"Even My Neighbor Doesn't Know About the Great Things Happening Here"

I had the distinct honor of meeting with members of the Chicago Public Schools team this week.

School district offices come in all shapes and sizes. They tend towards the antiseptic, heavy on fluorescent lights and 60's-era architecture, though some offer real character; San Antonio ISD comes to mind.

"CPS," as the nation's third-largest district is practically universally known, is housed smack in the middle of the city. The building itself is unspectacular, but inside, a brightly optimistic feel pervades the halls and the offices -- not just the space, but the people, who spoke to one another with a friendliness and sense of respect that you don't hear in every office building.

I'm embarrassed that I was pleasantly surprised; I expected something more drab, despite having heard whispers: CPS is on the march. 

It's true: after years of struggle, Chicago is making real strides. Test scores are up; notably, students are improving at faster rates than in most other districts. Meanwhile, the district is making progress in a host of other areas (as I read on a rotating screen of photos and text in the office's waiting area). 

I'd heard this buzz at a conference, and read a few headlines; heck, even Chance the Rapper has gotten behind Chicago Public Schools. But according to the CPS staff members I met with, this isn't the buzz around the Windy City.

"To hear locals talk, we're still at the bottom. You don't hear people talking about the strides we're making. Even my neighbor doesn't talk about the great things happening here," said one of the people I met with.

To say that it's toughest to convince your own people of good news is downright biblical, but it seems particularly profound in education. I've noticed this in other cities; most people, it seems, are convinced that their local district is the most problematic in the land. 

This seems counterproductive and frustrating. While we shouldn't just go on faith or on hope that things are improving in any district, we should look for signs of encouragement, not dismiss them. We should look for the good.

At Spotlight, we have a role to play in this effort: we can tell a district's (or a school's, or a student's...) story in clear, personalized terms. If there's a good-news story to be told, we can recount it in terms that make sense to virtually anyone who might listen (while also making it easy to hear it). 

In education, we all have big jobs to tackle. One of ours is making sure that people can find and understand all of the insights -- even the positive ones.

Behind the cheery colors on the office walls, there's a positive story being written in Chicago.

Behind the cheery colors on the office walls, there's a positive story being written in Chicago.