It’s Time to Talk About Equity in Education

For several months, school districts throughout the nation have grappled with decisions about how to continue meeting students’ needs amid the pandemic. As the new school year begins many educators are still acclimating to e-learning as more schools start remote, and our own Chicago Public Schools announced its plan to begin the fall semester virtually – a decision met with both support and disappointment.

But one large question remains: How do we continue working to close existing equity gaps while more and more scholars are spending time that would have been in schools at home? While the big decisions on curriculum have been made, many questions of equity have not been answered.

In order for Chicago to prosper, we must invest in every neighborhood, starting with schools. Within the CPS student population 76% are classified as economically disadvantaged and 16,450 didn’t have a permanent home in the 2018-19 school year, 81% of whom are black students. Across the city, many who live on Chicago’s south and west sides, in neighborhoods with a majority of black residents, don’t have broadband internet access at home, further widening the city’s digital divide.

CPS data from 2019 also revealed black students had the lowest attainment and growth in both the reading and math sections on the NWEA, trailing behind their peers. Black students also have fewer Level 1/1-plus school seats in their communities, which reduces their opportunities to attend some of the city’s top schools which offer increased resources and support, both are needed for them to continue moving forward.

This isn’t because black students lack the ability to succeed, in fact despite the numerous inequities and obstacles Black students face, they continue to overcome and succeed. In Chicago, we’ve seen high school graduation rates among Black students rise significantly over the past year, and from Englewood to Auburn Gresham we’ve witnessed our neighborhood schools achieve Level 1 or 1-plus status against all odds. But there are still far too many instances where extreme lack of investment in resources these students need leads to them falling behind academically. A reality that will become even more real as these hardships are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many students from underserved communities, schools serve as more than just a building – they are safe spaces that provide supervision, security, and meals. And closures from the pandemic have exacerbated the inequities they were already facing, which is why we need to have serious conversations about how to address these problems that in turn drive citywide solutions. Let’s talk about how to ensure all schools are invested in equally, debate how to ensure resources are equitably distributed to every school, and meet to address Black students’ test scores lagging behind those of their peers, even before the crisis.

If we continue avoiding these conversations, we’ll look back 10 years from now and wish that we hadn’t. We must avoid future conversations about the increase in black students among high school dropouts, fewer black college students, and even fewer graduates. As schools adjust their plans for remote learning, it’s important for us to take a step back and remember that the format our students are learning in won’t matter if it’s still not equitable – and start talking about solutions.


LINK Responds to the Death of George Floyd

LINK Unlimited Scholars Community,

The past week has been one of the most emotional weeks in recent memory. Racism has been a part of our country since its founding and its ugliness has never been completely addressed. There have been times when racism felt comfortable out in the open but ran away when forcibly challenged. Other times it lurked in the shadows or worse hid in plain sight. 

The COVID – 19 pandemic forced all of us to assess and evaluate what was important. It illuminated massive health disparities and education gaps both a result of race and class inequality. But the one thing COVID couldn’t do is fully expose the depth of racial injustice in America. COVID was the accelerant, but the murder of George Floyd was the wick that lit the powder keg of racial frustration in our country.  

His treatment at the hand of law enforcement is the latest in a long line that can be traced back to the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1992. However, frustration in the black community long preceded that, and it is the decades upon decades of injustice whose effects have been passed down from generation to generation that drive the protests and civil unrest we are witnessing today.  

Many will say protesting and civil disobedience are permissible, but looting and criminal activity mar the purity of Mr. Floyd’s martyrdom. As one who has been personally affected by looters and vandals this weekend, the aforementioned people are missing the point. 

Protests, civil disobedience, looting, and crimes of opportunity find their roots in the aforementioned decades of inequity. If schools were equally as strong, homeownership equally accessible and access to capital equally available generations ago, we wouldn’t be at this moment today. We lose the purity of Mr. Floyd’s death when we focus our attention on how frustration is communicated and not eliminating its cause. 

LINK Unlimited Scholars was founded during a similar period in the 1960s and grew in response to the death of Dr. King and subsequent unrest. We have been and will continue to serve as a gathering point for all people of goodwill who believe the color of one’s skin should not place limits on their opportunity. We remain steadfast, eradicating barriers to economic opportunity through education for our students. 

May we all become truly together as one.


Jonathan T. Swain, President & CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars 



By Jonathan T. Swain, President & CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars

The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us a lot about ourselves, our community, and the state of our society. It’s laying bare inequities often ignored and revealing a crisis that has always existed right under our noses: undeserved communities across our city lack access to basic resources that have created opportunity gaps for black and brown residents in Chicago. These gaps, from food and housing insecurity to internet access, are now being exacerbated by the crisis facing people across the globe. 

As students adapt to online learning, it’s important to note that many residents who live on Chicago’s south and west sides, in neighborhoods with a majority of black residents, don’t have internet access at home, widening the digital divide in the city according to data from The U.S. Census and a WBEZ analysis. 56% of Englewood households, and 46% of both Auburn Gresham and South Shore households reported not having internet access while just one in every 10 households in North Side neighborhoods like Lake View, Lincoln Park, and North Center lacked access. Nationally, 2018 data from The Pew Research Center showed one-quarter of black teenagers reported they often or sometimes couldn’t complete their homework because of a lack of reliable access to a computer or internet connectivity, compared with 13% of white teenagers and 17% of Hispanic teenagers. 

But for thousands of Chicago Public School students, internet access isn’t their biggest hurdle, finding a permanent home and two meals a day is. In the 2018-19 school year, more than 16,450 CPS students didn’t have a permanent home and were in temporary living situations including staying in shelters, motels, cars, or “doubling up” to live in the homes of others according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Nearly all (98.3%) of Chicago’s homeless students are students of color, and black students alone account for 81%. 

Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis that might go on for weeks, if not months. Students throughout the south and west sides are home bound along with all others in Chicago. However, unlike students in many other parts of the city, they find themselves facing significant barriers that will keep them from focusing on their school work. Students from higher income neighborhoods often have the resources and support they need at their disposal whether at school or at home. But far too many students are caught in an under-resourced system trapped by their zip code – and without the tools they need, they will be set back even further. 

If schools decide to close for the rest of the school year, which looks more likely everyday, these students, especially those in critical grade levels like 7th and 11th grade, may face insurmountable challenges. To students who are financially privileged, this crisis may not be much more than a minor academic inconvenience that won’t impede on their ability to continue learning. However, for undeserved students, this crisis can negatively affect the trajectory of their lives.  

These students were already under-resourced pre COVID-19 and are now more likely to lag behind their peers. What will happen when it’s time for them to make decisions about high school and college? What will the long term impact be? The college graduation gap between African American students and other racial groups was estimated to be as much as 20 percentage points. And data shows that a college degree can be a key in opening doors to the middle class that were previously shut to our community. 

Access to resources and support from their schools, or to college preparation and mentorship programs like LINK, is vital for these students in helping them to apply for competitive high schools and colleges, remain engaged, and graduate. The fact that vulnerable students will lack these resources for weeks, and likely months, at a time amidst the COVID-19 crisis will disrupt more than their education – it could disrupt their path and ultimately close that door of opportunity. When we emerge from this crisis, and we will, we can no longer accept a status quo where some students have every opportunity to move forward while others stand still. 


A College Degree is A Key to Ending Chicago’s ‘Reverse-Migration’

By Jonathan T. Swain, President & CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars 

The strong hands and sturdy backs that powered Chicago’s factories, steel mills and stock yards once made our city’s economy the envy of the world.

In the first half of the 20th Century, millions of hard-working Americans, particularly African Americans from the south, flooded Chicago for a chance at a steady pay check and better life for themselves and their families.

Decades later, we are witnessing a reverse-migration of African Americans taking shape, a hollowing out of predominately black middle-class neighborhoods that were once the lifeblood of the city’s South and West sides.

It seems the same opportunities and economic forces – an abundance of jobs, affordable housing — that sparked the original migration to emerging black metropolises such as Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland are now forcing them to flee in dramatic fashion. If recent trends hold true, Chicago’s black population is expected to shrink to about 665,000 by 2030, roughly half the size from 30 years ago, according to the Urban Institute.

The question we must ask ourselves – as a city that values and celebrates contributions from black Chicagoans stretching back to the region’s first non-indigenous settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable – is what can we possibly do to keep these families here? And if these families are gone forever, what can and should our city leaders do to address the forces contributing to this monumental exodus?

We have our work cut out for us. As a proud second-generation Chicagoan and longtime small business owner, I see a significant difference between the economies of the Industrial Age that drew laborers to Chicago in large numbers and the current Digital Age. A century ago, the titans of manufacturing created millions of relatively low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs that provided the able-bodied a secure foothold into the middle class. This so-called blue-collar workforce was the backbone of the city’s economic might.

Contrast that with the labor market of today, where entrepreneurs and leaders of America’s largest technology- and Fortune-500 companies are creating millions of highly-skilled, white-collar jobs that generally rely on a college degree and often an advanced degree for admission.

There are still plenty of ways to earn a buck at the bottom of today’s economic ladder through hustle and hard work. But it remains true that in today’s hyper-competitive Digital Age, a college education is the surest entry point into the middle class. One 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University found that nearly 60 percent of those who identified as “middle class” in 1970 had earned no more than a high school diploma. By the mid 2000s, less than half of high school graduates had achieved middle-class status.  

This portends trouble for Chicago’s African American community because, despite notable gains in high school graduation and college acceptance rates over the last 30 years, black students still lag far behind their white, Asian and Latino classmates in obtaining a college diploma. A 2017 study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center put the graduation gap between African American students and other racial groups by as much as 20 percentage points.

What this means is that the most plentiful jobs in Chicago that provide the surest route to a comfortable middle-class life are largely off limits to all but the most select black students. The result has been a steady erosion of African American families in the city’s iconic “Black Belt” and south and westside communities.

The best remedy to these trends is investing in programs and resources that give aspiring black students a helping hand to get into college and persist to obtain their degree. Unless we connect talented students, who show a will to reach their academic potential with mentors and advisors who can shepherd their success. We must help African American families navigate the complicated and far too often risky financial aspects to college education, ensuring they understand the true costs of pursuing that degree.

As a LINK Unlimited Scholars alum and now serving as its President, I have seen and experienced such connections firsthand and strongly believe in the power of personal relationships to keep a promising student on track through college and into a career. The work we lead at LINK is proof positive that a college education is the path to the middle class.

The myth of Chicago and all large American cities is that determination and hard work is all it takes to provide a comfortable life for you and your family. That may have been true at one time, but the bar for entry is higher today than at any point in our history.

A ticket to the middle class may still require the same determination and hard work as previous generations, but without a college degree it’s not likely to amount to much. And the exodus, sadly, will continue.