Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Bored of Education

On Wednesday last week, I headed back to CPS Board chambers to listen to the budget presentation and student speakers from across the city.

I took The Tot (Who's Not) with me, having remembered to actually register him with the BoE site in advance. Before I get further into my report, I'd like to pause here and add some suggestions of how the BoE can make its meetings more hospitable to the students and families whom it allegedly serves. This is a direct response to Board President Vitale's request for feedback of this nature. 

First, put out a detailed agenda. So great to know all of the resolutions and amendments that you'll vote on after you close the meeting, but it'd be so much more useful to know that the CEO's report is going to take three hours before you give me 120 seconds to speak. 

Second, if you are going to take away my water bottle, you should probably give me access to a water fountain on the 5th or 15th floor. Dehydration should not be a BoE requirement. Similarly, if Central Office employees can bring in a granola bar, maybe you should let me do the same for my 6-year-old. You know the one who hasn't eaten since security made us dump our lunch four hours ago. C'mon, Chartwells would never allow this! 

Third, I shouldn't need a press pass to record an open meeting.

Finally, cutting the camera/sound in overflow during disruptions on the 5th floor doesn't make an open meeting. If you think the charge of trying to hide something is unfair, maybe you should stop trying to hide something? 

On that note, CPS began the meeting by congratulating seven District schools for their ISAT gains: Prescott, McDade Classical, Canty, Coonley, Dixon, and Webster Handberry. When given time to speak, only the Canty principal, Ms. Kopec, drew attention to her school's overcrowding and budgeting problems. Otherwise, it was mostly a mutual love fest between the BoE and the principals of these schools. Which is exactly what I would expect. 

I have never seen a BoE meeting where Board members interacted with the crowd. Vitale alluded to a meeting with high school students just prior to the meeting--perhaps this was the reason for the bird wanting to appear more approachable. 

The meeting then progressed to the CEO's report, which included many sub reports from the strangely named C-level staff hired by Barbara Byrd-Bennett. First up was John Barker, chief accountability officer, who reported an unsubstantiated causal relationship between better ISAT cut scores and the full school day. According to Barker, 65 percent of all elementary CPS schools reported improved meets and exceeds levels on the ISAT in math and reading. Pioneer schools outpaced average District growth in ISAT scores by three times. He did say that ISAT scores have shown steady growth since the test was first implemented in 2001. I wonder what this test is actually measuring.

However, Barker said in his report that cut scores are higher across the country. He also said that the higher scores in CPS suggest that teaching is effective within CPS and that the District is on the right track with its first pillar of effective education. 

At this point, Board member Dr, Mahalia Hines (clearly keenly interested in charters) asked Barker if the ISAT scores included high school or charter students. Even if Barker hadn't covered who takes the ISAT in his presentation, Hines should know, as a member of the Chicago BoE, what the ISAT is and who takes it. Barker did not admit any discrepancy in charter and District students' ISAT performance, but said that charter and District schools have been on the same trajectory since the inception of NCLB. 

BBB spoke briefly before introducing Tim Cawley and his budget presentation. She claimed that the CPS Central Office has made significant reductions in staffing for the fourth year in a row. (Notice that no one reports when the CO hires new people.) She also said that the District is challenged by inequitable and insufficient funding from the state and citywide and within this platform, asked for pension reform and increase in per-pupil funding amounts from the state. 

As a resident of Chicago, it's hard not to be a bit distrustful of Tim Cawley, one of the chosen few who has been given a residency waiver. In his presentation, which included a lot of hard-to-read, tiny type, info-dense slides, he presented the realities of a $4 million pension cliff. He highlighted the numerous problems of the budget: no financial benefit from closing schools due to reinvestment in welcoming schools, property taxes are at the cap in Chicago, the debt management load is high, must keep higher level reserves, no way to keep funding flat. The two problems that he mentioned again and again are low funding and outrageous debt service. 

Cawley did say that despite this gloom and doom, CPS did increase funding to some programs: 
  • increased spending to magnet, SE, and STEM programs (as a magnet school LSC member, I wonder how they calculated this increase in spending)
  • further investments in PK through the Ready to Learn program 
  • investments in early intervention
  • extended Safe Passage program
  • increased all-day K for everyone in CPS
  • investments in programs to recapture dropouts and reduce truancy 
Cawley was interrupted by a heckler who was escorted out of the room by security. The heckler asked about toxic swaps, which later elicited some follow-up questions by Board member Henry Beinen and which were answered by Cawley and CFO Peter Rogers. 

As BBB returned to the floor, Dr. Hines made a comment about asking adults in the room to provide a better example for students of respectful behavior. At least, that's what I think she was trying to say. She was barely coherent and I wondered if she wasn't on medication. Rosemary Vega, a parent who had erupted at June's board meeting, erupted again at Hines's comment, complaining that the only thing students would learn from BBB and her staff at a Board meeting were how to be liars. At this point, I was listening to Vega as she walked around the room ranting and avoiding security, but watching BBB's staff as they sat to the left of the BoE, behind the tribunal gate. Is it difficult for them to go to BoE meetings? It probably feels like a waste of their time, to them. 

At this point, The Tot (Who's Not) was losing what was left of his patience for the "bored" meeting. BBB finally concluded her remarks, but public comment was delayed further by a short speech from Karen Lewis and much longer presentations by two aldermen. The teenage students from schools such as WY, Lane, Kelly, and the CSOSOS organization who surrounded us in the audience were also losing patience, but managed to hold it together for another hour or two until they had their 120 seconds each of comment. We left before the sitting behind me could speak, but I saw her impassioned speech on Chicago Tonight later in the day. 

This Girl Stuff Is Going to Kill Me

This week, The Girl went off to sleep away camp for the first time. I chose a Girl Scouts camp for her, while her big brother went to YMCA camp. I did this for several reasons, but the most important of these were (1) because it was shorter and less expensive than the YMCA camp, and (2) because the camp came highly recommended among Girl Scout leaders in our area.

That it was a Girl Scout camp is of no small importance. As a child, I loved visiting Juliette Gordon Low's Savannah home. In theory, Juliette Gordon Low was one of the first feminist role models for girls, basing her version of scouting on the idea that girls are not inherently neater, cleaner, prissier, or more careful than boys, however much society would like to make it so. I always got the impression that JGL thought that girls can and should enjoy similar pursuits as those of boys. As a girl, this appealed to me. As a woman, as a feminist, and most importantly, as the mother of a girl, this is of critical importance. 

My hope is that GS will help reinforce what I try to teach my daughter (and my sons): that a girl's self-worth should have less to do with what she looks like, what she wears, and the grades she earns in school and more to do with who she is as a person

I will readily confess that as The Girl spent 5.5 days at camp, I enjoyed a wee vacation from my middle child. It's a break I really needed as The Girl is super smart, fiercely analytical, somewhat attention-seeking, extremely perceptive, and often overwhelmed by her own emotions. 

It is exhausting

I recognize that it's part of my job as a mother to listen to her and help her to navigate those emotions. But it may surprise everyone (or no one, depending on your view of blogging) to learn that I struggle to maintain my voice and authentic self. This adds another layer of work--and another source of fatigue--to the process of mothering a girl. 

Because, really, our society sends such mixed messages to girls and women. We are bombarded with often conflicting information about how to act, how to dress, what and who to like, what to say and how to say it, and what defines femininity, beauty, popularity, and intelligence. 

And the messaging starts early. In the 18 months since I last wrote about this, my girl has spent the intervening time struggling--and failing--to come to terms with the idea that she is "not popular." As her mother, I see both the positive and negative sides of her behavior and interactions with her peers. She feels excluded and she reacts by pouting. But as her mother, I wonder how an 8-year-old comes to feel regularly excluded by her peers?

As a friend pointed out recently, how are such concepts introduced to 7- and 8-year-olds? And how is popularity determined at this age? Is it self-selection or self-declaration? 

Friday, July 26, 2013

I hate summer

It's time for my annual rant about how I hate summer. 

I hate summer.


First, it's hot. I am pale-skinned, pale-eyed, pale-haired. I can feel my skin burning in the sun and the heat. I don't feel endorphin-induced euphoria from running around in the sun or relaxing on the beach. I can "lay out" for a grand total of 10 minutes before I flee for the shade. When I was a kid, my mother never sent me to the park district's day camp. I always thought it was because (a) she never remembered the registration date or (b) she didn't work and didn't need the day care element of day camp, but now I wonder if it's because she knew I would come home complaining of a day spent in the sun.

Second, and more importantly, like those economically disadvantaged children discussed in study after study, article after article, I experience brain drain. I feel myself getting stupider by the day as my brain melts out my mouth with the heat and humidity of an archetypical July day in Chicago. 

This is, of course, hyperbole. The very fact that I am writing this post, reading articles like these, and plowing through my stack of both non-fiction books and novels suggests that I remain engaged in the process of learning even through the dog days of summer. 

But it seems a lot harder to do anything in summer. My countdown to the first day of school (30 days, by the way) usually begins on the first week of summer vacation, as my tendency toward free-range parenting kicks me in the ass when I realize that my summer plans for my children of playdates and pool have been dashed by that over which I have no control: day camp, vacations, and the weather.

It's July 26th and I am out of ideas. I cannot seem to muster the kind of "isn't this great?!" cheerleading that seems to accompany most child-centered activities. A few months ago, I read a book on organizational psychology called Drive, by Daniel Pink. Pink's theory is that individuals are most motivated by doing things that are intrinsically satisfying rather than "incentivizing" individuals to perform certain tasks. Modern parenting, it seems to me, is one giant game of carrot-and-stick. One that I am not particularly interested in playing today.