in New York and Cleveland will help her close CPS’ $1 billion deficit.  “As I’m looking at these numbers” and asking questions, she said, “It’s like we tapped out every credit card we have.” “I will not perpetrate a fraud,” she said promising to crunch out the numbers and report back to the religious leaders as to the status of the budget.

Though many of the students whether in New York or Chicago come from poor communities that are fraught with violence, have few resources and sub-standard housing, Dr. Byrd-Bennett said, “I thought I was poor, but what I learned was I was in a state of poverty. I wasn’t poor. Poverty is a temporary state that I lived in. I wasn’t poor at all and neither are these children because they can learn…. They simply need adults who will not give up on them.”

“I know that every child in the CPS system is born with a God-given gray matter to learn. It’s just that too many of us have turned our backs on them….”

Saying the student’s need more than a strong teacher, she said they also need a “strong team of adults. They need the faith-based community to really open the doors of the church.” She vowed to expand that opportunity with the CPS faith based initiative.

Dr. Byrd-Bennett said, “If we really believe in a quality school in every one of our schools, then we need to have a longer school day. I support that tremendously, and that time needs to be used efficiently and directly for our kids.”

While she said children need extra time for additional help in math and reading “but equally important, our children need art, dance and theater” and not just academics. “All of our children don’t learn alike,” she said. “We need to have advanced technology in our schools. We need a library with resources.”

On air-conditioning, Byrd-Bennett said many of the schools are too old to install them. She also knows that schools need nurses need nurse, and they need updated books.

During the question and answer period where she was joined by Pastor Walter Turner, Rev. Gregory Daniels, a construction activist, asked that CPS to accept a construction trade program for the third through eighth grades. “Because of the crime and violence that is in our community running rampant, we need to get the children early” as a preventive measure.

Rev. Leonard DeVille said while religious leaders are trying to work with the schools, Mayor Emanuel “is now taxing the church” by making religious institutions may for their water when for decades this was exempt. DeVille said the city is going to start charging the churches to pick up their garbage. “Pastors are willing to work with you, but we got to get the mayor to respect the pastors. He has not met with us one time since he’s been in Chicago,” said DeVille who is also a former alderman.

Sandy Lewis, director of Community Affairs for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, asked Dr. Byrd-Bennett how could her office work with her given that 60,000 students are displaced from CPS. “We know once our kids are displaced from CPS, they end up in the criminal justice system going through this revolving door. We want to be more preventive in our efforts coming from the State’s Attorney’s Office of keeping kids in school where they need to be…,” said Lewis.

Dr. Byrd-Bennett said, “I was astounded when I heard there are 60,000 number just out there….” She said just last year “8,000 children graduated from eighth grade” headed for the ninth grade” but that “they disappeared” with no consequences as to their whereabouts.

“What are we doing proactively to find 8,000 lost students”? she asked. “How could we lose 60,000 children”?  “We need to have a huge and deliberate strategy on how to get those children back. Those are our children,” she said admitting she is very passionate about these missing students.

When asked by Apostle Steve Jones, pastor of the Praise Tabernacle Deliverance Center, about the issue of restoring a CPS truancy program and how can the Faith Base Initiative program work in conjunction with the CPS to help find the 60,000 students who have disappeared, Dr. Byrd-Bennett said she too is looking for the truancy department. “That is a priority,” she told Jones.

When asked by this writer her position on the 1991 law passed by the late Senator William “Bill” Shaw that mandates the CPS to teach African American and African history to all students, Dr. Byrd-Bennett appeared stunned saying, “I am not aware of the law. Not only will we abide by the law” but “in the skin I wear, it very, very important.”

Rikki Jones, president of the Cook County Democratic Women said she believes that Dr. Byrd-Bennett “is in the same place we are and you are about educating kids…. We want to work with you,” she said referring also to her pastor, Rev. Krista Allston, who accompanied her and who is also a former teacher.

Brandon Johnson, a former CPS teacher now organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, asked Dr. Byrd-Bennett to have a full moratorium on all school action and have a task force to look at those recommendations.

Rev. Martin Hunter asked her to look into a bill that calls for parity in the letting of contracts in the communities. Dr. Byrd-Bennett promised to meet with the religious leaders on a regular basis.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: