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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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