4 great changes I didn't see coming to CPS, and a farewell

Friends, now seems a fitting time to bring this blog to an end. I started Chicago Public Fools in 2012 in response to the mass school closure process, confessing that I had begun to see schools and teachers differently as a CPS parent than the way in which CPS was depicted by national and local media. I listened to passionate parents, teachers, and researchers, and observed that all their data and their pleas went unanswered and ignored by CPS administrators and the mayor. Through watching this terrible process, my eyes were opened to the world of “school reform” and how it is driven not by a desire to improve education but by a desire to increase profits. I wanted to challenge folks who bought the pro-charter, constant testing, so-called “business” model of school reform to rethink their assumptions, or at least listen to counter arguments.

This blog tackled the school closing process, the appointed board of ed, the rhetoric coming from the mayor’s office and CPS spokesmen, and what school communities were really like. I talked to board members, CEOs, principals and school staff, and heard from hundreds of parents and teachers. I covered at length janitorial privatization and the ensuing filth in schools, and the attempted shuttering of Dyett High School and its resurrection by a group of committed community members. I tracked CPS’s mad spending on new charter schools even as older schools were emptying out, and more mad spending on initiatives like Personalized Learning and the Office of Portfolio. I wrote frequently about excessive testing, terrible testing, nonsense spending, and the state’s continual failure to allow Chicago an elected school board. I examined the vast racial divide in resources that has characterized this city’s schools for decades and is in no danger of improving. Many folks wrote guest blog posts for me and I loved hearing from every corner of the city, where parents and staff members knew so much about their schools, their networks, their challenges.

And as I bring this project to an end, I want to point out a few things that are different than I would’ve expected–even last week. They are direct results of the lengthy, committed work of hundreds of activists, teachers, researchers, and parents–that vast wave of leadership and talent that Rahm himself unexpectedly generated.

First: Charter school teachers are striking in Chicago, today.

Second: the PARCC no longer will be given in CPS.

Third: The plan to forcibly change National Teachers’ Academy from a grade school to a high school has been dropped.

Fourth: A huge wave of pro-public-school candidates, several of whom are teachers, are running for aldermanic seats in the upcoming city council elections.

Let’s look at these a little closer, one at a time.

1.  Rahm Emanuel, school closer and charter cheerleader, is now exiting the mayor’s office. In the waning months of his tenure he is crafting his legacy, and he wants education to be the centerpiece. This may be so, and yet it may not be quite what he envisions. He oversaw one CEO who is currently in prison and another who resigned over illegal and immoral manipulation of special education. He had direct bearing on the loss of hundreds of libraries and librarians in the district. He’s responsible in no small measure for the mass exodus of students out of CPS as a result of the closings and broad disinvestments. He oversaw the privatization of facilities staff that resulted in filthy schools, and the privatization of nursing staff that put students in jeopardy.

And despite Rahm’s–and CEO Janice Jackson’s–insistence that the school closings were an overall good for the district (most recently made in a 30 minute video interview with Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Capehart), objective research has repeatedly pointed out that the school closings did not improve anyone’s education, disproportionately affected Black families, and gutted beloved institutions leaving many neighborhoods without a community focus or center.

Here’s more of his legacy: Monday marked the start of the first charter school teacher strike in the nation. Ever.

Rahm came into office falsely claiming that the top ten CPS high schools were all charters, and has continued to champion them since. Of course charter schools, in addition to perfectly embodying the “business” mantras of scalable, efficient, and low cost education, were supposed to be a part of the push to destroy pesky teachers’ unions. But something went sideways with this effort in Chicago. When you’re in a town with rapid charter expansion, massive amounts of money and little oversight, and also one of the strongest teachers’ unions in the country (thank you from the bottom of our hearts Karen Jennings Lewis), charter school teachers might try and intervene on behalf of their schools’ conditions and resources. And that is exactly what the Acero charter network teachers have done. I hope you support them in their goals of smaller class sizes, better services for special needs students, more diverse teaching staff, higher pay, and sanctuary schools. Go find an Acero school picket line and march with these brave teachers!

2.  With very little fanfare, the PARCC has been canned. This terrible test, thank goodness, will never be used as the city’s high stakes test. Years of opt outs, uneven and unconscionable response from CPS,  and legislative pressure from parents and students–in addition to mass national rejection of these tests–have given this set of Common-Core associated tests the boot. CPS has, or anyway will have, a new test to replace it, of course: the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, which appears to be as yet unscheduled and possibly unwritten; this test comes in at a most likely higher cost than the PARCC and with severe opt-out penalties. It will be managed by two contractors, one of which, Data Recognition Corporation, is already the subject of formal complaints. I suppose we’re hearing next to nothing about this because things are presently rather murky.  Bottom line, there is still too much testing in CPS–check out this year’s dizzying testing schedule. And we still have much work to do regarding test-driven curriculum and punitive school ratings. But the PARCC as we knew and did not love it, is gone.

3. NTA, an elementary school on the near south side, was chosen for that dubious special CPS treatment, the forcible takeover/handover to others. South Loop families needed a high school–so hey, why not just find a good building that already exists? Who cares if there is already a school community there? It’s just a majority Black elementary school. Well, the passionate families of NTA have been agitating about this for well over a year. The decision was made under previous CPS CEO Forrest Claypool; Janice Jackson inherited the plan and embraced it. And Monday the decision was reversed. I have no idea why this done deal with race-tinged real estate overtones was reversed. There’s been repeated legal challenges and endless energetic protests by NTA families, but I think maybe it was Chance the Rapper’s editorial plea for the school that gave the final push. CPS almost never reverses these decisions. What a privilege to be able to see this come to pass.

4.  As early as 2012 Rahm’s imperious attitude toward CPS began to generate leaders. Formerly ordinary folks were taking mics in front of crowds, starting up advocacy organizations, undertaking complex research questions and crunching data, and protesting everywhere. Now they’re running for public office. In the upcoming aldermanic elections, you have your pick of pro-public-education real life superheroes, who stand against charter expansion and support equitable funding of neighborhood schools, in addition to an elected school board. Here are a few:

Linda Hudson in the 8th Ward
Sue Garza in the 10th Ward
Jeanette Taylor in the 20th Ward
Byron Sigcho-Lopez in the 25th Ward
Dwayne Truss in the 29th Ward
Zerlina Smith in the 29th Ward
Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez in the 33rd Ward
Katie Sieracki in the 33rd Ward
Amanda Yu Dieterich in the 35th Ward
Tara Stamps in the 37th Ward
Dianne Daleiden in the 40th Ward
Ugo Okere in the 40th Ward
Leslie Fox in the 43rd Ward
Erika Wozniak Francis
in the 46th Ward
Jeff Jenkins in the 47th Ward
Maria Hadden in the 49th Ward

And among our goofy avalanche of mayoral candidates, pick one who supports a FULLY elected representative school board, including all of these: Amara Enyia, LaShawn K. Ford, Ja’Mal Green, Lori Lightfoot, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, Neal Sales-Griffin, or Willie Wilson. The others, who do not, shouldn’t even be considered as viable candidates.

Friends, we’ve come a long way in recent years, knowing what works and what we want–parents, teachers, community members, and students together. Firmly in place now are advocacy groups like IL Raise Your Hand which among much else sends folks to Springfield regularly to work on legislation. Many communities are preemptively preparing to keep their neighborhoods and children safe when the next round of “school actions” comes down from CPS central office. Lots more folks know the reality of what’s been going on because of the excellent education reporting over many years on WBEZ, and books like Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard. We are now a more educated, more prepared citizenry, ready to stand up for our schools and demand that our elected officials do what is needed to protect public education.

Top of list is an elected representative school board. How I wish my final post was able to include that as one of the surprising changes in CPS since I began! But we have new leadership in Springfield and another election coming up, and that means more chances to right this ship. Thanks to all who’ve read along the way, illumined my perspective, shared stories, and fought like maniacs to gain an equitable, non-racist, adequately invested school system that serves all the city’s children, instead of profiteers. We’ll get there. I’ll see you out in the streets.



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