I can still remember circling the Cook County Jail at 26th and California in my brand-new silver Honda Civic, looking for a parking spot. And I can still remember pretty much the total breadth of my knowledge of the city of Chicago on that day in 1997, age 29:

  • My dad worked on the 56th floor of the Sears Tower. (What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?)
  • The Howard B train is the one that stops at Wrigley Field. (Before the CTA went all “user friendly” with color-coding and trains that stop at every station.)
  • Take the first parking spot you find in the general vicinity; there’s never one closer. (I’d just moved to the 5th-year-frat-house of a Chicago neighborhood profanely known as Lincoln “how come there’s never any %^&*ing place to” Park.)

After a happy but sheltered 28 years in the comfortable but flavorless, white-bread world of suburbia (with a four-year interlude at White Bread U.), I took a job in the communications office of the Chicago Public Schools.

CPS runs Consuella B. York Alternative School, a school located inside the jail at 26th and California. I was there to visit an art class and write a story about it for the Chicago Educator, a newspaper that CPS started when Mayor Richard M. Daley first took control of the school system and named Paul Vallas as its first CEO.

The students at York are not guilty of anything. They are awaiting “adjudication” on an arrest charge. Some are there for a couple days, others much longer.

I felt out of place. First of all, it was an art class involving papier-mâché. I don’t have an artistic cell in my body (not to mention that I’ve always had a thing against papier-mâché because of its pretentious, “Hey, look at me!” spelling). Second of all, I was pretty much an alien to the guys in the class—a creature from a very pale planet that prides itself on lame haircuts.

But 10 minutes in, we were just a bunch of guys hanging out, doing papie…um, an art project, and talking about Michael Jordan, school, movies, and whatever else came up. They were smart, funny, friendly, and great company (not to mention, very forgiving of my hair).

I remember walking back to my car thinking: How did we end up here? I know it was only an hour, and I don’t mean to suggest that I actually knew the students in that class or what their lives were like. I certainly didn’t know anything about the neighborhoods where they lived. But those guys didn’t seem to belong there any more than I did.

And I know that there are more factors that shape a kid’s life than school. Family matters. Money matters. Race—still, much to our profound shame—matters. Privilege matters.

But education should be the great equalizer, the “balance wheel of the social machinery,” as Horace Mann, the original “education reformer,” described it in 1848. It should open a world of opportunity and give the power to dream boundless dreams to every kid.

It didn’t in 1997, when the latest wave of education reform was starting. And it doesn’t today.

I’ve thought about that art class a lot since then, both as someone who works in big-city public education and as a dad with kids who were in city, and now suburban, public schools outside of Denver. I can still remember the feeling in the room. In one of the toughest places in one of the toughest cities, that art teacher created a classroom that was caring and somewhat carefree.

She believed in those kids.

And that’s what I want for my kids in their schools…and for every kid in every school.

But I’m not sure how many times, before they ended up in some sort of trouble that put them behind bars, those kids felt that in their schools. That needs to change.

We’re getting there…not nearly fast enough…but it’s happening.

I’ve been lucky to get to know a lot of people in Chicago, Denver, and now in cities across the country who are focused intently and working feverishly to make sure it happens—to make sure that every kid, especially those in previously underserved neighborhoods, has access to schools filled with classrooms that scream out: We believe in you.

These are fiercely dedicated champions of public education who are not looking to “privatize,” “corporatize,” or “charter-ize” anything.

They are, simply, fighting to equalize.