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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.

CPS acts on LGBT concerns

A grassroots organizing campaign led by LGBT youth has won agreement from CPS chief Ron Huberman on a new advisory council to promote the school district’s policies against discrimination and harassment.

The agreement comes weeks after another youth-led campaign won an expanded anti-discrimination policy from the Board of Education.

Meeting with members of the citywide coalition Gender Just and other groups on August 18, Huberman offered to fund an “intervention team” or advisory council of students and community members that would develop a student justice handbook and guide development of a training curriculum for CPS staff.

The team will also be tasked with developing a grievance process for students with discrimination and harassment issues that their own schools aren’t addressing adequately, said Sam Finkelstein of Genter Just.

CPS’s anti-discrimination policy was expanded to add gender identity and expression to the list of protect categories at the school board’s July 22 meeting. That decision followed a drive by young people working with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, during which nearly a thousand signatures were collected on petitions.

The August meeting followed a community forum with Huberman in June where Gender Just proposed eight measures as part of their “safe and affirming education” campaign. These included a district accountability organizer to assist gay-straight alliances in every school; comprehensive sex education, covering condom use and diverse sexual orientations; accountability for security guards; attention to the potential impacts of school closings on vulnerable students; and a directive to principals emphasizing the district’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Gender Just wanted mandatory training for all staff; Huberman agreed to develop a curriculum for new staff orientation that would also be available online, Finkelstein said. A letter to principals emphasizing district policies will go out with the new curriculum, he said.

Good policies, not always followed

CPS has good policies but they aren’t implemented everywhere, Finkelstein said. “There are a lot of disparities and they tend to match up with income levels and race,” he said.

Gay-straight alliances — GSAs — are generally found on the north side, with very few on the south or west sides, he said. Often schools won’t allow students to form GSAs, even though CPS policy requires them to do so if they allow any student clubs, Finkelstein said.

“Teachers weren’t really supportive,” said Akhia Daniels, a recent graduate of South Shore High School for Leadership. “They would see stuff going on and not address it.”

“School is supposed to be a place for education, a place to be safe, not a place to be judged on whether you like boys or girls,” she said. “They want you to do all these things and at the same time they’re not offering you a safe environment.”

Another campaign member is Chicago Youth Initiating Change, a citywide social justice group. CYIC emphasizes problems with Renaissance 2010, including problems caused for vulnerable students by closings and relocations.

Military academies, security guards

Renaissance 2010 schools present other problems, Finkelstein said: with “more flexibility and less accountability,” charter and contract schools associated with Renaissance 2010 are more likely to disregard or feel unbound by CPS policy. Discrimination, harassment and violence are particularly issues in the military academies which are proliferating, he said.

Blocks Together, a community organization which organizes youth in West Humboldt Park, joined the campaign because BT’s longtime effort to improve training for security guards (see below) meshed with its goals, said Cecile Carroll. At last month’s meeting, Huberman said CPS is finally overhauling training to raise standards and increase professionalism among guards.

Blocks Together’s youth council wants to be at the table — in part to ensure that principles of restorative justice are part of the training — Carroll said. “It’s a good opportunity to help influence the culture of security guards all across the system, rather than school by school, the way we have been working,” she said.

While school districts in cities across the country are beginning to address the concerns of LGBT youth, Chicago’s efforts are noteworthy because of the direct involvement of youth in designing responses, Finkelstein said. “Chicago has a robust youth organizing movement right now,” he said.

LSC Summit

Hundreds of local school council members will gather Saturday for an LSC Summit, culminating a series of legislative hearings on increasing support for local school governance.

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, will give a keynote address. Organizers say Berry is a strong supporter of LSCs — and that her participation reflects widespread support among many principals who have positive relationships with LSCs and value parent involvement.

The event is sponsored by school reform and community groups along with the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee of the Illinois House. State Representative Esther Golar, chair of the committee and a former LSC member, sponsored three hearings in recent months where LSC members called for increased resources for LSCs, including improved professional development, as well as defense of local school governance, which CPS is eliminating at many new schools.

Many also called for an elected school board.

The summit comes at the start of the 20th year of school reform in Chicago. “The strategy of involving parents and the community in local school management has been an amazing success,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education. While local school councils “don’t get a lot of credit from the Mayor and his team,” they are recognized nationally as a model — and while business and foundation support has turned toward privatization, “community support is still very strong,” she said.

The hearings represent “an acknowledgement on the part of legislators that LSCs need a lot more help than they’re getting,” she said. Recommendations from the hearings are expected to form the basis for legislative proposals.

The LSC Summit takes place Saturday, August 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at UIC’s Illinois Room, 750 S. Halsted.

Blocks Together : An LSC at Orr

Blocks Together, one of several community groups participating in the hearings and summit, is fighting for an elected LSC “that has real powers” at Orr High School, said Irene Juaniza. This year Orr was designated a “turnaround school” to be administered as a teacher training academy by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, with an appointed advisory council.

“With Renaissance 2010, CPS has a strategy of taking away powers from LSCs,” Juaniza said. “We are looking for LSCs that have full power and authority in all schools including charter, contract, and small schools.”

“We believe real parent and community involvement can only help improve the quality of education in our schools,” she said.

Blocks Together is concerned about the connection between school closings and gentrification, as well as the diminishing number of neighborhood schools, Juaniza said. “We feel like the West Side is under attack,” she said. “The number of schools that are open to our children is smaller and smaller.”

The group has leaders and members with long histories of involvement in local schools at many levels; having seen what became of previous CPS plans — particularly at Orr — they tend to be skeptical of new ones, Juaniza said. “There are so many discrepancies” between promises and actions, she said.

Orr’s new managers “have not been transparent,” she said. “Only after we started pushing have they been more transparent.”

“If they’re trying to work in partnership, why is there so much secrecy? Why are they alienating teachers and staff?” she asked.

Most recently the group heard of Orr students being told they were now outside the schools boundaries — despite earlier promises that no one would be turned away. “We asked the [new] principal about the boundaries, and he said he didn’t know — he said we should ask CPS,” said Juaniza. The school has now said any student who was at Orr last year can return, she said.

Participating in the LSC Summit has helped Blocks Together “get a perspective on what’s happening citywide” and develop relationships with other groups, Juaniza said. “We’ve made some great allies,” she said.

TIF transparency

The Department of Planning postponed a presentation of the annual report for the Chicago-Central Park TIF, so TIF critic Mike Quigley will fill in at a Blocks Together meeting on Thursday night.

County Commissioner Quigley has been a proponent of TIF transparency, proposing legislation to require property tax bills to itemize TIF taxes as a separate category. Similar legislation was proposed in Springfield earlier this year by State Rep. John Fritchey.

Blocks Together is educating members about TIFs in preparation for an effort to win a community advisory board for the Chicago-Central Park TIF, said Carolina Gaete.

“There are a lot of concerns,” she said. “There’s a lack of transparency and accountability. There’s a need for community participation to assure direct benefits for residents.”

TIFs cut into funds available for schools — while allowing the city to funnel money to selective enrollment schools, Gaete said. “They took money from our TIF for Westinghouse (Achievement Academy), which is outside the (TIF) district. And a lot of our people won’t be able to go, because it’s selective enrollment.”

She notes that while other school districts have fought to hold the line on TIFs, Chicago’s appointed board of education has raised no objections.

Blocks Together is working with community groups in North Lawndale, Pilsen, Little Village (where a new TIF is in the works) and Bronzeville to prepare for a push for TIF reform, she said.

The Blocks Together meeting is Thursday, July 10, 6 to 8 p.m. at Mount Vernon Church, 3555 W. Huron.

Orr students have some questions for Bill Gates

Chicago students want to contact Bill Gates to make sure he knows how his money is being spent.

Gates’ foundation is giving $10.3 million to a plan to “turn around” two high schools and nearby elementary schools.

Orr students gathered outside the Board of Education meeting this morning pointed out that just two years ago Gates gave $21 million to fund curriculum improvements at 14 schools including Mose Vines Preparatory Academy on the Orr campus.

The “turnaround” is the third central office intervention at Orr, which has controlled the school for many years without much success.

> Read the rest of this entry »

School closings 4

Expect a lot of outrage at tomorrow’s Board of Education meeting, with groups across the city organizing against proposals to close, consolidate, or “turn around” 19 schools that are on tomorrow’s agenda.

School supporters will speak at a press conference Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m. at CPS, 125 S. Clark, backing a Chicago Teachers Unionproposal for a moratorium on the proposals in order to consider improvement models for regular neighborhood schools that don’t involve disruption for children and job loss for teachers.  PURE and Designs for Change are coordinating the press conference.

Blocks Together and the Save Orr Schools Coalition is circulating a petition calling on board president Rufus Williams to oppose the “turnaround” plan for Orr — they say an Academy for Urban School Leadership takeover will fire teachers with masters degrees and replace them with inexperienced trainees who lack teacher certification, using a model the groups say is unproven.

They’re also asking Bill Gates, whose foundation is funding the move, “to honor the will of the community and make an investment with people versus for people by stopping the AUSL proposal.”

Like many community sources interviewed by Newstips in recent weeks, BT organizer Carolina Gaete characterized CPS hearings on the proposals as completely inadequate.   “We are not satisfied with that being the only outlet for our opinion,” she said.  While CPS chief Arne Duncan called the hearings a chance to “ask the hard questions,” in reality “the hearing officer had no answers for us,” Gaete said.

“They have been very disrespectful, imposing this decision with no outlet for us to even ask questions,” she said.

Read the rest of this entry »

School Closing Moratorium Backed

Humboldt Park parents will meet Tuesday, May 23, as part of a citywide drive to ask aldermen to support a proposed ordinance for a moratorium on school closings.

Local Aldermen Billy Ocasio (27) and Walter Burnett Jr. (28) both serve on the City Council’s education committee. Advocates hope to win the committee’s approval this week for an ordinance proposed by Ald. Michael Chandler (24) calling for a moratorium on school closings until the impact on affected students can be studied.

The May 23 meeting is sponsored by Blocks Together, a West Humboldt Park community group in an area where two schools have been closed in the past two years. According to Blocks Together, CPS’s school closings are “displacing students and families of color” and “taking away local control from parents.”

“A lot of receiving schools have the same issues” as the schools that are being closed, said Blocks Together organizer Jennifer Dillon, and shifting students add stresses, including more fights and larger class sizes.

Two-thirds of students displaced by school closings have ended up at schools on academic probation, according to a recent analysis by Catalyst; only a fifth landed at higher-performing or newly-opened schools.

About half of the neighborhood schools closed and reopened since 2002 are no longer required to accept neighborhood students, according to Catalyst.

Local parents will speak at the meeting along with students from Blocks Together’s youth council and representatives of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Teachers for Social Justice. The meeting is part of a citywide effort led by the labor-community coalition Chicagoans United for Education.

KOCO has opposed school closings in the gentrifying Mid-South area, saying they shift resources away from local low-income students. The group has complained about students being repeatedly displaced by closings. This year CPS agreed not to close schools which have received students from other closed schools in the past two years.

KOCO has launched a study of the impact of school closings and is working with LSCs, parents and community leaders to develop a community education plan, said Shannon Bennett.

“The sad part is there is no input from communities or students who are being affected,” said Rev. Robin Hood, an organizer for ACORN, which is mobilizing thousands of members to call their aldermen to support Chandler’s ordinance this week. ACORN members in North Lawndale and Englewood have seen a number of school closings.

“The Englewood [High School] community has been going to them for 20 years, saying, ‘We need books,’” Hood said. “Now they say the school’s is no good and they’re closing it. There’s no accountability.”

Hood said part of the reason communities are excluded from planning is that the CPS is concerned with more than just improving schools. “They’re trying to cut the union and privatize the schools,” he said.

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