What if West40’s approach to teaching at-risk kids could influence the way we teach every student in the state of Illinois? That was the big question we were asking ourselves as we welcomed legislators to the West40 Safe School on a sunny August morning.
Here, everyone met as equals, with chairs arranged in a circle. Powerful legislators with the ability to affect millions of people in the school system found their seats next to students who, very recently, had faced expulsion from that system.
“To get everyone together in this setting, sharing common ground—this is magic to me,” said Dr. Mark Klaisner, West40’s executive director. He explained how the Safe School provided a second chance for middle school and high school students in West Cook County. Then, he asked each person to explain what school means to them. The responses were enlightening and inspiring.
“To me, school is a journey. It’s a long journey, and every one is different,” said Rep. Kathleen Willis.
“For me, school was an escape from an abusive environment,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford. “I was able to succeed because school gave me a community and a group of good friends.”
“School means a fresh start,” said one Safe School student. “Right away, this school treated me as a leader and not a follower. They force you to be honest with yourself.”
“My siblings and I were the first Latino students at our high school,” said Dr. Carmen Ayala, State Superintendent of Education. “It was challenging, but I’ve seen what happens when you believe in young people and give them what they need to excel.”
“It’s so critical that we bring people together like this,” Dr. Klaisner said. “There’s a theme of tenacity and grit around this circle.”
As the event continued, students led the legislators on guided tours of the Safe School classrooms and facilities. Along the way, students mentioned the challenges they had been up against—gang violence, the temptation of drugs, unexpected pregnancies—and how personal attention from Safe School faculty and staff gave them the strength to handle all of these.
“Every time I’ve talked with one of my teachers they give me multiple perspectives and teach me how to think through the problem,” said one student. “They make me feel more confident.”
“That is so critical,” said Dr. Ayala as she toured the space. “Our schools have to be community centers and give students that support.”
For legislators, the Safe School experience was eye-opening, and it was clear that this approach to serving vulnerable students could influence statewide education. They also discussed how problems can be interconnected: most people agree that class sizes should be smaller, but how can you do that if you’re facing a teacher shortage?
In the end, the group agreed that tackling these issues calls for an audacious vision—and that the supportive, inclusive environment of the West40 Safe Schools might just be a model for creating that vision.