New Mandates for Chicago Public Schools

by Mary C. Piemonte 

Illinois Senator Mattie Hunter talking about CPS practices, as Andrea Lee, (seated far right), Grand Blvd Federation's Peer Parent Education Network organizer, along with other members Angelique Harris, and Josephine Norwood, looks on during the public forum on new mandates for Chicago Public Schools at the Illinois Institute of Technology on November 15, 2011. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte


Chicago residents now have a louder voice when it comes to the city’s schools under new legislation passed by the state, and a community organization recently brought together several elected officials and area residents to discuss how best to use their new power. On Nov. 15, the Grand Boulevard Federation’s Peer Parent Network and Illinois Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) hosted “Know Your Rights,” a community forum at the Illinois Institute of Technology 2011.

Senator Mattie Hunter
This past summer, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law amendments that require the Chicago Public Schools to do more advance planning when it comes to school closings and other actions. CPS gets the majority of its funding from state government, but Hunter, who co-sponsored the school reform bill with Illinois Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago), told those in attendance that “for many years” CPS has been making decisions “without consent of the General Assembly.”

Hunter added that CPS was “making excuses” to the General Assembly and parents for many years, claiming school facilities they closed “were uninhabitable” due to overall maintenance condition, when they were actually closed due to low enrollment. Hunter said many schools closed when residents were relocated elsewhere, as in the case of people uprooted from Chicago public housing.

“We all know that the CPS hasn’t invested in their facilities in 30, 40, 50 years, since many of us adults were children. So you have no choice but for the facilities to crash and crumble and come apart,” Hunter said. “Also we know that up and down State Street…corridor, you had all kinds of public housing up and down there from 22nd to 55th Street. So once the buildings came down, and the families moved, then of course you are going to have low enrollment in the schools.”

Public Comments
The Grand Boulevard Federation’s Andrea Lee presented the new legislation’s features, and afterwards, parents got a chance to question CPS Chief of Intergovernmental Affairs Mike Rendina and CPS Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat in the lobby.

CPS statistics show that the district has some serious problems. More than 123,000 students are in underperforming schools throughout the district, representing nearly one-third of all seats in CPS. This year, only 7.9 percent of all 11th graders tested college ready, while the overall graduation rate was just 57.5 percent. The achievement gap between African American and white elementary school students was 31.3 percent, an increase of 13 points in the last five years alone.

Similarly, the achievement gap between Latino and white students was 27.1 percent, an increase of 7 points in the last five years. In high school, the gap between whites and other groups was even larger – 44.5 percent for African Americans and 33.4 percent for Latinos.

Sicat, a former principal of a Northwestern Charter School, told one parent that CPS was working to close the achievement gap: “We acknowledge that there is an achievement gap. We’re constantly talking about that. And our white students are getting a better education than our black students. We acknowledge that. What we are trying to do is to correct that wrong.”
Rendina added that CPS only closes or consolidate schools reluctantly, understanding that it makes children go from one school to another.

“That was the option of last resort,” Rendina said.
But a parent who attended the event challenged the CPS officials to provide the public with the number of schools in white neighborhoods being closed and consolidated in the last 10 years versus the numbers for school closures in African American and Latino areas. “I will be calling you and I want to see the names,” the parent said.

3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell on the Issue
Ald. Pat Dowell (3) spoke passionately about the school issues.

“I’m glad to see so many people her tonight, because we are in for a real fight,” she said.
Dowell said City Council members have “very little” involvement in CPS affairs – they don’t vote on the CPS budget, or the agency’s leadership, nor do they have any control over CPS contracts.
“We don’t even have very much input into the schools that they are going to select to close or consolidate, or turnaround,” Dowell said. “So the important message tonight is that the real parent of CPS is sitting right here in this audience, because we pay the taxes.”

Dowell asked parents to make a commitment to be “vigilant, prayerful and to be involved” in the school fight.
In an e-letter to Residents’ Journal and others, Dowell stated that her “biggest concern” about CPS’ draft guidelines is that the document “does not give any information about the performance policy itself so the community can stay informed about the progress and future of their schools.”

Dowell was also concerned about community members not having enough time to save struggling schools on probation from closing, and wants a school safety plan to “guarantee” that every child will have safe passage to and from school. She said there are 14 high schools along the State Street, 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive corridors within a roughly three mile radius which leave CTA, police and local businesses “overwhelmed every day” with hundreds of students coming and going.

Chicago Teachers Union Statement on CPS’ Draft School Action Guidelines
In a written statement provided at the public forum, the Chicago Teachers Union said they were “very concerned” about the CPS draft school action guidelines, which do not adequately address the issues of raising student academic achievement and providing “quality” schools in every community.

“CPS keeps stating that ‘far too many underperforming schools are not preparing our children for college and career,’ but CPS is not telling us what exactly it has tried to do over the years to help support struggling schools and there has not been a publicly stated hypothesis for why these schools continue to struggle,” the teachers union statement reads. “The guidelines are more of the same failed policies and practices of previous CPS administrations.”

Public Comment
The draft summary of CPS’ new guidelines can be found here: http://www.cps.edu/About_CPS/Policies_and_guidelines/Documents/SummaryofSB630.pdf

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