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Whittier sit-in dramatizes CPS inequities

For over a week, parents at Whittier Elementary in Pilsen have been sitting in to block demolition of the school’s fieldhouse and demand a library for the school.  Tomorrow morning they will rally with supporters (Friday, September 24, 10 a.m., 1900 W. 23rd Place).

The sit-in is sharply dramatizing issues of transparency and accountability in CPS facilities planning, long raised by advocates for neighborhood schools (see last year’s Newstips report) and now under examination by a task force of the state legislature.

The task force has hearings scheduled for Saturday in Garfield Park and Tuesday in Humboldt Park (details here).

For years Whittier parents have organized for improvements to the school including a library.  When TIF money was allocated for Whittier earlier this year, it turned out $356,000 had been budgeted to demolish the fieldhouse long used for community programs including ESL.

They’ve requested that CPS provide a breakdown of the demolition budget and a copy of the engineering assessment that is said to have deemed the fieldhouse structually unsound, to no avail.  An independent engineering assessment arranged for by the parents found the building to be sound but in need of a new roof, projected to come in at around $25,000.

That’s typical of information available about CPS facilities planning, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, who is a member of the legislative task force.  Since Ron Huberman took over leadership of CPS, the capital improvement budget has been presented as a single lump sum with no itemization, she said.  Before that, the 2009 capital improvement budget showed millions of dollars being spent on schools that were being closed and turned over to Renaissance 2010, she said.

How many Chicago public schools lack libraries?  It’s not generally known, she said.  “I can guarantee, though, that schools serving more upscale residents have it all, libraries, math labs, science labs, everything,” she said.

In August the task force toured Whittier as well as Attucks Elementary in Bronzeville, relocated suddenly in 2008 (as reported here), and Carpenter Elementary in Humboldt Park, which is being phased out to make room for an elite high school (more here).

Parents at Carpenter and at Anderson Elementary, working with Designs for Change, have filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, charging that CPS violated the students’ civil rights – not just in the process of deciding to close the schools, but in “gross inequities” in the allocation of classrooms and learning resources during the phasing-out period, including “indignities reminiscent of the Old South,” such as separate entrances and separate bathrooms.

Carpenter is now getting millions of dollars in renovations – far beyond anything noted in its official building assessment, Carroll said.  And Whittier is still waiting for a library.

The task force hopes to propose legislation that would reform facilities planning in CPS in next year’s session in Springfield, Carroll said.

McCorkle School fights closing

Parents and students rallied this morning at McCorkle Elementary, 4421 S. State, calling on the Board of Education to rescind its decision to close the school.  And a teachers union spokesperson said the union is preparing legal action to challenge the closing.

Scores of schoolchildren carried signs saying “McCorkle: Ten Years of Success” and chanted “Save our school.”

LSC member Shantel Foley pointed out that over a hundred Chicago schools have building assessments showing over $4 million in needed repairs – the reason given by CPS for closing McCorkle.  “They’re not being closed,” she said.  “What are the real reasons for closing McCorkle?”

Parent Darlene Penn pointed at new housing being built across the street, where CHA’s Robert Taylor Homes used to stand, and said, “That’s the reason they’re closing McCorkle.”

Until last year, the school was one of a handful with seven years of consecutive test score gains, and it had the highest math increases in the area, said teacher Delia Urgesi-Gray.

If McCorkle closes, many students will end up at lower performing schools, said Andrea Lee of Grand Boulevard Federation.  Earlier this year, in response to findings that school closings had moved students to schools with lower achievement levels, CPS chief Ron Huberman issued a new policy saying only schools with higher scores would be designated as receiving schools.

But Lee said that CPS knows that half of displaced students don’t go to designated receiving schools.  “Do they really care about these children’s education?” she asked.

CTU President Marilyn Stewart came to show support.  “There’s a steamroller going through the schools on State Street,” she said.  “Stability works.  We need to give these children stability.”

Union spokesperson Rosemaria Genova said later that the union “is going to file legal action” to block the closing, based on its participation in a federally-funded teacher development program.

“It’s a good program that brings additional resources and it’s seeing good results,” she said. “We feel the program is being sabotaged” by closing schools in where teachers are in the midst of a costly training effort.

Genova pointed out that even as CPS closes schools that have received federal funds in the Teacher Advancement Program, the system is reapplying for those funds.

CPS has not provided details about the repairs it says are needed, despite promises to do so, said Anna Paglia, a lawyer who has assisted McCorkle’s LSC (her husband is a teacher at the school).

After a local engineering firm did an independent assessment – finding that with about $1.4 million in repairs, the building could last another 100 years – CPS claimed the firm had overlooked serious structural issues.

“I don’t know how an engineering firm would fail to identify structural problems,” she said.  But though CPS officials promised to provide a copy of their own assessment, “we haven’t seen anything,” she said.

At this morning’s event, speaker after speaker demanded transparency and accountability from CPS.

Asked about prospects for saving the school, Urgesi-Gray said, “Our only hope is to keep fighting.”

McCorkle School: Trick photography?

Supporters of McCorkle Elementary believe that photos of a hole in the roof that was shown by CPS officials in a hearing on the proposal to close the school were in fact photos of another school, said Anna Paglia, an attorney who is representing the school’s LSC.

“Did they mix up the pictures?” she asked.  “We don’t know.  We didn’t have an opportunity to ask questions.”

CPS provided no list of needed repairs or cost estimates, she said – only a general statement that repairing the building would amount to 60 percent of the (unspecified) cost of replacing it. Nor did it provide comparative data that would indicate how McCorkle (4421 S. State) was chosen over other schools.

The LSC arranged an independent engineering assessment that determined that needed repairs would cost substantially less than that, and that a $1.2 million investment would extend the life of the building for 100 years.

“They are saying a school that was built in 1963 can’t be repaired and needs to be demolished,” Paglia said.  “That’s a waste of taxpayer money.”  She said demolition would cost $500,000 – almost half the amount required to repair the school.

While CPS chief Ron Huberman promised yesterday to improve the process for determining school closings, it actually seems to be designed to deny time and information needed to mount effective efforts to save schools.

“There’s one month from the announcement [of the proposal] to the decision [of the school board],” said Paglia, whose husband teaches at McCorkle.  “That’s not an appropriate timeframe.”`

McCorkle’s principal and staff learned that the school was slated to be consolidated into Beethoven Elementary over the weekend of January 23-24, Paglia said; the first hearing on the proposal was January 29.

She said the school has provided CPS with a list of gang territories which must be crossed for McCorkle students to get to Beethoven.  “That’s something CPS has totally disregarded,” she said.

School closings: Mollison, Prescott, Deneen

The Mollison Elementary community is celebrating their removal from CPS’s school closing list – but they say their experience demonstrates the need for big changes in the process.  (Mollison’s story was first highlighted here.)

“We want the process to include schools and communities sooner rather than later,” said Mollison teacher Jodi Curl.

“We are grateful we were taken off the list, but this process remains unjust and we can’t help but have concerns for other schools that were not given a fair and just process,” she said.

One school that remains on the list is Prescott Elementary, 1632 W. Wrightwood, and parents and educators there insist that CPS’s designation of the school as underenrolled is based on faulty calculations.

CPS maintains the school is below 40 percent of  a 540-student capacity.  But at the school’s February 3 hearing, Jennifer Moore, a reading coach with the Erikson Institute who works with Prescott teachers, pointed out that CPS had overcounted the number of classrooms in the school, and that several rooms are used as a library, computer lab, art room, and for ESL and special education.

“If Prescott filled all 18 rooms with a maximum number of students allowable in order to reach a capacity of 540 students, the school would run afoul of educational best practices, CPS policy, and legal requirements,” she said.

Prescott supporters say the school is actually at 64 percent capacity and that next year’s enrollment is expected to take it up to 75 percent.

At Deneen Elementary 7240 S. Wabash, clergy and students planned a candlelight vigil at 5 p.m. this afternoon to protest a proposed “turnaround” despite rising attendance and reading and math scores which rose by double digits last year.

“I am tired of CPS playing with our children’s lives by treating them like they are a shift change at Cook County Jail,” said Rev. Kenyatta Smith, president of the Baptist Pastors Conference Youth Division.

Smith said the change would disrupt a number of programs in place to improve learning in the school, including a three-year professional development program to help teachers work with underachieving students.

Meanwhile, in a statement celebrating their victory, Mollison supporters called on CPS to “reevaluate the public hearing process,” in which CPS staff talk for unlimited time but school supporters are limited to two minutes each, up to the two-hour time set aside for the hearing.  That meant many were shut out entirely – including most supporters of Wells Prep, which was to have been moved into Mollison.

They also questioned the use of the new “performance policy” ranking system to designate schools for closing when it “has not yet been fully vetted by CPS educactors.”

Rev. Jeff Campbell, LSC cochair at Mollison, 4415 S. King, noted that CPS “is already planning to remove two of our teachers.”

“If CPS wants us to do the job that needs to be done,” he said, “we encourage CPS to provide resources that will support educational opportunities, including a reading and math coach, money to keep our two teachers, and not having to make choices between buying teachers or books or books versus educational software.”

The group applauded their alderman, Pat Dowell of the 3rd Ward, for supporting Mollison, and for introducing a resolution calling for a moratorium on school closings until CPS gets feedback from a task force of the General Assembly that is studying the district’s facility planning. A hearing on that resolution is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

School hearing – with questions!

A hearing on a proposed school “turnaround” Thursday evening will have something the others don’t have: parents, teachers and community members will be able to question CPS and AUSL officials.

That’s because Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) is sponsoring the meeting, which is on the proposed “turnaround” at Wendell Phillips High School by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. (It takes place at 7 p.m., Thursday, February 18, at Apostolic Faith Church, 3823 S. Indiana).

According to Dowell’s announcement, the meeting is intended to allow “community organizations, parents, teachers, and residents to learn more about CPS and AUSL’s plans for Phillips High School, ask questions, and raise concerns.”

At official CPS hearings, like the February 1 hearing on Phillips, CPS officials give long presentations and then members of the school community are allowed to comment.  But as George Schmidt writes at Substance, “CPS procedure refused to allow teachers, students, parents or community leaders to ask any questions.”

“The [February 1] hearing adjourned abruptly after two hours, even though there were others who wished to speak and dozens who had questions that had not been answered.”

CPS chief Ron Huberman’s new “performance policy” rating system “has not been subjected to public review” since the school board approved it “without discussion or debate” last December, Schmidt writes.

Likewise, he writes, AUSL’s claims of success “have never been subjected to independent verification.”

PURE recently noted that AUSL “turnarounds” seem to involve largescale “push-outs”:  at five elementary schools taken over by AUSL, enrollment dropped by an average of nearly 100 in the first year.  At Harper High, enrollment dropped by 30 percent the year AUSL took over, Linda Lutton reported on WBEZ last year.

According to Catalyst:  “There is yet no evidence that (turnarounds) can fix high schools at all.”

“There is a growing interest in the council to more fully examine the CPS consolidation, turnaround and phase-out policies,” Dowell told WBEZ. “They’re not transparent; they lack community involvement and public accountability.”

Dowell has joined Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th Ward) in introducing a resolution calling for a moratorium on school closings.

School advocates are calling on Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), who chairs the council’s education committee, to call a hearing on their resolution prior to the February 24 board meeting where this round of school closings will be voted on.

As noted here previously, Thomas has spoken out against the closing of Guggenheim Elementary in her ward.

Hearings on school closings

For coverage of community and downtown hearings on Renaissance 2010 school closings, there’s really only Substance — since, as Substance reports, the Trib and Sun Times haven’t reported on hearings where 2,500 people have come out.

The paper posts daily on the web and is now posting video from the hearings on youtube.  Check out Debra Thompson, LSC chair at Paderewski, 2221 S. Lawndale:

One new trend: unlike last year, members of City Council are coming out to oppose closings.  Freddrenna Lyle of the 6th Ward has spoken out against “turnarounds” at Gillespie (9301 S. State) and Deneen (7420 S. Wabash), Pat Dowell of the 3rd against the “consolidation” of Mollison (4415 S. King), and Scott Waguespack of the 32nd  against closing Prescott (1632 W. Wrightwood).

Perhaps most notably, 17th Ward Ald. Latasha Thomas, who chairs the council’s education committee, has opposed the closing of Guggenheim (7141 S. Morgan), not only challenging the convoluted (and sometimes absurd) “performance” ratings used to justify the closings, but questioning the entire school closing strategy:  “When you close a school you penalize the students.  When you close a school you penalize the very people you are working for.”

There have been repeated challenges to the bizarre “performance policy” data (which turns out to be inaccurate in many cases) and repeated charges that schools have been denied resources.

And there is repeated evidence that CPS is flying blind when it comes to facilities planning.  Mollison lost its reading specialist based on a projected decline in enrollment that never actually occurred (the position was not restored); Prescott is being closed for underenrollment even though it’s attracting young families that are now moving into its attendance area; Paderewski lost enrollment after CPS reduced the school’s attendance boundaries.

In several cases, students will face long treks – and pass several nearby schools – in order to keep Ron Huberman’s promise to send them to schools with higher scores.  Latasha Thomas says:  “Seven or eight blocks means some students will drop out.”

Here’s what Debra Thompson says in the video above:  “You expect my kids to walk through drug-infested neighborhoods — for 12 blocks – to get to school?  That’s unreal.”   She asks: “What right do you have…to make decisions for our children and our community?”

Landmarks in Black History

Lorraine Hansberry remembered the house at 6140 S. Rhodes, which her family moved into when she was eight years old, as being “in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house.”

She recalled “being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.” In “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” the posthumous collection of her writings, she remembered her mother keeping watch all night with a loaded gun while her father was out of town.

The family’s struggle when they moved into Washington Park in 1937 — including a lawsuit which went to the Supreme Court — is reflected in Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened on Broadway in 1959.

On Monday, a City Council committee is expected to consider a recommendation from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to list the Hansberry House as one of four buildings representing the Chicago Black Renaissance literary movement of the mid-20th century.

Lorraine Hansberry’s father was a successful businessman and prominent activist – visitors to their home included W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson. When a white neighbor sued to enforce a restrictive covenant barring African Americans from buying homes in the area, Carl Hansberry took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Earl B. Dickerson as his attorney.

In 1940, in the landmark case Lee v. Hansberry, the Supreme Court overturned the Washington Park covenant.  The case helped lay the groundwork for a 1948 ruling that declared all restrictive covenants unconstitutional.

Other buildings being considered Monday include the homes of Richard Wright, 4831 S. Vincennes, and Gwendolyn Brooks, 7428 S. Evans, as well as the George C. Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 4801 S. Michigan.

Wright lived in Chicago from 1927 to 1937, publishing his first stories, writing his first novel (published posthumously as “Lawd Today!”), working with the Federal Writers Project of the New Deal and founding the South Side Writers Club with writers like Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, and Horace Cayton.   His most famous novel, “Native Son,” is set on Chicago’s South Side.

After he got a post office job in 1929, Wright was able to move his mother, aunt and brother out of a rooming house and  into the second-floor, four-room apartment on Vincennes, where he had room to read and write.  They lived there till 1932.

Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poems of life in Bronzeville and of protest against segregation and brutality.  Her career bridged the Black Renaissance of the 1930s and ’40s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s.  She succeeded Carl Sandburg as Illinois poet laureate and was the first African American named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  With her husband and children, she lived in the modest house at 7428 S. Evans for over 40 years.

The Hall Library opened in 1932, headed by Vivian Harsh, the first African American branch librarian in Chicago.  She developed a remarkable Special Negro Collection (it’s now the Vivian G. Harsh Collection and housed in its own wing at the Woodson Regional Library), along with community programs including a biweekly literary forum which attracted leading authors.  Located at the heart of Bronzeville, the library was also central to the Black Renaissance.  Harsh served as head librarian until 1958.

Landmark status would mandate approval by the landmarks commission whenever building permits are requested for any of the buildings.

Last year the Illinois Supreme Court declined to review an Appellate Court decision that found the criteria for selection in the landmarks ordinance to be unconstitutionally vague.  The original case will be reheard later this year in circuit court.  The ordinance remains in effect.

The overturning of longstanding precedent stunned preservationists and called into question the future of landmark preservation law in Chicago.  In December a state court in Washington rejected a similar argument which cited the Illinois ruling.  (Vince Michaels of the School of the Art Institute blogs about it at Time Tells.)

Another Bronzeville landmark, the South Side Community Art Center, launches a 70th anniversary celebration next month.  The last remaining center developed by the New Deal’s Federal Arts Project, it was founded by Margaret Burroughs among others and dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941.

School closing tricks in Bronzeville

Which CPS school consolidation is not like any other one?

That would be Mollison Elementary, 4415 S. King Drive, which is being “consolidated into” Wells Prep, which is housed in Phillips High.

In every other consolidation CPS has undertaken, that would mean Mollison students and staff would be heading to Wells Prep’s building next year.  But in this case, Wells students and staff are moving to Mollison.

It’s one of several oddities in this year’s crop of school closings in Bronzeville, a community where gentrification has accompanied a string of school closings, and the discrepancies underscore community demands for greater transparency and coordination in school planning.

In reality, CPS is closing Wells Prep in order to make room for yet another intervention at Phillips, this time a “turnaround,” said Andrea Lee, education organizer for the Grand Boulevard Federation.

But the “student bill of rights” recently promulgated by CPS chief Ron Huberman promises not to send students to lower performing schools when schools are closed or consolidated.  And more than 70 percent of Wells Prep students met or exceeded standards on the ISAT last year, versus 54 percent at Mollison.

So announcing the consolidation of Wells Prep into Mollison would openly violate the “bill of rights,” at the very moment it was being announced.

But making Mollison the consolidating school also denies Wells parents and staff a public hearing over the loss of their school, Lee said.

Another incongruity is the reason given for Mollison’s “consolidation” — chronic underperformance. On last years ISATs 54 percent of its students were at or above standards, and their scores have gone up 20 percent since 2003, Lee said.   “Mollison is chronically underperforming?” she scoffs.  “Come on.”

In fact, there are six schools in Bronzeville with lower ISAT scores, and 74 schools citywide have lower scores on CPS’s “performance policy” ratings.

But by closing the school for underperformance (rather than underenrollment), CPS can fire the school’s administrators and teachers, Lee points out.

Mollison received 18 percent of the possible points in its “performance policy” scoring, a complex calculation awarding points for test scores and attendance rates, with more points for favorable trends, and a “value-added” measurement that’s been questioned by experts.

The performance rating “doesn’t reflect reality,” said Lee.  It involves “a lot of manipulation of data.”

The rating “gives an illusion of precision,” though “if you start to look at why certain criteria are chosen and why they are given particular weight, it’s all very arbitrary,” said Don Moore of Designs for Change.  “It’s incredibly convoluted.”

It can also lead to absurdities, he said, citing Kellman Elementary in North Lawndale, a magnet school that has been “repeatedly recognized for outstanding academic achievement,” according to Catalyst. Though its student body is 93 percent low-income, 77.4 percent of its students met or exceeded ISAT standards last year – significantly higher than the CPS average.  But because scores were even higher a few years ago, Kellman gets only 38 percent of possible “performance rating” points, which means it’s now on probation.

“There’s a real question whether this is an appropriate basis for deciding whether to close schools,” Moore said. In addition, “the performance measure completely distracts people from thinking long term about how to improve learning,” Moore said. “They start thinking about how to make enought points to avoid probation or the threat of closure.”

If it were designed to improve learning rather than to triage school closings, it would focus on factors that have been shown to actually improve learning – most recently in a new book by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which identified school leadership, professional capacity, and ties with parents and community among factors that determine whether schools will improve.  (Designs for Change identified similar factors in a 2005 study of 144 improving neighborhood schools.)

Another Bronzeville school targeted for consolidation is McCorkle Elementary, 4421 S. State.  CPS says building repairs for the school are cost-prohibitive.  Lee questions this rationale, too.

The $4 million in needed repairs, reflecting years of neglect, is far less than the 50 percent of replacement cost that is CPS’s general standard for determining cost effectiveness, she said.  She also notes that there are twelve schools in Bronzeville that need repairs of more than $4 million.

Meanwhile, new housing is under construction across the street from the school.

“What’s really going on – and why McCorkle?”  she asked.

On top of lack of transparency and accountability, Lee said, there’s a lack of planning and coordination – evident in overcrowding now affecting South Loop Elementary – all pointing to the need for a comprehensive facilities master plan for Chicago schools.

Lee is a member of the new legislative commission that will study the question.  And working with parents and educators in Bronzeville, she’s developing a facilities master plan for the community.  It aims to involve the community in decisions that will be necessary regarding schools with declining enrollments and old and neglected facilities, where demographics are shifting.

“I don’t think CPS has proven to the community and the taxpayers that it has a real plan for how to accommodate new families in the community,” she said.  “Until CPS has a master facility plan in place it has no business closing these schools, hurting these kids, and eroding the community.”

The lack of transparency makes it hard for parents to trust CPS, she said.  “The sentiment in the community is that CPS seems to be giving up on our neighborhood schools….

“These are schools that have made progress while facing great challenges, and they have been crying out for resources.  McCorkle has been talking about building disrepair for years.  We should be talking about what we are doing to make schools better.”

McCorkle has a hearing Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the Board of Education, and Mollison at 8 p.m. on Monday, February 8.  Wells Prep doesn’t have one.  [Wells’ parents and staff can testify at Mollison’s hearing, Lee said.]

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