Sunday, February 24, 2013

Utilization in the O'Hare Network

As I wrote earlier, I attended the second round utilization meeting in the O'Hare network yesterday. There were a lot more people in the audience on this round, although Wright College's Events Auditorium was not completely full. A panel of six sat at a table on the stage in this round, giving some weight to the idea that people were listening. A stenographer and camera person also recorded the proceedings.

Anna Alvarado, O'Hare network chief, began the meeting by introducing the panel on the stage: Craig Benes (Ravenswood Ridge network chief), Leslie Boozer (North-Northwest high school collaborative network chief), Grace Rapp (Office of Facilities), Patrick Payne (Transition office), and Shane Smith (O'Hare deputy chief). She also identified other CPS personnel by name: Luis Garcia of Office of LSC Relations, MahRukh Mian of FACE in O'Hare, and John Arena, alderman for the 45th ward. In addition, she identified 38th ward alderman Tim Cullerton and 41st ward alderman Mary O'Connor, both of whom addressed the panel.

Tim Cullerton mentioned a few schools in his ward by name--Portage Park, Smyser, Reinberg, Belding--noting that they are vastly overcrowded and asking the panel what CPS plans are pending to address overcrowding and school maintenance. He also asked for clarification on tier system boundaries. And concluded by saying that his ward gave CPS almost nine acres of space by Wright College nine years ago and the District has done nothing to develop the land.

Mary O'Connor read a prepared statement about the similarities (good) among the 12 schools in her ward and the similarities (bad) among them. School communities are frustrated with space utilization and unfair minimum funding.

Mr. Payne then reviewed the format for the meeting, in which every school gets a fair chance to air their comments for six minutes. He offered to answer questions about District policies informally after the meeting. Each school was invited to come on stage to use a podium to address the crowd and the panel.

Wildwood spoke next. As its principal and several parents approached the stage, the entire right side of the auditorium stood in solidarity, holding colorful Ws on sticks. Mary Beth Cunat, the principal, spoke about how the school has been short on classrooms every year since she became principal. Students have class on the stage, in the hallways, and in rooms with 36 other students. They have been looking earnestly for rental space for several years, but there isn't any. She asked CPS to start the planning and design process this year so that when the District gets its funding, Wildwood is "shovel-ready."

Wildwood's AP also spoke, sharing that her daughter graduated from the school in 1999, and even then there were 37 kids in a classroom. She said that the school complies so well with the IB program, and function at an even higher level if they could improve the physical space. A parent also spoke briefly before the clock ran out, saying that when he daughter started K, there were 39 kids in her class. When her son started K several years later, he had 51 kids in his class. She asked CPS to be strategic in solving its problems, rather than ignoring timing and solving them piecemeal.

Belding spoke next, sharing a similar story of overcrowding and limited resources, and asking the District to alleviate these at the elementary level rather than adding high school seats. Scott Merrill, a National Board-certified teacher at Belding, said his school is 38 percent overcrowded, and needs CPS to help alleviate the issue. Scott Olsen, a 19-year CPS teacher whose children attend Belding, said that all of the schools around Belding are overcrowded save two--Aspira Haugan and TMMS. He proposed that the District convert one of these buildings to another elementary school and redraw the attendance boundaries for controlled enrollment at Belding, which, he said, has already lost a teacher lounge, closets, and basement storage space. The school's four PK classrooms are run at a satellite storefront facility. Belding's LSC chair spoke next, saying quite clearly that she doesn't think our area needs high schools and the District should focus its resources on adding more elementary buildings within the O'Hare network. [Where does she think those elementary students are going to go in a few years?]

The LSC chair from Steinmetz high school followed, stating that he had just three questions for CPS. Unfortunately, he spent so much time complaining about how no one from various network and central offices responded to him that I couldn't quite understand what all of his questions were. One was whether Steinmetz would become a receiving school and if so, if it would become overcrowded from all the surrounding schools closing. The other question that I understood concerned an ADA grant that Steinmetz had received--where was the money, how would it be spent, when would it be spent, etc.?

A 5th grade teacher from Oriole Park spoke next, saying directly that the District is asking too much of students, teachers, and parents. It's too much for 35 individual learners. Co-teachers work at Oriole Park, but cannot cover all the minutes required in the day. SpEd students are in the hallways. The teacher also gave voice to a sentiment commonly expressed since the release of the list on 2/13: why is the District considering closing schools that were turned around just last year??

Murphy followed, with 23 supporters on the stage, asking to be a part of decision-making concerning TMMS, and proposing that the District uses the TMMS space for a Murphy high school. More about that in my previous post. [Someone send them the link for the new schools and replications RFQ when it's posted next July.]

Dever's principal spoke next, declaring, "Everyone needs personal space. Our kids don't have any." She added that this lack of personal space can create, escalate, and exacerbate tensions among students that probably wouldn't be there if people had more space.

Ebinger's principal said she was almost embarrassed by how easy her school has it, comparatively speaking. But, she said, she'd like to see better equity in funding and management across the District. Her school has SmartBoards and iPads, funded almost completely through parent fundraising and support. But they can't use this technology because Ebinger lacks network capacity. She also noted a safety concern of having children move between the school's building and its mobile units, and learning concerns in buildings without air conditioning.

A parent who lives in the Scammon attendance boundary, but whose daughter does not attend the school spoke about Scammon's overcrowding. Mobile units, she said, are not a school, expressing frustration with the District's policy of school utilization in the O'Hare network. Seven of the 11 schools within a 1.5-mile radius from her house, she said, are overcrowded. "We need more [elementary] schools."

Hitch brought about 10 people onto the stage, making several salient points about overcrowding in schools. Principal Debbie Reese said, "Until prisons don't have to offer lunchrooms and libraries, our school's shouldn't have to" do without them. Michelle Tregeaux from the LSC asked, "Why do bars have maximum capacity codes, but schools do not?"

The last O'Hare network school to speak was Dirksen. Principal Dan Lucas thanked the aldermen and the network chief and her deputy for hosting the event, and said that he has been to many of the previous schools and can testify that they are not exaggerating about their facilities and space issues. Dirksen also has space issues, with a number of demountable buildings that are 30 years out of date. The building engineers are called regularly to pry open the doors on these units so kids can change classes. The longer school day has exacerbated Dirksen's lack of a playground. The closest park with a playground is over two miles away. The school was constructed to hold 500 students, but currently has 800. It takes two hours to move 740 students through lunch. No art room, three prep teachers (of six) have to teach from a cart.

Two parents from a school in the Fullerton network, Mary Lyons, then spoke. Anna Riviera, PAC chair, asked CPS what happened to the school's drawn attendance boundaries? She noted that living the problem is a far different story than hearing about it. Where are the actions? Where are the funds? The other parent said that she and Anna were there to be part of the solution, but that their school has no playground or security and there is sometimes trouble.

Helen Ramirez, a retired neighborhood resident, came to the podium to speak in support of public schools. She expressed her fear that the city will solve its overcrowding through charter schools, which she doesn't support. "I believe in public education," she said.

At this point in the meeting, Patrick Payne opened the mic up to individuals who wished to speak, giving each speaker a two-minute limit. Nine people were able to take advantage, mostly from school listed above, but a few new voices were added to the mix:
(1) Andrew Thomas whose children went to Gray Elementary, spoke of need to get buy in and participation on strategic planning, and how he'd like to see more forums for parents.
(2) Danny Yaniver from Taft H.S. said he had 1400 students at Taft in 1993 and 1300+ now with District plans to grow the school even further through IB program
(3) Dave Ralston, a graduate of Roosevelt H.S. and current grandparent, said CPS cannot split monies off to charter schools
(4) Jim Secora from Smyser LSC spoke about how it needs more space and asked CPS to put mobile units in Smyser's parking lot. The longer school day is making overcrowding worse.
(5) Barbara Reardon from Palmer Elementary told CPS simply, "We need more people."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Utilization Meeting, Round Two

CPS released its "schools still on the table for possible closure" list a few weeks ago. There are no schools in the massively overcrowded O'Hare network on it. But that hasn't seemed to stop the conjecture about what is going to happen to the only two under-performing, under-utilized schools within the network. Last week, GIPNA circulated its proposal to the Board of Education. My reaction to late-in-the-game GIPNA proposals has hit nerves in the past, and I anticipate that this one will as well.

At today's O'Hare network community meeting, representatives from 13 schools spoke in 6-minute segments about the challenges faced by their communities. Three schools did not speak about overcrowding. Murphy school was one of them. The other two were Roosevelt H.S. and Disney II.

Murphy's LSC chair, Roberta Salas, and other representatives focused their comments on how Disney II is going to take over "their" neighborhood school, Thurgood Marshall Middle School, and how the community will feel the loss of this highly prized neighborhood jewel.

As both a current Disney II parent and Independence Park resident, I find this stance presumptuous and misleading. First, as I noted later, CPS has not yet identified a facility for the expansion of Disney II, which the board approved in December. This lack fuels conjecture and negative sentiment. Decisions should not be made based on rumors. Second, it's misleading for Murphy community to act like TMMS is their neighborhood school.

Indeed, as Paul Flaherty, TMMS principal (who was in the audience, but did not make public comment) told me after the meeting, TMMS has four feeder schools; Murphy began retaining its 7th and 8th graders in 2010, so very few go on to TMMS. The vast majority of TMMS students come in on a bus, from Falconer, Henry, Barry, and Volta. When speaking candidly of his students' challenges, Mr. Flaherty told me that although I live within two blocks of the building, I am ineligible to serve on its (anemic) LSC because I do not live in the school's community. When I looked up the attendance boundaries for TMMS on the CPS site, the map overlays do not correspond in any way to the GIPNA boundary.

Roosevelt High School was the third school in the O'Hare network not facing overcrowding. A teacher, Tim Meegan, spoke. He urged parents concerned about high school to consider Roosevelt, and spoke for 6+ minutes about the scourge of charters and the importance of public education, citing study after study. I had no idea that the investors in charter school organizations enjoy a 39 percent tax credit, for example.

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.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Last week, I chaperoned a K field trip to a well-known Chicago restaurant. Its owner, a generous and visionary individual, is in the midst of launching several new projects. The field trip comprised lunch, a lecture, a tour, and lots of filming. There were tweets, Foursquare check-ins, and Facebook uploads by every geeked-out, Smartphone-wielding adult in the room.

I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

It seems like it's not enough to have a point of view or something to say, we must also constantly promote ourselves to make the Google algorithm, combining content and keywords in the right way so as to optimize the search engine.

I'm terrifically awful at self-promotion. Indeed, I've kept this blog for over 6 years and probably have about that many readers (whom I appreciate very much). Over the years, the blog has evolved from an online journal of sorts to a collection of essays.

But maybe it's time to change things? Using some feedback her art teacher had given me as a jumping off point, The Girl and I talked today about her "work" as a painter. The Girl, it seems, rushes through her work as if she's punching some kind of internal time clock. As we talked, she acknowledged that she's going for quantity over quality, which I do think is an astute observation for a 7-y/o to make, if I do say so myself. But, she said, she feels like all the good paintings have been done already and there are no ideas left for her to interpret.

She's wrong. No one else in the whole world has had her exact experiences and thoughts. Her story is worth telling, her perspective is worth painting.

And so is mine.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Utilization Meeting

On Tuesday, I attended the O'Hare network's community engagement meeting on school utilization. It was quite a bit calmer than the Ravenswood-Ridge network meeting the previous evening, or at the commission's Midway network meeting at Daley College on the same evening. That's not to say that O'Hare network parents aren't upset, but overcrowding is less of a story within the framework of CPS utilization and closures.

Of the 44 elementary and middle schools in the O'Hare network, 21 are overcrowded, 21 are "efficient" and only two--both middle schools--are underutilized according to the District's formula. The crisis of seats is new in some cases; in others, it's only manufactured.

In 2007, when I applied to K for The Boy, who is now in 4th grade, CPS was a whole different beast. At the time, the real estate market had only just begun its free fall, so the "move to the suburbs when your kids reach school age so you don't have to deal with CPS" mindset was still very much in play. Indeed, a fair number of The Boy's contemporaries moved to the 'burbs as their parents opted out of the CPS game.

In 2007, the system was also less transparent and less straightforward than it is now. I'm not kidding.

In a January Cure-inspired clean out of old files, I recently unearthed the self-addressed, stamped postcards that had been marked "received" and returned to me from The Boy's application process. I had to send these postcards along with paper applications individually to the 29 schools on my list.Among the paperwork, I also found the 20+ letters I received in response to my applications. Some denied admission outright. Some told me that The Boy had been placed on the waitlist. Some told me that The Boy had been placed on the waitlist and included a number.

Of them, 13 were within what is now the O'Hare network. Of those 13, the District considers nine of them to be overcrowded, given its "ideal capacity" for each school based on utilization formula drafted by the District's consultants last fall. Some argue that this formula sets the efficiency standards too high. Using the alternate formula, the number of overcrowded schools in the O'Hare network increases to 25.

But I'm not sure these school's population problems were always thus. In 2007, as now, our neighborhood school is Murphy Elementary. In 2007, according to CPS data, Murphy enrolled 514 students in grades K-6th. Five years later,  Murphy enrollment has jumped to 602 students in grades K-8th. The District's ideal for the building is 540 students. In 2007, I knew zero school-aged neighborhood children who attended Murphy. Most of my neighbors sent their children to Hawthorne, Walt Disney Magnet School, Bell RGC, Blaine, Burley, or parochial school. A woman on my block sent her two children to Murphy for five years before pulling them out after they--and she--were bullied. Fortunately, a change in leadership brought about a change in school culture and Murphy's LSC head, a woman sitting to my left on Tuesday, told the facilitators that the things that make her kids; school great are the same things that make the schools CPS would want to replicate great: parent involvement, social-emotional supports, good teachers, great leader, and community partnerships.

Belding, the only elementary school to accept The Boy from its waitlist in April 2007, was also teetering on the cusp of overcrowding even as we applied in 2007. At that time, the school drew part of its K class from its not-necessarily-in-boundary PK students, comprising 35-72 students. An interesting tactic for a school so close to "capacity" from its in-boundary attendance area. For 2007-2008, Belding enrollment was 463 in grades K-8th. In 2012, CPS's ideal capacity for the school is 480. Today, Belding enrolls 665 K-8th students, which the District classifies as overcrowded.

However, Belding's capacity has nothing on Scammon, the neighborhood option for 1/3 of Old Irving Park and most of ""South Old Irving" and the Villa. In 2007-2008, Scammon enrolled a whopping 1,026 students in grades K-8th. In 2012, the District's ideal for the school is 780. The District deems Scammon enrollment to be efficient, with its 893 K-8th students. The alternate formula sorts Scammon as overcrowded, which it clearly must be to have three mobile units keeping its students in some semblance of classroom space.

That perception often creates reality is the case with Scammon; I know no one in its boundaries that would consider it as a viable option for their children. Why? The reasons do include overcrowding, but I think it's more likely that Scammon's student population is overwhelmingly ESL/ Hispanic and poor. And yet, despite this perception and the online chatter that the immediate neighborhood is unsafe, the District ranks it as a Level 1 school.

At Tuesday's meeting, a teacher from the network's only underutilized District (non-charter) school--Thurgood Marshall Middle School--was in attendance. TMMS is a half block from my house, so it's always been of interest to me. The teacher spoke about what was present at his school (lots of kids, dedicated teachers) and what was lacking (working 4th floor toilets, a repaired stage).He said that he had also taught at IPMS--before it was shuttered in 2008 for under-enrollment and turned into Disney II Magnet, a point of information that seems to have pissed ff virtually everyone who was--or wants to be--tangentially involved in its existence. IPMS--he claimed--was shuttered for under-enrollment although it held as many students in 2007-2008 as Disney II does now. CPS data could be totally wrong. But is number for enrollment at IPMS in 2007 were 340--not the 415 (in K-6th) at Disney II now. In 2012, TMMS combined enrollment is 431 students in 7-8th grades. The District thinks 810 is ideal for TMMS. But even using the alternate formula, TMMS remains underutilized.

The LSC chair from Murphy posited that the District is "starving" TMMS to force its closure. IMO, this is a valid concern. And yet: the District seems to be returning to a strategy of upper and lower schools. There remain only three middle schools in the O'Hare network--TMMS, Albany Park, and a charter, Aspira-Haugan. A quick Google search revealed only seven other freestanding middle schools within CPS. TMMS and Aspira-Haugan are both Level 3, as are three of the freestanding middle schools. To me, this suggests that middle school is too much transition for students to do well.