Sunday, April 15, 2012

Show Me the Money

I'm not going to get into what is the magic amount of formal learning/instructional time for Chicago Public Schools' elementary students. I believe that both a 6h45m and a 7h30m day have worked well for my children at their elementary school, just as a 7-hour day will work well for them next year. 

However, I'll willingly join the chorus of parental, teacher, and (occasionally) aldermanic voices asking, where is the money? How does CPS/the city plan to fund the full school day? 

Monica Lee told me in March that principals didn't want to know the full school day budget amount in the absence of other information. CEO Brizard told me last Tuesday that all schools will receive a block grant to spend as they see fit in support of the additional 75 minutes of time, and that the district hopes to move to a per-pupil funding formula in the next 18-24 months. 

But given the district's history of questionable actions and/or decision-making, I;m not sure that the district's assurances that they are working on it are all that reassuring. In the city of big shoulders, the windy city, the city of corruption, graft, and lies, even fairly recent residents such as myself know that unless a bunch of people continually demand the truth from large public agencies like CPS,  they have little incentive to reveal their inefficiency and inadequacy through transparency. I'd love to feel comfortable simply trusting that the existing system will work out a viable solution, but I think that's a false choice, to quote the Mayor. And I think that would be a false choice even if I lived in Lake Forest or Winnetka (or Schaumburg or Evanston).

The clock is ticking. Will CPS deliver on its plan to deliver budgets to principals by May 15th?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Question of Trust

This morning, I stood for an hour in high heels in support of Disney II Principal Bogdana Chkoumbova and 3rd grade teacher Adrienne Garrison, Fiske grandparent Shirley Calhoun, and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard while they and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel spoke at a press conference held in the Disney II gymatorium. The event was to announce a revision to the longer school day. I did this because I believe in Disney II's principal and teachers, just as I believe in the positive impact that a 7.5-hour elementary school day and 2h50m preschool-for-all day has had on my three children.

Will a one-size-fits all mandate work for every student, teacher, aide, and principal? No way. But it seems to me that what is lacking in this discussion is micro-level trust. That is, trust on the individual school level. Disney II works because it's a group effort: a principal with a clear vision, teachers who believe in the vision and put it into action, students who come to school ready and eager to learn, and parents who are committed to setting their kids up for success--academically and through the rest of their lives. This is a great base. We also probably couldn't do it if the school did not have per-pupil funding (instead of a quota-based funding formula) and a Local School Council (currently the Interim Advisory Council) that is willing to spend a lot of time on the budget to make it happen. 

When Principal Chkoumbova told me of the 7.5-hour day plan in September 2011, I quickly realized that I had no reason not to trust that the teachers and administration at Disney II were doing the right thing for our kids. Even if the impetus to lengthen the school day by another 45 minutes came from the top. If you don't trust your principal and teachers, you probably shouldn't send your kids to that school. And fortunately for the 13 percent of CPS's student population that belong to middle-class families, their parents do often have the option to change schools or move out of the city to a suburb whose education system better fits their philosophy.

As a child, I grew up in a household where education was important. Education was paramount. It came in many forms in addition to the six hours and 45 minutes I spent in school every day: travel, after-school activities and classes, a trip to the Woolworth's lunch counter on State Street in the mid-1980s. But none of these additional educational opportunities were as important as school itself. In my family of origin, my job was to do well in school. 

I'm fortunate that I can afford to take the same attitude with The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot (Who's Not). I'm moderately certain that if a greater percentage of CPS parents were able to take the same stance, our students wouldn't need a 7-hour day and/or no CPS parent would complain about the proposal for increased time. 

Part of me--the part who has an incoming kindergarten male next fall--is a bit relieved by the revision. But the balance of me is bummed out. At Disney II, our students were doing great things with all that time, and the plan for next year looked even better. But, although no one in the room dared to utter the word, I think it's a good compromise between the Mayor's vision and the vocal opposition.

Who needs breakfast? I got math to do.

Last week, WBEZ's Schools on the Line with Jean-Claude Brizard had an unusual twist: the CEO of Chicago Public Schools would answer questions only from the kids. The Boy, The Girl, and I tuned in to hear what their peers would say. There were the expected parent-fed questions and complaints about the proposed longer school day, some awesome questions about selective enrollment high schools from current SEHS students themselves, and a particularly hairy question about the turnaround process from a Dyet student. Unfortunately for The Boy, they never got to his question on the line. 

I was genuinely surprised when The Boy said he wanted to call in. My kids generally groan when I mention any one of my pet causes, including the schools, education in general, their school, and various initiatives to benefit their school. The Boy told me his question before dialing in. And its content surprised me even more: why does his class have to have breakfast in the classroom (BIC)? 

When the BIC program launched at Disney II in the fall of 2009 (yes, it's always been a pioneer), The Boy was nonplussed by an extra breakfast/morning snack. I was irritated with CPS's paternalistic attitude and the stripping of what I feel is one of my parental rights: deciding what to feed my children. Fast forward a year when CPS rolled out BIC districtwide and the debate began anew in fall 2010. Both The Boy and The Girl were unbothered by BIC. Sometimes they ate it, sometimes they didn't, they said. They also reported that it was just another part of their day. And I let it go. 

Now, as it turns out, The Boy is annoyed for  BIC for reasons that have everything to do with learning. He told the WBEZ operator that he doesn't like BIC because it cuts into his math class.

I find this admission amazing for a number of reasons -- some to do with The Boy's personality and some to do with my own perceptions of what his school day is like. What I find most amazing is that a kid who spends 7.5 hours each day at school is so excited about learning that he wants to eliminate the minutiae to get to the learning faster. I mean this is a kid that I had to cleave off my leg every morning for the first six weeks of his kindergarten year. 

Certainly, this story that The Boy can be somewhat fickle in his opinions. He's not the only one--history is rife with such "flip-flops" to use modern political parlance. And I'm not suggesting that we should base policy or practice on the opinion of one child. (This is also why, in my opinion, we should not use student feedback or classroom performance in teacher evaluations.) However, that The Boy changed his mind on BIC (as he did on a 7.5-hour day) is progress for his own little person, about whom few would use the word "flexible."

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Choices We (Don't Get to) Make

Yesterday morning, The Dad and I made our annual pilgrimage to Park Ridge, to have our taxes done. While The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot (Who's Not) kept themselves busy with a 3DS, iPod. and iPhone, respectively, The Dad and I learned that this year, we would again receive a rather decent refund from the Feds.

By again, I mean that we have received refunds in the past, but owed the government in 2010 after I worked full-time for the year. I know I should be thankful that we'll get what feels like a an unexpected windfall in a bad economy. But I'm not.

I'm angry. I feel betrayed by our culture and our government. I naively believed for years that the decision to work--or not--was mine. Do societal norms set public policy or vice-versa? It's a cornerstone of economics that governments determine and pursue a course of public action to encourage (or discourage) certain behaviors. Clearly, if one looks at the tax code, the ease in finding child care, and the average respect accorded school teachers, this country doesn't want both parents in a two-parent, heterosexual family to work. 

I know it's possible that the U.S. government doesn't mean that men must work in a two-parent, heterosexual families. But given how respected and well-paid the average day care or parks & recreation worker or K-12 teacher is, it's clear that the business of taking care of children and/or households--the same duties performed on an hourly basis by SAHPs--is not valued in this country. 

No one questions if The Dad loves his children while he puts in a 10-hour day writing code, so I am not going to even go there. But if what I want out of life goes beyond being paid in hugs and temper tantrums, what course of action can I reasonably pursue? If I work for pay, our family takes a giant hit in what I can reasonably bring home, as child care for my three children costs more than I made in my first three jobs out of college, and the government gives us a measly $5,000 tax credit for it? When I was working, achieving work-life balance was my number one concern. Now that my executive functioning is spent on meal-planning, lunchbox-filling, carpooling, and keeping the bathroom stocked with TP, I'm wondering if I will ever be able to pursue the work part of work-life balance without losing my shirt in the process?

This war on women has got to stop. I don't want The Girl, The Boy, and The Tot (Who's Not) growing up to think that daddies work and mommies (or female nannies) make lunch and drive them around because that is all that they see around them.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Two Steps Forward, One Back

As Sonia Kwon of the Raise Your Hand coalition recently pointed out, a visit to the Chicago Board of Education is a logistical nightmare for many who wish to make their opinions known about their children's schools, or about the system in general. The process appears to be set up to frustrate those who are nearly most affected by the Board's decisions/actions. It downright excludes those who are arguably most affected by its decisions/actions. And the Board's practice of listening mutely (for the most part) by those who address it is enraging to anyone who has spent any amount of time preparing to address the Board.  

In the face of such apparent indifference--if not callousness--it's not surprising that many are calling for an elected school board to restore equity and accountability to the stewards of the third largest school district in the country.

But I am not sure that's really the answer either. WBEZ reported that 359 schools had parent candidate openings and 402 had community candidate openings on March 20th, just three days before the extended filing deadline. That's a lot of schools--more than 2/3 of the district total--without advocates.

Kenneth K. Wong, a political science professor at Brown University, reported in 2007 that "a typical mayoral election receives a 45 percent to 55 percent voter turnout, which is several times more than a typical nonpartisan school board election." In fact, he reported that in Chicago, "Between the first LSC election in 1989 and 1993, the last one before mayoral takeover of the district, there was a 68 percent drop in parent turnout."

In 1993, I was a college freshman in Virginia, and Chicago public school politics did not enter into my consciousness. I've no idea what the political and cultural atmosphere of the early 1990s was like in Chicago, let alone how it compares with the current political atmosphere in Chicago.  

As anyone who has ever been "in charge" of anything will tell you, it's a lot easier to lampoon "leaders" than it is to lead the work yourself. I do not doubt that there is a group of committed people who are willing to do the work themselves, but I'm not sure that that is true for the majority of CPS parents. After all, how many people actually show up to vote for their LSC elections?

I've lived in the city for nearly a decade and I have never voted in an LSC election myself. In fact, until recently, I didn't even know that I could. Given the current interest level in CPS politics and frustrations with the Chicago BoE, it's entirely possible that individual Chicago citizens care enough about school issues to vote in elections that are little advertised, off-cycle, and decentralized. Are you planning to vote in LSC elections this April 18-19? Will you vote at your neighborhood school(s) or simply the one(s) your child attends?

Horrifying Hyde Park

The Tot (Who's Not) is less than 3 weeks away from his 5th birthday. This means, of course, that he's teetering on the edge of a developmental cusp, which is making him irritable, irrational. and just plain cranky. Yesterday's tantrum through Trader Joe's, which gradually abated after a well-meaning older gentleman told him that The Tot's screams were hurting his ears, was nothing compared to the doozy he threw today in Hyde Park. 

For some reason (my dad!), I have an enduring affinity for Hyde Park and the U. of Chicago. This started long before Obama lived there, or his kids or Emmanuel's went to Lab. I have been on campus on only a handful of occasions, and have little occasion to even visit Hyde Park these days except on a casual detour on the way to or from MSI

But with a trip to MSI planned for today, and a late start caused by a too-late bedtime (mine), I was able to make such a detour this morning. 

Hyde Park will never want to see us again. 

We ate lunch at Medici on 57th Street, splitting two huge sandwiches between the four of us to save room (and cash) for dessert from among the bakery's delectable pastries. Unfortunately, this arrangement did not suit The Tot and he spent the next 20 minutes screeching while a steady stream of UC students, grad students, and their parents looked on with reactions ranging from bemused understanding to confusion to annoyance to abject horror. I'm taking a page from the Scandinavian parenting playbook and resolutely ignoring this behavior, allowing my child to act like a child even in public. 

The Tot's tantrum continued to the car, across the Midway Plaisance to MSI, ad for 5 minutes after we'd parked, punctuated only by ear-piercing screams and the removal of his shoes (and socks) to fling at me. Eventually, after The Girl, The Boy, and I sat on the curb for quite some time, he realized that he was cold and deemed to put on his socks and shoes and walk (quite nicely, I might add) to the museum with the rest of us (holding hands, in chronological order, as The Girl pointed out. It was like someone had flipped a switch. 

We let our MSI membership lapse due to a glitch with Groupon and the membership department at MSI (I'm not paying $100 every 6 months for a membership), so we entered the museum today on a CPL pass, and purchased tickets ($10 adults, $8 kids 3-11y) to the Mythbusters exhibition separately. We got to the museum at just before 1, and our entry time to Mythbusters was not until 4 p.m., so we spent a very long three hours in the museum, waiting for the chance to see the big stuff. It was crazy crowded with families on spring break from within the city and outside of Illinois, and several private school groups. We ran into some school friends in the line at Finnegan's Ice Cream Parlor, where The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot enjoyed $3 ice-creams-in-a-dish and I finished the other half of our sandwich from Medici.

I kind of thought the Mythbusters exhibit was overrated, but The Girl and The Boy, marathon watchers of the show itself, really enjoyed it.  The Tot just ran around like a maniac through the walking-versus-running rainwater space. There were a few "try it yourself" interactive stations within the exhibit, lots of props, and a live Mythbusters-style show. It was as well done as the MSI's previous special exhibits that I've seen, such as Harry Potter and Body Worlds.

We were all pretty exhausted by the time we finally left the museum at just after 5 p.m.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Play Day

Although I love a good playdate, I'm always reluctant to plan vacation days from school around or dependent upon classmates and friends. It's a tactic that can easily backfire as family visits, doctor appointments, or sudden illness bump out even the most carefully planned playdate. I've learned the hard way not to rely on friends to provide our children with mutual entertainment during a school break. 

But the stars happen to have aligned for everyone today, and The Boy, The Girl, and The Tot all had playdates. The Girl and The Tot went over to a friends' house in the morning, while The Boy's good friend came over for Lego and other 9-year-old boy pursuits in the afternoon. 

We capped off the day with a 3-kid trip to Trader Joe's, where The Tot proceeded to throw a massive temper tantrum fueled, in part, by hunger and fatigue. 

Monday, April 02, 2012

Riding the Rails

a/k/a Spring Break, Day 1.

A week off from school, a sunny day, nowhere to be, and nothing we had to see...a perfect afternoon for a make-your-own adventure! The Boy, The Girl, The Tot (Who's Not), and I set out this afternoon to see what's at the end of the Skokie Swift line. 

Skokie, of course. An aging, heavily immigrant, heavily Jewish population make this 'burb an interesting destination for our fairly young, fairly gentile, fairly bland party of four. As a nearly native South(side) Suburbaner, I never really had the occasion during my own childhood to visit Skokie, and cannot reliably remember doing so until The Dad and I moved to the northwest side in 2002. Outside of the occasional trip to Old Orchard or the Pita Inn, I've never really explored this village. Truth be told, this visit was not significantly different, although we took the CTA and walked the mile between the train depot and the now-defunct Ice Cream Shoppe along Dempster. And back. 

This gave us lots of time in the village, and walking gave us lots of opportunities to observe the little things as we walked. What we did explore was a mile-long stretch of Dempster Avenue, the inside of a Walgreen's, and the Village Market. I wanted to go to Scandinavian Designs, just adjacent to the Village Market, but The Boy was unyielding on this point. 

It's a long trip between our house and our day's destination: the 80 bus to the red line to the yellow line. Thank goodness that's not a commute I must make daily; it took over 90 minutes in one direction. The trip was not very exciting, although there were tears when we discovered the Ice Cream Shoppe had shuttered. But I find that trips like these are a good way for us to unplug as a family, relate to each other, and enjoy the ride. The Boy and The Girl had a long chat about learning the recorder. The Boy and The Tot conspired to buy The Girl a present for her upcoming birthday. And The Girl impressed us all with her ability to blow bubbles with a stick of Juicy Fruit. All in all, a good start to the week.