Monday, December 27, 2010

Da Mayor

Two weeks ago, I attended the Raise Your Hand Coalition/Better Government Association's Mayoral Forum on Education. Only four candidates were present: Gerry Chico, Miguel del Valle, Carol Moseley Braun and James Meeks. Danny Davis was voting in Washington, and it was said that Rahm Emmanuel didn't want to acknowledge the other candidates as competition by appearing in the panel.

At this stage of the game, I'm pretty much a one-issue voter. And that issue is education. So it was with a vested interest (although apparently not one that represents "the people of Chicago") that I attended the forum, listening closely to each candidate's answers to Andy Shaw's questions. It was a fairly calm event, put on in the style of a panel of pontification rather than a discussion or debate—heated or otherwise. We heard from each of the candidates in turn as they responded to both Shaw's and Walter Payton H.S. students' questions about the problems and proposed solutions—whether theirs or someone else's—on the table about lower education in the city of Chicago.

My impression of James Meeks hadn’t changed since I first encountered him on the PNC Bank-Tribune panel in September: he’s great for comic relief, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with his “we at the legislature want accountability” stance on public education. It doesn’t really matter: he nailed his political coffin shut with his prejudicial remarks on minorities and then dropped out of the race.

Gery Chico started speaking and I initially liked what he had to say, as the former president of the Board of Trustees of CPS. I’d like to examine his record—just because someone touts a positive action as his/her responsibility doesn’t make it true. (I can’t remember the last time someone took responsibility for a negative action/inaction or mistake.) The whole idea that there were six years of educational reform and progress in CPS seems amazing. Is it true? It probably depends on your point of view and/or an in-depth analysis of the politics of education in Chicago over the past 10 years. Can anyone point me to a policy/results comparison of 1996-2001 and 2002-2008? I can’t be sure, but the fact that Mayor Daley was critical of Chico recently is probably a positive indicator of his ability to run the city and the schools.

I was less impressed in general with Miguel del Valle, although I give him snaps for not taking campaign contributions from city vendors. I started tuning out on his plan after he suggested community learning centers as the answer for poor education/parenting.

Another candidate I liked at the forum was Carol Moseley Braun. Part of the reason that I don’t like Sarah Palin is that I think the person running the country/state/city should be smarter than me. Moseley Braun has the kind of C.V. and poise that leaves me in awe. This will probably mark me as an elitist, but the thought of her representing the city of big shoulders to the outside world makes me smile. That said, her comments were very high level; I found myself wanting more “meat.” If we’re going to hold “the schools accountable,” what does that mean? Her characterization of past Chicago events were spot-on, but so what? Knowing where you came from is important, but it’s not a solution. Give me the goods.

What about you? Did you attend the Mayoral Forum? Are you watching any mayoral candidates?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Extending the Day

Yesterday, I spent an hour explaining CPS kindergarten matriculation to a co-worker. He was surprised to learn many things about CPS, but none threw him more than the average length of the CPS school day: an abysmal 5 hours and 45 minutes. He was also shocked to learn that unlike the suburban district in which we both grew up, the start and end times of the CPS school day are inconsistent across the country’s 3rd largest school district.

Coincidentally, my friend Sonia sent me this Catalyst story yesterday about the average length of school days at CPS versus elsewhere. It was published nearly a year ago, in January 2010, but with the mayoral election and just about everything else in Chicago (politics) in flux, now is the time to rally the cry of a longer school day for Chicago students. On the whole, they probably need it more than their well-heeled suburban counterparts.

As the conversation builds, I cannot help but look to my children’s school as an example. It’s an example not only of how the extended day can improve educational outcomes, but also of the cost such initiatives bear. While other schools fundraise for a climbing wall, auditorium update or a red-tape-defying exercise room, we’re spending countless volunteer hours to bridge the gap between the CPS budget and requirements for our teachers’ (much-deserved, in my opinion) salaries and stipends. I’m told that that the fundraising push will have an end-date when the school reaches full capacity not long into the future. Thank goodness, because I am not sure that half the school's families can continue to bridge the budget gap without developing a sense of entitlement, frustration or both.

Admittedly, I have elementary-aged children who are in 2nd grade and kindergarten, respectively. Except for The Boy’s disastrous preschool year at a local parochial school, I have no parental experience with other schools, or educational or curriculum models. Only time will tell if it’s the right choice for The Boy, The Girl, The Tot (Who Isn’t) and their 309 school and classmates. To some extent, I have faith in the system, in the teachers who say that the longer school day allows them to get deeper into subject matter and give students the tools and time to follow their imaginations. Besides, it’s what suburban districts do, and what experts increasingly say is the right answer.

In my late teens, I lived with a family in France who had 3 young children who were in K-4th grade equivalents during my stay. They attended class every day from 8 until 4, and a ½ day on Wednesdays. I have no idea if the French are as well-prepared for a successful working life as the rest of the world -- (they also have a lot of roadblocks to the educational system, beginning with the prémier bac en français, which can keep students in high school until they are well into their 20s) -- but they certainly emphasize the importance of classroom learning (and a full hour to eat one’s lunch and run around).

Quality of instruction issues aside, the truncated school day is yet another example of a policy decision that ultimately punishes working Chicagoans. When I suggested to my co-worker that he check that the school hours worked for his family's needs, he sputtered, "You mean, they are not all the same??" How on Earth are you supposed to get to work on time when you have to drop your child off to school at 8:30, or pick him up at 1:45 p.m.? Although some Chicago firms allow workers to flex their schedules, many do not. In the Chicago Tribune's list of top-100 Chicago-area companies, almost half were located outside the bounds of the city. Positive cashflow may be good for the mayor, but does it create an ideal urban environment for the worker?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Choosing the right school for your child - glimpses of life on the other side

I sometimes feel as if I’m a character in a plebeian version of The Nanny Diaries. As an activist, blogophile, volunteer and mother to three children within the Chicago Public Schools, I am often asked what I think about the system as it stands now. Do I like my children’s school? Do I regret not sending my children to an SE program? Would I make the same decision? How did I know that the school is the right fit for my kids? How do I know that now?

The people doing the asking are much the same as I was a couple of years ago. They are concerned about the arduous and very important task of educating our children. They are unable or unwilling to consider private schools, and are committed to city living. They are also worried and scared about what is going to happen in the next 5-6 months, and how those decisions—entirely out of their control—will affect their children.

The truth is: I don’t know these things. I was not sure if the school I chose for The Boy was the right one for his style of learning. Before we had ever seen the inside of a classroom, met more than one teacher or the principal, or had any idea what the school would actually be like, The Dad and I were attracted to the technology aspect of the school. I’ve heard Karen Lewis say that, although we're living in the 21st century, our school system is still based on a 19th century model. While it may be the only issue upon which Ms. Lewis and I agree, that technology is integral to the success of our society, both now and in the future, seems indisputable. 

How can a parent accurately judge what kind of learner their 5-year-old is? I often try to be deliberate and thoughtful in my parenting, but trying to figure out how to match the tab to the slots feels like rocket science: infinitely difficult. My criteria for choosing The Boy’s school went something like this:

1. He got in
2. It’s walking distance from our house
3. It’s got a technology focus
4. It’s a new school with new equipment
5. Its teachers are well-spoken and well-dressed
6. It’s backed by Boeing

Some studies suggest that it may not really matter anyway: family involvement is critical to student success.

And if The Boy’s kindergarten year was any indication, The Dad and I were very involved in his academic progress. I think this was the hardest adjustment for me. When I was in K in 1979, I went for 2.5 hours, sang songs, drew pictures, learned my letters and how to get along with the other kids in my class. I didn't have daily homework until I was in 7th grade. But my kindergartner had daily homework in the second week.

The current educational climate expects children to do more work at a faster pace and at more advanced levels than it did when I was in K. It seems like K is the new 1st grade, preschool is the new K. And the level of teachers' and administrators' expectations of children is so much higher than it was 20-30 years ago.

I was wary of the academic pressure on a 5-year-old who hadn’t yet decided that learning was a fun activity. Was I doing the right thing? Why weren’t my friends’ kids doing so much work? How much is too much? But: the teachers were so nice and so passionate about their work and the kids. The administration held fast to the belief that this was the best way. So we stuck it out, gritting our teeth at first until we became accustomed to the level of work required of our 5-year-old.

I’m a pragmatic decision-maker – this means I like to see results rather than every data point under the sun. And I can see the results in The Boy’s academic progress. Two-and-half years later, I’m still not sure what kind of learner The Boy is. But I do know this: he is thriving.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Reform Movement Builds

While Ron Huberman may not have been the person to overhaul the Chicago Public Schools, the winds of change may be picking up speed with today's announcement. Michelle Rhee may have been no match for the D.C. public school teachers, but she has re-surfaced in California's capital city with a new reform project.  

I'm not entirely sure that the answer to the problems in the U.S. educational system lie with Waiting for Superman and the changes Rhee enacted in D.C., I do know that something has got to change. Because the system, as it stands now, just doesn't work. I feel like this is well-known at this point. But the idealist in me is heartened to see it go national.

I feel fortunate that my children's school is a school that works. My children have great teachers. I am continually in awe of their drive, passion and dedication. I'm a passionate writer, but I don't think I have half the skills required of good teachers.