A Guest Blog from Pete Leki on education in the 47th ward
Our Alderman, Ameya Pawar, recently released his education initiative. His major emphasis was that we needed to focus on helping our two, non-selective enrollment High Schools to become top notch and highly desirable destinations for our children.
Selective enrollment schools don't have the capacity to enroll the numbers of qualified applicants that exists, and this is one reason that families are leaving the 47th ward for the suburbs. Ameya asserts that most suburban schools offer a high quality and seamless transition from elementary to middle to high school, without the anxiety (and often disappointment)-ridden year of applying to magnet schools. Perhaps more importantly, he believes that every child should have access to top quality education at their local high school. Period.
So Ameya hopes to focus transparent TIF dollars and the networking and organizational resources of his office to assist these two schools. He notes that all residents have a stake in building and maintaining hi-quality schools because of their impact on property values, job creation, and social stability. The ward should offer a life that welcomes new families, that provides jobs and education, that has excellent mass transit access, amenities like parks, bike routes, pedestrian ways, cultural venues, gardens, restaurants and shopping, and that offers security and peacefulness for older residents.
Ameya outlined what he thought were four essential "levers" that came together in "successful" schools:
"What happened at Bell, Coonley, Audubon and Waters Elementary cannot simply be viewed in a
"if this – then that‟ lens. The key ingredients were parents and community. Everything else was
organic and involved four key levers working simultaneously.
Here are the four levers:
1. Parental/community involvement ~ e.g. Friends of Bell, Friends of Audubon, etc.
2. Perception change ~ Parent led organizing efforts boosted community confidence and enrollment
3. Outside fundraising ~ Non-CPS money supplemented school programming
4. Cultivating school leadership ~ Community partners with school leaders to meet benchmarks
Note: All four levers must be moving simultaneously in order to be successful"
He prefaced this argument with the understanding that the confluence of things that create a great school are sometimes contingent and happenstance, "organic" in his words. This is what makes each school distinct.
This made me think about Waters and our 20 year journey towards a better school and community. In 1991, Waters School was in dire straits, with about 30% of the students testing at or above standards. It was a battered and sad school. More than 95% of our students were listed as living in poverty. Many were new immigrants and second language learners. School Reform and our first Council and SIP in 1991, gave us the impulse, responsibility and power to try to improve the school. Our immediate need to hire a new principal led us into a partnership with National Louis' University's Center for City Schools, and a group of progressive, visionary, real-world professors who coached our council and subsequently led our professional development. From those hopeful, inspired beginnings, Waters built a new teaching and learning culture that included:
- integration of the disciplines and subjects;
- classroom learning communities that were safe and supportive places for children to construct their understanding of the world, to question and takes chances;
- involvement of parents and the community in the educational adventure, with everyone learning and growing;
- throwing open the doors to involve our students in real-world work, exploration and involvement, and inviting the world in.
Our colleagues and Principal repeatedly urged the teachers to "do the good stuff", projects and initiatives, collaborations and integrations, and to pay no attention to test scores.
Yet very soon, the test scores, incidentally, began their slow, steady rise. And these poor and working class families became more and more sophisticated about teaching, learning and the politics of public education. The LSC was chock full of parents who had attended professional development institutes and seminars with teachers and administrators, and were therefor supportive of the schools courageous philosophy and methodology.
The turn of the century brought two disruptive and troubling changes.
First, the advent of a national government wedded to high stakes testing, ranking, and punishment for failing schools.
And, the housing bubble that caused neighborhood rents to soar, and the wholesale conversion of apartment buildings to condominiums.
Waters saw scores of its involved, educated and much loved families leave for less expensive neighborhoods.
Waters, at that time, had very few affluent or highly educated families in attendance. Those neighborhood students were being sent to magnet and private schools. To many of those families, Waters was run-down, low-scoring, Spanish-speaking and a little scary.
Waters enrollment numbers plummeted as the bubble stretched and expanded.
Threatened with closure, Waters made overtures to those new and more affluent families. A series of public meetings were held in which the philosophy, innovative programs, and successes of the school were explained, and the invitation was issued to "make Waters your school".
Since that time Waters has had a large demographic shift, and yet has, to an extent, been able to maintain its philosophical mission. A new and different type of parent involvement was added to our traditional style. Fund raising, grant writing, resource procurement all have become integral to providing a whole new range of opportunities for all our students.
I have summarized Water's experience because I want to set it apart from the experiences of other school whose community's were gentrified. "Turning a school around" by replacing a struggling, poor, and poorly educated community with an affluent, well educated one, only confirms what we have known for a long time: hi-stakes testing reveals (and correlates to) family income and education. Poor, unresourced kids do badly. Affluent, well-resourced kids do better. Hi-stakes testing is a narcissistic affirmation for the culture of priviledge. It is so, very limited. It says nothing of what skills, and experience and wisdom poor and immigrant families might bring to the community, not to mention second language skills.
And to boast about test scores at Lane or Northside College Prep is meaningless, since our children are sorted before the testing starts. Low scoring kids to low scoring schools, hi to high.
This becomes important because if we are to try to help develop an Amundsen High School that is neighborhood treasure and sought out by residents, we need to do so without removing its struggling students and displacing their families. It will be an undertaking that will take long term commitment of funds, support, vision and mission. I believe it is essential that the school be firmly partnered with a University that challenges, monitors and develops the teaching practice at the school. From experience, I know that this is a very difficult task to accomplish within a gigantic school system like Chicago's, shackled to a political culture that is compelled to lurch from one "great new initiative" to the next during every election cycle.
It is also dependant on a better life for struggling school families: health care, affordable housing and jobs.I don't believe that schools, alone, can transform students that come from desperate family situations.
This is perhaps the most despicable of myths perpetrated by our governments over the past 50 years: that schools in poor neighborhoods are failing because of bad teachers, bad administrators and bad families. To expect schools to raise up their communities through some kind of superhuman capacity that dwells within mythic teachers, is to refuse to take political responsibility for poverty stricken, crime and gang infested neighborhoods that dominate our city. It is cowardly, in that it blames the most stressed out, and covers up the larceny of the governmental and corporate status quo.
Alderman Pawar's initiative is important because it asks us to care about our whole neighborhood - not just our "own school" and our own child. We are all affected by the success or failure of institutions in our community.
The Alderman's help in creating "Friends of.." groups to assist struggling schools is welcomed and visionary. If Waters had such a group 15 years ago our progress might have been more swift. And if we had help finding affordable housing alternatives for our school families, they might not have fled. In fact, they might have found a way to gain some benefit from the rising housing values that they helped to create.
I think that we need to directly address the fact that diversity in our school communities, both ethnic and economic, is a desirable. This means assisting families in need with jobs, health care, and housing. Otherwise, we will only be chasing the poor and working class from our Ward, raising up the median by banishing the most needy. Raising up everyone, every school, is a courageous undertaking and commitment. I wonder if we can stick with it, like real neighbors, like a community?