From the halls of a successful suburban high school to the head of the classroom in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, one Riverside native continues to combine her passions for urban studies and advocating for underprivileged students.
Claire Chaney, a 2009 graduate of Riverside-Brookfield High School, is in the midst of her second year as a sixth-grade math teacher at Amandla Charter School in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.
She is teaching at the school in partnership with the nonprofit organization Teach for America, which aims to bridge the gap between educational inequalities in the U.S. through placing recent college graduates in low-income communities across the country.
Chaney first became interested in helping children in poor city communities during an urban studies course she took as a student at RBHS.
After high school, Chaney continued to develop an interest in schools and city life during her time at Washington University in St. Louis, where she graduated with a major in urban studies. During her time at Washington University, Chaney became a tutor for students in poor neighborhoods in St. Louis.
“I got to see the differences in the schools there and just how unequal the schools were depending on where you lived, how much money your parents had, all those types of things,” Chaney said.
Chaney said that while the environments in which she was tutoring in were rough, she received much-needed support from students and faculty involved in both urban tutoring programs and Teach for America. From these collaborations, there was no question in Chaney’s mind that she was headed in the right direction towards a career after graduation.
“I applied for it my senior year of college, so that was my top choice job,” she said. “I actually always wanted to apply for Teach for America, and once I got in I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
During the application process for Teach for America, Chaney marked her regional preference for teaching as the Midwest and she was very pleased when she opened her acceptance letter that she was assigned to teach in a Chicago middle school.
Upon her assignment, Chaney was required to attend a large interview session with other applicants in which schools that utilize teachers from the Teach for America program personally select which applicants they want. After the interview session, Teach for America applicants must choose the first school to give them an offer.
Amandla Charter School, which selected Chaney to become a part of its faculty, is a college preparatory public charter school in Englewood for students in grades five through 12.
The school, which is in its fifth year of operation, is funded by a combination of taxpayers’ dollars, grants and charitable contributions. The school’s website states it is open to all students regardless of past academic performance and socioeconomic background.
What Chaney enjoys the most about working at Amandla is the hands-on work with children and that everyone at the school remains focused on initiatives that are in the best interests of the students.
“I got really lucky, because I like this school. I feel like there are a lot of people who work as hard as they can all the time and that’s really what the kids need in order to be successful,” she said. “It’s awesome to be around people who are so inspiring [and] so hard-working.”
Even though working with middle school students may be a challenge, working at a school in one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods creates added obstacles.
“The biggest challenges would be lack of resources whenever you’re dealing with a school that doesn’t have as much money,” Chaney said. “The principal and administration do the best they can to get the teachers what they need, but at the end of the day, how much money is allocated to the school is not equal and not fair.”
While Chaney now lives on the north side of Chicago, faculty from RBHS still remember her as an exceptional student with a selfless attitude.
“She was very intelligent, very academically oriented and she had a heart,” Jan Goldberg, retired RBHS teacher and Chaney’s former urban studies teacher, said. “She wanted to give back to those that maybe didn’t have as many educational opportunities as she had. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that she’s working at a school in one of the more impoverished areas of Chicago.”
Chaney said Goldberg was one of her greatest influences for studying urban studies and entering Teach for America.
“She first introduced me to urban studies, and I just found what she was talking about to be so fascinating,” she said. “I’m really grateful to her.”
RBHS English teacher Wendy Cassens said she hoped that Chaney continues to be the positive force amongst her students that she once was with her own peers.
“I remember her fondly as a diligent, energetic Advanced Placement student who handled feedback with grace,” Cassens said. “I remember her always entering the room ready with a smile and desire to be a better writer and reader.”
Chaney hopes that residents in Riverside and neighboring communities appreciate the quality schools that surround them and consider helping students in underprivileged areas including the Amandla and Englewood communities.
If there’s one thing Chaney wants people to know, it’s the idea that at the end of the day, an education can truly make all the difference.
“Education is the way for anyone to be successful, and I want equal opportunities with these kids,” Chaney said.