7 great things about our schools

Friends, you know my blog is pretty much devoted to exposing terrible things happening at the administrative level of Chicago Public Schools. But there is a time and a place for all kinds of opinions, and right now, the time and the place requires a little positive energy about what we have here. In the face of the disheartening DeVos confirmation, in the shadow of some pretty mean presidential tweets about our city, and under the threat of yet more CPS budget cuts--this time smack in the middle of the school year--I want to share a few things with you about our city's schools that you may not know. Things I think are just great.

1. The amazing--and I mean are you kidding me?! amazing--music in our high schools. These kids sing or play original arrangements, make their own videos, perform like pros--at the Chicago Jazz Festival or on a season of America's Got Talent. The ones I'm sharing with you are just the ones I've heard myself--and I know there are many, many more. Props to the directors, many of whom volunteer their time, and without whom this music would not be happening.

First up, Curie's ensemble Musicality, who made waves on the past season of AGT. These guys sound as amazing in person as they do here, in a video made by their director Michael Gibson. Check out their youtube channel after you get a load of this. Curie is an arts magnet/neighborhood school.

Next up, we have the Kenwood Jazz Ensemble, part of an amazing program Howard Reich wrote about in a series for the Tribune, Kenwood's Journey. They have performed not only at Orchestra Hall but also at the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, as well as for neighborhood grade schoolers. This video is from the Chicago Jazz Festival a couple of years ago and they are doing a great job of sounding like all the other seasoned jazz musicians at the festival. Kenwood Academy is a neighborhood high school with an academic center attached.

Finally here is Lindblom Math and Science's a cappella group singing an original composition that I've posted before. The students made this video in response to yet another round of budget cuts handed down to schools by Chicago Public Schools leaders and the mayor. Englewood's Lindblom is a strong supportive community, a selective enrollment high school with an academic center and a science and technology focus. But obviously these science-focused kids manage to squeeze in a little art.

2. Local School Councils. If you've served on one you know it's messy, unpleasant, hard work. There are about a million rules that are easy to break. There is a lot at stake. But folks, this is the only game in town in terms of parent impact on school policy and principal hiring and firing. LSCs bolster democratic process in the schools via elections of interested community folks, parents, teachers, and staff, who then get decent training to do the job at hand. Let us be aware of what we have--charters, by contrast, are not guided by LSCs. And where there is no LSC there is no formal entity for parent and community voice. CPS loves to tell us that we don't need an elected school board--we have LSCs! Which is, of course, patent nonsense. LSCs have input into single school communities, not the district. But because we have them, parents and communities have a voice and representation in their schools for the most fundamental decisions--school leadership.

3. Librarians. My neighbor is a third grader at Murray Language Academy and she reports that her favorite thing about her school is that she gets time to read, and that the librarian keeps her stocked in good books, and that she reads to them when her class goes to the library. My praise of librarians can't be overstated or too loud. But unfortunately it hasn't been loud enough to keep them in our district. CPS sees them as dispensable, and we've gone from having more than 450 throughout our 661 schools just a few years ago to having 160 this year. How the mayor and CPS board members can countenance this, and call it "unfortunate budget realities," while spending millions on sketchy contracts, some of which are actually illegal, is beyond me. But that is the state of things. Nevertheless, for those schools lucky enough to have them, our remaining librarians light up our students' lives.

Shout out to BooksFirst, by the way, for noticing that cutting libraries out of high poverty areas is a problem. Since 2012 they have collected 55,000 books to give to 19 CPS schools without libraries that serve a high homeless population.

4. Art like this at our neighborhood school. This is a new mosaic mural and a new garden full of natural elements and planting boxes. Hyde Park's Kozminski Academy has its struggles, but they also have a beautiful new place for their students to play. Plenty of schools, districtwide, manage to scrape together cash for collaborations with local artists for murals indoor and out. And if CPS removed dozens of priceless, and recently restored, WPA murals from schools it closed, at least art is still being made for and with kids on a grand scale.

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5. Principals. A north side friend says of her school's principal: "She has created a loving culture with an open door policy. Everything else great flows from there. She helps everyone else shine. She has a talent for bringing out the talents in others and for making people feel valued and safe." Strong principals protect their schools from CPS nonsense as much as possible--as it lurches from one funding crisis to the next, as it turns over building maintenance to incompetent contractors, as it digs and nicks and cuts incessantly at budgets. Strong principals protect their students from the worst excesses of corporate ed reform, refusing to turn the entire curriculum over to test prep and ensuring that recess is still a thing.

6. Teachers. When things in the district look bleak to me, I look to the teachers of CPS. I hear so many stories of teacher love and I am happy to share them, as I did in this post. Their devotion seems unending as they spend their own money on endless supply needs, take their work home every night, and use free time to better their craft. In Chicago we have a strong and unified teaching force that has stood together in the face of demoralizing budget cuts and policy changes. Many of our teachers are also thoughtful writers, sharing their perspectives and experiences with those of us outside the classroom. Here is a group of people who deserve far more respect than they get from their employer and who create and represent the very best in our district.

7. Parents. From coming together on behalf of schools when they were under attack, to staffing volunteer-driven research and advocacy organizations, to stepping up for and with others going through the tangle of an IEP, to maintaining neighborhood school traditions, to directing large scale, ongoing research projects about the district, to standing up for teachers during a strike, to creating a website for all schools to highlight their "CPSuccess," to gathering together by the thousands to march when the state and the city have nothing but malign nonsense to give--the parents of CPS do the city proud. CPS leaders and Rahm Emanuel accidentally created an empowered, activated force who pay very close attention to what is going on, one I'm proud to be a part of.

I know most of you could add more items to my list, things specific to your schools. These are the things we have to defend and fight to keep. To be grateful for the best elements of our schools is not to say there are no problems; but to use the problems as a weapon against the idea of public education itself--this is unacceptable to public school parents. I know most of you will be fierce when it comes to protecting the idea of a free, appropriate public education for your children and for all children. I know I can count on you. Because we will, most likely, need to take part in such a fight.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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