On the first day of school, thousands of kids across Illinois walked into their new classrooms for the first time. They met their teachers and found their desks. While they waited for class to start, they looked around the room for smiling faces.
Throughout the day, our students looked at the faces of their classmates, teachers, staff members and administrators. They looked for reasons to try and reasons to care. They looked for reasons to hope.
That same day, parents wondered, "Will my son be happy at school? Will my daughter have a best friend in her class? Will he have someone to sit with at lunch? Will she like her teacher?" They, too, looked for reasons to hope.
For many students, the first day of school is their bravest day of the year -- the road ahead offers great excitement and opportunity, but the foreseeable future seems uncertain and a little frightening.
Given recent events, most of us know just what this feels like.
We live in uncertain times.
From the state legislature's recent school funding compromise to the debate surrounding "school choice" to the ongoing national conversation about race and equality, the news this summer has left families in communities from Gurnee to Naperville to Arlington Heights to Elgin asking "What does all of this mean for our kids? Our community? Our schools?"
No one knows what lies ahead, but we believe there are thousands of reasons for hope.
And hope matters.
In a 2015 Gallup poll, more than 75 percent of the respondents said "hope" and "engagement" are the most important qualities in a school. More important than standardized test scores or any other measure, these results reflect the belief that students who feel "hope for the future" and "engaged at school" are far more likely to earn good grades, graduate, go to college, find a job after school and feel good about themselves.
But what can we do to help students feel more hopeful about their future and more engaged at school? The answer is found in the relationships our kids experience along the way. Relationships based on trust, acceptance, kindness, compassion and high-expectations don't just define what "school" means to a child, they determine how children define themselves.
When we build relationships, we build communities of acceptance and respect that transcend the barriers that may divide us, and we leverage our single greatest strength: our diversity.
Time and again, research has shown that diversity benefits every student in a school by reducing the achievement gap and providing learning experiences that cannot be replicated.
As the national conversation about equality continues, we believe our schools can serve as beacons of acceptance and achievement. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Our school communities represent a vibrant cross section of America, and our students' lived experiences, family stories and cultural heritage are gifts they bring with them, not just on the first day of school, but everywhere they go.
By learning to value one another's personal histories, our students will grow immeasurably as people and help bend this "moral arc."
So, we say with one strong, clear, unequivocal voice: we are proud of who we are.
Hate has no place in our schools.
Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, academic ability, learning style or religion, every one of our students deserves to look around the classroom and find smiling faces and the warm feeling that comes from knowing they have a special place in our community. They deserve to know they have teachers and friends who care about them and are willing to help them succeed.
Our students give us thousands of reasons for hope. And all our children deserve to have a reason to try, a reason to care and a reason to hope for a brighter future.
Joe De Rosa is a board member for Woodland School District 50 in Gurnee. This essay was cowritten and signed by the full District 50 school board: Carla Little, Joyce Mason, Lizzy Helgren, Terry Hall, Chris Schrantz and Jennifer Haack.