Friday, March 15, 2013

Mind in Motion

CPS has so many new initiatives, I'm not sure how central office keeps track of them all. But the good news is that the powers that be often present them to the PTA Advisory Council, of which I am a member.

For our March meeting, we met with two departments within CPS. First up was Abby Rose, who presented and sought feedback with a focus group (us) for the Office of Student Health & Wellness's Minds in Motion program. The idea, she said, was to develop a strategic plan for physical education in the District. The focus group is the first step in the process of developing the plan. The other steps are (2) researching best practices from foundation work and analyzing other large districts' PE practices; (3) drafting the plan; (4) reconvening focus groups with stakeholders to ensure that the draft plan meets their objectives; and developing a steering committee for the draft plan; and (5) bringing the plan to the Board of Education to adopt as a policy.

Ms. Rose began by asking each of us what our favorite childhood memory of PE is/was. Many of us talked about the presidential challenges of so many sit-ups, lap times, etc. (Mine was square dancing.) She then introduced herself as a former teacher and 8-year veteran teacher of PE in CPS. Finally, she led is through some brainstorming exercises for PE in CPS. She asked us what the ideal PE class or curriculum looks like, what makes good PE teaching, what resources PE teachers need to do their jobs effectively, and how PE should be graded. Finally, we created a snapshot of what our group's policy ideal would look like:

- dedicated PE teacher
- funding for position and program
- training and professional development resources for program
- PE class of 30-45 minutes every day for every child
- PE teacher is enthusiastic and motivated

Ms. Rose is running another parent focus group through the Parents United for Healthy Schools Campaign. If you'd like more information on the focus group, have questions, or would like to add your input to the development of the plan, please email the Mind in Motion group at


Next, we heard from Alex Soble and Mary Naset, who represent what they called "Team Digital" at CPS. They manage the social media aspects of CPS online presence, primarily through Facebook and Twitter. Mr. Soble, who seemed very young, described CPS social media as a three-layer cake, with layers for central office, individual schools, and within classrooms. (The Girl's 2nd grade class just started a blog, so this is a timely topic!)

First up, he said that his group uses social media to communicate to parents, citing the young age and accompanying tech-savviness of many CPS parents. His methodology for posting to Twitter or Facebook is to post things that (1) are informational for parents; (2) spark positive conversations; or (3) are relevant to LSC matters. He and Ms. Naset addressed my criticism of the slowness of Facebook posts with news by saying that Facebook isn't really the medium for fast-breaking news. However, if you want to receive Twitter alerts via text, you can send 40404#Chipubschools from your phone. He also said that his group uses analytics to track and improve info-spread of link shares, etc.

Next, he shared that his group did a few presentations to principal groups about the group's new guide for social media for schools. It's available at if you want to check it out for yourself or your school. We briefly discussed how CPS school sites don't allow access to Facebook from them, although they do allow access to and Twitter, where all information is also posted. There was a Twitter feed on the socialmediatoolkit page when I checked it from my iPhone during the meeting.

We spent the rest of the meeting talking about how to improve and general internet issues at schools. Our PTA moderator asked Mr. Soble to address the general cruddiness of Internet connections at some schools, which make checking anything or using any applications in the classroom near impossible for many schools, like her daughter's school (Lenart).

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Early Childhood

I've written in the past about PFA and the impact of Illinois's weak budget on its future. Thankfully, my children are out of the preschool age so CPS preschool options no longer concern me personally. However, I feel like CPS preschool remains one of the great unknowns (to parents) about CPS and, having spent four years as a PFA parent, the logistics of the program are interesting to me.

PFA began in 2006 with then-governor Rod Blagojevich. According to documents available at the time, PFA built on existing state PK and Head Start programs to bring "voluntary, high-quality preschool" to all preschool-aged Illinois children. At the time, it brought Illinois to the forefront of educational policy-setting. Blagojevich was really championing a cause put together into a platform in 2003 by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Action for Children, and Voices for Illinois Children.

I do not have any experience with Action for Children or Voices for Illinois Children, but I have been impressed by the work coming out of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and still remember the stats shared by Harriet Meyer during a TribNation event on Education in September 2010.

For my family, PFA has fulfilled the ideals outlined in the PFA FAQ: readiness for K, affordability, and exposure to children from different backgrounds. And so it's interesting how much the program has changed from the ideal espoused at its inception.

In January, at the PTA Advisory Council meeting, one of our speakers was Adrienne Stewart, with the CPS Office of Early Childhood Education. She shared that she's in a new position for the OECE, one of community engagement, ensuring that the PK voice is not silenced. Ms. Stewart has been a teacher, curriculum lead, and citywide manager for Head Start before landing in her current role. The OECE runs a few kinds of early childhood education programs, which are explained here on the CPS website.

Ms. Stewart explained that the Ready to Learn program is Mayor Emanuel's attempt to distribute funds from the ISBE's PFA funding to organizations and agencies outside CPS schools. Now that I'm writing it, I wonder if the RTL application should have been our first sign that CPS was going to close out more buildings that house PFA classrooms?

During her talk, I asked Ms. Stewart to explain both funding and admissions for CPS preschools, as these areas are particularly nebulous for parents. She said that PFA is a state-funded program that began with a block grant in 2003. At the time, she said, the state actually had more money than it knew what to do with and decided to invest it in opening PFA up to all students--not only those who are at-risk for disability, income, language, or other areas. PFA has/had a requirement that the program serve children of families "at-risk." Ms. Stewart said that for many communities, at-need and at-risk families overlap. Community Partnership Programs (CPP) are funded out of the PFA budget.

TBPK, she said, came out of Arne Duncan's desire to retain families within Chicago. He analyzed why families were leaving the city. And he wanted to give families who wanted to stay in Chicago and wanted preschool an option. It also had the effect of giving some families an easy entree into desirable CPS elementary schools, and introducing others into the idea that CPS could be made viable for their families, as CPSObsessed recently wrote.

Head Start is a federally funded program with age and income eligibility requirements. Similarly, Child-Parent Centers are funded from Title I, and are available to children age 3-5 years. Ms. Stewart noted that one of the initiatives that her office is considering is merging PFA and Head Start within some schools to accommodate different needs and funding sources.

In terms of admissions, Ms. Stewart clarified that there are no attendance boundaries for early childhood programs. We ran out of time before she answered when the application date closes for PFA admissions. She did say that CPS is expected to announce which programs will be certified under the RTL initiative by the end of March.

Finally, in terms of academics, she noted a plan to develop a framework for preschool curriculum across OECE locations.