Elizabeth Swanson

“We had easy common ground.”

In her role as Mayor Emanuel’s point person on all things education at City Hall, Beth Swanson recently revived a relationship with COFI that began more than 10 years ago at Chicago Public Schools. Back then, their mutual interests centered on community schools. Now the focus is on early childhood programs.

I first met COFI around 2000, when I was working at CPS and heading up the after-school programming and then we launched community schools. We handled everything that was outside the regular school day. In the community school work, one of the big tenets was to engage parents. So I met COFI through the work they were doing on the ground with parents around community schools.

At the time, we were trying to identify a number of parent advocacy groups that could help with the work. So we were looking for groups that were working strategically with parents. We looked at their work and best practices so we might share them with schools. Ellen was very helpful in thinking through how to empower parents and how to get their voices into the various initiatives we were managing. Often times, Ellen would bring parents to community schools meetings and events.

Being able to talk to the parent leaders directly, or bounce ideas off them brought a different lens to the work. You wouldn’t get that if you were just making policy or creating programs in isolation. COFI’s parent leaders were great about giving open and constructive feedback. Some assume the worst of CPS and through years of miscommunication or mistrust—for whatever the reason—it’s hard to get people to put it all aside and just say, “I really just want to talk to you. Let’s just try and make this work from this point forward.” COFI always came to the table with that. I was just so appreciative. It was easy to work with COFI.

Conversations were always open. COFI wanted to partner, to collaborate. They were very sincere about it. ‘We’re all trying to get at the same issues. We were speaking about a lot of the same things.’ All of the organizing and programs they were doing at the time were very much in line with the things that [then Schools CEO] Arne Duncan had envisioned for community schools and parent engagement. So we had easy common ground.

Just recently, in my role as chief of staff for education for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I reconnected with COFI around early childhood. I met with them and we talked about some of their priorities and their program to help get children to preschool—the walking preschool bus.

Early childhood is a priority of the mayor’s. We’ve done some analytical work and we’re starting to roll that out with the overall goal of increasing access and quality. So with COFI, we talked a bit about the quality of programs and how to help parents understand what a quality program looks like. COFI told me a bit about how they judge quality in early childhood.

From that conversation, we did have someone follow up and look into scaling the walking preschool bus effort. It was incredibly cost effective. I was surprised about how little it costs to get kids to their programs. City Hall doesn’t own a program, but obviously it does have a great sphere of influence. A lot of my job is finding interesting ideas and thinking through how to get bureaucracies to respond or pay attention to a new policy or program if it seems to make sense for where we’re trying to go overall.

After meeting with Ellen and COFI, I think they’re going to be helpful, insightful. They bring a voice that isn’t always at the table. They bring a perspective that is often missing. Policy conversations happen all the time with folks who work downtown and think they know what’s happening on the ground. COFI parents bring ideas and solutions to problems. Just go back to the walking school bus example. There’s a tangible program. If the overall policy discussion is about reaching more hard-to-reach kids, that meeting with COFI teed up at least one practical solution that can be brought back to the policymaker table. That’s when I go back to the folks that actually own that work—the city’s Department of Family Support Services or CPS—and make a connection to help get things done.

I talk to the mayor all the time. We meet daily on education issues. He is constantly collecting data on education. I provide a summary of meetings—the highlights—and tell him about new ideas that are out there, what we’re hearing from teachers, principals and parents.

The parent perspective is incredibly valuable. They bring a lens to the work that is very different. It becomes very personal very fast when you have kids in the system. I have three children in public schools. Parents have a different calculus looking at problems. No matter how good the policy or program, parents are truth tellers. They just want the best for their child. They don’t care what side they’re on to get it done. Parents can also make or break education reform, depending on whether they are listened to and truly integrated into the conversation. If they don’t feel that they’re part of solving a problem, it can be difficult to implement a change. The more you integrate parents into the policymaking process—early and often—the better.

I personally have a tremendous respect for COFI parents. They bring a lot of value to the table. I’m impressed with how detailed their work is and how committed the people are and how under the radar they are. They truly have a sincere desire to make an improvement for their community and their children. They’re not organizing to make a splash at a board meeting. They’re organizing parents to better kids’ lives, consistently, over long periods of time.