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Piccolo supporters say CPS is blocking a real school turnaround

Parents and community supporters are asking why CPS has chosen Piccolo Elementary for a “turnaround” by the Academy of Urban School Leadership next year, when a brand-new principal – herself a veteran of an AUSL school — has just begun an overhaul that has won widespread support and is already getting results.

Piccolo parents, teachers, and students will hold a press conference and rally at the school (1040 N. Keeler) on Friday, December 9 at 3 p.m.  to highlight the school’s strategic plan and oppose CPS’s proposal.

Dr. Allison Brunson was named principal in July, after teaching at AUSL’s Dodge Academy in East Garfield Park.  Before this year, CPS policy prohibited school actions where principals had been in place less than two years.

Brunson has developed a strategic plan for the school and implemented a new disciplinary policy, a professional development program, and a new reading curriculum, including a two-hour reading period each morning, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, which partners with the school on parent engagement.

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Two new libraries represent community victories

The official opening of the Richard M. Daley Library last month attracted lots of dignitaries (including the former mayor himself, as well as his successor) and lots of attention.  Now the community which fought for years to get the library is holding its own celebration.

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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.

Festival supports Humboldt Park art center

The Festival of the Musai is an all-women arts event Saturday night featuring a variety of music, visual art and dance to raise money for the Rumble Arts Center, a nonprofit community art center in Humboldt Park.

The festival takes place Saturday, August 21 (9 p.m. to 3 a.m.) at Multi Kulti, 1000 N. Milwaukee.  It features music by Ugochi (soul/afrobeat), Natalie Oliveri (soul singer/songwriter), Inaru (bomba/plena) and DJ La Perla Taina; a modern dance performance by the Laboratory Dancers; and a visual art exhibition.  There’s an $8 donation requested at the door, and prizes donated by local cafes, stores, and services will be raffled off.

Funds will go to help the center build silk screen and ceramics studios – and to help the organization continue to offer free and donation-based programs and classes.

Rumble Art Center, 3413 W. North, is women-run, founded two years ago by artist Brook Woolf with a vision of making arts education accessible to low-income residents and building meaningful relationships between local artists, neighbors, and community organizations.  Classes range from African drumming to drawing, hip hop and modern dance, yoga, puppetry, performance art and breakdancing.

Youth win on CPS guards, grievance process

In a victory for two youth organizing drives, CPS has agreed to establish a grievance procedure for students experiencing violence, harassment or discrimination, and to pilot a program training security guards to use principles of restorative justice in their work.

Both campaigns promote the restorative justice approach – emphasizing accountability as an alternative to zero tolerance and punitive discipline – as a more effective approach to reducing violence, said Sam Finkelstein of GenderJust, an LGTB student group that protested at CPS headquarters and at CPS chief Ron Huberman’s home to demand a grievance procedure.

GenderJust announced last month that CPS had agreed to establish a process for students to file grievances on paper, by phone, or via a website.  Complaints may be investigated by the district’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office. A student oversight committee will monitor the process.

“It’s important that students’ voices are heard when bad things are done to them,” said Nelleli Luna of GenderJust, a sophomore at Little Village Lawndale High.

Last week, Blocks Together Youth Council announced an agreement with CPS to pilot restorative justice training for security guards in five or more high schools.  The West Humboldt Park youth group has organized for years against security guard misconduct and policies that criminalize youth.

The two groups supported each other and worked together at various points over the past year.  Southwest Youth Collaborative also worked on the security guard issue.

Both groups have their work cut out for them: GenderJust is working up a publicity drive to inform students about the grievance procedure, including a citywide Queer Student Orientation at the beginning of the school year.  BTYC is identifying schools to participate and working with restorative justice practitioners to create a curriculum.

The agreement with CPS security director Michael Shields includes a commitment to facilitate discussions with the administration at Orr High School, where many BTYC members are students, said Ana Mercado.  Though the school has peer juries based on restorative justice, they aren’t widely used, she said.  “The administration doesn’t really understand it, and doesn’t put its weight behind it,” Mercado said.

One goal for the coming year is to talk about what full implementation of a restorative justice policy would look like for CPS, Finkelstein said.  The approach is now used in scattered ways with limited support (and other groups have worked to promote it over the years; see Newstips from 2005.)

System-wide implementation would be the best way to reduce violence and promote a “culture of calm,” Finkelstein said.

“A lot of people in CPS don’t know what [restorative justice] means,” he said.  “We think students should be the ones defining it.”

For background: Newstips on GenderJust’s Safe and Affirming Education campaign; Newstips on Blocks Together Youth Council’s security guard campaign.

New housing in Humboldt Park is green, affordable

With the housing crisis still growing, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation is celebrating the opening of Rosa Parks Apartments in Humboldt Park – while other affordable housing initiatives, including the Zapata Apartments and an ordinance to provide TIF funding citywide, gain momentum.

Governor Quinn will join elected officials and community leaders at an opening ceremony tomorrow (Thursday, June 10) at 10 a.m. at 541 N. Homan.

Comprising eight new buildings sited on long-vacant lots in the vicinity of Homan and Ohio, the Rosa Parks Apartments contain 94 units of one- to four-bedroom rental apartments and will be affordable to residents making below 50 percent of area median income, with Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund support for very-low income tenants.

It’s Bickerdike’s first comprehensively-designed green development, with solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and green roofs, among other features.

The $27 million project received $3.5 million in TIF funds and has been cited by the Sweet Home Chicago Coalition in support of an ordinance that would dedicate 20 percent of TIF funds to affordable housing (see last year’s Newstip).  Support among aldermen is steadily growing and approaching enough votes to pass the ordinance, said Luis Padial of Bickerdike.

Padial also said that supporters yesterday delivered over 3,100 signatures in support of the Zapata Apartments, a joint project of Bickerdike and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (see Newstips), which has met vocal opposition from some condo owners.

He said Ald. Robert Maldonado (26th Ward) and Rey Colon (35th) both support the project, and they expect to win zoning changes in the City Council this summer.  “We hope to close on the deal by the end of this year and begin construction next year,” Padial said.  Legal challenges to the project should be resolved in the next few months, he said.

Humboldt Park: Walk for peace – and a new flag

Hundreds of residents will march against violence in Humboldt Park tomorrow – and a new flag will be raised over Paseo Boricua.

In addition to the giant steel Puerto Rican flags that mark Division Street at Western and California as the Paseo, the community has become the first outside Puerto Rico to be granted an official municipal flag by the commonwealth.

The March for Peace, sponsored by the Alliance of Local Service Organizations, begins at 10 a.m. (Saturday, June 5) at Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western, and concludes with performances and speakers at the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, 3015 W. Division.  The flag raising is expected to take place around noon.

Along the route educators, police officials, anti-violence workers and survivors of violence will give short talks about different types of violence, including domestic violence, street violence, and violence in schools.

Over 60 organizations are participating in the event.

School guards and ‘culture of calm’

UPDATED – Fifteen students, most of them from Orr High School, sat around a storefront in Humboldt Park last Wednesday evening, taking turns role-playing situations encountered by security guards in their school – and discussing better and worse ways of handling them.

One student, portraying a guard, watched an argument between two students escalate into a fight and then roughly subdued one of the contenders, who ends up in a choke hold.

How often does this kind of thing happen, the students are asked.  “Every day,” comes the response from several of them.

The students, members of the Blocks Together Youth Council, say they routinely witness or experience inappropriate behavior by security guards. In a survey of CPS students across the city, they gathered reports of guards cursing and insulting students; sexually harassing them; failing to prevent fights, and even instigating and initiating them; and using excessive force, including beating and paddling students.

Too often security guard misconduct “contributes to an unsafe learning environment,” said BT youth organizer Ana Mercado.  “Their approach leads to more conflict and tension.”

And while she says there are guards who focus on problem-solving over punishment, “it’s not just a few bad apples who are unprofessional, it’s a natural extension of the zero tolerance mentality.

“If you think kids only learn if you are harsh on them, if that’s the only recourse you have, then if it doesn’t work there’s nothing for you to do but go harder, and you end up beating kids up.”

BTYC maintains that one of the most direct ways to promote a “culture of calm” in CPS high schools is to revamp security guard training to include an introduction to restorative justice principles.  They say an interactive workshop format could help guards think through ways of reacting to immature and disruptive behavior in a professional manner.

And they’ve been pushing, with limited success, for a seat at the table as CPS revises its security guard training, arguing that young people’s perspective is crucial.

As participants worked through different scenarios – a student who shows up without a shirt, another who refuses to remove a hat – they talked about how to apply restorative justice principles, which were posted on hand-written signs around the room: the importance of listening, of relationships, of taking into account individuals’ needs, of problem solving, of considering the larger community, and of modeling the behavior you want to see.

BTYC had expected Michael Shields, chief of security for CPS, at the meeting.  At a previous meeting, he’d asked for a demonstration of how restorative justice principles could be applied to training for school security guards, and this date was subsequently set, they say.

But when Blocks Together called to confirm the meeting, they were told it wasn’t on Shields’ schedule, said Orr student Edward Ward.  When they inquired at the school board meeting earlier that day, Shields spoke with them briefly and said something personal had come up that morning.

Ward noted the discrepancy – if it had come up that morning, why wasn’t it on his schedule days earlier?  “We’re angry about that,” he said.

On one wall of the office hangs a sheet with a list of agreements including BTYC involvement in revising security guard training and in monitoring and evaluating trainings; and ensuring that training includes an introduction to restorative justice, discussions of the developmental needs of youth and the proper role of adult professionals, and an interactive format.  At the bottom is Shields’ signature.

Shields has since backtracked on several promises, Mercado said, including allowing BT members to observe trainings.  At the meeting last October where that agreement was signed, Shields also agreed to provide a copy of the current curriculum for guard training, said BTYC organizer Ana Mercado; to date, that promise hasn’t been kept, she said.

CPS spokesperson Monique Bond couldn’t address specifics of discussions between Shields and the group, but said a comprehensive review of security guard training is underway as part of the district’s anti-violence plan.

Misconduct by guards should be reported to teachers, principals, or the district’s inspector general, she said. “These are very serious allegations, and the only way to address them is to file a formal complaint,” she said.

“For young people there’s a lot of fear of backlash from security guards if they hear about a complaint,” said Mercado.   “We’re trying to deal with the problem preventively.”

BTYC has been supporting an effort to establish a confidential grievance process for students to report incidents of violence and harassment in school, a campaign being spearheaded by GenderJust, which has carried out a series of direct actions.

“Right now there’s not really a process,” said Sam Finkelstein, an organizer for the LGBT group.  “You complain somehow, maybe you tell the principal and if you’re lucky it gets acted on.  There’s no followup, no oversight.”

Blocks Together has worked on this issue for years (Newstips first covered their efforts in 2002), organizing high school youth, working to bring restorative justice to local elementary schools, helping to establish a peer jury at Orr.   With limited administrative support and resources, school-by-school efforts have had limited success, Mercado said.

Now she wonders whether the call by  CPS chief Ron Huberman for guards to act as mentors to students will be anything more than “lip service.”

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