A nonprofit’s ambitious, $1 billion plan to send thousands of students and their parents to college or trade school is ultimately about stopping the unrelenting gang violence plaguing Chicago, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said Friday.
After leaving her pressure-cooker job last year, Jackson signed on as CEO of Hope Chicago, the nonprofit founded by Pete Kadens and Ted Koenig to fully fund post-secondary education for two generations of needy kids.
For Jackson, it was the opposite of going from the frying pan into the fire. Instead of doing daily battle with the Chicago Teachers Union and dealing with constant labor strife, she’s now in a job that allows her to play Santa Claus.
That’s what happened last week. Jackson and her business bosses held a series of exhilarating assemblies at the first five anointed high schools: Farragut, Morgan Park, Juarez, Noble Johnson and Al Raby.
There were tears, cheers, laughter, disbelief and a heavy dose of suspicion as Jackson announced that, no matter their grade-point average or class standing, graduates of those schools and their parents will get fully-funded, debt-free scholarships that cover four years of college or a full ride to trade schools.
“When you grow up in a community where there’s a lack of investment — violence every day, lack of opportunity [and] you don’t feel safe — you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s just the way you survive mentally,” Jackson said Friday.
“When you hear something like that, the question is always, ‘Is it too good to be true? They’re making this big announcement. And then, they’re gonna come back and tell us you have to have a 3.0 GPA.’ … That’s why it’s incumbent upon us to … make them understand and trust us to see that, all you have to do is sign up.”
Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel started the Star Scholarship that promised free City Colleges tuition to CPS grads with at least a 3.0 GPA. The qualifier was aimed at ensuring student success. Parents were not included.
Why, then, is Hope Chicago multigenerational and open to every student at a designated high school?
“If we are really trying to change these problems that seem intractable — if we are really trying to disrupt what is going on right now — you have to go to students who haven’t traditionally taken advantage of these opportunities. If you don’t teach people and give them the skills to take care of themselves, we shouldn’t be surprised when we see certain outcomes,” Jackson said.
Jackson has spent a lifetime on the South Side of Chicago.
Her 31-year-old brother was shot and killed in 2010 in their mother’s home while trying to protect her and her friends from two masked robbers who burst in while the women were playing cards.
Still, Jackson said she has never seen the violence in Chicago so “out of control.”
“All of the crime that we’re talking about goes back to people … trying to get resources to take care of their families. That doesn’t excuse it. It’s wrong. … But if we don’t address poverty, we’re not gonna address crime in this city. Education is the best way to disrupt cycles of poverty. … You have to lift people up and give them an opportunity to take care of themselves,” she said.
Hope Chicago operates on a soup-to-nuts model that covers everything from tuition, books, room, board, fees and surcharges to a laptop computer, a small stipend for daily necessities and an array of counseling, remedial education and wraparound services.
So far, the program includes every state college and university in Illinois, along with two private institutions: Loyola University and IIT.
Over time, she hopes to include historically black colleges and universities to combat the “culture shock” that many African American students feel when they leave their high schools and arrive at college campuses with more diverse student bodies.
That, of course, will be more expensive and relies on a Chicago business community — that Jackson contends “hasn’t done enough to support the school system and education” — to step up and help Hope Chicago meet its ambitious goal of raising $1 billion over the next decade.
“Sometimes, the excuse would be, ‘CPS is a black hole. I don’t want to put my money in there. I don’t know where it’s going,’” Jackson said.
“Now, you have a place where you know exactly where it’s going. We’re investing in our students and investing in their future. Now is the time for the business community to step up and support the children in this city.”