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On school closings, West Siders offer alternatives

West Side parents and educators have called for a boycott of CPS’s school closing hearing Saturday morning and will hold an alternative community meeting instead (April 6, May Community Academy, 512 S. Lavergne, starting with a press conference at 10 a.m.) where they’ll present a community school plan.

Perhaps Mayor Emanuel ought to go.

He’s the one who recently said, “What I won’t accept is when people are asked, what’s your alternative, what’s your idea, and there’s silence.”

In fact several communities have developed their own plans, including strategic visions developed by six Community Actions Councils sponsored by CPS to improve communications with its stakeholders.

“They all fall on deaf ears,” said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition.  “The mayor has said his decision is final, and he doesn’t care what people have to say about it.”

“It’s a waste of time to go to the CPS hearing,” said Dwayne Truss of the Save Our Neighborhood Schools coalition.  “Nobody that can make any decisions is going to be there.  It’s a dog-and-pony show.”

As for CPS staff, he said, “They’re sticking to their talking points.”

CPS has proposed closing four schools in  Austin, impacting 2,000 students, according to Austin Talks. Saturday’s official hearing is for Louis Armstrong Elementary.

Reducing truancy

SONS will present an alternative plan that will minimize school closings and save CPS money, Truss said.

The plan is based on the strategic educational plan developed by the Austin CAC, which Truss co-chaired with Ald. Deborah Graham (29th).  The council included 25 elected officials, LSC members, religious and community leaders, and city agencies.

That plan focused on solutions to problems like high truancy rates and a lack of all-day early education programs, and proposed developing a range of curricular choices for Austin students, including an IB network running from elementary through high school.

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Tenants to send bedbugs to bank

Tenants will have jars full of bedbugs — to deliver to the bank that owns their foreclosed apartment building — at a protest at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 28 at 5159 W. West End.

A new receiver for the building was appointed after tenants demanding basic maintenance declared a rent strike April 11, but tenants haven’t seen any improvements, said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition.

Tenants are demanding that Peak Properties, the building receiver, and BMO/Harris bank, which foreclosed on the 32-unit building a year ago, agree to a public meeting to discuss maintenance issues.

“If Peak Properties and BMO/Harris Bank refuse to meet with us, we will take our bedbugs to their offices and homes,” said tenant leader Pamela Johnson in a release.

“Our building is infested with rats and bedbugs, our children are being bitten,”Johnson said.  “Our human rights and dignity are assaulted on a daily basis.”

Building problems include chipped paint, ceiling leaks, broken toilets, and holes in the floor, according to SAC.

West Side parents fight ‘education apartheid’

A successful neighborhood school on the West Side is fighting “disinvestment” while a failing charter nearby gets millions of dollars worth of renovations, parents charge.

On Friday, March 16 at 8 a.m., the Emmet Elementary School LSC and the Austin group Progressive Action Coalition for Education will hold a press conference and rally against “education apartheid” at the school, 5500 W. Madison.

Emmet’s scores have improved dramatically in recent years and its performance rating is currently Level 2 (“good standing”) and headed toward Level 1 (“excellent”), said Dwayne Truss of PACE.  In a recent Designs for Change study, Emmet was one of 33 very high poverty schools performing above the CPS average on the ISAT reading test.

Emmet’s success is the result of “the LSC, the teachers, and the principal working together,” Truss said.

Hazards 

But the school is badly in need of capital improvements, he said.  Students are served lunch in the hallway and eat their lunch in the same room used for physical education and assemblies.  This creates scheduling difficulties, and the lack of space and the presence of permanent seats creates a hazard for kids in gym class, he said.

The school’s fieldhouse is decaying and dangerous, with “paint chips all over the place,” and while CPS is planning to implement recess next year, the school’s playground is pocked with potholes, Truss said.

In addition CPS recently cut the school’s librarian.  The school has 450 students in Pre-K through 8th grade.

The charter advantage

Meanwhile CPS is spending $13 million to renovate an annex at Nash Elementary, 4837 W. Erie, for a revived ACT Charter school.  ACT’s low-performing high school suspended operations in 2010; the new school plans to serve 5th through 8th graders.

It will be operated by KIPP, whose Ascend charter school now serves 5th through 8th graders – and like ACT, is rated at Level 3 in performance.  (If charters were subject to probation, KIPP Ascend would be on probation.)

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School closings, the law, and alternatives

School closings to be announced by CPS on Thursday—expected to be unprecedented in scope — are the first under a new state school facilities planning law, intended to bring transparency and accountability to decisions over school buildings.

But does the school district’s new guidelines for school actions, which must be finalized by November 30, abide by the spirit of the law?  Many of its proponents – and some of its legislative sponsors – say no.

Meanwhile community groups continue to call on CPS to work with communities to improve struggling schools, rather than imposing top-down strategies that have no record of success.

“I don’t see them as being really ready to adhere to SB 630,” said State Representative Esther Golar, a member of the legislative task force which developed the bill.   The legislation “was intended to require CPS to work as partner with parents, teachers, and the community.”

She adds: “That’s something they haven’t been doing….And they’re still saying we’re going to run the schools the way we want to, and you don’t have any say-so.”

“It’s the same failed policies,” said Dwayne Truss, co-chair of the Austin Community Action Council, established by CPS.  “They just want to open up buildings for more charter schools.”

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Occupy Austin, Occupy Bronzeville

Occupy Austin and Occupy Bronzeville, joined by people from Occupy Chicago, will begin a new drive to occupy foreclosures at actions on the West and South Sides tomorrow.

They’ll rally with tenants of a foreclosed building who are resisting what they say are illegal attempts to evict them from a 12-unit rental building, just two weeks after foreclosure.

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Peacemaking: From West Bank to West Side

When he was on the West Bank with a Christian Peacemaker Team in 2005, Chicago organizer Elce Redmond realized the problems people faced there were similar to those faced by people back home – and solutions might be similar too.

Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition, will give the opening keynote for CPT’s 25th anniversary Peacemaker Congress, Thursday, October 13 at 8 p.m. at Evanston Reba Place Church, 533 Custer.  The congress runs through Sunday the 16th.

In 2005, Redmond’s team was providing “peaceful accompaniment” for Palestinian schoolchildren who faced bullying and attacks by adults (“they were mostly from New York,” he says) living in Israeli settlements there.  “I was struck that the same situation happens on the West Side of Chicago, kids trying to get home from school and facing gangs and violence.”

Back home, Redmond began organizing the Austin Peaceforce, with parents and community volunteers trained in nonviolent strategies who are deployed to defuse conflicts and prevent violence.  Today they have a regular presence in Austin schools, including parent patrols after school.

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Parents air concerns on longer school day

Parents in meetings on the West and North Sides this week discussing the proposal for an extended school day expressed a range of concerns far beyond the “for-or-against” terms in which the issue has been framed by Mayor Emanuel and the media.

Both groups released surveys – one large, one small, neither scientific but both gauging the views of parents who are particularly active in their children’s schools.   How the longer day will be implemented and how it will be funded are major concerns.

But how long it should be is also an open question for parents.  The Raise Your Hand Coalition surveyed 1200 parents in 230 schools and found broad support for a longer school day – but little support for making it as long as Emanuel has proposed.

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Communities to banks: You can fix housing crisis, economy

Banks caused the housing crisis — and the financial crash which threw millions out of their jobs — and they can fix it, according to a new report.

By writing down underwater mortgages to market value – using a relatively small portion of bailout financing they’ve received – banks could put a floor on the housing market, stem spiraling foreclosures, and provide the economy with a badly-needed second stimulus, creating millions of jobs over the next decade, the New Bottom Line Campaign argues in a new analysis.

It was released in Chicago last week at a vacant home on the West Side that’s being rehabbed under a new program — which demonstrates how community pressure can force banks to step up and take responsibility, organizers say.

(And it came out the same day Mayor Rahm  Emanuel announced a foreclosure recovery program that includes not one single community on the hard-hit West Side.)

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