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In Hyde Park, parents plan ‘Camp Solidarity’

In the event of a teachers’ strike Monday, Hyde Park parents and supporters are planning a free day camp – called “Camp Solidarity” – to show support for teachers and give families an alternative to crossing picket lines.

Parents, community members, and local artists will offer “a free full day of informal, engaging childcare – nature walks, art activities, silent reading, free play – with lunch provided” at Nichols Park, according to an e-mail to community members.

At 55th and Kimbark, the park is a couple blocks from Ray School, 5631 S. Kimbark, which CPS has designated as one of 144 “contingency sites” where students can get meals and supervision.

One difference:  while CPS sites will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Camp Solidarity will be open until 3:30 p.m.

At CPS sites, children will be in “a babysitting situation with tons of kids they don’t know, and for just a half day,” said local artist and Ray parent Laura Shaeffer.  “Where are the kids going to go after lunch?”  Other childcare options cost money, she pointed out..

Activities planned for day one include tree identification, gardening, singing and drumming, sign painting and chalk painting, and storytelling, she said.

Parents will be leafleting outside Ray to inform families dropping children off that they have a local alternative, said Joy Clendenning, who has children in three CPS schools including Ray.

“I don’t blame families who need to make sure their children are in a safe environment, but I don’t like how CPS is putting people in the position of having to cross a picket line,” she said.  “I wish they’d worked with churches and park districts and not decided to open schools during the strike.”

She added: “I think solidarity with the teachers is really important.”

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Perspectives on the teachers contract talks

As everyone gears up for a new school year (or maybe not), here are a few extra-credit readings that illuminate issues in Chicago’s drive for school reform – and in contract talks under way with Chicago’s teachers.

In the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick looks in depth at the success of Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, a high-poverty, neighborhood school in Austin, a community beset by unemployment and violence.

The school is trending up under the inspiring leadership of a home-grown principal, Shawn Jackson, who’s focused on involving parents with his own version of a community school: “parent scholars” who volunteer in classes along with a parent center featuring GED and computer classes and job search help for parents.  There’s a strong sense of teamwork here, and “teachers are trusted” and given autonomy to find the best ways to get material across.

While it has a ways to go, the school fits the profile of 33 high-poverty elementary schools performing above the citywide average identified in a report by Designs for Change earlier this year (more here).

High-poverty, high-achieving

These schools have school-based democracy – local school councils selecting principals and approving school plans and budgets – and supportive teamwork involving parents, teachers, and the community.  They out-perform all of the city’s “turnaround” schools, even those in place now for four and five years – and they do so without the millions of extra dollars each turnaround gets.  (Spencer, which lacks an art program and a decent gym, does better than all but three turnarounds.)

While turnarounds have gotten extensive media coverage,  high-poverty, high-achieving schools have been largely ignored, according to Designs; thus the Sun-Times is due special commendation for this report.

Designs proposes the extra money now going to turnarounds be shifted to allow these high-performing neighborhood schools become resources for other schools.

There’s the hypocrisy of the claim by Mayor Emanuel and his CPS minions that they have to close neighborhood schools and open charters because “we can’t wait” to offer a high-quality education to every child in the district.

It’s a non sequitur: they’re opening twenty charters and ten turnarounds a year, and diverting resources from the neighborhood schools that the vast majority of students actually attend in order to do so.   These students’ education is being sacrificed to fund experiments which increasingly appear to be unsuccessful.

According to the New York Times Magazine‘s look at extreme poverty this weekend, Austin is the kind of neighborhood where repeated school reform initiatives have utterly failed.  (The article looks at the work in Roseland of Youth Advocate Programs, which CPS is now defunding, another turn in the administration’s revolving door of new strategies.)

A kindergarten teacher knows

The number of children living in extreme poverty has grown dramatically in recent decades, and children in areas where it’s concentrated face major challenges, often including community and family dysfunction.  Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists study the way early stress and trauma and family difficulties inhibit brain development and cognitive skills.

But “you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty,” writes Paul Tough. “Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions.

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In contract talks, teachers challenge CPS priorities

Since Chicago teachers voted to authorize a strike last month, contract negotiations “appear to have broadened to include items once thought off the table, possibly including class size,” the Tribune reported recently.

That’s a significant development.  Prior to the strike vote, CPS had reportedly refused to entertain CTU proposals on class size and other issues, including appropriate staffing levels.  The union has proposed providing art, music, and world language teachers for every school, in addition to badly needed counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists.

Those are among the key issues that grassroots parent groups have raised, too.  Raise Your Hand has called on CPS to negotiate over class size and other issues, and Chicago Parents for Quality Education petitioned Mayor Emanuel to address issues like a fuller curriculum and more social supports in planning the longer school day.

By law, CPS is only required to negotiate over economic issues.  In the past the district has agreed to consider these optional classroom topics; this year, it took a strike authorization vote to force them to do so.

It’s a setback for the agenda of corporate reform groups like Stand For Children and Democrats For Education Reform, which as Ramsin Canon points out have no real popular base here but outsized influence due to huge bankrolls.  They opposed the strike vote.

Smaller class sizes: for and against

Classroom issues do not appear to be on the agenda of these groups.  As Erica Clark of Parents For Teachers pointed out here in February, they never talk about the issues that matter to parents – class size, curriculum, less standardized testing – but focus solely on trimming collective bargaining rights and increasing testing in the name of “accountability.”  If you want a better curriculum or better facilities, you can try to send your kid to a charter school.

The issue of class size is revealing.  In forums earlier this year, SFC said the issue wasn’t a priority for them.  In fact, most corporate reformers follow Bill Gates, who has called for lifting limits on class sizes.

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Contract talks should include classroom issues, parents say

A parent group is calling on Mayor Emanuel to expand negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union to include class size and other issues which CPS has so far refused to consider.

A new petition by Raise Your Hand (available here) calls on the city “to open up talks beyond pay and benefits and find ways to compromise with our teachers on issues that are critical to our schools.”

“We believe that the only way to come to a decent contract and avoid a strike is to give the teachers a contractual voice in some of the work-rules that impact their day and profession,” said RYH in a recent statement.

In negotiations under way since last November, CPS has refused to consider issues it is not legally required to negotiate, including subcontracting, layoff procedures, class size, staffing and assignment, and –  with passage of SB7 last year – the length of the school day and year.

It’s the first time CPS has ruled those issues off the table.

CPS’s refusal to negotiate on non-economic issues is a big reason teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, said teacher and union activist Xian Barrett.  “We would never have gotten a 98 percent ‘yes’ vote if it had only been about pay and benefits,” he said.

“If you ask teachers what how they would improve their jobs, they don’t start with better pay, they start with class size, they start with wanting an administration and leadership that works with teachers instead of dictating to them,” Barrett said.

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