During my campaign for mayor, people would often ask me why I wanted the job.
Given all the challenges facing our city, I understood their skepticism. After one year in office, I don’t hear that question any more. I hope people can tell that I consider being mayor to be the best job I’ve ever had. I get to take in the full sweep of this incredible city and see all that Chicagoans are doing to build a brighter future.
Just last month, the international spotlight shone brightly on Chicago as Nobel Peace laureates from around the world enjoyed all that our city has to offer. Most importantly, they got to see our greatest asset: our children. At Von Steuben High School, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was amazed to see a student body composed of over 126 nationalities.
Both he and I were deeply impressed by the young lady who introduced him, Manal Saleh. Born in Yemen, her parents brought her to Chicago, where she received opportunities she could never have hoped for in her native country. Today, she is the school’s valedictorian and has a four-year scholarship to Northwestern University.
Every day I get to meet impressive students like Manal from across Chicago who are striving for excellence, both inside and outside of the classroom. Simeon High School just won its third straight 4A State Basketball Championship. Mather High School brought the State Soccer Championship home to Chicago. Whitney Young High School won the State Championships for debate, chess and the academic decathlon. Ninety-four Chicago Public Schools made the 2011 Illinois Academic Honor Roll.
Those successes are due in no small part to the teachers and principals who work tirelessly to support their students. But they are working against the artificial constraints of the shortest school day and shortest school year of any major city in the nation.
A few months ago, I met Prin¬cipal Patricia McCann at Mays Elementary in Englewood. She told me that because of time con¬straints, she had to choose between teaching science or social studies on a given day. That short day shortchanged the students as well as the teachers. Next fall, we will provide a full day and full year for all our students so that our principals, teachers and students can reach their full potential.
Adrienne Garrison, a third-grade teacher at Disney II Magnet School, told me she specifically wanted to teach at a CPS school with a full school day model. She said the full day gives her time to develop her students into the kind of independent thinkers and learners that is required of a college and career-ready student.
While a full school day is necessary for student achievement, it is not sufficient. We need quality of instruction, as much as quantity of time. That’s why we have expanded charter schools, such as the Noble Network of Charter Schools. We have expanded magnet, selective enrollment, and Academy for Urban School Leadership turnaround schools. We have expanded the International Baccalaureate program to five new schools. I recently met Diego Frias, an IB program graduate from Curie High School who is a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He told me that he aced his first two papers in college thanks to the intensive writing skills and discipline he received through Curie’s IB program.
Next fall, five of the world’s biggest tech companies will each partner with a CPS high school to provide students with a STEM-based education. Principal Douglas Maclin at Chicago Vocational Career Academy told me that, since the announcement, he has had to dedicate a staff member solely to answering calls from parents who want to enroll their child in his STEM school.
I want students, parents and employers to have that kind of confidence in all our schools, from kindergarten to college. While riding the L last fall, I met a young man who was commuting from his classes at Harold Washington College to his night job at a Target warehouse. I am confident that he is doing all the right things to earn a good job. He should have confidence that his diploma has economic value to employers.
That’s why we started our Colleges to Careers program that partners leading companies with Chicago City Colleges. Each college will become a center of excellence in each of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy. We are updating their campuses and updating their concentration to vocation-based training, so that both our students and employers have confidence in the City Colleges curriculum.
As a result of our emphasis on education, the best companies in the world have growing confidence that Chicago’s work force will continue to have the depth they need to locate and expand here. Since I took office, about 25 leading companies have brought nearly 15,000 jobs to our city.
Chicagoans take great ownership of their city, and some of the best ideas come from my meetings with residents. At my first budget town hall, a retired cop from Englewood brought a stack of papers showing how banks had failed to maintain their properties. That’s unfair to local residents because a single vacant property reduces the value of nearby homes. So, I teamed with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) to pass a landmark ordinance that holds banks accountable.
In the first three months, we have more than doubled the collection of fines from banks that have failed to maintain vacant properties.
After one year in office, I know we still face big challenges and we will have to make difficult choices to overcome them. Our pension obligations are unsustainable. Crime rates in too many neighborhoods are unacceptable. And too many children in Chicago are not being provided with the world-class education they deserve. But we are taking on these challenges instead of taking a pass — even when powerful interests are taking sides with the status quo.
Because of the people I get to meet in this job, from students to teachers to small-business owners, I have unshakable confidence that no challenge we face is bigger than our character and capacity as a city to solve it. That’s why I am optimistic about our future and I am looking forward to another year as your mayor.
Rahm Emanuel is the Mayor of the City of Chicago. He is a founding signatory of the Time to Succeed Coalition. This article originally appeared in today’s Chicago Sun-Times.