Friday, May 24, 2013

I'm Not Leaving

On Wednesday, I spent several hours of the morning at CPS, trying to gain admittance to the Board of Education meeting on the 5th floor, or the overflow observation room on the 15th floor. My patience and calm request paid off, and I was eventually allowed to sit in a rolling green chair with a crowd of other people in a large room that featured few windows, a set of fire doors, and two flat screen TVs and a sound system to view the goings-on of the board chambers 10 floors below. 

It was a rowdy crowd up there on the 10th floor, and as anyone who has been around The Girl will tell you, hunger and thirst makes people especially crabby. By the time I sat through six aldermanic speeches, two CTU addresses, and approximately 18 rounds of public testimony, I was no longer muttering under my breath, but joining my fellow observers in yelling at the screen. 

At least three people told the Board that they'd be forced to move to the suburbs if conditions in their schools didn't improve, get more money, or whatever. Up on the 15th floor, each of these comments elicited a response of, "Go ahead!" 

And I agree with their reaction. Since I became enmeshed in advocacy for schools in Chicago, I've heard, "I'll move to the suburbs!" countless times. It is said like a threat, and perhaps it is meant as threat as well. But as a threat, it feels hollow. Threatening to move to the suburbs is a luxury afforded the generally white, generally affluent, generally mobile, and generally well-resourced parents of CPS, if not of Chicago itself.  Every time I hear statements along these lines, The Tot (Who's Not)'s favorite line echoes in my head: Aw, come on! Seriously, if you have the means and the desire to move out of the city, maybe you should do so, instead of holding your residency up like you are a precious gift you've decided to bestow on the city of Chicago.

I am not going to make that claim. Maybe it's because I haven't reached a level of frustration with CPS and the city that has me contemplating the move? Maybe it's because my kids attend a kick-ass magnet school? Maybe it's because Grandma & Grandpa Texas just moved six blocks away? 

But if I want to move to the 'burbs and can afford to do so, I think I will just do it. And if I'm irritated with CPS and city politics and want to make a statement about it, I feel pretty confident that I'll have the means and outlet to do that as well. Certainly, I may be frustrated in my efforts to effect immediate change, as most of the speakers on Wednesday were. But as a chronic optimist, I'm neither ready to move to the suburbs nor to overstate my importance to the city by threatening to do so.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Social-Emotional Learning

Yesterday, I attended a workshop on the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools. Our speaker, Caryn Curry of Mental Health America of Illinois, told us that that research shows that children who have at least one trusted adult--whether that adult is a parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, or the school janitor--are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. But, she said, children do not always identify that adult to the adult. 

My conclusion? It's important to treat all children with kindness and respect. You never know how they are going to internalize what you say to them.

As a case in point, I offer up Mrs. Rasmussen. Mrs. Rasmussen was a P.E. teacher and gymnastics coach at my high school. While she was not a particularly strong role model for me, she seemed friendly and approachable. So, when I was a sophomore in high school, I asked her to write a recommendation so that I could take Honors gym during my junior and senior years. Honors gym, also known as Gym Leaders, was not based on athletic ability, but was a two-year program that most of the National-Merit crowd used to pump their GPAs.

She declined, and told me, "I just don't see you as a leader," as the reason for her decision.   
For years, I believed that I was not a leader because Mrs. Rasmussen labeled me as such. It is a powerful reminder that a teacher's words can harm a child. Indeed, it's been 23 years since this conversation and I hesitate to define myself as a leader--although I clearly am--because a teacher once told me that I wasn't one. 

Although Ms. Curry told us that such attitudes persist in schools, I am incredibly thankful that this would not happen in my children's school. I think this is in part due to the work of Ms. Curry, who works with educators and parents alike to advocate for the integration of social-emotional learning as a process within the learning environment.

Teacher Appreciation Week was earlier this month. Each year since The Boy began public school, I have been an enthusiastic participant in the week's events that have been planned for our school's teachers. Almost invariably, my favorite teachers are those who have helped me as a parent to see and respond positively to my children's social-emotional needs by doing so themselves in the classroom.

Although SEL is an Illinois state mandate under the Illinois Children's Mental Health Act of 2003, I believe they would incorporate SEL into the classroom anyway because they know that SEL is a process that positively affects academic achievement. Per Ms. Curry, SEL also prepares children for the workforce by teaching them emotional awareness and a set of related social skills, such as collaboration and teamwork, communication, and life-long learning and self-direction skills. And it helps resolve conflict, and contributes positively to violence prevention.

If relationships provide the foundation for learning, it's important that these relationships remain positive and nurturing within the classroom and outside of it. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Scrap Pickers

As you may know, Disney II faces a CPS school action. In our case, this is a positive thing. However, the process has not been without its challenges and roadblocks. We applied in August, and CPS announced its approval of our proposal in December 2012. Immediately the conversations turned to: "Where are they going to put this expansion? CPS is going to put it in Thurgood Marshall Middle School, right?"and an onslaught of conjecture-fueled upset from neighborhood groups, neighbors, other schools, school groups, the press, and watchdogs.

In late March, CPS announced its proposal to co-locate the Disney II expansion with nearby Thurgood Marshall Middle school. And immediately, the charge of the conversation was amplified. Suddenly, TMMS became a much-loved neighborhood gem upon which every stakeholder pinned his/her hopes and fears.

Hopes for a way to buck the system and gain automatic entry (GIPNA's proximity overlay proposal), hopes for a relief valve for an overcrowded neighboring school (Belding's request to redraw attendance boundaries), hopes for a different high school model (Murphy LSC's on-stage proposal), hopes for a renewed interest in a neighborhood middle-school model (TMMS teachers), hopes for re-election (Ald. Arena), and fears for the strength of current programming (Murphy parents). 

As a stakeholder myself, I've taken a keen interest in the process. I've attended many meetings about this, from poorly-communicated District-sponsored meetings to well-publicized community meetings on the network level to legal-compliance meetings within the community and downtown. I have attended LSC meetings and LSC meetings, and community-led meetings. I've had innumerable conversations with neighbors, friends, and classmates' parents about the process and what each new development means. For the record, this details the process. It is an imperfect document, a reflection of the imperfect details provided to Disney II by the District. 

To be honest, the process from March 31 through today has stunk. Half of my neighbors won't talk to me or to the smattering of other Disney II families who share our neighborhood. I don't really blame them; envy is a powerful and difficult emotion. I wish every parent really had the options that the system has led us to believe that we have. Because choice in the context of elementary education is a fallacy. Choice is applicable to a select few--those with the means to pay for private or parochial school and the lucky souls whose names were chosen out of a hat.* 

The gradual dissolution of my relationships with my neighbors--especially because I have opted to engage them--bothers me. CPS's School Actions policies and the media have primed everyone for a fight. Although I am open to debate, I don't want to fight with anyone. I believe every one of the statements I made at every CPS public meeting. My intent, and the intentions of those intimately involved in the Disney II expansion project, are good.

But the part of this that bothers me the most is this feeling that we are all fighting for scraps. While listening to a handful of parents and teachers express outrage at CPS in the guise of rejecting Disney II at Monday's meeting, I was reminded of my earlier work with Raise Your Hand and its initial mission of equal funding for all. We banded together to show CPS that we want a bigger pie rather than fight each other to get a bigger slice. Unfortunately, fighting for scraps is exactly what has happened in the public comment portion of the expansion process.

This is, quite frankly, ridiculous. I am not part of a scheme to subjugate high-poverty, low-resources students and their families within the public school system.  Growing our school by 200 students next year is the best example of meeting our priorities that I can give. As I wrote last year, there is a difficulty in setting and funding to priorities within CPS. Antoinette Sea-Gerald wants equity for charter schools? Belding wants equity? I want equity too.  

* More on what that means for me later. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Early College STEM at CPS

It's time for a PTA Advisory Council update. Our April meeting was canceled, so we reconvened in May to learn about Office of Teaching and Learning procurement processes and the early college STEM program at CPS, and ignore the elephant in the room that is CPS School Actions and closures.

The procurement process addled my brain a bit, but I think the gist of our speaker's talk was that CPS procurement has revised its vendor process to include better pricing, create a "marketplace" of vendor pricing, revise the RFP/bid process, and expand the scope of work covered by CPS's purchasing agreements. For schools and school-based organizations, talk to your school's business manager to learn more about leveraging the District's purchasing power.

The bulk of our meeting was spent listening to Veenu Verma, director of Early College and Career Education, of the CPS Office of Pathways to College and Career. Ms. Verma was there to go over the CPS's STEM high school program with us. I have to say that it's such a treat to meet CPS leaders in this format. I've yet to meet a visitor to our meetings who is at all hostile to our group. It might be a function of both sides coming to the meeting with generally positive attitudes and open minds.

As we know, CPS tends to have a lot of new initiatives that don't always make the cut from year to year. I'm hopeful that is not the case with the early college STEM schools, with their gradual enrollment strategy. Ms. Verma told us that the STEM schools were based on a model in NY that combines a partnership with CUNY and IBM. She also spoke a bit about the development process for the initiative, which involved speaking with employers and technical companies about the kinds of skills they need, whether technical or soft in nature.

There are five STEM high schools in CPS under this initiative. There is one in each high school network, and each has a neighborhood boundary, corporate partner, and college/university partner. The schools are Lakeview, Sarah Goode, Corliss, Clark, and CVCA. The Lakeview and CVCA programs are tracks within the schools rather than wall-to-wall STEM programs. Lakeview's corporate partner is Microsoft and it's university-level partner is DePaul. Goode's partners are IBM and Daley City College. Corliss's are Verizon and Olive Harvey. Clark's are Cisco and Malcolm X. And CVCA's are Motorola and also Olive Harvey. Clark is currently a magnet school as well, but Ms. Verma expects that to change in the next admission cycle.

She shared that the STEM schools were designed to offer up to a 6-year course of study, potentially bridging high school with the first two years of college. In the ideal case, the most motivated STEM students can earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree within four years. However, some students may end up with only a high school diploma and others may gain some college credit or certifications. Students who achieve City College-ready scores of 21 on the ACT by their junior years will be on track to take college-level courses in one of two ways:

  • Dual-credit classes via Advanced Placement courses taught within the high school
  • Dual-enrollment classes via attending classes on the nearby college campus
    She noted that dual-enrollment classes are eligible for IAI-transferrable credits, which allow them to "count" at any Illinois community college or state university. She also said that each college uses a different approach in evaluating high school transfer credits, such as AP, IB, etc., which has made it difficult to codify the process at the high school level.

    STEM students are also eligible to take certifications in three main areas: database and cloud management; network engineering and security; and web development and programming. Of interest is that "pre-engineering" high schools are managed out of the Career and Technical Education office. 

    Ms. Verma's office designed the program to "scaffold," so that each year's experiences can be built upon the previous ones, culminating with apprenticeships and internships at junior and senior years. Freshmen community experiences include increasing awareness, mentoring, site visits, and guest speakers. Next year, sophomores at all the schools will start project-based lessons and service learning. Both the corporate and the university partnerships are important components of the programs, with the hope of creating long-term mentoring relationships between students and corporate employee-volunteers. Cisco employees, for example, are building electronic sailboats with Clark students, while IBM employees offer weekly mentoring to Goode freshmen.

    At the end of the meeting, after both speakers had completed their presentations, we spoke briefly as a group about school actions. Our moderator shared that members of the CACs in Humboldt Park and Bronzeville are meeting with individual Board of Education members to lobby their causes as part of the BoE's due-diligence process before the May meeting.