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COFI: A win on recess, and more

Parents who’ve been pushing for several years to restore recess in Chicago schools won a victory in Springfield last week when the General Assembly voted to establish a legislative task force on the issue.

Members of POWER-PAC, a citywide organization of black and Latino mothers, have worked in Springfield for four years for Recess For All, coming closest two years ago when the House and Senate passed a bill mandating recess in Illinois schools but failed to agree on final language.

Some 82 percent of Chicago elementary schools do not provide recess for their students, said Tracy Occomy of Community Organizing Family Issues, which provides training and support for POWER-PAC.  Those allowing recess tend to be magnet schools and schools serving higher-income children, she said.

Occomy said that a statewide search failed to identify any other school district beside CPS that doesn’t provide recess.

The push for recess grew out of POWER-PAC’s work to reduce “alarming rates” of suspensions in elementary schools.  They cited research showing children who are allowed to have recess act out less and learn better. In 2005 Newstips reported on a meeting between POWER-PAC and then-school board president Michael Scott, who abruptly walked out when parents started talking about the need for recess.

Since then a growing concern over childhood obesity has added to the concern.

Childhood obesity in Chicago is significantly higher than the national average, according to the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, and higher yet in communities of color, where recess is rarely available.  In Englewood, childhood obesity rates are twice the national average, according to CLOCC.

The new task force will include representatives of parent, health, and restorative justice groups, in addition to legislators, CPS, teachers unions, principals and the PTA.  The goal is to reach consensus on overcoming obstacles to recess and make recommendations for legislation in the next General Assembly, Occomy said.

It’s the latest victory for COFI, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last week.  The group uses traditional community organizing approaches but focuses on mothers in low-income communities of color.   Working with local community groups and social service agencies, COFI trains parent action teams which choose their own issues.

Currently parent action teams are working on a variety of issues in West Town, Humboldt Park, Austin, North Lawndale and Englewood.

On restorative justice, POWER-PAC members founded the Austin Peace Center five years ago to implement restorative justice in two West Side elementary schools.  Working with a citywide coalition, POWER-PAC pushed CPS to drop its zero tolerance policy and recognize restorative justice in its disciplinary code in 2007.  They’re also training parents in restorative justice at Reavis Elementary in Bronzeville. (More here.)

POWER-PAC has also led a citywide push to improve participation in early learning, training mothers in childcare centers to serve as Head Start Ambassadors and forming walking preschool buses in several communities.

The Austin-Wide Parent Network has worked on community health issues – including an exercise program for mothers – and parent teams in Englewood have hosted bike and walk to school rallies and won playlots at two elementary schools in the past two years.

Progress on toy safety, but hazards remain — and there’s an app for that

There’s been much progress in toy safety over the past quarter century, but there are still toys with harmful chemicals and choking hazards available on store shelves, according to the 25th annual Trouble in Toyland report from Illinois PIRG.

The group has updated a smartphone application to help parents check on toy safety while they’re shopping, and launched a campaign calling on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to update its small parts choking hazard standard.

A wood train toy cited in the report contains parts just large enough to pass the current standard – but still small enough to block a child’s airway.  PIRG was alerted to this particular toy by a mother who had to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her one-year-old when he swallowed a peg, said Brian Imus.

Other toys cited in the report contain harmful and in some cases unlawful levels of phthatelates, lead, and antimony.

Parents can check the safety of toys on the phone while they’re shopping using an interactive website available at www.toysafety.mobi (first offered last year).  A web widget for the app is now available and being promoted to moms’ blogs and similar sites.

The smartphone app now includes a list of recalled products, as well as short video clips with tips such as how to check whether a toy’s parts are too small for a child.  It also allows parents to report toy hazards – and to sign a petition to the CSPS calling for a stronger small parts standard.

Much of the reported progress follows the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008 (sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sen. Richard Durbin and pushed by Chicago parent activists), Imus said.

He anticipates efforts in the newly-elected Congress to roll back some standards and cut funding for the CSPC.  “Our message is, it’s working,” he said.  “The vast majority of toys are safe.”

That’s a stark difference from previous years, when millions of toys were recalled due to lead levels and other hazards.

Much more needs to be done to regulate toxic chemicals, tens of thousands of which are produced with little oversight, Imus said.  A bill by Rep. Bobby Rush to require safety testing by the chemical industry was defeated this year in “a testament to the combined clout of $674 billion chemical industry, the companies that process their compounds into air fresheners, detergents, perfumes, cosmetics, toys, medical devices and other consumer goods, and the stores that sell them,” according to Politics Daily.

Rush and other sponsors promised to reintroduce the bill in the next session – but prospects for passage now are probably even worse.

Chicago toddler inspires new safety law

The chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission visits Chicago tomorrow to discuss new safety measures under the Danny Keysar Safety Notification Act, named for a Chicago toddler, which went into effect June 28.

Joining CPSC chair Inez Tenenbaum will be Linda Ginzel and Boaz Keysar, Danny’s parents.  They founded the nonprofit advocacy group Kids In Danger twelve years ago, after 16-month-old Danny died when a crib collapsed at a childcare center – and they learned that the crib had been recalled five years earlier.

(As noted here in 2007, the feeble efforts of the underfunded, industry-oriented commission to publicize the crib’s defects were characterized as a “silent recall” at the time.)

The new law is designed to increased product recall effectiveness, and makes product registration cards mandatory for an array of children’s products, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Tenenbaum, Ginzel and Keysar will be joined by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America at 2 p.m., Thursday, July 22, at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center, 450 N. Cityfront Plaza.

Head Start ambassadors

POWER-PAC, an organization of low-income black and Latino mothers and grandmothers, has been using grassroots organizing methods to increase participation in early education since 2006; Catalyst reports that the city is expanding its support for the group’s Head Start Ambassadors program.    For background, see Newstips reports from 2007 on door-to-door efforts, and from 2009 on the group’s policy recommendations.

New toy safety tool

Nice coverage for Illinois PIRG’s 24th annual Trouble in Toyland survey – but several reports [Francine Knowles’ story at the Sun Times is an exception] are overlooking the group’s new interactive smart phone tool that allows shoppers to check on possible hazards as they’re shopping – and to report any hazards they do find.   It’s available at the group’s toysafety.net site.

Summer in Rogers Park

Nonprofits, parks, police and local pols are sponsoring a resource fair with information on summer events, summer programs for kids, and volunteer opportunities for adults and teens — Monday, June 8, 4 to 7 p.m. in the cafeteria of Sullivan High School, 6631 N. Bosworth (enter on Greenview).  At 7 p.m. there’s a “safety walk.”

Parents push early learning

Rosazlia Grillier knows the value of early learning; the Englewood mother attended Head Start when she was a child, and so have her two daughters.

“There are so many obstacles for children in our communities, and early learning gives them a jump start on life,” she said. “High quality early learning programs are part of a pathway out of poverty.”

As an activist with the citywide parents organization POWER-PAC (and a trainer with the group’s sponsor, Community Organizing and Family Issues), Grillier has been part of a grassroots mobilization over the past year which increased participation in preschool by 25 percent in Englewood.

Even though Illinois has taken the lead among states in creating and providing acccess to early learning programs, POWER-PAC members in low-income communities could see that many children weren’t participating, Grillier said. The group’s efforts over the past few years have helped inspire a broader effort to connect “hard-to-reach” families with early learning opportunities.

POWER-PAC’s approach has been two-fold — surveying parents to learn more about obstacles to participation, and experimenting with solutions to address those obstacles.

Last week the group released a report on a series of surveys in which members interviewed over 5,000 families with young children in 19 low-income communities in Chicago. They found that nearly half of eligible children are not in preschool.

The survey explores a range of obstacles to enrollment. First is a system that is “a confusing and frustrating maze,” with a variety of programs with widely varying eligibility standards, often involving complex enrollment procedures requiring extensive documentation.

A family that is turned away from one program is often not informed that they might qualify at another program a few blocks away, said POWER-PAC organizer Kelly Magnuson.

The report advocates “a dramatic overhal of our nation’s early education programs to create one seamless system supporting quality, full-day, year-round universal preschool.”

In the meantime, it calls for a simplifying the registration process, reducing co-payments to make programs affordable, and building new facilities in communities where preschool options are currently insufficient.

The report calls for funding for van service for preschool and stipends for volunteer conductors of “walking schoolbuses” to address transportation barriers; expanded preschool schedules to accommodate family and work schedules; and an aggressive media campaign on the importance of early learning — backed by home-visiting programs to support young parents and caretaking grandparents, as well as funding for community-based outreach.

Parent-to-parent contact is crucial in low-income and especially immigrant communities where public officials do not always inspire trust, said Magnuson.

The summer POWER-PAC members are working with the city’s Department of Family and Support Services as Head Start Ambassadors, promoting the program door-to-door, at block parties and summer festivals, and at WIC offices and social service agencies. The group is also in discussion with CPS on piloting a “walking schoolbus” program.

Parents work on early education

The issue of access to early education in low-income communities is gaining attention, as last month’s Catalyst cover stories indicate.  But largely untold is the role of activist mothers and grandmothers in Chicago neighborhoods in first identifying the problem and initiating action on it.

Black and Latina members of POWER-PAC will present findings and tell stories from a two-year research and outreach program in which they knocked on 5,000 doors in 19 low and moderate income communities — and found 40 to 65 percent of preschool-age children were not enrolled in preschool or head start.  They’ll release a report at a press conference tomorrow at 4 p.m. at the office of Community Organizing and Family Issues, 954 W. Washington.

One finding is that the confusing and frustrating maze of federal and state programs, with complex eligibility requirements and little networking, is itself a major obstacle for parents in low-income communities.  And one lesson is the importance of involving the people who are most affected by policies in their formation and implementation.

Here’s our Newstip from December 2007.



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