Chicago Board of Education cuts off speakers, leaves 18 people in "holding room"

Not one member of the Chicago Board of Education objected when Board Vice President Clare Munana announced on December 16, 2009, that public comments were ending, even though 18 people who had taken the day off were being denied the right to speak. Munana told the Board and the public that the Board would take written comments (noting that could include "handwritten" comments), but that was small comfort to those who had taken the day off work to go to a meeting that is always held during what used to be called "Bankers' House" (Board meetings begin at 10:30 in the morning and are held in the Loop, where it can cost as much as $29 to park for three hours or more) in one of the most expensive parts of Chicago.

Substance offered to publish the written comments of anyone who was denied the right to speak.

We received the following from one of those who was signed up to speak and who was cut off by Munana.

Valerie Leonard had listed her topic as "Magnet school enrollment policy" and provided us with the following by e-mail:

Public Comments

Proposed Changes to the Admissions Policies for

Magnet and Selective Enrollment Schools

Presented by Valerie F. Leonard

December 16, 2009

Good morning. My name is Valerie Leonard. I am a North Lawndale resident and I oppose the proposed changes to the admissions policies for magnet and selective enrollment schools.

The proposed process attempts to ignore race in a society where race drives everything. Access to high quality education, upward mobility and wealth attainment can be statistically tied to race. As long as there are significant achievement gaps along racial lines, race does matter, and must be considered as a factor in the enrollment process. Isolating socioeconomic factors that impact school achievement is meaningless if you ignore race. Using a “color blind” system does not make racial disparities go away, they just give more room for issues to fester, like cancer.

I am also concerned that the new rules could “de-magnetize” the schools, as their applicant pools will increasingly draw from the surrounding community, and rely less upon a citywide applicant pool. Effectively, the magnet schools will become neighborhood schools. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, however, children from other communities with limited education options will see their school choices reduced even further. A recent study by Catalyst Chicago indicates that 11 of the top 15 magnet schools in the City of Chicago are in predominantly white neighborhoods. It is not uncommon for these schools to have well over 90% of the students meeting or exceeding state standards.

In stark contrast, North Lawndale, a community that is 93% African American, with a median family income of $24,000, has 22 elementary schools. As of 2008, only 2 of the schools were performing as well or better than citywide averages in reading. The city of Chicago’s performance lagged the State of Illinois’ performance by 10 percentage points in 2008. The State of Illinois academic standards are among the lowest in the nation. In fact there are only 4 states with lower standards. The top performing high school in North Lawndale had 15% of its students meeting state standards on the PSAE in reading. Only 38% of the students graduated in 2004.

Giving preference to siblings of current magnet school students could also provide certain families with an “inside track”, and leave the door open for nepotism at taxpayers’ expense. A 2007 study conducted by Catalyst Chicago indicates that the African American enrollment in Chicago’s magnet and selective enrollment schools decreased from 37% in 1995 to 29% in 2007. The new rules could lead to further reduction in the numbers of African Americans attending magnet schools, as a number of African Americans have been displaced from communities with magnet schools. If we’re not careful, we could return to “Separate But Equal” implicitly based on race, class and family ties.

The process to identify the pool of students is too complex, and cannot be easily verified by the general public. No system should be so complicated that the only people who understand it are the CPS CEO and the programmer who will be entering the data. When you have systems that so few people understand--yet have major implications for public policy--you have a recipe for disaster. The more complex a process is, the less transparency you have, and fewer checks and balances. You also foster an environment of distrust between CPS and the community, even though everything could be done above board. The system should be simple enough for the lay person, parent, board member or CPS staff to monitor or review with minimal assistance. That's governance and management best practice 101.

If CPS wants to take into account factors other than race to yield diversity within magnet schools, I submit to you that a cleaner way to do this would be by making sure there's representation from the 77 community areas, as opposed to 875 census tracks clustered together based on certain factors. A lottery could be held within each of the community areas to yield candidates for magnet schools.

Increasing the chances of African Americans being admitted to, and retained by selective enrollment schools would require massive changes, and go beyond CPS:

1) Parents and guardians need to be more involved in their kids’ education. Students whose parents or guardians are engaged in their education are more likely to perform well in school.

2) Community leaders must engage CPS and local citizens in public discussions around education policy. Communities that exhibit higher levels of civic engagement tend to have higher quality schools that serve their needs.

3) CPS should design the curriculum in local elementary schools to prepare students to test well and matriculate through selective enrollment schools. This would include greater access to gifted programs in each neighborhood school.

4) There should be increased quality in the local community high schools, with strong support from the feeder schools. A good community-based model would be Morgan Park, a predominantly African American community on Chicago’s South Side. Morgan Park High School, which reportedly has one of the highest percentages of students performing well on advanced placement (AP) tests in the City, maintains strong relationships with its neighborhood feeder schools. That model needs to be replicated citywide so we’re not having this same discussion 20 years from now.


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