Saturday, March 15, 2008

'We are against Chicago school closings'

By Pepe Lozano

CHICAGO — Parents, community groups, teachers and students are fed up with Chicago Public Schools officials who voted to close, consolidate or restructure 18 schools here Feb. 27.

School officials say 10 schools will be consolidated, six will undergo a “turnaround program” and two will close due to low enrollment and underperformance. The plan would require more than 2,000 students to move to other schools.

There are currently 655 public schools in Chicago serving over 400,000 students. The overwhelming majority of students are African American and Latino.

In the turnaround program students would remain at their school but the entire staff will be laid off and a new one hired. Up to 800 jobs could be affected, including 500 teachers who could apply for new positions.

Many argue that the new plan is a quick fix that fails to address a bigger problem.

The Chicago Teachers Union said the plan violates their collective bargaining agreement and has filed a grievance.

CTU members unanimously passed a resolution condemning Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and Board of Education President Rufus Williams. The resolution voices a lack of confidence in their leadership.

“Once again, decisions have been made by individuals who have never spent a day teaching in a classroom,” CTU President Marilyn Stewart said in a recent statement. “What does it say to those who are entrusted to teach when their experience and input is ignored time and again?”

Stewart added, “The board has also completely ignored the important role of collaboration between management and labor in employment matters and in doing what is best for Chicago’s children.”

Before the board made its decision on Feb. 27, more than 100 students at Orr High School, one of the schools that will be affected, walked out of school in protest and showed up at the board meeting.

The students joined parents, community and religious leaders, local school council members and teachers at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters to oppose the sweeping changes that they say will disrupt their education and in some cases threaten students’ safety.

School officials argue that the changes will save millions of dollars and help improve academics, but others are fighting the cuts and feel minority children are being victimized.

“CPS is not operating in the interests of lower-income Latino and African American families,” said Jitu Brown, education organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “Our schools have been historically neglected,” he said.

Brown added, “Our schools are turned upside down rather than being supported and we are against the school closings. Schools are the one place that young people can go to and when you remove that you further destabilize the community.”

Julie Woestenhoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, told the World, “It’s very clear this is not about improving schools. It’s about manipulating developers and big business and it’s a shame, because they are disrupting so many people’s lives.”

Woestenhoff also felt that the poorest and underserved communities are being victimized and said the CPS plan sends a message “that they don’t have room for us.”

“This is a philosophical and moral battle about what public schools mean,” she said. “Ultimately we’ll have no place to go.”

Brown said, “We need to consider the human aspect. The new CPS plan is another way for special interests to have their financial needs met at the expense of our kids.” The No Child Left Behind Act is “a national plan to privatize public education and that’s a problem,” he added.

Brown described some steps that could help solve the shortcomings of Chicago’s schools, measures that he said the school system should endorse.

These include real democracy in the system, he said, including electing board members and holding them accountable, strengthening local school councils and their political role as decision-makers with community impact, a thorough analysis and evaluation of Chicago’s schools and their weaknesses, and redirection of resources including an emphasis on social and emotional learning for students.

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