Out-of-work teachers seen as untapped resource for solving city problems

October 9, 2013

Photo courtesy of Goodcity
Goodcity, a nonprofit devoted to incubating and developing other nonprofits and social enterprises, wants laid-off teachers to start nonprofits in the communities where they used to work as educators.

On a recent Saturday morning, more than two dozen educators sat in the pews of a South Side church. There were principals, deans, special education teachers, classroom teachers--nearly all of them out of work.

At the front of the room, Elizabeth Galik told a story many laid-off teachers can relate to, about trying to get a job in Chicago Public Schools.

“So I walked in, in my little cute blue suit and my heels,” says Galik. “I walked into that job fair at Soldier Field, and saw about five thousand other people who looked just like me.”

Galik eventually landed a teaching job at a private school. But she found herself unemployed again when the school had to close for financial reasons.

By this time, Galik knew her students, knew their families, knew the community. And she had ideas.

“And so I went to the church that owned the school and I said, ‘Would you let me just open the computer lab to the community and see what happens?’ And so I literally hand-painted my little sign. I hung it outside: Computer lab open. Tuesdays.”

The computer lab was a success. It expanded and merged, and Galik now oversees a community organization with six sites.  

Teacher layoffs are painful—and Chicago posted a record number of them this year, between budget cuts and school closings. But the local nonprofit Goodcity is seeing opportunity in the layoffs, for the teachers and for the city. Goodcity believes Chicago would be a better place if lots of the city’s laid-off educators founded their own nonprofits. The idea is to keep teachers in the city neighborhoods where they’ve been working, and get them to address some of the problems they’ve seen up close as teachers..  

Consultant Rene Alvarado says teachers make good social entrepreneurs.

“Teachers have a pulse on what the real needs of our society are. Not only that, but they have to come up with some ideas--how do I solve these problems? And then I think there’s this resiliency about teachers as well. ‘Yeah, I had this horrible day, but I’ve got to get up tomorrow morning and come back and try this over again.’”

If the recent Goodcity workshop is any indication, teachers have lots of ideas.

A social worker wants to help kids aging out of foster care. A teacher with accounting experience has ideas for a financial literacy program.

A former high school principal wants to help disadvantaged kids make it into Chicago’s elite high schools, by starting a nonprofit test prep center. “Unlike some of the for-profit test prep organizations, I want to make it affordable for inner-city kids,” says Joyce Cooper.

A cosmetology teacher wants to open a salon that would hire her licensed cosmetology students right out of high school, and help them dream even bigger.

“Chicago has become the movie hub,” says Venetta Carter, who still has her teaching job but is looking  to the future. “A lot of African Americans just go into a salon, but we don’t go into the movie theaters where you have to do theatrical hair, theatrical makeup. So I’m hoping to partner with the movie industry and maybe have current hairstylists (or) makeup artists maybe mentor these kids and introduce them to this other side of the cosmetology world.”

There are a lot of examples of teachers becoming entrepreneurs—some of them very high profile. Two teachers created the KIPP charter school network for instance, which now enrolls 50,000 kids in 141 schools across the nation. And education entrepreneurs are hot right now—there’s venture capital for start-ups trying to tackle pressing problems in public education. Almost everything in education is up for reinvention -- from textbooks to the use of technology to schools themselves.

“The truth is, teachers are great managers,” says Northside College Prep interim principal Ellen Estrada. “Not only that, we underestimate the intellectual nature of teaching,” she says.

Estrada got a taste of the corporate world recently when she went to work for Microsoft to design a science initiative for the city.

She says teachers are making split-second decisions throughout the day. Are kids understanding what I just presented? Do they need another example? What do I do with this kid who’s acting out?

“Most people in jobs are not ‘on’ like that all the time. And our teachers are,” says Estrada.

English teacher Imran Khan founded a nonprofit several years ago when he was working at Harper High School. Embarc, Inc.  takes students on field trips, giving them an opportunity to step away from the neighborhoods where they’re growing up. Khan says he got the idea for Embarc because he saw a need for it when he was teaching.

“I had a lot of kids who had rarely ever travelled beyond a four-block radius,” says Khan. “A lot of kids who had never heard of Millennium Park, some who had never seen the lake, kids who had never set foot in grocery stores or had never been in elevators--and these are 16-, 17-year-old high school kids.”

Through Embarc, Khan took students to the theater, to see dances, to downtown restaurants—and saw attendance and graduation rates soar. “I knew if we were going to change outcomes for kids, I needed to change their experiences first. I needed to give them some reason to strive,” he says.

Khan and another teacher left Harper this year to run Embarc full time. The program is expanding to nine schools.  Like Goodcity, Khan believes teachers are a huge, untapped resource for solving Chicago’s problems.

Goodcity hopes more nonprofits started by teachers will be one silver lining to lots of layoffs.