Friday, March 8, 2013

Our Fight To Save Our Schools, by Jenny Biggs


Jenny Biggs at BA forum at First Trinity,
February 6, 2013
This article is written by Jenny Biggs, Loving Mother, Community Leader, and a Leader with Bridgeport Alliance and Raise Your Hand!


In December, I attended my first Bridgeport Alliance meeting. As a CPS Mom, public education advocate, and member of Raise Your Hand (a citywide organization of parents & community members advocating for quality public education for all children), I suspected that some of our schools in Bridgeport, Canaryville, and Chinatown would be on CPS's potential school closing list. 

CPS has also talked about other “school actions” such as consolidating schools, co-locating a charter school into an existing school and school turnarounds- the school stays open and every adult in the building is fired and a new staff is hired. I knew I needed to find some local people to rally around this issue to fight for our schools and work to make our schools and community stronger. 



A friend said, “You should go to the Bridgeport Alliance.” 

I'm glad I did. 

This may be a long blog post because we have done so much in this short time.

Before I talk about the work of BA in educating our neighbors and in fighting against the possible school actions, let me share some of the details of what has been happening this
school year leading up to the coming school closure list. The official CPS school closure list has to be released on or before March 31, 2013. 

In the past, CPS has used a school's performance to determine school closures. This year, CPS is using a school's “Utilization Rate” to determine a school closure list.

  • In December, CPS released a spreadsheet that contained each school's utilization rate. This is a calculation done at Central Office using a formula.

  • On this December spreadsheet, the schools in our community that CPS labeled
“underutilized” are Air Force High School, Tilden High School, Armour, Graham,
McClellan, and Ward.

  • CPS has a new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett and she set up a Space Utilization Commission that held public meetings in November and December around the city to get public input. It is very confusing what the role of this Commission is in the decision making process. In January, the Space Utilization Commission released their “first list of recommendations” to Byrd-Bennett. She took two of their recommendations: Level1 Schools will not close (this is a label CPS gives to it's highest performing schools & it's based, mainly, on test scores) and High Schools will not close. (Although, later, Byrd-Bennett backtracked & said 1 or 2 high schools could be on the list.) And just this week, they released their “final” report which says that CPS has the capacity for 80 school actions.

  • After the first report, this meant Air Force High School & Tilden should be off the list as
should Ward (Level 1). But, this also meant that Armour, Graham, and McClellan were
still at risk. When the “first list” was released on February 13, Armour was not on it.
Right now, Graham and McClellan remain in danger of being placed on the “official list”
due on 3/31/13.

  • Let me get back to the formula that CPS is using to calculate a school's Utilization rate.
Raise Your Hand analyzed the data & deconstructed the formula. What we found was
that the formula is flawed- it allows for 36 kids in a homeroom which really skews the
numbers. We found that overcrowded schools are UNDER reported and underutilized
schools are OVER reported. A school can be labeled as “efficient” with 36 students in
every homeroom. On the flip side, a school can be labeled as “underutilized” with 23
students in every homeroom.

  • The formula also allows for only 23% of a school's total classrooms to be used for
ancillary classes- meaning Special Education, art, technology, etc. The flawed formula
forces principals to make trade-offs on having rooms for art, music, Special Education,
science labs, etc. It can be hard to maintain enough space to offer a well-rounded
education.

  • Raise Your Hand did bring the data & flawed formula information to the Space
Utilization Commission (and Frank Clark, the Commission's Chair said he did not refute
the data and agreed with it), the Chicago Education Facilities Task Force, and the CPS
BOE.

  • Raise Your Hand has also found, via walk throughs of various schools, that the reality
within our schools is quite different from what shows up on the CPS spreadsheet. Let's look at Armour as an example: CPS reports they have 29 classrooms. In reality, they have only 22 due to an ADA project and a Target Library Grant. 

When I read aloud the list of Bridgeport, Canaryville and Chinatown “underutilized” schools at December's BA meeting, there were audible gasps and a lot of shaking heads.
After the meeting I spoke individually to almost everyone. BA members were very concerned and wanted to get involved in this issue. 

From that meeting, a small Education Committee was formed within BA. We've met almost weekly since mid-January to plan events and outreach activities. We've worked hard to include every school community in our area, underutilized or not, as we see the value and power of everyone joining this fight for all our schools and for our community.

Our first event was on February 6, when we hosted a Community Forum and Direct
Action for Our Neighborhood Schools sponsored by the Bridgeport Alliance, Chicago Teacher's Union, Parents 4 Teachers, Raise Your Hand and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation. 

140 people came out to the Community Forum to hear what was happening with the potential school closings in our own neighborhood. When we planned the Feb. 6th Forum, we had no idea that the Pershing Network (our Network within CPS) would be hosting it's first “Community Engagement” meeting on the same night at 7:00 at Fuller Park. In planning our event, we realized the enormous importance of getting people to Fuller Park to be present and, possibly, speak to our Network. We adjusted our original plan and cut the Forum down to 30 minutes and added a Direct Action into this night. We provided a bus to Fuller Park and encouraged everyone to get over there to fight for our schools. With a full bus and many cars, at least 80 of us arrived at Fuller Park ready to rally! 

Reverend Tom Gaulke brought down the house and brought lots of attention to our schools in a very passionate speech he delivered as the second speaker of the night. After the speech and after a few chants, those that arrived on the bus, walked out of the meeting. 

Why? 

These “Community Engagement” Network meetings are not a civil, engaging process. 

Schools are begging to remain open. Not everyone gets a chance to speak. CPS asks questions that pit schools against other schools. The format CPS wants to follow- schools take turns speaking, then schools attend breakout sessions run by independent facilitators- feels like a show to make it look like they are engaging community. 

Catalyst Magazine and the Tribune found that the Walton Family Foundation- Walmart- is funding these independent facilitators that run the breakout sessions. 

Walmart has a clear agenda of privatization. 

That night at Fuller Park, we needed to send a strong message to CPS that they will not be able to close our schools without a fight and that CPS can not engage us in this manner. Instead of staying at this Network meeting and being a part of the farce, we said our piece, made noise as a unified front, and walked out.


The next day, the Network team came out to Armour to have a meeting with the staff.

The Network felt that, due to the structure of the meeting the night before, Armour did not get a fair chance at being heard. Word about the Network coming to Armour spread among parents and community like wildfire. When the meeting started, about 60 people- teachers, parents, community members and some press- were in the classroom sharing the wonderful things that Armour offered the community. It was a very emotional, from-the-heart meeting that BA was proud to be a part of.

On February 13, CPS released a list of 129 schools that “remain under consideration for closure to be discussed in round 2 of community meetings.” 

As was mentioned earlier, Armour is not on this list of 129 but Graham and McClellan still are. BA has attended parent meetings at Graham and McClellan and we are actively working with these two school communities as we all make plans for next steps. We have met wonderful people at each of these schools and we have learned so much about each school:

  • Did you know that Graham has 2 buildings? This definitely has an impact on their
Utilization Rate. With 2 buildings the school needs more classrooms for ancillary
classes- art, music, Science lab, etc.- because you can't have kids crossing a campus
throughout the day to get from one building to another to attend various classes.

  • Did you know that Graham has a beautiful auditorium that allows for a school
Orchestra and school Choir? They performed before the 2nd Pershing Network
meeting and they are quite good!

  • Did you know that McClellan houses an Autism Cluster program? They have 3
classrooms solely dedicated to students with Autism. By IL state law, these
classrooms can have no more than 8 students without an Aide, but can go up to 12
students with an Aide. CPS, in it's flawed formula, allows each of these classrooms to
hold 30 students each. CPS did (just last week) visit the school and make adjustments
to the Utilization Rate- McClellan went from 64% to 69%- still labeled “underutilized”.
However, no correction was made to reflect these very important self-contained Autism
rooms.

  • Did you know that McClellan has 19 Community Partnerships? The parents, teachers,
principals, and surrounding community have creatively solved many issues and
received necessary resources that CPS will not provide via these partnerships.

To continue the discussion that our community started and to continue to fight for our
schools and our community, we hosted a School Closings Meet-Up Workshop on February 19 at Benton House, two days before the Pershing Network's next “Community Engagement” meeting. Our goal was to keep everyone connected, to give an update on what was now happening, to allow schools time to work together to plan for the upcoming Network meeting, and to reiterate that we need to fight together. About 60 people attended and we accomplished quite a bit that night. 

There is still time to fight and get more schools off this list AND we need to fight as a community and say, “No school closures! No co-locations! No turnarounds! No school consolidations!”

On February 21, the Pershing Network hosted their 2nd round of meetings. There are 7
schools in our Network on this “first” list of potential school closures. At this meeting, our
Network split up the schools into three different areas of Fuller Park. 

McClellan, Parkman and Sherman were in the Main Auditorium. Graham and Hendricks were in the East Gym. Dewey and Libby were in the West Gym. It was an exhausting night trying to get from area to area to hear what the schools had to say and to show support to each of these schools in our community. Each school had 15 minutes to present information on their school. After the schools were done, there was time for community members to speak if they had signed up to do so. 

Many of these schools came out in force, wearing school T-shirts, and waving signs. They all had great things to share about their school and how it fits in their community.

Where are we at now? 

Well, we are all waiting for that final list due to come out on March 31. From there, there will be more “Community Engagement” meetings as we get closer to the late May CPS Board of Education meeting when the CPS BOE will make the final judgment on our schools. 

As for the BA, we continue to stay in touch with the schools in our community. We continue to meet with parents and educators and talk strategies. We continue to meet as an Education Committee on this issue and to discuss the bigger picture- How do we strengthen all of our schools? How do we get our entire community together to support these schools? Can we, as a community, come together and write a community plan
for education? 

We are planning to host more Education Forums over the coming months to educate our neighbors on issues that schools face and to encourage everyone to get involved
in our schools. 

We have really accomplished a lot in less than 2 months but there is still so
much more to do. 

If you'd like to get more involved, please contact Bridgeport Alliance at
bridgeportalliance@gmail.com. We look forward to working with you!


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