Looking to the Future

05/14/2015 09:27 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

"Change is the law of life. And those who only look to the past or present are certain to miss the future." (John F. Kennedy)

I love washing dishes after dinner. I don't find many who share my passion, but for me, it's one of the few tasks or issues I face that can be tackled simply and quickly. There is a stack of dirty dishes piled by the sink. It looks messy and menacing, but I know exactly what to do. With a bit of elbow grease, some strong soap, warm water and a little bit of finesse, the dishes are cleaned, stacked and drying in no time. Most other issues we face require so much more.

One look at today's headlines and you might believe what many pundits are warning: disaster. The city of Chicago is facing its biggest financial deficit in decades. The state of Illinois is facing a $9 billion dollar deficit. Every sector in education is experiencing challenges. Schools are closing. Enrollment is declining. The achievement gap between students of varying socioeconomic backgrounds continues to widen. Where does one find hope? Or know where to start?

Some 28 years ago, Chicago's leaders -- business, civic, religious, media and others -- saw a similar set of challenges. In a sense, perhaps, a menacing stack of dishes. Even though they could see how much work it would be, they still rolled up their sleeves and got started. Part of the solution included ensuring that the second largest system of schools in Chicago serving high poverty communities -- the inner-city, Catholic schools -- remained strong and relevant. They created the Big Shoulders Fund to help address the many educational challenges facing our city.

After operating the same way for nearly 80 years, the parochial schools could no longer be solely supported by parishioners, had fewer men and women religious serving on staff and costs to run the schools increased and enrollment declined. At the same time, Chicago neighborhoods were quickly changing and, in 1987, the public school system was named the worst in the country. Big Shoulders Fund was founded to help struggling families who wanted their children to attend quality, values-based schools, but didn't have the means. And for nearly 20 years, that was the primary focus.

The difference between a dying business and a thriving one is the organization's ability to change. Take for instance a very visible example of corporate evolution in the digital age: IBM. Before the advent of PCs and Windows-based servers, IBM was the world's largest computer company selling huge mainframe computers to large and mid-sized corporations. Since then, IBM has faced several "evolve or die" choices. IBM's first significant evolution was to include the personal computer in its product lines. Over time, IBM has evolved its business model several times based on technology advancements and changes in the market. In today's rendition, IBM's most significant business is providing IT expertise and corporate computing services to small to large-sized companies - a business that it largely wasn't even a player in prior to the late 1980s.

As enrollment continued to decline after the founding of Big Shoulders despite its investment in scholarship, it became clear that a different approach was needed. While scholarships are still critical -- this year, we are investing $8.5 million in scholarships alone -- we had to build a different model that would support and strengthen schools in other ways as well.

We invest in 89 schools, many in Chicago's lowest income neighborhoods. We support these schools by investing over $20M annually in four key areas: scholarship and student achievement, leadership development, academic programming and operational improvements. There are so many ways to help strengthen schools, from investing in school leadership through professional development opportunities to working with corporate organizations to build technological infrastructure or partnering with local universities to implement curricula that give our students the educational foundation they need to compete in today's market. Our mission is to support these schools so that they continue to serve students in need for many years to come.

Big Shoulders has been urged by some to narrow its focus to a smaller number of schools -- the idea that a smaller system will be stronger. And yet, the strength of Big Shoulders, and of our inner-city, Catholic schools here in Chicago, is the far reach of our network of 89 schools. Our schools are in the toughest of neighborhoods and they don't exist because it's easy, they exist because these communities rely upon them as centers of hope and progress.

The idea that schools can be reinvigorated in challenging times to become more operationally efficient and have stronger academic programming and highly qualified leaders is grounded in our real experience. Eleven struggling schools were set to close at the start of the 2006-07 school year, but with the support of their local communities, Big Shoulders stepped up its investment to keep these schools open with an infusion of capital ($1.5M) and supports to help these schools turn around. All of this made sure these schools were no longer the best kept secret in the neighborhood. All but one of those 11 schools are in significantly better condition and are serving more students today than they were then -- enrollment is up 36 percent!

Those schools had to make a choice when facing closure: To change and grow or to remain stagnant. Today, Chicago is facing a budget deficit that is going to lead to a lot of tough decisions; we all know too well that it is the poorest and youngest citizens who are most at risk. Our schools don't have the option to stand idly by as families across the city are struggling for access to quality education. We have to be ready and continue to change with the times to strengthen our network of schools and reach even more lives. As a city, we face a mile-high stack of dirty dishes, but together we can roll up our sleeves and work towards a brighter future.