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‘We Are One’

Thousands of Chicago workers will rally in Daley Plaza tomorrow (Saturday, April 9, 1 p.m.), the culmination of a week of activities around the state and part of over a thousand events nationally spearheaded by the AFL-CIO to “defend the middle class.”

The “We Are One” actions mark the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination while leading Memphis sanitation workers striking for union recognition, and links it with the recent upsurge of resistance to efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to roll back union rights for public workers.   Read the rest of this entry »

Students: Emanuel errs on charter performance

Rahm Emanuel “didn’t do his homework” when he touted the supposed superiority of charter schools in a televised debate, three Chicago high school students assert in a Youtube video that’s attracted widespread attention.

Chicago news media didn’t do its homework, either, when it allowed Emanuel’s baseless assertion to pass unchallenged.

In the debate on WGN on January 27, Emanuel said: “If you take out Northside [College Prep], if you take out Walter Payton, the seven best performing high schools are all charters.”

In fact, none of the best-performing high schools are charters, the students point out.

“Four hundred thousand students go to their neighborhood public schools [in Chicago],” they say on the video.  “You want a real school turnaround? Invest in us!”  The video supports Miguel del Valle’s candidacy.

Sullivan junior Gerardo Aguilar, who’s involved in a Mikva Challenge civic participation project at the school, attended a January 17 candidates forum sponsored by Mikva and WTTW.  He says he liked Del Valle’s repeated emphasis on neighborhood schools, and he came back to school and organized fellow members of the Latino Club to canvas for him.

On the last Saturday of January, they watched the WGN debate online, so they’d have a better grasp of the issues when they went door-to-door later that day.

‘Did you hear what he said?’

They immediately realized Emanuel’s error; they knew that nearby Lane Tech was a top-ranked school, Aguilar said.

“We were talking about it: ‘Did you hear what he said?'” relates Alexandra Alvarez, also a junior at Sullivan. “If he doesn’t care about neighborhood schools, what’s he going to do to help them?”

All in the same day, they researched the issue, scripted, shot, and edited the video, and posted it on Youtube, with the help of a neighbor who’d been Aguilar’s coach for the Young Leaders Conference of the National Hispanic Institute.

(Latino Club advisor Jacquelyn Rosa gives an account of the video’s creation at Achy Obejas’s Citylife blog.)

As far as Emanuel’s inaccuracy, the students’ charge is on the money, said Don Moore of Designs for Change, who analyzed rankings at Newstips’ request.

In fact, the top nine high schools – based on the percentage of students at or above state standards in combined reading, math, and science scores on the Prairie State Achievement Examination – are all public, non-charter schools, he said.

“Emanuel’s claim has no factual basis,” Moore said.

The Emanuel campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.

Not only are no charters among Chicago’s top-ranked high schools; not one charter is among the twelve Chicago high schools with 50 percent or more of students meeting standards.

Unlike charters, eleven of the top performing schools are governed by Local School Councils, which select their principals for four-year performance contracts. (The twelfth, Rickover Military Academy, has an advisory LSC.)  Also unlike charters, all twelve are staffed by unionized teachers.

In addition to favoring privately-operated, nonunion charters, Emanuel has called for removing the power of public school LSCs to appoint principals – a central accountability feature of Chicago school reform – and returning it to the central bureaucracy.  (Several efforts by Mayor Daley to accomplish this over recent years failed to gain traction in Springfield.)  And Emanuel has backed legislative efforts to severely constrain teachers’ seniority and collective bargaining rights.

‘Fix existing schools’

For the students, the concern seems to be continued disinvestment in neighborhood schools to benefit new schools that soak up resources but serve much smaller numbers of students, without better results.

“There are schools that already exist that need fixing, that need resources,” said Alvarez.

“Going to a neighborhood school, we don’t have a lot of resources,” she said.  But although “the attention the school gets is for violence, gangs and drugs,” there are “programs that help students do better.”

Aguilar mentions the school’s medical careers academy, as well as the Paideia program, which was withdrawn last year when funding ran out.

Beyond that is a concern that school policy will be based on prejudices rather than facts.  Emanuel’s misstatement “shows that the people that people think know everything aren’t really looking into the problems they say they want to fix,” said Christina Henriquez.

Moore backs this up too. “The public needs to know the truth about the charter school myths,” said Moore.  “A lot of their supporters speak of them as the solution, but the evidence doesn’t bear this out.”

He cites a study (pdf) commissioned by the Renaissance Schools Fund, a business-backed group that raises money for charter schools in Chicago, that found no difference in achievement when matched pairs of charter and public school students were compared over two years.

Indeed, Moore’s analysis indicates that more than two-thirds of the charters currently serving grades 9 through 12 have less than 27 percent of students meeting standards.

Finding Emanuel’s error “got us to ask, how much does he really know about schools?” said Henriquez.  And it led them to fear that “he doesn’t care about us.”

Beyond all that, perhaps, the students’ achievement – catching a significant gaffe by a major candidate which completely slipped past the city’s news media (this reporter included) – is a testament to the unsung accomplishments of students and teachers at Sullivan and in neighborhood schools across the city.

Hey big spender

Stand For Children just opened its Illinois office, but it’s sure moving fast.

In October, the new Illinois office of the Oregon-based advocacy group dropped big bucks — $635,000 — on eight legislative races, as Jim Broadway at Illinois School Policy Updates reported.  Most of the money came from the national office, which received a $3.4 million grant from the Gates Foundation in May.

“Clearly, SFC is acquiring ‘champions’ in the four caucuses” of the General Assembly, Broadway observed.  “Why is an Oregon nonprofit buying up Illinois legislators?” he asked.

At the beginning of this month came an answer: a special House Education Reform Committee was formed, including two of SFC’s “champions,” and hearings were announced, though no agenda or legislation was available.

Days before the hearings, which concluded today, a “confidential draft” of a bill was circulated (available from ISPU).  It would limit seniority and collective bargaining rights for teachers, tie teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, and revoke teacher certification for teachers given two “unsatisfactory” ratings by administrators.

“This is a formula for turning our schools into low-wage, high-turnover places of employment,” according to the Chicago Teachers Union.  “This system would squelch innovation and motivate teachers to teach to the test rather than encourage creative, critical thinking.”

Rewarding higher test scores “results in score inflation, not genuine learning,” commments PURE, citing studies from the RAND Corporation and National Research Council which found insufficent evidence to support the use of test scores to rate teachers.

It’s all part of “a war on public education,” says PURE, and it’s being waged by “the corporate interests who want to cash in on our schools and take away educational opportunity for the most at-risk children, making education a prize only for those deemed ‘the fittest’ in their dog-eat-dog world of corporate ‘reform.'”

Broadway offers this clip of Diane Ravitch, who goes over a range of findings undercutting the current fad of blaming teachers – watch it – and concludes:

“In my heart of hearts I believe that the whole issue of teacher evaluation is a red herring – a diversion intended to take our glance away from the poverty and racial isolation in which so many students live.  It salves the conscience of the Billionaire Boys Club and enables them to blame hardworking teachers for the poverty and inequality that mars our society and hurts children.”

A convention for Chicago’s grassroots

It had the look and the excitement of a political convention, and indeed it was:  a convention of Chicago’s grassroots.

Markers identified sections for delegations from dozens of community groups, and most sections were filled with people wearing brightly colored, matching t-shirts—blue for Action Now in the back corner, Maroon for KOCO in the front, yellow for Lakeview Action Council, orange for Logan Square Neighborhood Association.  Green for Albany Park, orange for Brighton Park.  On one side was a group of young people from Woodlawn, near a section of people, many in wheelchairs, from Access Living.

At the beginning of the New Chicago 2011 mayoral forum, held Tuesday evening at the UIC Forum, members took turns calling out their organizations from the podium, and in turn each section erupted in cheers.

It’s likely to be the largest crowd for a mayoral forum all season – well over 2,000 people — but for some reason, you won’t hear much about it in the city’s mainstream media. (So far Mike Flannery at Fox News Chicago seems to be the only exception, though his report manages to focus on a candidate who wasn’t there; Progress Illinois has some video clips.)


Miguel del Valle drew the sharpest distinctions with the pundit’s putative frontrunner Rahm Emanuel — who had declined an invitation and was tied up at a hearing on his residency anyway — and Patricia Watkins emerged as a serious candidate with several specific proposals.

Carol Moseley Braun and Danny Davis stressed their experience with the groups’ issues; for Davis it stretched from his role as the original sponsor of living wage legislation in the City Council long ago to current sponsor of the DREAM Act in Congress.  James Meeks stressed TIF reform and his work for equitable school funding — but didn’t mention the call for vouchers at the heart of the educational program he released Wednesday morning.

Gery Chico drew boos when was asked about food deserts and started talking about Walmart.  He and Meeks left early.

In his opening statement, Del Valle drew the clearest line between his campaign and Emanuel’s, telling the audience, “You understand the need for a neighborhood agenda, not a downtown agenda, not a big business agenda, but a neighborhood agenda.”

When the candidates were asked about immigration reform, Del Valle drew the most sustained applause of the evening, attacking Emanuel as “the one individual most responsible for blocking immigration reform, as a congressman, as chief of staff,” continuing to a passionate crescendo over the rising cheers of the crowd: “How can we expect him to protect the residents of this city’s neighborhoods?”

He also made a clearest distinction with Emanuel’s program for schools: “We can’t continue to set up parallel systems of education, on one track selective enrollment, magnets and charters, on the other track neighborhood schools. It’s time to strengthen neighborhood schools.”

Watkins opened by referencing her background of community organizing, shared with the audience:  “I have marched with you for immigration reform, for criminal justice reform… We have done more as organizers than any politician that you know.”

She called for a program of social investment bonds to encourage “venture philanthropists” to tackle social problems and for a city effort to develop railroad industry jobs.  On immigration she demanded that “ICE stop trolling in Cook County Jail, because we have to keep our families together.”

The candidates were asked about youth issues, immigration, schools, the living wage, and an ordinance devoting TIF funds to affordable housing.

Asked about schools (and school closings specifically), Braun mentioned her sponsorship of school reform legislation that created local school councils, said no closings should happen without community input, and attacked Chico for his record as Board of Education president in the early days of mayoral control.

Chico gave a spirited defense, saying schools were on an upswing when he left his post, and “we built 65 new schools – we didn’t close schools, we built schools.”

Like Davis, Watkins backed an elected school board and an educator to head CPS. “Decisions are being made for us and we are not at the table,” she said.

Her position on school closings and “turnarounds” – “no school needs to close; we can turn around our schools from within” – seemed to contrast with her previous work with groups that turn around schools from outside.  (More here.)


It was the neighborhood activists who introduced the various issues who gave the most moving talks:  Jessie Belton of Southwest Youth Collaborative talked about a neighborhood youth who was attacked on the street after being turned away from a youth center that was closed.  Cindy Agustin, a University of Chicago senior whose family moved to Back of the Yards when she was three, talked about the impact of her undocumented status on her dream of teaching elementary school.

West Sider Takaya Nelson, representing Action Now, said that growing up, “I never though college was an option,” and now — as a CPS teacher recruited and trained through the Grow Your Own program — she encourages children to expand their ambitions.

Cira Isidiro, from Illinois Hunger Coalition, described her heartbreak explaining to her daughter why there isn’t enough to eat in the refrigerator, and Debra Geirin, a resident and activist with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, talked about the joy of getting their own place after she and her husband had to live with her mother and her sister’s family for five years.  “A lot of families are doubling and tripling up because there is not enough affordable housing,” she said.

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.

Grassroots voices on Chicago schools

Fifteen years of mayoral control has failed to improve Chicago Public Schools, yet leading mayoral candidates are promising more of the same – or worse.

In January the Chicago Tribune reported that achievement levels are no better in elementary schools opened under Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 than in neighborhood public schools– and worse than average at his new high schools. (District-wide, according to Catalyst, “not much progress.”)

This despite millions of dollars pumped into new schools by Chicago’s business community – and “flexibility” which allows them to evade accountability and push out students they don’t want.  Catalyst and WBEZ reported last week that the rate of expulsions in Chicago’s charter schools is more than three times higher than other schools – and the vast majority of expulsions in charter schools are for misconduct that wouldn’t merit such punishment in general schools.

The business model that Renaissance 2010 followed has delivered widening achievement gaps, increased violence and fiscal insolvency, as Mike Klonsky writes. But it’s the essence of  Rahm Emanuel’s big, bold initiative – basically renaming the Renaissance Schools Fund (which, admittedly, is due for a name change) – which, PURE argues, would intensify the marginalization of schools serving the most challenging students.

So would the voucher schemes advanced by Gery Chico and James Meeks; in Meeks’s case, vouchers would benefit the private religious school he heads, which doesn’t accept students scoring beneath the 50th percentile on achievement tests.

But Renaissance 2010 also engendered an impressive grassroots movement to resist school closings and privatization plans that would create a two-tier school system.  That movement won several signal victories in recent months, including state legislation to bring transparency and accountability to CPS facilities planning, which has heavily favored Renaissance 2010 over neighborhood schools, and a victory for the Raise Your Hands Coalition and CTU when Mayor Daley freed up TIF surpluses, $90 million of which will go to schools.

Two more significant movement victories – the election of militant new CTU leadership committed to ground-level coalition organizing to bring teachers, parents, students and community groups together to defend schools, and the dramatic 43-day sit-in by parents at Whittier Elementary demanding a library for their kids – will be represented at the 10th annual curriculum fair of Teachers For Social Justice tomorrow.

CTU president Karen Lewis and Whittier leaders Araceli Gonzales and Daniela Mancilla will keynote the opening session of the fair, 10 a.m. (Saturday, November 20) at Orozco Community Academy, 1940 W. 18th.  In addition, spoken word artist Kevin Coval of Young Chicago Authors will perform with the Louder Than a Bomb All-Stars.

Six hundred teachers, students, parents, and community activists are expected at the fair, which will feature a series of workshops along with curriculum exhibits from Chicago teachers and presentations by teachers and students.

The business model of school reform may be stalled, but there’s no shortage of energy and creativity at the grassroots, and it will be on full display tomorrow.

CPS: high suspension rate challenged

Parents and students will join coummunity and faith leaders to rally for reform of CPS’s disciplinary system tomorrow, with the launch of the High Hopes Campaign, (Saturday, November 13, 10:30 a.m. at First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 W. Washington).

They’re calling on CPS to implement restorative justice programs in order to reduce suspensions and expulsions by 40 percent in the next year – and on mayoral candidates and the next CPS chief to make a commitment to provide resources for more effective discipline.

The campaign grows out of a symposium in April that looked at results of a study of suspensions and expulsions in CPS by Catalyst Chicago.

Catalyst found that “black male academic achievement is stunted by disproportionate and often unnecessary disciplinary measures.”  CPS leads the nation’s school systems in suspensions and expulsions, and African American students are twice as likely to be suspended and even more likely to be expelled, Catalyst found.

Last year 43,000 CPS students were suspended and 600 were expelled.

The same offenses often receive very different disciplinary responses, depending on who the student is, said Rev. Robert Biekman of Southlawn United Methodist Church, a member of the Community Renewal Society, which is backing the campaign.

Suspension not only puts students at risk of failing class; studies show it increases chances of dropping out and ending up in jail. And racial disparities in punitive school discipline feed into similar disparities in dropout  and incarceration rates, Biekman said.

In 2007, under pressure from parents groups, CPS changed its Student Code of Conduct to replace “zero tolerance” with restorative justice, which uses peer juries and peace circles to redress harms caused by misconduct.  But there’s been little follow-through, advocates say.

Implementing restorative justice would take “a push from the top so that principals and disciplinarians really latch on” and teachers and staff get training, said Lynn Morton of POWER-PAC, which is backing the campaign.

Working with POWER-PAC, Morton helped found the Austin Peace Center five years ago to implement restorative justice in two Austin elementary schools — and more recently at Wells High.  “It’s a slow process,” she said, but the schools have seen improved attendance, fewer disciplinary cases, and better grades.

With little support from top CPS leaders, the group has focused on a working with parents to bring restorative justice to their schools.  This year POWER-PAC published a parent-to-parent guide to restorative justice, and the group has trained a hundred parents in Lawndale and worked in several schools in other parts of the city.

“When parents learn about it they’re really enthusiastic,” Morton said.

In 2005 POWER-PAC held community hearings on school discipline issues and reported numerous cases of suspensions for minor misconduct (including failing to complete homework and being late for lunch) – with two-thirds of parents saying they were not informed of suspensions (pdf).

New leadership for Chicago teachers

As new and old reports at Catalyst and Gapers Block indicate, CORE’s victory in Friday’s teachers union election reflected the group’s activist orientation and commitment to grassroots organizing, in schools and with communities.

“We energized the grassroots,” said one CORE member.

CORE came on the scene two years ago and immediately provided a citywide organizational structure for a movement against Renaissance 2010 that had yet to gain much traction.

Before CORE, small community and education groups committed to the  original school reform agenda of parent empowerment and improving neighborhood schools – along with parents at separate schools scrambling desperately to oppose closings in a very short window of time – had been limited to school-by-school struggles.

CORE was crucial in forming the Grassroots Education Movement, which gave the movement against Renaissance 2010 a citywide scope and strategic vision.

Arne Duncan left for Washington and Ron Huberman took over at CPS last year as CORE and GEM’s first drive against closings crested, and in response to protests and the exposure of faulty CPS data, Huberman decided to take six schools off the closing list.  It was the first time anything like that had ever happened.

This year, another anti-closings campaign — which won the support of several aldermen — forced Huberman to admit “the process is flawed” and to take six of fourteen school closings and turnarounds off the table.

On its website CORE attributes these victories to an approach which “built partnerships with our natural allies and empowered members to stand up for their profession, their jobs and their schools.”  Activism, organizing, coalition-building.

In remarks Saturday morning at King College Prep, CTU president-elect Karen Lewis made it clear that defending against the attacks on teachers and on public education which underlie much of the current “reform” agenda is high on her agenda.

“Today marks the beginning of the end of scapegoating educators,” she said.

She railed against “corporate heads and politicians” who “have never sat one minute on this side of the teacher’s desk” and “do not have a clue about teaching and learning.”  But “they’re the ones calling the shots, and we’re supposed to accept it as ‘reform.'”

Asked if she had a message for Mayor Daley and schools chief Ron Huberman, she said, “I want them to appreciate what educators do.”

(CORE has posted Lewis’s remarks, and WBEZ has audio.)

First, though, comes discussions over Huberman’s proposals to lay off teachers and raise class size, and Lewis called on CPS to disclose “all the financial details” of how it spends its money — including vendor and consulting contracts– including how charter schools spend the taxpayer money they get, “because to date, we have not seen charter schools’ financials” – and including an estimated $250 million a year in TIF money that would otherwise be going to schools.

She called on Daley to put his political weight behind an effort to end the state’s overreliance on property tax funding for schools and the drastic inequities that result from it.  And she rejected the notion “that access to high quality education for all children is a luxury that we simply can’t afford.”

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