One of my most vivid memories from working in Chicago Public Schools actually occurred long after the school day had ended.  A “typical” day should have included spending my time providing 1:1 and small group therapy sessions with students, but in reality that was rarely the case. A more common experience was that just a few minutes into the beginning of the school day, I would be called into a crisis that often getting a suicidal student to the child psychiatric hospital for immediate support.  The reasons for the suicidal ideation varied, but it usually stemmed from students who were dealing with significant abuse or neglect at home, or students who felt completely alone and had given up hope after losing a loved one – or multiple loved ones – to violence.  I often heard students say, “I’m not going to live past my 18th birthday – so why bother?”

Most of the time I was unable to locate a parent to take their student directly to the hospital (which was proper legal protocol), so instead I would leave my car at school, ride with the child in the ambulance to the hospital, and once the child was admitted countless hours later, I would hail a cab back to the school late at night to get my car.

It was these late nights where I would sit at my desk in the now empty school building and think about how desperately we needed a boarding school in Chicago.  I was heartened to learn that Arne Duncan – former CPS CEO, who later went to work for President Obama as the U.S. Secretary of Education – shared my dreams of a boarding school in Chicago.

As Arne once said (bold added by me for emphasis):
“So, what do we need to fix? There are huge challenges in family structure, in lack of support. [In Chicago,] I was trying to start some boarding schools. We have children whose homes are so dysfunctional, so devastating that the best thing we can do is to work with that child 24/7. And let me give you a sense of the magnitude of that: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that only one percent of our kids live in homes so tough that the best of schools isn’t going to be enough. In Chicago, one percent is 4,000 kids. So you don’t just need one boarding school; you need ten. To me education is the only way out of poverty. So if we’re serious about breaking cycles of social failure, we have to do everything we can to save those children. Because I’ve worked in those communities all my life, I know what those kids can do when we give them a chance. But you’ve got to give them a real chance. Half a chance. You’ve got to put them in the ball game.”

Arne had his hands full worked in the White House so this never came to pass, but I have always credited Arne with being a huge source of inspiration for me along this path.  Although I didn’t get to meet Arne until years later, knowing that we held this shared vision was a main driver in giving me the confidence to pursue Ryan Banks Academy.

Over a decade later, it is an incredible honor to be asked to speak alongside Arne at the June Lincoln Forum event entitled “A City in Crisis: Youth, Violence, and Breaking the Cycle”.  Arne and I will also be joined by panelists Carl Alegretti who is the Managing Partner at Deloitte Chicago, and Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart.   If you would like to attend, tickets are available here.


To end things on a lighter note: here are some photos (click on the box above if they don’t automatically load) from the recent “Girls’ Day” outing that our Head of School, Audrey Hampton, took with our three female students.  They spent a Saturday going to lunch at True Food Kitchen, going to the movies, and getting their nails done.   I don’t know about you, but seeing the smiles on the faces of Charlene, Kendall, and Jamie gives me an incredible sense of hope and also amplifies my commitment to this important cause.  Chicago has a great deal of significant challenges that can seem insurmountable, but these smiles wouldn’t be possible without YOU and your support of Ryan Banks Academy.  You are making a difference in the lives of our students each and every day, and for that I can’t thank you enough!

Val Groth
Founder & CEO