What are your hopes for the school year?

Chalkbeat Chicago spent the past few weeks posing this question to a range of students, parents, and educators who attended the popular back-to-school bashes hosted by Chicago Public Schools. Across several neighborhoods, we heard a wide range of answers, but some common themes emerged in nearly every place we visited: better grades, more experiences like music classes and field trips, and safe schools. 

Safety came up in conversations frequently, a response to gun violence that continues to threaten residents in several city neighborhoods. Suekina Milam, a parent and a district teacher, put it succinctly at a back-to-school bash on the Far South Side. “I just hope that all of our children stay safe,” she said. “We want them to return to us everyday. That’s all.”

We also heard deep desires for more experiences, from after-school activities to field trips to music classes. Mothers sending their children off to pre-K for the first time through the city’s universal pre-K expansion hoped for better communication with school staff over what to expect, no tears from their children, and maybe — just maybe — calmer children at the end of the day. 

And families sending freshmen to the new $85 million Englewood STEM High School expressed amounts of nervousness and excitement about what the year in a new, but untested, school would bring. 

Here’s what else we heard.

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Isabella (left) and Briszqda Brito, with mother, Rose, and a younger sibling, spoke about new challenges and experiences. Isabella plays the cello and Briszqda plays the violin. The girls noted the irony of the little sister playing the larger instrument. Isabella, 7, said, “I’m looking for any opportunity: new challenges, new music.” Briszqda, 11, added: “I’m excited to go to orchestra. We get to learn more things and go to different places.” 

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Shaypere Riley-Reed (left), 14, and Daveon Bamgbaiye, 14, who are attending the new Englewood STEM school, said they were hoping a new science-and-technology focused school would offer technology opportunities. “The new school was cool, and I wanted to try something new. I’m interested in technology,” said Shaypere.  Daveon said the newness was a deciding factor. “I just wanted to try it and see what it was about. I feel like (high school) is going to be a challenge because it’s harder things — but it should be ok. I’m interested in math.”

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Conrad Timbers-Ausar, the principal of the new Englewood STEM school, said he would like to see the new $85 million building help anchor the community. “I am hoping next school year to help unify Englewood with both academics and athletics through Englewood STEM high school. That is my big overarching goal, to make it a place where families and community know that Englewood STEM is the hub of the community.” 

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Luevinia Morgan, an elementary teacher at Earle STEM Academy in West Englewood, hoped to see the narrative around her community change.  “I just want my students to be successful, I want the narrative around the neighborhood to be different. I want everyone to see the beauty around the community. I want teachers to be seen as people. I have high hopes for the year.” 

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Lizeidi Marin, pictured here with her children and nephews, hoped to see more parent involvement in her school communities. “I’m on the parent committee, and we’re trying to get more parents involved. We just did a parent survey about uniforms, and we only got about half of parents who responded. How do we get more parent response? We need more.” 

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Paris Jones, a districtwide student engagement specialist and mentor, said she’d like to see some students get back on the right track. “My one hope for the school year is to help those kids that are not enrolled, who are off-track, get back in school, either in a traditional school setting or options and alternative school settings,” Jones said. “We like to give them hope and let them know that they can do it. Our end goal is to make sure that they graduate.”

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Bianca Freyre, the parent of a preschooler, Maura, at Edward E. Sadlowski Elementary School on the city’s far South Side, said she wanted to hear more from her school. “One thing I hope for in the upcoming school year is more communication, with parents and teachers and everybody in the staff,” she said. “More advance notice of events, activities that happen in the school. Us as parents, we sometimes feel like we don’t know what’s going on in our school.”

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Angelique Bell, a special education teacher assistant at Whistler Elementary School in West Pullman, said she wanted to see her students improve. “For 2020, I’m hoping and praying for growth for our students,” she said. “Growth as far as they’re testing, and that they were improving in the areas that they need to be.”

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Suekina Milam, a second grade teacher at Mildred Lavizzo Elementary School, and parent of 6-year-old Anna and 8-year-old Abigail, said she hoped for a safe year. “I just hope that all of our children stay safe,” Milam said. “We want them to return to us everyday. That’s all.”

Abigail and Anna had their own wishlists. “I hope that there won’t be any nasty food at school anymore,” Abigail said. “What I hate the most is the macaroni and cheese with meatballs in it. And they had chicken with yellow gravy.” She scowled. “My favorite thing is hot dogs.”

“I want more recess,” Anna said. “Better recess!”

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Kaitlynn Townsend, 11, who is entering sixth grade at Irene C. Hernandez Middle School in Gage Park, hoped for a nice teacher. What’s a nice teacher? “The kind who, if you don’t understand something and ask a question, she will go back and it explain it to you.” 

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Elvira Diaz (left), 15, and Lizbeth Pintor, 15, who attend Thomas Kelly College Prep, were starting the year with a basic wish: time with friends and better grades. Said Diaz: “I want to pass all my classes so I don’t have to go to summer school!”  

Additional photos by Alison Albelda.