Cheryl Watkins

Cheryl Watkins

Network staff

Chicago Public Schools

My story

While riding the "L" in high school, a little girl entered the train. She was passing out pink cards and handed me one. On one side of the pink card it had the manual alphabet (sign language) and on the other the message read something like this: "I am Deaf and I cannot hear. I am trying to earn money by selling these cards. Anything you have is appreciated." I gave her what I had, my lunch money. It wasn't much, but that experience has anchored me in my work for the past 36 years (long before I joined Chicago Public Schools).

Since that time, I have earned three degrees in special education. All of my professional life, I have wanted to impact educational opportunities for those students that others saw as "inconsequential." When I became Chief of Schools, I immediately wanted to focus my attention on the achievement gap between students with IEPs and students without IEPS. I asked principals to look at what instruction resembled in those special education settings. Further, and beyond that, when I joined Network 13, I introduced the team, principals and teachers to the importance of putting complex text in front of students. We pushed further that same year and monitored complex tasks.

As we continued the work, we began to introduce the need to confront bias and its impact on student achievement. Again, we started with the Network Team, moved to principals and assistant principals and then to schools. This work was done with the partnership of the Social Emotional Learning Specialist. Together, we laid the foundation for change in the network and the district by conducting workshops on the topic of race, equity, privilege and bias.

Why I do the work I do

I believe that everyone must know their why, why they have entered a field that is ever changing; why they sacrifice for people they don't know. My why is simple. My career has not been without its ups and downs. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it through the day (when I was a teacher, AP, principal, deputy chief and chief). I am grateful, though, that the good times outweighed the bad moments. Definitely, I am not complaining. What has sustained me is knowing why I entered this awesome field and that’s simple. I wanted to help children, specifically those who everyone else seemed to have forgotten. Whether it was a student with an IEP, one who was identified by circumstances as homeless or a student whose face had been kissed by nature’s sun. I contend that when you know your why, nothing can knock you off your square. It serves as fuel to keep fighting the good fight.

My equity challenge and how I work on it

Students with IEPs across the world are most often the first to suffer from subpar eduction. It's something I was drawn to early on in my pre-service practice. I made it my mission to support in any way possible. Initially, the support was in the form of a teacher, then assistant principal, then principal...all the way to chief. However, the mission never changed. If we do not provide high quality instruction for students with IEPs, those who live in temporary living situations, those who are African American or Latinx, then we will purposely NOT educate a large percentage of our student population. This will have further implications as they and we get older. We cannot afford not to educate those who, by quantitative and qualitative data, have been deemed the least.

What sustains me when equity work stalls, how do I stay motivated when the work gets hard, and how do I push myself and others to advance equity

My why causes me to continue. I know what's it like to be considered "less than." I never want anyone to have that experience, especially a child.

I challenge myself, and those around me, by asking three questions and referencing a Michael Jackson song. The three questions I ask are: Is this your best? Can you do better? What are you prepared to do? Whatever you are doing to impact change so that the field of instruction and achievement is leveled so that all students can access it, is it your best? If it isn't, what are you preparing to do about it? It's about moving from words to action. Michael Jackson calls us when he says "if you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and then make the change." That's what I ask people to do. Look at yourself in the mirror. If you can't stand what you see for inactivity, then you have some work to do. Make the change.

Additional comments

The work around equity started long before we added the word to the apple that articulates the CPS vision. It started, for me, as a child and the fire was fanned as I navigated time in the profession. I started a school in 2005, Pershing West Middle School, on equity. I wanted my students to have a private school experience within a Chicago public school. I spoke about it and then did something to "be about it." We can all do that. Make a declaration and then work to see it come to fruition.

I can see change. I'm honored to have been a part of it. It's been a long hard road but the best one I've ever traveled.

Resources used to drive equity work

In Network 13, the SEL Specialist, Doug Stalnos, and I created a deck to lead and guide participants in professional learning that includes them delving into their own educational experiences. We continue to add to that deck so that participants in our sessions can live the discomfort associated with remembering in an effort to change their practices for their students. If needed, I can be reached at I am happy to continue the conversation and to share what we have done within and outside of CPS on this topic.

Tools I Endorse

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