Monday, June 28, 2010


This is what can happen when you have a voice.

Breaking the Clique

I've "heard" that there is a perception among the parents at The Boy's and The Girl's school that the existing parent groups are "exclusive" and "cliquey." I can understand that; after all, the same 20+ people often show up to everything. I am happy and grateful to those volunteers (like myself) who want to be really involved or really informed. But: why aren't more people involved? How can we create a warm and inclusive parent community/culture? How to create more opportunities for involvement? And a confession: I often feel that I am on the outside of the circle.

In talking to other parents at other schools, this feeling of exclusion is common--even parents like myself who are what my friend Ami would call Super Volunteers. Last week, during a community-building session at Nettelhorst's CPS Symposium, one parent, Patricia O'Keefe of Friends of Alcott, shared what she had done to "break the clique" at Alcott, creating a community culture that really, truly values parent volunteers. It's simple, really, but so smart:

Everyone who wants to be a room parent, can be a room parent.

I know what you're thinking: well, how does that work? Basically, at Alcott, they broke up all the tasks associated with classroom activities and made it more manageable for everyone to get involved:

#1 Teacher Contact. This person fulfills the normally associated duties of room parent, meeting with the teacher as-needed, assessing classroom needs, and communicating with the teacher and the rest of the room parents about what is needed. Teacher preference goes.

#2 Communications. This person does everything associated with communications: putting together a class list, helping with the directory, sending out emails to parents, etc. Some teachers at Alcott even have the communications room parent help or do their weekly newsletter.

#3 Social Butterfly. This person coordinates social time for kids, parents, moms, dads, etc. outside of the classroom: pizza parties, MNO, DNO, parent socials, etc.

#4 Volunteers. This person coordinates volunteers needed for classroom events, putting together a schedule, getting the information on classroom volunteers from the teacher contact, etc.

#5 LSC/PTA/FO Contact. This person is the liaison between the classroom and these organizations. If a classroom project needs to be done for an auction or other event, this is the person who works it out.

#6+ Ad Hoc Time. This person or people may have 4 hours/week or 1/2 an hour a year to support the classroom. They'll work with the classroom volunteers person to make sure that the teacher has all of her bases covered in and outside of the classroom, lending a hand here and there as needed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Viral Marketing: It Works!

Yesterday, I read CPSObsessed for the first time in awhile. I found this. Save one sentence in the middle (long-term solutions), I wrote the text and blasted it out last week via email to my Chicago-based email lists. Although I am not a marketer, I love it when the viral marketing machine works.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hearing Ron Huberman

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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hacking the politics

On 6/15, the Chicago Board of Education held an emergency meeting and voted 7-0 to give Ron Huberman the power to raise class sizes to 35, secure $800 million in credit, and fire tenured teachers. Jonathan Goldman of the Raise Your Hand coalition addressed the board. Illinois constituents, driven largely by CPS parents, sent over 150,000 emails to legislators to reduce state education budget cuts by hundreds of millions; why is CPS still talking about classrooms with 35 kids?

CPS still has a $275 million hole in the FY 2011 CPS budget. How to plug it in ways that don't mean 35 kids in a classroom? The Raise Your Hand coalition believes that the answer lies in the city's TIF program, which diverts millions of property-tax dollars away from schools and into economic development. Through this petition (, the Raise Your Hand coalition is asking Mayor Daley to reform the TIF program and restore sustainable property-tax based funding to schools (and parks and other city services) across the city of Chicago. Won't you join us? Here’s how you can help:

1. Attend the next rally at City Hall – Thursday June 17th @ 10:30 AM
2. Sign the online petition (see above link), and/or
3. Print the same petition in hard copy and collect signatures

Additional reading on 6/15 Board of Education meeting:,CST-NWS-skul16.article,chicago-public-schools-class-size-061510.article (WBEZ coverage)

Additional reading on TIF:

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Free for a Week Update

A few years ago, I created this schedule of things to do that were free or low-cost for each day of the week. Some things have changed, and I know my schedule certainly has, but if I ever get a week off, it might be good to take my children on outings that do not involve IKEA, Target, or playdates.

Monday - 10 a.m. Morning Glory Mondays @ Garfield Park Conservatory (scroll down)
Tuesday - Farmers Market @ Lincoln Square
Wednesday - 10 a.m. Storytime @ Women and Children First Bookstore
Thursday - Free Day @  Peggy Notebeart Museum
Friday - 11 a.m. Storytime with Nili @ The Book Cellar

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


Today, I took a field trip with The Boy's class to the Naper Settlement. Despite the fact that Grandma & Grandpa Naperville have lived in Illinois's second largest city for 20+ years (and I've been married to their son for 11 of them), I'd never been to Naper Settlement before today.

A walking history museum, Naper Settlement is sited on what is left of George Martin's expansive 1883 acreage. It's like Illinois's version of Colonial Williamsburg, but smaller and forward in time by about a century. We started the tour with the Martin Mitchell house, a circa 1883 brick-and-limestone building described to our little group as "the smart house of 1890." I learned a few interesting little tidbits in our 4-hour ramble around the grounds, including the fact that the Spanish silver dollar was once the standard monetary increment and two-bits is actually 1/8th of said coin (or 12 1/2 cents). Grandma Naperville met us there, and we had a nice visit with her as well as with the other chaperones in The Boy's class. The kids were well-behaved and seemed to have a great time.