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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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Don Moore’s legacy

Don Moore’s life had an impact far greater than many more famous and powerful people:  more than anyone, he was responsible for creating and defending Chicago’s Local School Councils, while demonstrating their value as the most effective vehicle this city has seen for improving urban education.

He was among the first to push democratic school governance as the solution to Chicago’s schools crisis in the 1980s, and in the following decade, as politicians and CPS administrators sought to recentralize power – and brought the city’s business and philanthropic elites back under their sway – he defended LSCs from legislative attacks and mobilized community involvement in LSC elections.

Meanwhile, in a remarkable body of research, he demonstrated that while central office interventions from probation to turnarounds had little effect, the high-poverty schools that showed steady long-term improvement in Chicago were those with what he termed “school-based democracy.”

“It’s not a stretch to say that had he not been doing this work, Local School Councils would have disappeared from the scene – and we would have lost one of the most important engines of educational improvement in the nation,” said Ray Boyer, who directed public affairs for the MacArthur Foundation until 2004 and collaborated on projects with Moore after that.

As reported by Substance, Catalyst and the Sun Times, Donald R. Moore died last week at age 70.

In 1977 Moore founded Designs For Change, a multi-faceted organization that housed his rigorous research along with organizing, training, and advocacy efforts.  When a decade-long school crisis came to a head with the 1987 teachers strike, Moore seized the opportunity to rally community groups and business leaders to his vision of school-based democratic governance.

Critical role

Amid a vast and often conflicting array of groups pushing reform, Moore “played a critical role” in creating and pushing legislation that established LSCs in 1988, according to Mary O’Connell’s fascinating account of that struggle.  As Catalyst notes, when O’Connell asked participants in that movement who was “most responsible” for school reform, Moore was named most often.

He was “brilliant” in “bringing a theoretical concept into reality,” said Rod Estvan of Access Living, a former Designs board member, and he was commited to the idea that even in a society scarred by poverty and racism, “if people had some democratic control over their schools, they could make them better.”

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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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West Side parents fight ‘education apartheid’

A successful neighborhood school on the West Side is fighting “disinvestment” while a failing charter nearby gets millions of dollars worth of renovations, parents charge.

On Friday, March 16 at 8 a.m., the Emmet Elementary School LSC and the Austin group Progressive Action Coalition for Education will hold a press conference and rally against “education apartheid” at the school, 5500 W. Madison.

Emmet’s scores have improved dramatically in recent years and its performance rating is currently Level 2 (“good standing”) and headed toward Level 1 (“excellent”), said Dwayne Truss of PACE.  In a recent Designs for Change study, Emmet was one of 33 very high poverty schools performing above the CPS average on the ISAT reading test.

Emmet’s success is the result of “the LSC, the teachers, and the principal working together,” Truss said.

Hazards 

But the school is badly in need of capital improvements, he said.  Students are served lunch in the hallway and eat their lunch in the same room used for physical education and assemblies.  This creates scheduling difficulties, and the lack of space and the presence of permanent seats creates a hazard for kids in gym class, he said.

The school’s fieldhouse is decaying and dangerous, with “paint chips all over the place,” and while CPS is planning to implement recess next year, the school’s playground is pocked with potholes, Truss said.

In addition CPS recently cut the school’s librarian.  The school has 450 students in Pre-K through 8th grade.

The charter advantage

Meanwhile CPS is spending $13 million to renovate an annex at Nash Elementary, 4837 W. Erie, for a revived ACT Charter school.  ACT’s low-performing high school suspended operations in 2010; the new school plans to serve 5th through 8th graders.

It will be operated by KIPP, whose Ascend charter school now serves 5th through 8th graders – and like ACT, is rated at Level 3 in performance.  (If charters were subject to probation, KIPP Ascend would be on probation.)

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School closings, the law, and alternatives

School closings to be announced by CPS on Thursday—expected to be unprecedented in scope — are the first under a new state school facilities planning law, intended to bring transparency and accountability to decisions over school buildings.

But does the school district’s new guidelines for school actions, which must be finalized by November 30, abide by the spirit of the law?  Many of its proponents – and some of its legislative sponsors – say no.

Meanwhile community groups continue to call on CPS to work with communities to improve struggling schools, rather than imposing top-down strategies that have no record of success.

“I don’t see them as being really ready to adhere to SB 630,” said State Representative Esther Golar, a member of the legislative task force which developed the bill.   The legislation “was intended to require CPS to work as partner with parents, teachers, and the community.”

She adds: “That’s something they haven’t been doing….And they’re still saying we’re going to run the schools the way we want to, and you don’t have any say-so.”

“It’s the same failed policies,” said Dwayne Truss, co-chair of the Austin Community Action Council, established by CPS.  “They just want to open up buildings for more charter schools.”

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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.

Soto school bill enacted

The State Senate voted today by a  48-0 margin to override Governor Quinn’s amendatory veto of State Representative Cynthia Soto’s school facilities bill, enacting the bill into law, Don Moore of Designs for Change said.

The bill establishes a legislative commission to hold hearings and formulate proposals for a school facilities policy for CPS.  It was backed by supporters of neighborhood schools who say school closings and capital spending decisions have favored charters and other Renaissance 2010 schools.

Soto introduced the bill after CPS promised to reform its school closing policy, including providing six-months notice for closings, and didn’t follow through – and after parents in her district objected strenuously to the closing of two schools there last winter.

A moratorium on school closings and consolidation, which would have covered decisions made earlier this year, was stripped from the bill prior to its initial passage.  But as Newstips noted in a February report, the demand for a school facilities policy goes back to the now-defunct Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.

Most recently school advocates and community groups have focused on  the CPS’s failure to heed repeated warnings from parents and educators that school closings would increase the risk of violencee in Chicago schools.

Quinn vetoes school facilities bill

Governor Quinn announced Tuesday evening an amendatory veto of legislation to establish school facilities planning guidelines for CPS. Contacted today, the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Cynthia Soto, vowed to override the veto.

The bill, known as House Bill 363, passed both the House and Senate unanimously this spring.

“I was shocked and appalled” by the veto, Soto said. “I am really upset.” She said neither Quinn nor CPS raised the concerns in the governor’s veto during extensive negotiations over the legislation this spring.

Quinn reduced the number of state legislators and community representatives appointed by legislative leaders to a Chicago School Facilities Task Force and gave several task force slots to Mayor Daley and himself to fill. The task force is to consider school facilities policies, possibly proposing legislation to the General Assembly.

Soto vowed to work hard to override Quinn’s veto when the General Assembly reconvenes. Legislators could confirm or override Quinn’s changes — or take no action, allowing the bill to die.

Quinn’s changes “fundamentally undermine the likelihood that any meaningful changes will result from this process,” said Don Moore of Designs for Change. “It’s the policies of the Mayor and his board of education that are at the root of the inequities” which the task force is to address, he said.

“The Governor has hijacked a year-long Chicago school facility improvement campaign at the last minute, by stacking the task force and watering down its ability to come up with a strong fair policy,” said Valencia Rias of Designs. “He has disappointed many who thought he was different from the typical Illinois politician.”

Quinn’s office did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Soto said good neighborhood schools were being closed and their buildings given over to outside entities to run schools which aren’t open to local residents. “It’s segregation by gentrification,” she said.

“It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to the taxpayers of the city of Chicago. It isn’t fair to the families whose children are being shifted around where they could be at risk. It isn’t fair to the principals and the teachers who work so hard. It isn’t fair to the parents who volunteer, who give so much of their time to make the schools better. They deserve a voice.”



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