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UEI Director Tim Knowles Speaks at University of Chicago Charter School Graduation

June 23, 2010

Tim Knowles is the John Dewey director of the Urban Education Institute and clinical professor on the Committee on Education.

Good morning, and welcome, friends, faculty, parents and most important, and most importantly, the Class of 2010. It is a great honor to stand before you this morning to celebrate this important milestone.

This is a Chapel filled with pride. For you have risen. You are proof of existence - for your peers, your families, your neighbors, for your teachers, and to the University of Chicago - of what is possible.

You are going to Fiske, DePaul, The University of Missouri, Indiana State. Two of you are going to my own alma mater, Oberlin College – a critical stop on the underground railroad and the first college in America to accept both women and African Americans.

Four years ago you arrived at our doors, from 48 elementary schools across the South Side of Chicago. You were eager, you were excited. I remember vividly the first day of school when you sat in the cafeteria awaiting your schedules and your teachers. The room was filled with anticipation and potential. And you were quieter that day than you would ever be again.

But truth be told, you had an enormous amount of work to do. And so we announced you would go to school from 8 to 5. Every day. You would take 2 math classes each semester, not one. You would attend school not for 170 days, like your friends in other Chicago schools, but 190 days – at a minimum. We asked all this – and you resisted it at times - because we wanted you college ready. We wanted you to rise. And you have.

This spring, I received a two line text from one of you, that captured the essence of the class of 2010. “I aced my math test” the first line read, “and I finally found a home” read the second. In spite of great adversity you are here. And you are going to Northern Illinois, to Paine, to Carleton College, and you are coming here, to the University of Chicago.

David Williams, your class valedictorian, wrote an extraordinary senior thesis – which I am making required reading not just for students coming up behind you, but for new teachers at the University charter school. In it he analyzed why urban schools succeed and fail. He drew a straight line from the philosophies of John Dewey and Paulo Friere, to his own experiences, and those of his peers, and his teachers. In it, he wrote of UCW – “Unlike the aimlessness that plagues many public schools, UCW has a purpose – to ensure we are successful in college and life. The school provides a protective bubble - supporting us until we became aware enough to seek self-knowledge.”

The message here? While you have been getting college ready, you have been doing something else. You have been making the people around you, and your school better. You have taught us. You have taught us the best schools are ones where students have voice, and agency. Where students lead. You have taught us the best schools create space for you to learn what interests you and inspires you.

So congratulations. Not just for what you have accomplished today, nor for what we know you will accomplish in the days ahead. But for being pathfinders. For building a better school. And demonstrating to your families, to your teachers and to yourselves, what is possible.