The Faces Of Public Education

Cynthia Bowers is a CBS News correspondent based in Chicago.
(CBS)
For months now Illinois state senator and pastor James Meeks has fought for more funding for Chicago Public Schools. With several hundred thousand students the district is the nation's third largest. The graduation rate for black and Latino students is generally less than 50 percent and in many schools there aren't enough textbooks to give one to every student.

Over the years we've done stories about CPS, focusing primarily on failure and frustration. But when Rev. Meeks announced his intent to bus a bunch of kids from Chicago to a public school district just to the north, New Trier High School, the story became personal. I have two kids at New Trier this year. The school consists of two campuses, one strictly for freshman, the other for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. There is a football field, track, tennis courts, soccer field, and swimming pool used for PE and for athletics. Helping my kids decided what to take each year is like revisiting my college years. The courses offered include zoology, marine biology, advanced automotives, Hebrew, Chinese, sports and entertainment marketing, sequential art and animation. You get the idea.

What Rev. Meeks wanted to do is to point out what some kids in Illinois have access to, not to suggest they have to much rather to say other kids deserve more. He chose New Trier because it spends $17,000 a year per student – compared to $10,000 a year per student in Chicago just a few miles south.

The money is a bit of a misnomer because New Trier doesn't rely on the state's funding formula for its budget. The property values are higher in our district, and families pay a premium to keep the schools up and running. But even so the day Rev. Meeks brought 1,400 students up to the freshman campus in Northfield in a symbolic attempt to try and enroll them he was met by New Trier, parents carrying banners showing their support for his kids and their educational opportunities.

Education hasn't been at the top of the agenda this political season and students like Raven Gary says that's too bad. The Marshall High School senior lives in a tough part of town and has worked hard to get all A's. She worries despite her grades, her education won't really stack up against kids going to schools like New Trier. She doesn't want to hear empty promises from the candidates, but likes Obama's proposal to start fighting the drop-out rate as early as middle school. And she likes proposals by both Obama and McCain to get better teachers into schools like hers. She tries not to think, she says, about the fact that only about half her class will graduate. She blames that on a lack of tools: not enough textbooks, not enough computers, too few inspiring teachers, and not enough support for students at home. Her best hope to go to college is to get an athletic scholarship. She's a feisty guard on her state championship team.

Brit Schnieders is also a member of a state championship team. The New Trier senior plays on the girls' ice hockey team. But her athletic career is secondary to her studies. Her family expects her to do well in high school and go on to college like her big brother and sister. Excellence is expected from her New Trier teachers as well. The class work is rigorous. At this school the graduation rate is 99 percent. That same percentage will go on to college. Brit and her family believe every American child is entitled to a good education, they just aren't sure how government can make that happen. They studied both Obama's and McCain's plans carefully. They like McCain's idea of vouchers which use public money to pay the way to private schools. They also support Obama's call for more charter schools. The most important thing is to get students into quality schools as soon as possible.

When I was wrapping up my interview with Raven she asked me if she would get to meet the "other family" in my story. I said, "why not?"

The Schneiders are equally excited about getting to know Raven and learn more about what her day to day life is like. The hope is that one day soon the New Trier girls' hockey, which includes my daughter, will get together to cheer on the Marshall basketball team and its star, Raven. Perhaps by learning more about each others' hopes and dreams, these girls will be able to help bridge that gap and help make education a priority … especially once they are old enough to vote.