In Chicago, “This year, it’s going to be different”

Zena Kesselman '17 headshot
Zena Kesselman ’17, Project 55 Fellow at the Illinois State Board of Education

Zena Kesselman ’17 is from Los Angeles, California. At Princeton, she majored in History and minored in Applications of Computer Programming. She spent her spare time in the basement of Bloomberg Hall, working as an on-air DJ and station management at WPRB Princeton, and in the kitchen of 2D, Princeton’s vegetarian co-op. She is very excited to be working at the Illinois State Board of Education next year, where she’ll learn more about education policy and governmental decision-making.

Traditionally, September marks the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.  In classrooms all over the country, students are settling into their desks, learning their classmates’ names,  flipping through their textbooks to find the interesting parts, stuffing syllabi into folders and backpacks, and diligently finding loopholes in their teachers’ policy on electronics in class.

As a recent graduate and a Project 55 Fellow at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), I’ve been thinking a lot about those students. I am a more than a little jealous of them; it’s the first September that I have not been in a classroom, folded into a seat, all nervous, excited, and bored at the same time.  However, I am fortunate that my work at ISBE allows me to stay connected with those back-to-school rituals. As part of a government agency that functions in service to districts, schools, teachers, and students around the state, I am still running on semester time.
What’s more, my perspective for what “back-to-school” means has expanded to accommodate a broader range of students and communities.  ISBE is responsible for supporting children from Lake County, on the edge of Lake Michigan, to Massac County, which borders Kentucky. We work for students who grew up in 20-story buildings, who spent their summers exploring cornfields, who are experiencing their first year in America, or who have never known anything different. This diversity of experiences may make ISBE’s work less clear-cut, but it also expands the possibilities of what we can teach and bring to Illinois children.


This Fellowship sits at a vantage point that allows me to reflect upon my own background.  On the first day of school, some of these students know exactly what they are getting themselves into; they are well-rested, healthy, and prepared for the year. This was my experience. I believe that I received all I needed from my public school education and my time at Princeton in part because I was prepared to take advantage of these opportunities and follow my own unique interests. I am grateful. However, my work at ISBE also provides perspective on students with different experiences. We know that there are children who are struggling with their home life, sense of security, health, or identity. They may come to school eager to learn but be facing a wider range of obstacles.  We ask questions about them every day. What do those students need from their schools? What do we need from them? Are their experiences in Illinois classrooms reflective of an equitable society?

Two months into my Fellowship, I do not yet know enough to have an inflexible opinion, but I know enough to say that the answer to the last question is often no. For example, until the passage of a new school funding bill this summer, Illinois had the least equitable funding system in the country.  I also know that this is not simply a problem for Illinois. After all, Wikipedia calls Illinois a “microcosm” of the United States; a state that mirrors the diversity and unique challenges of the broader national population. Our country is inequitable as well, and it will not be saved by our education system as it exists.

But in keeping with this month’s theme, “back-to-school” is an opportunity for everyone to reset. Every year, we are allowed to repeat a mantra and try something new.
“This year, it’s going to be different,” said the high school sophomore, strolling into their first class without the aide of a campus map. 
“This year, it’s going to be different,” said the teacher, looking at a class full of kids with raised hands and big questions. 
“This year, it’s going to be different,” said ISBE, with a brand-new approved state plan in alignment with the Every Student Succeeds Act and the recent passage of an evidence-based school funding model that gives more money to the schools that need it. 
“This year, it’s going to be different,” I say while sitting in my ISBE cubicle in Chicago and combing through my unfamiliar inbox.  I’m no longer a student, but there’s still a lot to learn.  

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