NLU alumni, donors and friends arrived at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel Tuesday to honor one of the United States’ most influential education leaders and three NLU alumni who are exercising their knowledge and leadership in ways that bring positive change to communities.
As guests arrived, they greeted classmates and friends during a cocktail hour dramatized by the Sofitel’s sleek architecture. After they took their seats in a huge ballroom beautified by pink orchid sprays on the tables, Emcee Karen Jordan, an anchor at ABC7 News, introduced NLU President Nivine Megahed.
“Education, more than ever, is our strongest vehicle for economic opportunity. It is our strongest hope for social equity,” Megahed said, explaining how NLU has created the Harrison Professional Pathways as a quality program, at an affordable price point, to help students from modest-income homes attain their bachelor’s degrees.
She also told guests about how NLU educators created the Adaptive Cycles of Teaching instructional design to place aspiring teachers in the classroom, then use technology and expert educational leaders to give them feedback loops about how they performed. As a result, students performed significantly better than expected both on written tests and in classroom confidence.
“We do this work at NLU because we believe it’s our moral obligation to be sure every student has a great education,” she declared.
Guests feasted on filet mignon and creme brûlée during the dinner, which then gave way to the awards portion of the event.
Matthew King, the Reach award winner from NLU’s National College of Education and a change agent in education, is executive director and principal of EPIC Academy College Prep Charter High School since 2009. In accepting the award, he referenced the popular anecdote about a man throwing beached starfish back into the sea. When a bystander opines that he can’t possibly make a difference because there are far too many thousands of starfish, the man tosses one in the water and replies, “It made a difference for that one.”
King declared that NLU and OneGoal would abandon a “toss one in the water” approach because it’s random and lacks strategy. Instead, they would study the data, find out why starfish get beached and find more efficient ways to get them back in the water. And their goal would be to help 100 percent of the starfish thrive, he indicated, just as NLU and EPIC strive to help all students succeed.
Last summer, Jackie Samuels, the Reach award winner in the College of Professional Studies and Advancement, surveyed 126 people in the South Chicago neighborhood, where she works as senior program director for Claretian Associates, a housing and human services provider. Of those surveyed, 51% indicated they had witnessed a shooting.
“If you had to live with that kind of trouble, what would your life look like?” she asked, noting that even everyday activities like going to school or to the park put residents at risk. Then she posed a more philosophical question to her listeners: “How do we heal our communities?”
With her activities as director of the Chicago Public Schools’ Safe Passage program, the Southeast Chicago Coalition for the Arts and South Chicago/South Shore Ceasefire, as well as a quality of life plan for the South Chicago area, Samuels is determined to be part of the healing process.
“I will not tolerate the injustices of the world, because NLU has strengthened my voice,” she declared.
After acknowledging she has struggled with learning challenges all her life, Amanda Leftwich, winner of the P.A.C.E. Reach award, thanked her parents for doing diligent research and finding NLU’s P.A.C.E. program.
“P.A.C.E. has impacted my life in ways I never could have imagined,” she said, explaining she gained many life skills, including those which equip her to live in an apartment with her roommate and best friend, and to hold a paid career position. She works as a teacher’s aide at Rush University Medical Center’s daycare center, aiding in the growth and development of babies and toddlers. Recently, she earned her Level 1 ECE (early childhood education) credential.
“I accept this award on behalf of present and future P.A.C.E. students who will also rise above their challenges,” she said.
After serving as U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009 until last December, Arne Duncan is back in his hometown and energized to use education as a tool to reduce Chicago’s violence by providing its underprivileged young people with opportunities .
NLU awarded Duncan its Pioneer Award, which is bestowed on individuals with exceptional character, a sense of higher purpose in life and work, and a record of increasing opportunities for others.
After thanking NLU for its focus on access, affordability, innovation and completion, Duncan took a frank look at education in the U.S today, saying that even though the college graduation rate for Latinos has increased from 8 to 15 percent in the past two decades, and the rate for African Americans has gone from 13 to 23 percent, that is nowhere near adequate.
“We can’t talk about education today without talking about race and class and opportunity, or lack thereof, and privilege, or lack thereof,” he said, noting Illinois has a school funding formula riddled with inequity.
“What NLU can do to challenge the status quo among schools of education is to talk boldly about how important excellence is in education, how transformative great teachers are,” he said. “So the opportunity for NLU to lead that national conversation is both huge and desperately needed.”
Duncan reflected that his return to Chicago has been bittersweet, with joy at seeing old friends tinged with upset at seeing the city’s level of violence, and the lack of education, job and life opportunities for 17 to 24-year-old men of color, who statistically are most often the shooters and victims, he said. Duncan has taken a position with the Emerson Collective, which will work specifically with men in this population who are neither in school nor working.
“I’m convinced we can’t police our way out of this. We have to compete with gangs, to give these young men jobs,” Duncan declared.
“We have to create jobs and opportunities on the South and West sides, because young men are convinced they’re making pretty rational choices to go with the gangs and sell drugs, because they don’t have other alternatives.”
He challenged listeners to do more to help this specific population, who may not have had the best schools or the most functional families, and are struggling.
“If we come together we can pretty radically change this,” he concluded.