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No celebration: Chicagoans protest police, schools

Two dovetailing protests will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in Chicago on Wednesday — a march on the Board of Education by a citywide coalition of community groups at 10 a.m., and a march on City Hall demanding accountability for police killings directly afterward.

Both protests emphasize how far we still have to go to address racial inequality, and both call for the creation of elected bodies to oversee local agencies — an elected school board and an elected civilian police accountability council.

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A dozen community organizations have called for a one-day school boycott and will march on the Board of Education at 10 a.m. demanding an end to the destabilization of neighborhood schools and recognition of the human right to a safe, quality education for every child.

They are calling for an elected school board and reallocation of TIF funds to stop budget cuts.

“Our schools are still very segregated and very unequal,” said Sarah Simmons of Parents For Teachers.  Suburban and selective enrollment schools have a full range of programs while students at Dyett High School in Washington Park are forced to take art and phys ed classes online, she said.

After heavy budget cuts, Kelly High School has two art teachers for 2,700 students and no library, said Israel Munoz, a recent Kelly grad who helped organize the new Chicago Students Union and is now headed to college.

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After the school closing vote

With the school board voting to close 50 neighborhood schools — to nobody’s surprise — the movement that sprang up in opposition moves to a new phase.

One indication: while the board was meeting, eight activists were arrested in Springfield blocking the entrance of legislative chambers, demanding the General Assembly pass a moratorium blocking the closings.

Participating were members of Action Now, Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

“We’re going to keep up the momentum to stop school closings,” said Aileen Kelleher of Action Now.  “There will definitely be more large-scale actions.”

“There’s a legislative strategy and a street strategy,” said Jitu Brown of KOCO.  “We are organizing in our communities to stand up for our children, to stand against disinvestment — which is what this is.”

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Common sense on school closings

When she was first appointed, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett was fond of talking of the necessity of restoring trust that had been broken by previous administrations.  She promised a thorough community engagement process around this wave of school closings.

And there have been innumberable forums for public input since January.  The problem is, it’s been almost entirely ignored.

CPS’s basic criteria for deciding to close schools — its utilization standard and performance policy — have been roundly critiqued.  But hearing officers have noted that much public testimony has focused on concerns that CPS school action guidelines deem “discretionary” — things like safety and security, culture and climate, school leadership, facility conditions, special programming and community feedback.  The district chief “may” take these into account.

Some officers ruled that the school board should take these concerns into account, and recommended against closing; others ruled that CPS had met the legal requirements for closing a school, but strongly recommended that the board look into community concerns in its own evaluation and decision-making.

Which only makes sense.  The people in the schools know much better than the people downtown what’s going on in the schools, particularly around the key issue of utilization.

But CPS general counsel James Bebley reacted with defensive legalisms.  When hearing officer Cheryl Starks ruled against closing top-performing Calhoun North based in part on Alderman Fioretti’s observation that new housing was going up across the street, Bebley wrote: “The CEO has the discretion to consider neighborhood development plans, but failure to do so does not impede the CEO’s power to propose closure.”

Well, okay.  It’s your ballgame, and you write the rules.  But doesn’t common sense tell you that that kind of information is relevant and worth considering?  I mean, come on.

Right now someone at City Hall is deciding what small number of schools to take off the list as a sop to public outrage.  But if our school governance system worked properly, it would be the Board of Education itself applying independent, critical oversight — and common sense — to the decision-making process.

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Planning lags for homeless students

Homeless students are more than twice as likely than others to be impacted by Mayor Emanuel’s school closings, according to an analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

And if plans for transitioning homeless students are any indication, CPS preparations for school closings are far behind where they’ve been at this point in previous years — and far behind where they need to be.

The 3,900 homeless students who would be impacted if the school board approves all proposed mergers, turnarounds and co-locations represent 8.5 percent of impacted students — more than twice the share of homeless students citywide, which CPS reports as 4 percent, according to CCH.

The 1,400 homeless  students displaced from closing schools represents an even higher proportion — 8.7 percent of students subject to displacement.

CCH’s Law Project has assisted homeless students impacted by school closures since 2004, and “CPS has never demonstrated its ability to successfully serve students transitioning to new schools,” said Patricia Nix-Hodes, the coalition’s associate legal director. “We have seen students lost in the process as well as students at risk of increased violence.

“Even on a much smaller scale, receiving schools have not been adequately prepared,” Nix-Hodes said.  “Students have arrived to new schools without enough desks, books or staff. School records have failed to arrive in a timely manner. Adequate transportation has not been provided to get students to the new school.

“It is inconceivable that CPS will be able to provide all impacted with better school choices and meaningful transition and transportation services, especially with the final announcements taking place so late in the school year.”

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AUSL turnarounds called ineffective, expensive

Why is deficit-challenged CPS proposing to spend over $1 million a year to “turn around” each of six schools, using a program that’s produced mediocre results — especially when teachers at four of the schools have voted to support a far cheaper and more effective turnaround proposal?

Could the political connections of the Academy for Urban School Leadership — whose big-dollar donors include major contributors to Mayor Emanuel, like David Vitale, Penny Pritzker and Bruce Rauner — have something to do with it?

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Of twelve turnaround schools listed on AUSL’s website which the group took over between 2006 and 2010, ten of them are on academic probation today.    Only one of them is rated as Level 1 — “high performing” — by CPS.

Of those twelve schools, eleven were below the CPS district-wide average for ISAT composite scores.  AUSL’s top-scoring school had a composite score that was equal to the CPS average, which is lower than half its schools.

Three AUSL turnarounds at CPS high schools are abject failures, with scores far below district averages and negligible growth.

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In Bronzeville: school closings, violence, Wal-Mart, and TIFs

Two actions protested the closing of Overton Elementary in Bronzeville today — a morning rally highlighting safety issues (and much more), and an afternoon action, which raised larger issues of resources by drawing the connection to a Walmart being built nearby with TIF funds.

About a hundred parents marched from Overton, at 49th and Indiana, to Mollison, at 44th and King  — past four gangs and four drug locations, according to Francis Newman, a parent from Williams Prep, which is also on the school closing list.

The walk also took them past the spot where Columbia College student Kevin Ambrose was shot and killed last week, she noted.

“We’re demanding these schools be kept open and that they get the resources they need,” Newman said.  She said she recently visited Disney Magnet school, which has numerous computers, smart boards, and iPads for children.  “In our school, we can’t get a computer that works,” she said.

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Closing schools, cutting resources

The rhetoric around school closings is now about focusing resources.

That communication strategy is dictated by the fact that school closings turn out not to be about deficits or utilization — since they won’t save money for several years, if ever, and since the “utilization crisis,” caused by adding 50,000 charter seats during a decade when CPS lost 30,000 students, is being addressed by adding more charters.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett now says closing schools will allow CPS to provide libraries, air conditioning, iPads and “learning gardens” at a small group of receiving schools.

It’s odd, then, that Byrd-Bennet recommends closing a school like Manierre, where Target provided a $200,000 grant to upgrade their library just two years ago. The funding covered 2,000 new books, a computer lab with iPads, and a family reading corner.

Independent hearing officer Paddy McNamara has recommended against closing Manierre, but CPS general counsel James Bebley filed a response arguing that in doing so, she “exceeded the scope of her authority” by considering information beond what CPS submitted.

‘Baffling’

In her report, McNamara called “baffling” the failure of CPS to note Manierre’s participation in “five distinct multimillion-dollar initiatives that are in mid-implementation” — all started within the past two years.

Manierre Elementary's new library - slated for closing

Manierre Elementary’s new library – slated for closing

These include the Target library makeover and Children’s Literacy Initiative. Manierre’s Ferguson Center is also part of a federally-funded revitalization of parent-child centers — a renewed priority in Chicago — with funding going to expand to full-day preschool and develop curriculum alignment from preschool through 3rd grade — an emerging priority in the field of early education.

That’s one of two intensive professional development programs under way at the school. Manierre is also one of eight schools where teachers are working with the Erikson Institute’s ground-breaking early childhood math instruction project.

Closing Manierre would end all these programs, which would mean big investments of money, time and effort down the drain.

With all the talk about “resources,” it’s worth looking at the resources that will be eliminated if the school board votes to close 53 schools.

In a school district that where a third of neighborhood elementary schools have to choose between a part-time art or music teacher — and where nearly a tenth of neighborhood schools have neither — many of the schools CPS is proposing to close have arts programming by outside groups that will be lost.

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Reality check: closing schools, saving money?

For month after month, Chicagoans have been told that CPS has to close schools because it has a $1 billion deficit.

How will people react after the massive disruption of wholesale school closings, when the district’s financial problems remain unchanged?

And that’s before Mayor Emanuel starts handing out new contracts to charter schools.

CPS says they’ll save something like a billion dollars over the next decade by closing 54 schools.  There’s reason to be skeptical.

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