Veteran reporter Paul Bowker was at tonight's hearing on what to do with Casals Elementary, one of the most controversial of the proposed turnarounds and closings on the 2012 CPS list. It sounds like a pretty frustrating event:
More than 100 people attended the Casals hearing tonight, which consisted of 45 minutes of testimony from CPS officials before the public was allowed to speak. A number of Casals teachers spoke in opposition to the turnaround, in addition to Casals Local School Council Chairperson Bridget Tracy, Chicago Teachers Union representative Martin Ritter, and many parents, students and community members. So many speakers lined up to speak that the two-hour hearing was over before all 40 speakers got their two minutes to talk. Fred Bates, the attorney who is running six hearings for CPS, apologized for those who were unable to speak but ended the session at precisely 7:30 p.m., the scheduled finishing time. A two-hour hearing for Brian Piccolo Elementary School was scheduled right after. By the time the Casals hearing was finishing up, a line of those waiting for the Piccolo hearing was already snaking through the lobby at CPS headquarters on South Clark Street. Bates said he would accept more public comment and documents until 5 p.m. CT Tuesday by fax at: 773-553-1769.
*Updated 1:30 AM: Scroll down for the full writeup, and let us know in comments what you think. 8:30 AM: Added Catalyst and WBEZ coverage (scroll down).
By PAUL D. BOWKER
After all the speeches and testimonials from teachers, parents and community leaders, after the multiple pages of documents churned out by Chicago Public Schools officials as a part of their plan to turn Casals into a turnaround school and hand over operations to the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), it was the soft voice of a young girl dressed in pink standing underneath the microphone at a very large podium that produced the strongest reaction from a near capacity crowd of more than 120 at the CPS Board of Education chambers Monday night.
"I don’t want my teachers to go away,” said the third-grade student at Pablo Casals Elementary School whose name will appear as Student "C" in the official transcript because of her young age. Even Fred Bates, an attorney handling this and five other public hearings for CPS, seemed taken back.
If the Chicago Board of Education approves a turnaround at Casals, 3501 W. Potomac Ave., a school which has been on CPS probation for five years, that 11-year-old girl will likely lose most of the teachers she's ever had at the school. In a turnaround scenario, all of a school’s teachers and staff are fired and replaced by a completely new staff trained by AUSL. In Casal’s case, the turnaround would begin in August 2012.
“I find it morally incomprehensible that CPS would suggest such a thing,“ said Maria Guerrero, a 30-year teacher who has been at Casals for 22 years and is one year away from achieving retirement.
Student C, and Guerrero, were a few of the lucky ones Monday night. They got to speak. Another night of double hearings at CPS headquarters in downtown Chicago resulted in long lines and an evening in which not every voice was heard. Forty speakers, many of them arriving via a bus from the West Side, signed up to talk at the Casals hearing, but the two-hour session was halted at 7:30 p.m. by Bates before the list had been worked through. At that point, a whole new group of teachers, parents and community members were filling the CPS lobby to attend a similar hearing for the proposed turnaround of Brian Piccolo Elementary Specialty School, 1040 N. Keeler Ave. Of the two hours, the first 45 minutes were taken up by CPS speakers.
The Casals hearing drew a mix of participants, ranging from long-time community members to teachers to parents who brought their kids with them. While passionate, this was not a boisterous crowd. The room was quiet as speakers pleaded their case to Bates, who said he will issue a report within two weeks to CPS. If you didn’t get to speak Monday night, or didn’t sign up, Bates said he would accept public comments and documents via fax (773-553-1769), until 5 p.m. Tuesday. Among those in the crowd Monday was Jesse Ruiz, Board of Education Vice President. Other members of the board, including president David Vitale, will be able to view the hearing via videotape, according to CPS.
The Casals hearing is just one of 16 that will continue through Friday after beginning Jan. 25. Two-hour hearings will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday for Herzl Elementary School, followed at 8 p.m. for Stagg Elementary. Other hearings: Fuller Elementary, 5:30 p.m. Wednesday; Woodson South Elementary, 8 Wednesday; Marquette Elementary, 5:30 Thursday; Smith Elementary, 8 Thursday; Chicago Vocational, 5:30 Friday; Tilden Career Communithy Academy High School, 8 Friday. All hearings will be held at the CPS headquarter, 5th floor Board Chambers, 125 S. Clark, and all are open to the public. The hearings, required by state law, are part of a proposal by CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard to turn around 10 schools, close two schools and phase out five others. Six of the turnarounds would be awarded to AUSL, which already operates 12 CPS schools.
The Casals proposal is certainly one of the most intriguing cases. The West Side elementary school, which feeds Orr High School (already a turnaround school) and serves about 500 students, mostly coming from low-income homes, has lagged behind district averages in all subject matter, according to CPS research. For example, in spring 2011, 61.5 percent of Casals students met the state standard on the ISAT. As a district average, 75.6 percent of Chicago students met the standard. Jacare Thomas, a CPS official, said the gap between Casals students and the district average has been widening since 2006.
Still, the 61.5 Casals number is much higher than some other Chicago schools not on the turnaround list -- a key point. “I really think that if they keep us on the (turnaround) list, there‘s going to have to be a lot of explaining to do,” Guerrero said in an interview. “So many other schools then need to be really concerned about what’s going to happen to them. And that’s what I’ve been hearing for these last two months. “Other schools (officials) are saying, ‘My school’s only in the 50s (as compared to Casals‘ 61.5). If they’re going to pick at you, what does that mean to us?’ I keep saying, ‘Exactly.’ That’s what we’re saying. We’re on the list for the wrong season.” A study put together by a Casals group of teachers and parents says that Casals has outscored 120 other elementary schools in Chicago and has outscored six of 11 turnaround schools currently operated by AUSL. The report says Casals has improved nearly 30 percent in academic scores since 2002.
“To rip us away from the school is not the answer,“ said Joyce Eizeinga, a first-year Casals teacher.
Casals has a new principal, Emily Dianne Sautter, and a new CPS administrator, Denise Little, who is overseeing the curriculum at Casals and several other schools as an instructional officer. Little has been assigned to the school since just this past August. None of the scores being cited are from the 2011-12 school year since that information is not yet available and standardized state tests have yet to be taken.
“Please give us the opportunity to succeed,“ one teacher said. “We want to work with Miss Little.“
Anita Scotese, a math and science teacher for eighth-graders, said she has tutored students on her own time. “We believe that we can achieve,“ she said.
Supporters wondered why CPS has not given Casals’ new principal more time to effect change and given Little’s programs more time to succeed. However, it must be pointed out that Little, while “recognizing current teachers are working hard and recognizing a new principal,” spoke in favor of the proposed turnaround. “There is an urgent need for the performance of Casals to improve and improve quickly,” Little said. Not a sound could be heard in the room as those words were spoken. Of the speakers Monday night that were not affiliated with CPS, not one spoke in favor of the turnaround.
“Threw us under the bus,” said one listener later about Little's remarks.
In the meantime, Blocks Together, a West Side community group, surveyed Casals parents this past Saturday at a school event: "Do you want to have a turnaround school?" Of the 183 who voted, 170 voted no to the turnaround. “We hope and demand the votes of our parents of the students of Casals be respected,” said Norma Luna, a parent.
The show of support may cause the Board some deeper thought about Casals. “There is hope,” said Tracy, who had two children graduate from Casals and now has three grandchildren who‘ll attend the school. “We have excellent teachers, excellent staff, not only to the students, but also to the parents.
"They care about their kids," said Martin Ritter, an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. “They care about their kids so much that they have stood in the cold and did their best to make sure that the kids got to school safely.“
MORE COVERAGE FROM WBEZ & CATALYST:
Teachers, but not many parents, speak out against turnaround WBEZ: At Monday evening’s hearing, the district said test scores at Pablo Casals Elementary lag behind those of nearby schools, and Casals isn’t improving quickly enough. CPS wants to “turn around” Casals, where 61 percent of students meet standards on the state ISAT test, and hand the school over to the nonprofit AUSL.
Piccolo, Casals staff: Give current leadership a chance Catalyst: Jacare Thomas, data strategist for the Garfield-Humboldt Park Elementary Network, made presentations at both hearings on the schools’ lack of progress. She showed a growing gap between the percentage of students meeting state standards on the ISAT test at each of the schools, and in their network and CPS as a whole.