As The Dad says, I have become my own version of CPS-obsessed these days. I'm generally less interested in the aggregate as how things affect my own children's school, but the education budget crisis (called by Sara Feigenholtz as the worst she's seen in 20-30 years in state government [she started working for John Cullerton in 1982]) has made me re-examine that. And in the past three or four months, as the budget crisis has caused me to become re-engaged in the political process, I've become more interested in how we can work together to improve the system.
In April, I became involved with the Raise Your Hand coalition. I am seriously in awe at the power and dedication of the men and women spearheading this effort. They are committed city-dwellers, passionate activists, and deeply networked. They ask the hard questions, and are not afraid to push the envelope to varying degrees.
Over the past six to nine months, since my friend Ami asked me to attend a “Friends of CPS” meeting and take notes on her behalf, I've become more interested in what is happening at other schools. Although my children's school is in a unique position (really!) in terms of size, funding, seed money, history, etc., we still have so much to learn in terms of not only funding, but community-building.
It is because of this that I gave up my wedding anniversary, first Saturday of summer vacation, to spend 8 hours sweating in an elementary school (though admittedly fabulous) auditorium and learning parent-led school improvement best practices at the CPS Symposium.
It was such an interesting day. I walked away energized and ready to tackle some stuff. The reality is that it's summer and my affiliated group has no elected leadership, but I will get to that later. For now, I'd like to share what would probably be most interesting to the casual reader interested in CPS:
Ron Huberman made a special appearance, showing up to speak to the crowd and take questions from the audience (note: if you are sitting in the middle of the row, you won't get the mic). At this point, I am going to report directly from my notes, without my own analysis of Ron Huberman's comments. He first said that his office studied “great” schools the world over to determine what they have in common
1. A great leader.
Without a great leader, you don't have a great school. To that end, CPS will “exit” (his term) 150 principals this year. He said that these were “tough decisions.”
2. Great teachers.
In Chicago, great principals hire great teachers. Great teachers are engaged with their students. In the context of this point, he also said that his office is planning to institute a teacher evaluation process based partially on principal review. He noted that they are "empowering" principals to evaluate teachers, and that they want to make the process as transparent as possible.
3. Data for analysis.
Great schools report and measure data to ask questions: are kids learning? Are they learning what we want them to learn? If not, why not? Is it the teacher? Is it a professional development issue? Is it the curriculum? He noted that some great schools in Chicago already practice this data measurement and analysis, but CPS plans to implement this method district-wide next year. He also said that states are under pressure from the federal government to show improvement every year, and intimated that the way they do that in Illinois is to change the ISAT. He wants CPS to have its own assessments outside of the ISATs.
4. Meaningful parent involvement.
He said that they found that even when schools have the first three, they will not become truly great, their improvement will flatline, if they do not have a committed and involved parent community. He suggested that parents can achieve that in a few simple ways: physically taking your child to school in the morning when you can, showing up to school on report-card pick-up day, knowing your child's teacher by name and giving him/her your number and asking that s/he calls you when/if there is a problem. He did say that there were really two things surrounding this, but he never got back to the second point.
After he reviewed what makes schools great, he addressed the budget issue, saying that CPS is “fundamentally a state-funded agency.” CPS does not have a budget yet. They've delayed releasing it in the hope that the state legislature will reconvene to pass a budget. They have a “best case” and “worst case” scenario that they've been considering. He said that every day, it's literally a white board exercise trying to figure out the budget. In the “best case” scenario, there will be a $427 million budget deficit. In this scenario, they'll restore full-day K, junior varsity sports, and “lower” class sizes. However, they have no idea when they'll get a budget from the state, and they may have to pick an arbitrary number upon which to base their budget for FY11.
Historically speaking, Huberman said, when the state of Illinois said it would fund something, they'd do it. But Illinois has stopped paying its bills. They owe CPS ½ billion dollars....which is why CPS (got permission to) took out an $800 million line of credit last week.
What has Huberman done to fix the budget? He said he's laid off 1,000 classroom positions, cut $165 million in contracts, depleted CPS's cash reserves, cut capital projects, and reduced the number of administrators – all to preserve spending at schools. Also, non-union staff and administrators have taken furlough days that equate to a 6% pay cut. They've made non-school based cuts across the system.
Sonia Kwon and Jill Wohl from the Raise Your Hand coalition asked him questions about what the city is going to fix the budget deficit, mentioning TIFs. Huberman said that the mayor has raised taxes to the cap allowed every year that he has been able to do so, but it creates a massive inequity in funding when the state doesn't fund what it is supposed to fund. He said that TIF funds have actually funded a couple of schools on the northwest side and funded capital projects at schools that would otherwise not be possible without CPS bonding off its operating budget.
He also took questions about general school process issues, specifically the changed admissions policy for magnets and selective enrollment schools, and selective enrollment schools. He said that there is no plan to de-magnetize the magnets. They did go back to 5% principal discretion at the SE schools, but not at the magnets. The reason for this is that SE schools have objective criteria against which they can measure candidates, but magnets don't have any such criteria: they are a pure lottery. He said that what is the on the table now is not the existence of magnets or SE schools, but the enrollment process.