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Is CPS abusing probation?

The lawsuit filed last week against CPS closings and turnarounds highlights two central issues – the charge that the district is systematically neglecting neighborhood schools, and the longstanding contention that CPS uses probation to undermine local school councils.

According to the lawsuit, filed by nine LSC members with backing from the teachers union, CPS has failed to follow requirements in school code that LSCs at schools on probation be provided with plans that specify deficiencies to be corrected and with budgets targetting resources to carry out the plans. (This issue was first discussed here in November.)

According to the Tribune, CPS says they’ve “provided support to these low-performing schools over multiple years to boost student improvement.” Have they?

Tilden High, now slated for a”turnaround” by CPS, has been on probation for eight years. During that time there have been “drastic budget cuts,” amounting to a half-million dollars or more each year, according to LSC member Matthew Johnson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Drastic cuts

The school has lost English teachers, math teachers, a computer lab teacher, a librarian. It’s lost funding for its auto shop and its woodshop – leading some kids to drop out, he said.

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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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Grassroots success at Dyett High

[UPDATED] As CPS struggles with low graduation rates, a program at Dyett High School guided by the Grand Boulevard Federation — and led by students — has succeeded in doubling the school’s graduation rate, and raising the college attendance rate by 41 percent.

GBF’s “Education To Success” program, aimed at increasing graduation rates for African-American males, will be featured at a Chicago Urban League forum (Tuesday, December 2, 6 p.m., 4510 S. Michigan) as part of the League’s campaign for high school equity.

It was student ownership of efforts to address discipline issues and promote college preparation that helped make the difference, said Andrea Lee of GBF.

A peer jury program based on principles of restorative justice — with the goal of preventing students from dropping out due to discipline problems — grew out of discussions led by students. And instead of having a few school staff members trained in the process, thirty Dyett students — including kids with histories of disciplinary problems — underwent three days of intensive training.

The students got to name their organization — Justice Youth Advisors, or J-YA — and they got a Peace Room which they decorated and furnished as a venue for peer juries and a place where kids can go if they need to cool down.

J-YA almost doubled in size as students who were referred to the peer jury asked to become involved, Lee said. And the numbers were dramatic — a 46 percent decrease in misconduct reports and an 82 percent decrease in in-school arrests.

“Dyett became the poster school for peer juries,” Lee said — and Dyett students were asked to conduct trainings at other Chicago high schools; the Milwaukee schools paid for a group of Dyett students to go there to train educators and students.

The opportunity to really develop public speaking and leadership skills was key to inspiring students to raise their aspirations, Lee believes. Efforts to develop those kinds of skills “are mostly missing in neighborhood schools,” she said.

Now GBF is helping to establish a student group to promote the importance of college — again, not aiming at the school’s top students. The group Men At Work (which has come to include young women too) meets in a new college and career lab and has attracted widespread involvement from other students.

While CPS has the goal of each high school student applying to five colleges, GBF found many points beyond submitting an application where the process breaks down. “We found out a lot of kids don’t know how to do the research to determine if a school is a good fit,” Lee said. “We found a number of students who were accepted but couldn’t afford to attend” and “didn’t know what to do to get financial aid.”

So the group goes step by step through the entire process — what is an appropriate college; what questions to ask on a college tour; role playing interviews; how to get a letter of recommendation — and what to do when you get an acceptance letter.

One issue that has emerged was the reluctance of many low-income parents to send financial information necessary for aid applications. So GBF and its Peer Parent Education Network are working with parents to allay concerns.

One result is that Tuskegee University is reserving a dozen seats for qualified graduates of Dyett — and is paying to fly a group of Dyett students to visit the school in January.

Students who need community college to get their grade point average up develop a plan to continue to a four-year school. Students who may find themselves for the first time among very few African-Americans are prepared for what to expect. Families where no one has been to college are prepped to support a child who calls home depressed or homesick. Plans include finding a mentor at college and having a college-educated mentor back home.

“The culture has shifted” at Dyett, said Lee, citing the strong support of principal Jacquelyn Lemon, along with the focus of program coordinator Cornelius Ellen on building trust and relationships with youth, and the help of CPS and several community partners.

Lemon and Ellen will join three Dyett students, including a special education student who is going on to college, at the Chicago Urban League forum, speaking about barriers to graduation and college for African American males — and how they can be overcome.

“There’s a horrific graduation problem in Chicago,” said Leslie Drish of the Chicago Urban League. “We wanted to look at one grassroots organization that’s had remarkable success with graduation rates in their school and talk about how to replicate their efforts.” Another forum on the subject is planned for January 13.

Strengthening LSCs

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization is hosting a legislative hearing on strengthening LSCs this Saturday, April 12 starting at 11:15 a.m. at Kennicott Park, 4434 S. Lake Park.

KOCO and allies successfully pushed for passage of a resolution last year which declared that the Illinois House of Representatives “support[s] the empowerment of Local School Councils as local, publicly-elected decision-making bodies” and authorized subject matter hearings on the needs of LSCs.

LSC members from across the city will testify Saturday about why LSCs are needed, how they work in particular schools, and how they could be better supported.

LSCs bring “community wisdom” — a grassroots perspective that is often lacking from CPS decision-making, said Jitu Brown, KOCO’s education organizer and a member of the Dyett High School LSC.

Brown cites the disastrous transfer of students from Englewood High to other South Side schools, disregarding community concerns about security and gang issues. “Dyett exploded,” he recalls. “Hyde Park exploded. Who do you hold accountable for that?

“The school district doesn’t understand community dynamics,” Brown said.

He also points to the closing of successful neighborhood schools which “should serve as models” for a system with a huge dropout rate.

More fundamentally, “As people of color we have to be sure there’s public accountability because there’s a demonstrated record of our not receiving the resources or the quality of services that we’re supposed to get, because of our color,” Brown said. “CPS has a disastrous record in terms of equity in distribution of resources.”

Some schools have a laptop for each student, others one or two computers in each classroom, he said. “Why is it OK that Harper High has to use discretionary funds to hire teachers and security guards, and doesn’t have money for a band or debate team or school newspaper, and Walter Payton College Prep is a world-class facility? Why is that acceptable?”

When Brown joined the Dyett LSC is 2003, “there were seven books in its library,” he said. CPS had made a high school of a former middle school “without giving it the resources to be a high school.” The LSC there has worked to get resources and “make the school parent and community friendly,” he said. Brown contributes a life skills program for male students that is successful and growing; next week a group is visiting UIC.

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