Tag Archives: CPS

Education is a Human Right (Town Hall)

Hello everyone! Although my blog doesn’t reflect it, I did a lot of education writing over the summer when working on a research project with Block 58. Unfortunately, this isn’t ready yet, but I’ll be happy to tell you all about it once it’s published! In the meantime, I’d like to talk about some of my more recent experiences in the realm of education, starting with an event I went to tonight.


This evening I attended the Education is a Human Right Town Hall. The meeting had a great turnout, with a mixture of students, parents, community members, UIC professors, and education activists coming together to present “testimony to Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of Education on the impact of school closings, turnarounds, phase outs and disinvestment in neighborhood schools.” In addition, the Town Hall presented the people’s plan for the new Dyett High School (you can find out more by following #SaveDyett.)

Before going to the Town Hall, I expected that my post-event blog post would focus on the more philosophical side of the event. I expected to come out of this Town Hall with reinforced notions about the importance of civic capacity to our education system, and how that capacity is being continuously and purposefully undermined by our non-representative elected officials. And while there was certainly some philosophical rhetoric, and some very powerful rhetoric at that, I think it’s more important to highlight the mere facts that came out of the testimony:

Dyett High School:

  • The principal of Dyett High School is effectually attempting to trick the remaining 13 students (“the Dyett 13”) into transferring out so that the school can be forcibly phased out
  • The front door of Dyett High School has been locked so that students can only use the back door
  • Dyett High School students only have 4 teachers and therefore must take online versions of art, science, and physical education (what?!) classes

Mollison Elementary School:

  • Special education students at the overcrowded Mollison Elementary School are receiving their services under the staircases
  • Approximately 20% of students at Mollison Elementary School cannot eat lunch in the lunchroom, and must eat in the hallways and classrooms

These are some shocking and truly unacceptable facts. They speak for themselves, and I don’t feel a great need to explain why they are truly outrageous (I mean, taking PE classes online? Really?) Now, some facts that were brought up at the Town Hall concerning the political reality:

  • In 2012, 87% of voters were in favor of elected school board officials in Chicago (so, where are they?)
  • Title VI Civil Rights complaints have been filed in 12 cities thus far, and 3 now have open investigations

These are all of the facts that we should keep in mind before even attempting to contemplate the philosophical and political truths underlying educational inequity in Chicago and other cities throughout the U.S. It’s only once you’ve taken the time to hear community stakeholders state these facts and really think about the children that are living with these grievances that you can think about the deeper political implications and explanations for these grievances. Some of the great quotes from the night that point to these deeper truths are:

  • “It is about race, and somebody’s gotta have the courage to say that unapologetically.” -Jitu Brown
  • “When you close a school…you’re erasing that people’s memory.” -Jitu Brown
  • “This is a chance for elected officials to [stand with] the people and their children.” -Jitu Brown
  • The 3 D’s of Chicago school reform: destabilization, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement. -Professor Pauline Lipman

In addition to these, I was really impressed by Amara Enyia, who basically summed up the issue by saying “I know I’m supposed to spout talking points about educational policy, but I want to talk about the power that we are all born with, and what our communities would be like if we embraced that power.” While the grievances may be educational, they are symptoms of a broader problem of societal inequity that can only be conquered by communities that embrace their power, as individuals and as a collective.

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Brief Takeaways from Visiting the Academy for Global Citizenship

Today I visited the Academy for Global Citizenship in Chicago with a student organization I’m involved with at school, Block 58. Honestly I had no idea what I was in for beforehand–no clue what kind of school it was, or even where it was–but it was a surprisingly interesting visit to a very unique school setting, and I’m really glad I went. 

While at the ACG, we had the opportunity to meet briefly with the woman who founded the school. She is an extraordinarily energetic and enthusiastic person (I mean, really energetic) who had the idea to start a school focused on global, holistic education after visiting about 85 countries, going to schools in many of these countries, and essentially becoming an autodidact in international educational systems. When speaking of her initial encounters with the CPS in her attempts to start a charter school, she readily acknowledged her initial naiveté, which is something I always respect, particularly when it comes accompanied by retrospection and visible growth. Though now a successful school founder who has “figured out” how to give the CPS what they want to hear, she still seems fairly idealistic in her future plans for the school’s growth, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Particularly in education, it can be really difficult to determine where the line falls between naive and productive types of idealism. It speaks a lot to what we’ve been discussing about “charismatic leadership” in one of my sociology of education courses, which is a really fascinating theoretical concept when applied to the practical implementation of charter schools, particularly in inner-city neighborhood bureaucracies….but I digress. 

What really impressed me about ACG was the (seemingly) successful implementation of a focus on holistic education (I say seemingly successful because we didn’t actually have too much time to observe classroom practice, but from the few classroomswe saw, the children seemed really engaged with the curriculum). There is a focus on wellness and health that certainly is not common in public schools, though it should be. The school provides students with breakfast, lunch, and snack, all from a fully sustainable and organic kitchen. They also learn from young age how to separate recycling, composting, and landfill garbage, which is not only healthy for the earth, but also plays a large role in helping children understand the consequences of their actions and gain a sense of responsibility for the world around them from a young age, which is always an important skill to acquire. Furthermore, they learn how to read nutrition labels from a young age as well, and last year provided a workshop where the students got to show off their skills by teaching their parents about nutrition labels. This anecdote highlighted the community-building spirit of the school, which is a really impressive ideal, though I’m always hesitant in believing that any school or small-scale institution can really engage the parents who could benefit the most (ie, those who have the least time/opportunity to get involved in such outreach efforts).ImageA mural on the wall at the ACG shows the importance of learning about environmental and personal wellness for students. 

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Who Should be Advocating for Students?

ImageToday’s post won’t be too long (as you can tell, I’ve been much busier lately, and also pretty exhausted). But I saw this picture/meme/what-have-you online yesterday and loved it so much that I have spent some time pondering the subtext of this very real and traumatic truth that Ravitch is pointing to.

One thing that pops out to me from this meme is that teachers need–and not only need, but deserve–protection. I’ve been doing some interesting reading on the history of teachers’ unions and the political controversies on the matter, but the truth is, teachers’ unions must exist for all of us, not just for the teachers. Teachers’ unions were established to help protect teachers from unfair treatment and arbitrary dismissal. While it may be true that the presence of unions makes it more difficult to fire ineffective teachers, I do not believe that getting rid of unions is the answer. You see, with unions, it is harder to fire teachers; without unions, teachers may be fired arbitrarily, dismissed on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics, and are unable to defend themselves against harassment from employers.

But this brings us to another part of the issue–are unions doing enough to protect teachers? Under the reign of all-powerful high-stakes testing, teachers are evaluated partially based on their students’ test scores. These evaluations then play a role in the decision in which teachers should be laid off. Frankly, I see very little difference between pre-unionized teachers being fired arbitrarily (ultimately, based on race, religion, gender, etc.) and teachers being fired based on arbitrary test scores.

In fact, the situation we face today may be even worse, since the teachers who are laid off are often the teachers who are most needed. Students with the lowest test scores often come from low-income or poverty-stricken neighborhoods and frequently live in households with little to no sense of consistency or stability. For these students, having teachers laid off and replaced frequently by young, temporary Teach for America idealists takes away one of the few sources of stability that exists in their lives. And needless to say, stability and consistency dramatically increase a child’s sense of safety, and ultimately increases the child’s ability to achieve, both academically and in all other aspects of life.

Teachers are constantly being laid off where they are needed most, and it seems that teachers’ unions are doing relatively little to stop it. Whether it’s because they can’t or they won’t, I’m not entirely sure. To be fair, this doesn’t go for everyone–particularly in Chicago, the CTU has done an outstanding job of standing up for its teachers amid the chaos of school closure announcements and massive layoffs.

Even in Chicago, the students have begun to lose faith in the abilities of their teachers. They are establishing a union for themselves, a union of students. This is an amazing example of students joining together and taking civic education into their own hands. I am impressed by the efforts up until now, hope they continue, and hope that students from around the country will pay attention and join the movement to give students a voice in their own education.

Having said that, I believe that the fact that a students’ union is forming–and the fact that it is clearly needed–is in some ways unfortunate. It means that the teachers’ unions are not paying attention to the underlying issue at hand. Maybe in all the fighting for higher teacher salaries, the teachers’ unions have forgotten that they must stand strong and advocate for their students as well. However, I can’t fairly say that this is the fault of the unions. Maybe there needs to be another union to advocate specifically for students, because god knows the teachers have enough to fight for concerning their own livelihood.

Students need someone to advocate for their education. When the only students who receive a good education are the ones who fight for it, then we end up missing out on the opportunity to inspire millions of students who don’t know how to fight or don’t know anything better to fight for. I believe the government should be advocating for students’ rights to a proper education. The government often forgets that it shares the goals of the students: to learn more, achieve more, and participate more in today’s globalized economy. But the government continues to take opportunities away from students, in the form of teacher layoffs, budget cuts, and replacing opportunities for creativity with forced constant test prep. Out of frustration and desperation, politicians continue to hurt students, and by doing so, they continue to hurt our nation.

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Who are the Players in the Fight to Save Chicago Public Schools, and Why Do They Matter?

This post was inspired by Asean Johnson.

This week, we’ve seen some interesting developments in the fight to save the 49 schools that the CPS announced it will close for the upcoming school year. There has been tremendous outrage over the past few months, and I’m glad to see that the fight to save the schools does not stop just because the school year ended. In fact, the fight seems stronger than ever, with new players becoming involved every day. I’d like to take a minute to look at all of the different players in the CPS closure protest and how their involvement has affected the fight. 

Teachers: The teachers of Chicago schools–including those that are not being affected by the planned closures–have had the loudest voice in the protest since the very beginning. Particularly those active within the Chicago Teachers’ Unions have been out on the streets rallying, tweeting non-stop about their engagement with the fight, and posting articles on the CTU website frequently to keep up with the heap of events and developments concerning the fight to save the schools. CTU President Karen Lewis has been in the public eye since the CPS announced the school closures back in March, making sure to voice her support for the union’s teachers in rallies, city hall meetings, interviews, and social media.

The CPS announced this week that they were laying off an additional 2,000+ school staff, including 1,036 teachers. News of particularly outrageous layoffs have been circulating the internet; most noticeably, stories about Xian Barrett. Firstly, Barrett found out that he was being laid off only because the CPS called his mother to give her the news. Talk about adding insult to injury! Secondly, Xian Barrett is an outstanding case because he was chosen as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009. Barrett is an outstanding teacher who has actively worked with students outside the classroom to help them learn about issues of social justice while serving the community. Laying off Barrett comes to many a sign that the CPS is taking teachers’ jobs and destroying their lives without so much as a glance at who it is that they’re laying off. After all, they need only look on the U.S. Department of Education website to see a profile of Xian Barrett, a talented teacher that the country claims to be proud of having.

Barrett believes that the CPS laying him off sends another message as well. He said in an interview:

[The administrators] are certainly not happy about union activity, but when I look at who has been laid off again and again in these types of situations, it seems like they target the allies for students even more aggressively than they target the union […]We live in a time where being cruel to public workers is acceptable in some ways, especially [those who are] people of color. But with students you’re not allowed to be quite as overt about it. So when young people go to board meetings and oppose them again and again, [the administrators] feel like they have to do something, they can’t just ignore it.

This brings us to the next category…

Students: Students have long been involved in the fight to save their own school communities, but only this week does it seem that they are starting to gain some real power in the movement. At a Board of Ed meeting held in Chicago on July 24th, students were allowed 2 minutes to voice their opinions about the school closings. This is, of course, time that the Board of Ed will never actually spend listening to the children, and allowing them to speak is simply an action taken in the name of placation. However, this is something that the students know, and they are not willing to just let it go. “One thing I don’t get about this board is that you only give us two minutes to speak and you give these corporate businesses, what, an hour to speak?” These were words spoken at the BOE meeting by 9 year-old Asean Johnson, a 3rd grader in Chicago who is quickly becoming the face of students in the Chicago school closings struggle. Asean started gaining recognition a few months ago, when he brought the crowd to its feet at a CTU rally. He is passionate, articulate, and–although the CPS doesn’t want to admit it–he knows what he’s talking about. I cannot emphasize enough how much I recommend watching these videos of him speaking his mind.

Some people are saying that the students are being used unfairly as political props. It’s a valid argument, and one that I have mixed feelings about. The truth is that children have always been used as pawns in politics. Rarely do they have any real power except as a symbol of cuteness and vulnerability that people can twist and manipulate to fit their arguments. It is true that some of the words that Johnson spoke at the BOE meeting were clearly not his own; words such as “nepotism” were very likely fed to him by the CTU. Having said all this, I still believe that students should continue to force their voices into the conversation. This is, after all, about their education, and they understand more than the CPS wants to admit. Furthermore, fighting for their schools is a sure way to spark a passion in public service and social justice, and I have no doubt that some of these kids may be inspired to continue the fight as adults.

Even though the CPS can dismiss children such as Asean as ignorant, there have been teenagers joining the fight who are clearly more informed, organized, and harder to ignore. The group Chicago Students Organized to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) has really grown a lot in the past few months. They organized a protest outside the BOE meeting on July 24th that had a lot of participants. In addition, they organized a protest inside the meeting, ultimately linking arms and chanting before being physically escorted from the meeting by security shouting: “Whose schools?” to the response, “OUR SCHOOLS!”

Parents: There have been some strong parent voices that have become popular and well-known, particularly on Twitter and other social media. Some great charts and tweets were released this week by @foolforcps, including a list of the top 5 and bottom 5 schools receiving money from the CPS, of which the top 5 are charter schools. Chicago Public Fools also released a list of the top 9 expenses that CPS finds worthy, a piece called ‘Top 9 things CPS is spending money on like it’s not broke,’ written by a contributor called South Side CPS Mom. Overall, I’ve been impressed by the speed at which parents are spreading information online.

In addition, parents joined forces with lawyers last week to bring the school closures fight to federal court. Parents filed two lawsuits against the CPS: one claimed that school closures disproportionately affect African-American and minority students, while the second claimed that “welcoming schools” could not have time to properly prepare for incoming students with disabilities, and thus that the district is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hearing went on for 4 days, with parents contributing testimony along with teachers and CPS officials. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of parents and supported by the CTU. The judge will announce a decision on the potential injunction in August.

Human Rights Activists: This is a new player in the fight, and one that I am particularly intrigued by. Human rights activists have sent the issue of school closures to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The letter of allegation is entitled “Letter of Allegation Regarding the Closing of 49 Public Elementary Schools in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America” and was sent on behalf of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. The issues covered in the allegation include the dangers posed to minority and disabled students that have been covered by the lawsuit. In addition, the letter of allegation also claims that the closures violate international human rights law concerning:

  • The right to equality and non-discrimination in education
  • The right to be free from violence and the right to life
  • The right to quality of education
  • The right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs
  • Justification of lack of financial resources

Whether the claim that CPS closures violate international human rights law has enough merit to make the CPS the center of a UN investigation–or even any merit at all–has yet to be seen. Regardless, I am very excited by the interest that human rights advocates have shown in the fight to save the Chicago public schools. All of the players listed above have made a tremendous effort to show that democratic and active citizenship is a spirit that is still alive in America, but the human rights advocates have made a point to highlight a deeper truth: we must remember that we are accountable to something greater than our own nation, greater than even our own democracy. CPS must be held accountable to the fundamental value that exists in educating and protecting children.

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Paul Vallas in Bridgeport, Democracy Gone Bad

Let’s talk about one Mr. Paul Vallas.

The New York Times published a story on July 21st called ‘Change Agent in Education Collects Critics in Connecticut Town.’ To be honest, I don’t know why this story wasn’t published weeks ago. Additionally, I find fault with the title of the story: firstly, Vallas is not a “change agent,” and secondly, Vallas is not collecting critics in Connecticut. Mr. Vallas now has vehemently upset critics all over the country, because this is not a story of a Connecticut school reformer gone bad. This is the story of American school reform gone bad.

I do believe that Vallas, like many, started off as a ‘good guy.’ I want to believe that he was simply someone who saw problems with the school system and wanted to help change that system. I want to believe that Vallas had good intentions. But it’s hard to believe that when it is quite apparent that Vallas has never once engaged in self-reflective behavior, an attitude that is becoming all too common among so-called school reformers.

The importance of self-reflection is something I find I cannot emphasize enough. Vallas first became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 1995. He was made CEO of the CPS by the first Mayor Daley, after Daley convinced Illinois to put the large urban school system under mayoral control. As Diane Ravitch puts it, “Paul Vallas was the first of non-educators to get the top job of reforming public education.” The position of CEO of the CPS is still seen as Vallas’ first major position as an education reformer, and according to him, a successful one. But this could not be further from the truth. If anything, Vallas focused on storytelling during his reign as CEO of the CPS, and conveniently neglected to investigate the data, all of which showed the falsity of his storytelling. He claimed that dropout rates had decreased by a whopping 50%, even though this was only possibly true when the definition of dropout from CPS was changed to leave out all students who left the public schools and eventually received training at night school. Not only is this egotistical and non-reflective self-evaluation, but a clear example of complete dismissal of data and logic.

After Chicago, Vallas went on to “reform” schools all over the country. By “reform,” I am, of course, referring to the self-serving act of traveling around the country posing for photographs with minority students while disregarding their needs in order to achieve political power and fame. From Chicago, Vallas went on to work in school districts in places such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and even Haiti. Vallas became known for his work in urban school districts that were poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly minority. In reality, the policies he enacted had a largely negative impact on minority and lower-class students. Unfortunately, the truth received much less recognition than the artificial political legacy that Vallas was busy crafting for himself.

Substance News, a newspaper focused on news concerning public education, published a story called The Paul Vallas I Knew, a piece which outlined the outwardly racist attitude that Vallas encouraged with many of his education policies in Chicago. Substance News republished the piece last week, in a response to the current national outcry against Vallas. The decision to republish this piece should not be seen as a “we told you so” moment. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that it is our duty as members of our political system to read the news when it is available to us and express our outrage as soon as it is deserved, not 11 years later when the problem has gotten so out of control that millions of school communities have already been killed by the policies that have been in the works for over a decade.

The current controversy concerning Vallas, the controversy that has finally had enough traction to gain the attention of the American people, concerns the Bridgeport, CT school system. Vallas was made superintendent of the Bridgeport schools earlier this year, signing a 3-year contract with the Bridgeport school board in March. Carmen Lopez filed a lawsuit against him and the school board, claiming that Vallas never completed a state-mandated leadership program and was therefore not qualified or legally able to have the job. On June 28th, a Superior Court judge in Connecticut ruled that Lopez was correct, and ordered that Vallas be removed from his position as superintendent.

What I find incredible is that the city, the school board, and Vallas still do not comprehend the ruling (which they are, by the way, appealing). Instead of Vallas completing the mandated 13 months of training, Vallas received a waiver that allowed him to complete his certification in fewer than ten days. “There is no doubt,” the judge wrote in her decision, “that Vallas received preferential treatment.” How Vallas could argue otherwise is a mystery to me. Arne Duncan continues to play dumb along with him, saying that the whole situation is “beyond ludicrous.” Arne Duncan is claiming that it is “beyond ludicrous” that people with the fame and prestige of school reform politicians should have to follow the law. To be fair, there are others who continue to defend Vallas who may not be as power-hungry and egomaniacal as Duncan (for instance, see ‘In Defense of Paul Vallas‘).

It is my sincere (albeit dim) hope that the case of Vallas and Bridgeport may come to some good. This is an opportunity to change the way the American public sees “education reformers.” These people are not gods; they are power-mongering businessmen-turned-politicians who, in rare cases, are also convicted of using their power to betray the public and pursue illegal means to achieve power. But this is also an opportunity to rethink the way we see politics, the way we read our news and force our voices into the public sphere. Vallas famously called blogging “electronic graffiti,” but I say let this ruling against him offer encouragement to the bloggers, tweeters, and other 21st century citizens of this nation. Let’s raise our voices and make sure politicians know that we will not allow Vallas or anyone else to say their privilege puts them above the law. As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a story of American school reform gone bad. But even more so, I realize now, this is a story of democracy gone bad. The ruling against Vallas’ special privilege is a step in the right direction, it’s now up to the American public to continue the fight.

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