Saturday, February 23, 2013

Utilization Primer

A few weeks ago, I attended the PTA Advisory Council's February meeting at CPS headquarters. Our speakers were Diantha James of Title I compliance and FACE parent resource center, and Ben Felton, of what is now Office of Innovation & Incubation.

Although CPS is holding community engagement meetings about the utilization of the District, as everyone who has attended them knows, they are not supposed to be a dialogue. Community members talk; CPS representatives listen. I know that it's frustrating not to have a dialogue, but as the parent of three very clever and perceptive children, I can tell you that it's often harder not to respond to someone asking questions or lobbing criticisms at your head.

I almost felt sorry for Ben, who walked into a small conference room of mothers and grandmothers who had taken the news of the expected utilization announcement as a primer for a fight. Although I was anxious for him to get down to the answers I wanted to know, he was initially reluctant to make eye contact with anyone in the room. He explained that his team used to be part of the now dissolved Office of Portfolio and that he worked on what he described as a cross-functional team devoted to school actions, working between Incubation and Todd Babbitz's Office of Strategy and Management.

Ben told us that he understands that students and schools are not just cells on an Excel spreadsheet, but that CPS needs a lot of information about schools to make informed decisions about school actions. That, he said, was the purpose behind the first round breakout sessions with moderators asking what makes individual schools great.

He clarified that BBB has committed to not put any new school into a school that's closed in school actions this year. Replications or expansions like the Disney II, Rickover, and Marine Military expansions, are not considered new schools.

He also said that his office wants to treat schools more equitably and align processes across types of schools (charter, magnet, neighborhood) within the District. New schools and replications are launched through the RFQ process with Carly Bolger of the Office of New Schools. As a former teacher, like many line-worker central office employees, Ben noted that his preference is on improving student outcomes. After all, he said, he's never seen a boiler teach a kid. However, new boilers are necessary and expensive capital improvements for many buildings within the District.

He said that while the current focus is on utilization, his primary responsibility is to work on the 10-year plan for the District. This plan has been referred to by every CPS C.O. person I've encountered in the last 3 months. I'm somewhat cynical of the idea that CPS can stick to and execute a 10-year plan, but we'll see what comes out in May.

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