Community Action Councils present their vision of local schools


Imagine this: A community that is viewed as an expansive campus, home to elementary schools that specialize in all sorts of things from Montessori to math and science to language. Parents don’t have to apply and pray to win the lottery, but are guaranteed a seat for their child if they live in the neighborhood.

The high school would build on the specialties taught in the elementary schools, to draw in students from the community rather than having them travel far and wide.

This is the vision of the Community Action Council of Humboldt Park, one of four groups that have met for a year to come up with a comprehensive plan for what schools in their neighborhood should look like. Another council, in Bronzeville, has a similar vision. The four councils wrapped up presentations to CPS senior staff members last week.

When they came together last year, during the tenure of former CEO Ron Huberman, the councils were a novel idea. After years of experiencing school closings, consolidations, turnovers and takeovers handed down from above by CPS, a council would come together and create a vision for local schools.

In addition to parents and community advocates, aldermen and other elected officials would serve on the councils to give them some political leverage.

The plans are as different as the communities. Humboldt Park outlined a strategy to meld neighborhood schools and school choice. Englewood focused on creating more structures in schools to beef up parent involvement.

Yet all the groups want more high-quality preschools, and for schools to build on what students are learning as they transition from early childhood programs to elementary school to high school.

No mention of closing, consolidations

None of the plans, however, specify which schools the councils believe should be closed or consolidated, even though the communities–Englewood, Grand Boulevard, Humboldt Park and Austin–have many under-utilized schools.

The fact that the plans don’t include any recommendations for such action underscores how painful and controversial such decisions are, even when schools are virtually empty and low-achieving.

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard has said he will close and consolidate some schools this year; he’s also told the groups he will let them know what he’s thinking.

“I am proud to say that Brizard promised not to make any decisions without talking to us first,” says Chris Harris, pastor of the Bright Star Church of God and the chairman of the Bronzeville council. But Harris notes that hearing what the community has to say is not the same as listening to it.

Puerto Rican Cultural Center Executive Director Jose Lopez says the Humboldt Park council understands that some schools have to be closed, but that, rather than letting those schools sit vacant, they would like them to be used constructively for programs like job training or parent institutes.

He emphasized that the Humboldt Park council was more interested in talking about stopping the brain drain from their communities than about closing schools.

While some CPS officials might have liked for the councils to make specific recommendations about closings and other actions, council members say they wanted to offer up something more visionary.

“We didn’t want something piecemeal,” Harris says.

Serving students in their community

Because it comes out of the community, Lopez says, it incorporates ideas that outsiders often miss. “How do we harness the social capital of our community and bring it to bear on our schools?” he says. “This is the most comprehensive rethinking of schools that has happened.”

Lopez says the Humboldt Park council wants the schools in the community to be able to serve students seamlessly, from preschool through college. Julio Urrutia, deputy director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, says that the council wants Clemente to be the anchor of the community and to offer dual-credit programs with colleges, such as Northeastern University.

Making the neighborhood schools, such as Clemente High, more attractive is the critical factor in stemming enrollment loss. Clemente is down more than 1,000 students since 2006.

“We talked about why are we losing kids at that level?” Urrutia said.”Where are we failing?”

The plans don’t ask for, or speak against, charter schools, though CPS leaders who are supportive of charters might have been hoping the groups would get behind the idea.

Harris says the Bronzeville council supports any school that educates children well, but wants resources poured into neighborhood schools. He notes that there’s little evidence that charter schools are, on the whole, better than neighborhood schools, yet he understands why some parents choose them.

He points to Woodson South, where he is on the local school council. On one side of the building is a University of Chicago charter school, with smart-boards and new books and parents who can bring their children to school in a Mercedes-Benz, he says.

Charter schools and selective enrollment schools, such as King High School, can frustrate parents because students are chosen for them, creating a situation where students are forced to walk past good schools to go to worse ones.

“At the end of the day, do not put a school in my community and tell me my kid can’t go,” Harris says.

Potential impact

It’s anyone’s guess what the district’s leadership will do with these plans. Since the groups began meeting, Huberman left, Interim CEO Terry Mazany came and went, and new CEO Brizard has taken over. Robert Runcie, the former chief administrative officer who spearheaded the process, has also left CPS.

Brizard’s administration is still digesting the plans and is not ready to comment on them, according to a spokesperson.

But there are signs that the process could have at least some impact.

While Brizard is not beholden to the councils, he and his senior staff did take time to meet with them and listen to their presentations. And amid hundreds of layoffs in central office, the former principal who has overseen the council process, Bill Gerstein, remains on board.

Other communities, such as Roseland, are starting to meet to come up with plans as well.

Public pressure, too, could put pressure on the district to listen. In Humboldt Park, the plan was unveiled and approved at a community summit meeting attended by 300 people.

Harris says the Bronzeville council also worked with the chief of schools, Sean Stalling, who oversees area high schools, and Shawn Smith, who oversees area elementary schools.

The Humboldt Park council also included ideas about how to lengthen the school day, which is at the top of Brizard’s agenda. Rather than add many more minutes to subjects such as math and reading, the Humboldt Park council would like to see community groups and neighborhood institutions such as the fire department work with teachers to integrate some real-life, hands on lessons.

“Why would we do the same things, and students are [already] bored to death?” Lopez said.

Note: Catalyst Chicago is still waiting on copies of all of the community action plans. After saying they would provide them on Wednesday, CPS officials have not done so. Once they do, we will post in full.

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