Activists react to board approval for school turnarounds, phase-outs and closures

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Activists say parents and concerned citizens pleas were ignored last week when the Chicago Board of Education approved recommendations to close, phase-out or turnaround about a dozen schools throughout the city.

Brian Piccolo Elementary, the Humbolt Park school where many Austin students attend and was “occupied” by protestors the weekend before the vote, remains on the list of 10 schools to be overhauled, replacing teachers and staff under the direction of The Academy for Urban School Leadership, a private, non-profit company.

“We applaud the board’s decision in putting the academic needs of our students above all else and allowing CPS to take immediate action in providing higher quality school options for students that have been failed by the system for far too long,” said CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard in a press release.

But not everyone agrees the actions are in students’ best interests.

“The data speaks for itself,” said Valencia Rias-Winstead, policy analyst and education organizer at Designs for Change.

Referring to a report the group released the day before the school board’s Feb. 22nd decision, Rias-Winstead said parental and community involvement through local school councils has proved to be far more effective than turnarounds.

Rias-Winstead, who’s worked to reform schools for 15 years, said the school board’s decision prevents positive influences from these outside sources.

“It sends the message to students and parents, ‘we’re not good enough,'” she said.

And she said this message reflects the “limited support and lack of communication” those fighting against the actions have received from the school board through the entire process.

“Lots of people who have very limited resources came out … people who lost sleep trying to think of the right words to say to the school board … they were not given an opportunity,” she said.

While CPS does allow members of the public to speak at its monthly board meetings, the guidelines limit presentations to just two minutes each. Individuals addressing the same topic are placed in a group, and a maximum of two representatives are allowed to speak on behalf of the group, no matter how many people turn out.

“Speaking and being heard are two different things,” said Dwayne Truss, Austin resident and advocate.

“They don’t want parental involvement,” he said.

Both Truss and Rias-Winstead said they’ve seen very few advertisements for the upcoming local school council elections, but plenty for school turnarounds.

Truss said he doesn’t think overhauling schools will fix the “external problems” at the root of the schools’ troubles.

“How do you get poor individuals to value education?” he said.

Truss said the problems stem from the economic challenges in the neighborhoods where students who attend these schools live.

In a report released Feb. 21 by the University of Illinois-Chicago, “Data and Democracy Project: Investing In Neighborhoods – Examining CPS’ plan to close, turnaround, or phase out 17 schools,” Truss said his concerns are addressed.

The report notes, “Many of the schools to be closed or turned around are in areas with higher than average poverty rates in 2000 and 2010 and a majority of residents African American.”

The 50-page report is part three of an extensive study launched more than four years ago to evaluate CPS’ handling of education issues.

According to the report, “School closures, consolidations, phase outs and turnarounds are destabilizing for children and families and contribute to the instability working-class communities’ face.”

It also notes concerns about CPS’ lack of community involvement.

“The lack of adequate time for participation, location of hearings outside the community and school, lack of access to information and lack of transparency all impede community members’ participation in decisions that significantly affect them.”

Rias-Winstead said that leaving parents and concerned citizens out of the process is one thing that bothers her the most.

“We want better schools, but we want to be part of that process. We deserve and have a right to know.”

“That’s a direct slap in the face to the people,” she said.

But CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said the process has been more transparent than any other school reform in the past, and she said officials have given parents and citizens multiple opportunities to participate.

“We’ve had over 60 community meetings,” she said.

Sainvilus said action was necessary now because students don’t have “five chances to repeat the third grade.”

And she said turnarounds will give students “higher quality educational options,” and  social support programs will be offered to help with external factors that cause students to fall behind.

“We understand these decisions are tough, and we understand adults have emotional attachments,” she said. But “as adults, we have a responsibility to do what’s right.



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