In a first-floor technology room at Spencer Elementary Academy, educators, advocates, parents and an alderman have been meeting since June, often several times a week, debating education policy and airing grievances over the state of schools on the West Side.
Their goal: To write a set of recommendations for Chicago Public Schools’ top administrators that they hope will reshape education in Austin.
Chaired by Ald. Deborah Graham, the Austin Community Action Council – whose turnout has wavered but stood at 18 voting members at its most recent meeting last week – approved an 18-page report that will be presented next month to CPS’ top officials, including CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.
Austin is one of five communities that will be presenting its education plans in a project kick-started last October by the CPS office of Family and Community Engagement, a department charged with involving parents and community groups in schools.
Other Chicago neighborhoods participating are Bronzeville, Greater Englewood, and East and West Humboldt Park, though each have devised and will present their ideas separately. Similar groups have since been formed in Roseland and South Shore.
Bill Gerstein, head of the community engagement office, said he expects next month’s presentation to spark an ongoing relationship between communities and their schools.
“This is just the beginning of a real engagement process for CPS,” Gerstein said.
While CPS is not required to follow the group’s recommendations, committee members hope their words will translate into action as the newly appointed Brizard tries to raise standards in schools struggling with low achievement, violence and high drop-out rates.
“I’m not here for a dog-and-pony show,” Ald. Graham said. “These people are here sincerely fighting for improved educational quality for our children. We want our voices to be heard.”
Dwayne Truss, a local education activist and vice-chair of the committee, noted that standardized test scores in each of Austin’s schools have shown an improvement in the past several years.
But Leviis Haney, an assistant principal at Spencer Elementary, says his school and others continue to struggle with poverty, safety issues and low academic achievement.
“The problem is bigger than the schools,” said Haney, who has been at Spencer for four years. “That’s why we need to band together.”
Recommendations of the group fell into three categories: Early Childhood, Middle School/High School Transition and Parent Engagement (a partial list is included below). Among the recommendations in the Early Childhood category were suggestions that CPS:
- facilitate educational workshops about child development for parents of kids ages 3-5;
- offer professional development for teachers of young children, focusing on discipline, mental health and other issues facing kids in disadvantaged communities;
- hire a youth outreach worker at each school to reach out to chronically truant students;
- recruit families for Head Start and pre-K programs; and
- implement an International Baccalaureate curriculum in Austin schools.
In the middle school and high school areas, the committee recommended that CPS:
- build a new neighborhood high school to serve Austin;
- link middle and high schools together to better aligns their curriculum;
- hold a yearly “high school fair” to show families their choices;
- expand after-school programming in art, band, performing arts, science clubs, robotics and team sports;
- expand “career and technical education” programs, and also offer both “CTE” and college-preparatory classes at each school; and
- increase the number of seats in alternative schools.
To involve parents in their kids’ education, the committee said CPS should:
- create a staffed “parent resource room” in every school that offers parents-led programs, computers and Internet access;
- offer job training, health services, help with re-entry and legal issues, GED and financial literacy classes at schools.
Among the Austin group’s top recommendations was building a new neighborhood high school. But the committee stopped short of proposing a specific location for the school, and voted to remove reference of the divisive Brach’s Candy site from the report.
Truss said an appendix, which called for a new high school and detailed the history of the proposed Brach’s site, was omitted because its subcommittee never voted on the document.
To view the full report, click here.