Hunger strikers protest Chicago’s disinvestment in public education

Supporters of the Dyett 12 held a Labor Day solidarity gathering on the grounds of Walter Dyett High School where the 12 hunger strikers have spent their days since the beginning of the strike on August 17.

The hunger strikers are fighting to reopen Walter Dyett High School in a way that best serves the needs of the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood, a predominately African-American neighborhood with a rich cultural history on Chicago’s South Side.

Dyett is one of the 50 public schools that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education have closed since he took office in 2011.

The school closures, according to the Coalition to Revitalize Walter Dyett High School, whose members are participating in the hunger strike, are part of calculated disinvestment in public education by Mayor Emmanuel.

“We’ve been pushed to point of putting our bodies on the line,” said Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers in a YouTube video. “We say enough is a enough. We are tired of the destabilization of our community schools. We are tired of schools being sabotaged from the very beginning. It’s not the result of bad teaching. It’s not the result of disinterested parents and students. It’s the result of the disinvestment in Chicago schools.”

Brown is a leader of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, one of the  groups that belongs to the coalition.

The coalition has been working to improve education at Dyett for more than a decade and has had some success. In 2008, Dyett had the highest increase of graduating students attending post secondary schools and in 2009, the highest decrease in out-of-school suspensions and arrests.

But in 2012, the school board citing poor academic performance and declining enrollment, announced that Dyett would close in June 2015.

After parents, students, teachers, and community members, who had invested so much in Dyett’s turn around, protested the closure, the board decided that it would consider proposals for a new school at the Dyett location.

The coalition held a series of public meetings, focus groups, and other information gathering events that involved 3,000 Bronzeville residents.

Based on what they heard from community members, the coalition in April presented a proposal to the school board that called for the re-opening of the high school as the Walter H. Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

The proposal’s vision statement calls for a new school rooted in the history Bronzeville, which for nearly a century has been a center for African American culture.

The proposal also envisioned a school that “prepare(s) all students for post-secondary education or meaningful career opportunities,” collaborates with the Bronzeville community, and provides “wrap-around support for every student,” which would include staying open until 8:00 P.M. to provide public space where students can study, receive tutoring, and take advantage of the social services that the school will provide.

The new school would also be an open enrollment campus.

Two other proposals were submitted, one would turn Dyett into an arts-based school operated by a charter school company and the other would make Dyett a magnet school for students wishing to pursue a career in athletics.

At a June public forum on the competing proposals, speakers from the community overwhelmingly supported the coalition’s proposal to turn Dyett into a global leadership and green technology based high school.

The school board was to hold a public hearing on the proposals on August 10 and then vote on the proposals on August 26, but the board canceled the August 10 meeting.

That’s when the coalition decided that it was time to take action and called for the hunger strike.

After the hunger strike began, some of the strikers traveled to Washington DC to seek support from the Obama administration. The hunger strikers were accompanied by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten when they met with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss their proposal.

After the meeting, the strikers returned to Chicago to wait for a decision by Mayor Emmanuel and the school board.

Bill McCaffery, a school board spokesman, said the board would  carry out “a community-driven process to select a new high-quality school for the former Dyett site.”

A few days later without any community input, the board issued what it called a compromise for ending the strike–Dyett would be converted into an arts-based magnet school.

Noting that the board’s so-called compromise was not based any input from the community or for that matter, the public at large, the hunger strikers refused to call off the strike.

The coalition is urging people to continue supporting the Dyett 12 by participating in a tweet-in and by joining other supporters for a rally and silent march to President Obama’s house on September 8. Supporters plan to continue the marches and rallies until Dyett is reopened in a way that reflects the wishes of the community.

Chicago teachers bargain to transform education

When the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on March 27 began negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, CTU President Karen Lewis was joined at the bargaining table by 50 teachers and education support personnel representing CTU members.

The union is bargaining for a new collective bargaining agreement that transforms education in Chicago.

“Our new contract will reflect our values as educators, and the stake we have—and our city should have—in the education of the children we serve,” said Lewis. “There is absolutely no greater interest for our members than the lives of their students, and we look forward to honest, transparent conversations with the (CPS) Board on how to strengthen the district and provide adequate resources for all of its students, their families, and the city our students deserve.”

The union wants smaller class sizes, more preparation time for teachers, adequate support staffing such as nurses, counselors, librarians, etc. at all schools, but especially in those schools in under served communities, and for CPS to make pre-K classes available to more working class families.

But the union’s bargaining demands go much further.

To make education more participatory and more relevant, the union wants CPS to create 50 sustainable community schools where communities and students will participate in developing curriculum that “reflects the experience and identities of our students.”

CTU’s most far-reaching demands challenge economic and educational orthodoxy.

For example, the orthodox view on teaching is that it isn’t really a profession. It doesn’t require rigorous training and years of experience to master. In fact, it’s so easy that anyone with a college degree and youthful exuberance can teach and teach well.

That’s why a 1990s bipartisan piece of legislation created Teach for America, which pays our best and brightest college graduates a stipend to teach temporarily in communities where poverty is high and income low.

Teach for America isn’t about training a cadre of well qualified teachers with a long-term commitment to quality education.

It is, instead, about giving college graduates an opportunity to perform two years of community service before they embark on their real careers.

So far, Teach for America has done little to improve education in the US.

It has, however, provided charter school operators with a pool of temps who act as teachers. These low-paid temps help lower labor costs for charter school operators, which help boost their profits.

Some of CPS’ budget is used to subsidize the local Teach for America program.

CTU is proposing that CPS divert public tax dollars that subsidize Teach for America into a program that recruits and retains teachers and other education professionals committed to education as a career and profession.

CTU is calling this program Grow Your Own, and its purpose would be to help former CPS graduates return to Chicago’s public school classrooms as teachers and other education professionals, so that CPS can “develop a more diverse and local teaching force” that is committed to education for the long haul.

CTU is also calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion and union rights for those who work in charter schools.

The economic orthodoxy on public school funding is that money is scarce for all public services, especially public education; therefore, austerity measures such as closing neighborhood schools, cutting enrichment programs like music, art, and physical education, and laying off teachers and support staff are the only sensible way to deal with the problems of public education.

CTU has a different view. According to the union, money that should be going to fund quality education is being diverted to Wall Street and corporate America.

CTU is demanding that CPS and the city of Chicago take action to get that money back.

One of the union’s bargaining demands is for CPS to take legal action to recover at least $1 billion that CPS has lost to Wall Street banks because of excessive fees on bond deals, bond deals that were arguably fraudulent, and predatory lending practices, all of which have been documented in a recent ReFund America Project report entitled, ““Our Kind of Town: A Financial Plan that Puts Chicago’s Communities First.

In addition to being victimized by shady bond deals, hundreds of millions of dollars in public school revenue has been siphoned away to selected corporations.

The city of Chicago has a program called tax increment financing (TIF), which allows selected corporations to avoid paying taxes.

CTU is demanding that public revenue diverted to corporations by TIF be returned to Chicago’s schools.

“We demand that Chicago’s leaders treat our children as the priority—not the bankers and stock-traders who fund their campaigns,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice-president of CTU. “If we are to be accountable to the needs of our children, we will have to hold the wealthy accountable for the massive investments that our schools deserve.”

What do you get for $340 million? Filthy schools

School principals in Chicago are complaining that since the Chicago Public Schools privatized custodial services their schools have not been properly cleaned and that as a result, they are spending too much time dealing with cleanliness issues rather than education.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Board of Education decided to privatize school custodial services and awarded school cleaning contracts to two multi-national corporate vendors, Aramark and Sodexmagic. The cost of the contracts over a three-year period is $340 million.

As a result of the privatization deal, school custodians report to their private employer rather than school principals.

The board promised that the privatization deal and the change in command resulting from it would lead to better services at a lower costs.

But a recent survey of principals found that custodial services have deteriorated badly since Aramark and Sodexmagic began cleaning the schools. According to the results of the survey, many Chicago schools are just plain filthy.

Valerie Strauss, writing for the Washington Post, reports that Chicago principals in the survey complained of “serious problems with rodents, roaches and other bugs, filthy toilets, missing supplies such as toilet paper and soap, and broken furniture.”

One of the reasons that schools aren’t getting cleaned is the private contractors have not hired enough custodial staff.

“I am still trying to figure out how we care going to clean the schools with four (cleaning staff) in a school that has 1,000 kids,” wrote one school custodian in comments appearing in an article published by Catalyst Chicago.

The understaffing problem looks to get even worse. Aramark has announced that by the end of September, it will lay off 476 school custodians, a 20 percent staff reduction.

When the layoffs occur, the problems keeping the schools clean “will only be exacerbated,” said Julie Valentine, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 1 to the Chicago Sun Times.

The filthy state of Chicago’s schools has caused a number of principals to publicly voice their complaints about the private contractors.

Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary in an e-mail to other principals that was partially reprinted by Strauss,  called the contracts with Aramark and Sodexmagic a “massive unethical wast of tax dollars.”

“That’s $300 million that should have been committed to education of the children in you schools; instead, those funds are being squandered to the profits of a corporation with a history of being ridden (with scandals) across the United States,” wrote LaRaviere.

LaRaviere is the chair of Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy in Legislation and Education, a group of activist principals within the Chicago Principals and Administration Association.

AAPPLE was the group that initiated the survey that resulted in so many negative responses from Chicago principals. Fixing the custodial problems has become a priority AAPPLE. Instead of overseeing education too many principals are spending too much time trying to keep their schools clean, said LaRaviere in his e-mail

According to LaRaviere, if Aramark and Sodexmagic can’t deliver the services that they promised, CPS should void their contracts.


Chicago parents, teachers boycott standarized test; union supports them

The Chicago Teachers Union said that it is standing with parents and teachers boycotting a standardized test that they describe as a low-stakes test that interferes with learning. The union said that it is prepared to “mount a strong defense of (the parents’ and teachers’) collective action.”

More than 500 parents at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, a pre-K through 8th grade public school, have signed opt-out letters saying that their children will not take the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), which Chicago public school students are scheduled to begin taking on March 3.

On Tuesday, February 25, Saucedo teachers announced that they had voted unanimously not to administer the test.

“We are taking this step of civil disobedience because we love our children and students,” said Sarah Chambers, a Saucedo teacher at a media conference announcing the unanimous vote. “The unjust regime of over-testing and over-testing is inhumane. (The boycott) is one step towards reclaiming humanity, and the joy of learning and education.”

On February 27, Chicago Public School boss Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that teachers who refuse to administer the ISAT could have their teaching certificates revoked.

The ISAT, which takes eight days to administer, is being phased out of use. This year will be the last year that it will be given.

ISAT is being replaced by the Northwest Education Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), which Chicago students will take later this year.

According to CTU, “The ISAT . . . is not aligned to any (Chicago Public School) curriculum, and in Chicago, it is no longer used to measure student progress, school performance, promotion, or for any other purpose.”

“The Saucedo educators have taken a bold step in refusing to administer a test that is of no use to students and will be junked by the district next year,” said Sharkey. “Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has already said the ISAT will not be used for selective enrollment, and therefore this serves no purpose other than to give students another standardized test.”

Sharkey also said that parents at other schools have signed opt out letters excusing their children from taking the test.

More Than a Score, a coalition of parents and teachers, has been urging Chicago parents to sign opt out letters, which, so far, more than 1,000 parents have signed.

At the February 25 media conference, Derlina Smith, a Saucedo parent, explained why she joined the opt out movement.

“Our kids need to be learning while they’re at school. They do not need to be over-tested and stressed about a test that does not matter,” said Smith. “It will be discontinued next year, so why does CPS feel as though it’s necessary?”

According to school administrators, schools are required by the state to administer the ISAT.

The state this year paid Pearson, a company that develops and markets standardized tests including the ISAT, $18 million for the test. Chicago Public Schools’ share of this payment is $3 million.

CPS administrators are saying that the ISAT won’t disrupt learning during the two weeks it is administered, but a post on the More Than a Score Facebook page suggests otherwise:

Disruption caused by the ISAT is far more than the 6-8 hours of testing. Even students not in 3-8th grade have disrupted schedules during the testing window; with specials cancelled so that teachers may proctor exams, etc.  We know of at least one school that will be dismissed early (before noon) for the three days of testing.

Special ed students who need testing accommodations can take many more than 6-8 hours to test, and their teachers are lost to administering the test for weeks.

This doesn’t even begin to cover the hours and dollars devoted to ISAT prep time over the months preceding the tests.