BOARDWATCH: Report on the May 26, 2010 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education

The monthly Chicago Board of Education (BOE) meeting held on Wednesday, May 26, 2010, in the fifth floor chambers at 125 S. Clark Street, Chicago, included an extra dose of security for those who wished to attend. A stretch cord between posts, similar to those seen in theaters to control people, was in evidence in the hallway to the fifth floor chambers for the second month in a row. After making the public go through a metal detector in the lobby, CPS officials added a second bottleneck and security point between the elevators and the room where the Board meets.

Chicago Board of Education President Mary Richardson-Lowry (above during the May 26, 2010 Board meeting) doesn't even pretend to respect the public participation portions of the meeting or the people who take the time and spend the money to try and bring important matters to those who rule the third largest public school system in the USA. Richardson-Lowry's hostility to democratic participation is evidenced from the paranoid security she has insisted on on the days the Board meetings and her snappish responses to anyone — including elected officials — who disagrees with anything CPS is doing. Richardson-Lowry began he rise in Chicago with service at City Hall under Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was her patron. She became a partner in one of the most powerful Republican law firms in the city while continuing to service the mayor in various functions, especially overseeing the controversial Tax Increment Financing (TIF) programs. The only part of her biography that she even mentions at Board meetings is that her parents were allegedly school teachers — not the fact that her entire career as an attorney has been devoted to faithful service to Mayor Daley and corporate Chicago's agendas. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Security personnel checked identification and sent those who were not allowed to enter to an overflow room on the 15th floor, where they were supposed to watch the Board meeting on closed circuit TV, rather than in person. It was clearly meant to harass anyone from the general public who wanted to attend the rare meeting of the Board, a signal like a "UNWELCOME" sign.

The meeting began with the usual "good news" preceding the public participation. Golden Apple teachers; winners of children's essay and poster contests. Enough, combined with the big one (see next paragraph) to drain an hour from the time people would have to participate in the Board meeting. Completely controlling the agenda is obviously a significant objective of the members of the Chicago Board of Education and their Chief Executive Officer.

One item on the "good news" agenda was a farewell homage to Barbara Eason-Watkins, Chief Education Officer (CEO). Dr. Eason-Watkins, who was first appointed to the post by Arne Duncan during the summer of 2001, is leaving to be Superintendent of Schools in Michigan City, Indiana. Among those who paid a loving tribute to Ms. Eason-Watkins was her husband, a dentist. Among others who spoke of Ms. Eason-Watkins' tenure was Wanda Hopkins (PURE), who mentioned that she has nieces and nephews in Michigan City, so she might be there to see Ms. Eason-Watkins again. She added,"I thank God for losing you so you can blossom in Michigan City." The only other members of the public who spoke in favor of Eason-Watkins were two people from the citywide bilingual council.

Because, she said, she likes when people give her flowers to honor her, Board President Mary Richardson-Lowry presented Ms. Eason-Watkins with a large bouquet of flowers to honor her for her 35 years of service. She told Dr. Eason-Watkins she could leave with her husband rather than stay for the rest of the meeting. Dr. Eason-Watkins thanked the Board and acknowledged Arne Duncan and Ron Huberman, previous and present Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). She remarked that she had always been an advocate for children. A partial standing ovation followed, and she left with her husband, returning later for the final portion of the Board meeting.

More than an hour after the Board began meeting — at 11:37 A.M. — the public participation portion of the the meeting began. For the third month in a row, President Mary Richardson-Lowry made it clear she was interested in control, not dialogue, with a reminder of the rules: keep the aisles clear, adhere to the two-minute rule for speaking, group speakers on the same topic, and maintain a courteous manner. As the meeting went on, it was clearer to many that the message was "Say what you have to say, then sit down and shut up. We have more important things to do than listen to you..."

As has also become clear, most of the promises the Board and CEO make when speakers bring serious problems to the public participation are not kept. Last month, Richardson-Lowry repeated over and over, like a chant, "We'll take that under advisement." By May, it was clear to more and more people that the meaning of that statement was "We'll continue to ignore you..."

Alderman Tom Allen (38th Ward) spoke in favor of O.A. Thorp at the May 26 Chicago Board of Education meeting, asking the Board to rescind the reduction of kindergarten from full-day to half-day. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Alderman Thomas Allen, of the 38th Ward, who was there with parents of students at O. A. Thorp school at their request, spoke against the Kindergarten day being shortened from a full day to a half day. He asked that it be kept at full time.

Joining him were Margaret Chaet, Local School Council (LSC) chair, and several parents. Ms. Cheat told the Board that her daughter graduated two years ago and now attends Lincoln Park High School and that her son is in seventh grade. She expressed concerns about the possibility of busing being cut next year and the closing of Thorp's full-day kindergarten by order of Ron Huberman.

Margaret Cheat (above at microphone), President of the O.A. Thorp Local School Council, was joined by several Thorp parents and Alderman Tom Allen (far right) asking the Board to return full-day kindergarten to the school. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Margaret Cheat was followed by Thorp parent Virginia Sabella, who told the Board that her children finished full-day kindergarten being able to read, write, do basic math. Because of the closing of the full-day kindergarten, she said, her next child will be able to attend only 2 1/2 hours a day. She asked if there was any way to maintain the full day kindergarten. Ron Huberman (CEO) told her that the Board shares her and the other Thorp speakers' commitment to full-day kindergarten. He said that school district officials are petitioning the state for funds to do this and will continue to work with the state to get full funding.

Next to speak was Larry Ligas, a parent at Skinner Classical School. He spoke of the dangerous and hostile environment that his son, now a fifth grader in the gifted program, has to endure. He said his son has been bullied by students, taunted by teachers, and the principal at Skinner won't acknowledge the bullying that is taking place. He held up emails as proof of these statements. He was referred to Patrick Rocks, BOE Counsel, who will look at the entire record and will get together with his team and Mr. Ligas.

O'Kema Lewis, who introduces herself as a "Title I community resident," mentioned that Lincoln Park High School (L.P.H.S.) is not making Annual Year Progress (AYP) and is on an academic watch status. She said Title I funds were not given for the qualifying subgroup. She quoted a number of statistics and said that when money was carried over, it was not spent for the purpose for which it was intended. She wanted to know where the public document on state and federal dollars will be located so parents can view it.

Ronald Johnson, who identified himself as "a concerned citizen," wanted to know if the BOE had considered outsourcing of collection monies due the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Mr. Rocks told him we have a firm, plus in-house. Sara Echevaria of Roberto Clemente High School, said the quality of public education is being eroded because they are surrounded by charters schools which get to select students and can return the students to their home public schools. She also said cuts are disrupting programs and student stability. She concluded by saying that TIF money is for our schools. She added that Mr. Huberman was invited to the school in October and they are still waiting for him to come.

LaDisa Stamps, of Dewey, a school on probation, said that two weeks after the SIPPA was returned to the school, it was discovered that the gym teacher had been cut from the plan for a technology person. Mr. Rocks replied that we will need to work with the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) regarding the use of funds.

Cielo Munoz, of William Penn Elementary School, spoke of fire violations that have been fixed, but mentioned concerns that they still have. KIPP, which shares the building with Penn, asked for four more rooms and tried to recruit Penn students at an Open House. Both schools are increasing in enrollment. Cielo Munoz was referred to Pat Taylor.

Margaret Pollet, Montefiore principal, who is retiring on June 30th, thanked Mr. Huberman for keeping Montefiore open and expanding it to a four-year high school. She asked the BOE to give Dick Smith their support and also thanked the BOE for gifts to the children.

Jonas Carter, of Blocks Together, wants better training for security personnel. Michael Shields will speak to Jonas Carter and set a date and time for a meeting. Ana Mercado, also of Blocks Together, presented a plan to the BOE. She was told if a resolution was not satisfactory or further follow-up was needed she could speak to Mr. Huberman.

Jesse Sharkey, teacher at Senn High School and vice-presidential candidate for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate, spoke of the effects of cuts on the schools. He said that we want to see the actual budget and told the BOE to open the books and at least tell us who is being laid off. He added that we need honesty and that the budget is being inflated for political effect. He ventured that freezing teacher pay is part of the plan that has not yet been revealed. He concluded by saying it is not fair to solve the crisis on the backs of the teachers.

Alfred Rodgers, LSCAB, spoke of the new schools on the southwest side and safety factors at Lionel Hampton School.

Mery Mercado, of J. N. Thorp School at 89th and Baltimore, said that Thorp does not want to share space with a charter school that is there. She said the charter school was supposed to get the old building, that Thorp does not have room for the charter, and she does not want her grand-daughter to have to share a bathroom with boys. She was told Ms.Taylor will speak with Ms. Mercado about this facilities issue.

Maximo Ramirez of Stowe School asked for a connector building and fresh food for the students. Without a kitchen, fresh food cannot be prepared for the students. In addition, it was remarked that Michelle Obama is trying to improve the health of young people through better nutrition. Alexandra Martin, also of Stowe, read a letter from Roberto Maldonado, Alderman of the 26th Ward, in support of a kitchen to prepare fresh food.

Marilyn Stewart, President of the CTU, acknowledged the contributions of Ms. Eason-Watkins and spoke of her "institutional memory." Ms. Stewart asked about a hiring freeze for new teachers. She said hiring from outside should be avoided when postions could be filled from inside. She remarked that the suburbs do not hire new teachers before teachers inside are rehired. She said that AUSL and Teach for America should be put on hold. She added that she wants to meet with Ms. Lowry and Mr. Huberman next week or as soon as possible. Ms. Lowry replied "Are you done?" Dennis O'Neill of he University Village Association, wants the BOE to address educational issues in his diverse community comprehensively. He said he is looking forward to the 2010-2011 school year.

Ronald Jackson, a Tilden parent, said the principal had insulted a parent at a meeting by calling her "ghetto." In addition, his Special Ed daughter was taken out of class and put in detention until the end of the day because she had on a sweater. He was told that there was a restraining order on him and asked to see it. He was referred to Mr. Rocks for investigation, but Ms. Lowry said she didn't know how long the investigation will take.

Immediately after the one-hour mark, Sharon Schmidt spoke about elementary school testing.

Schmidt, who signed in to speak as a member of CORE, introduced herself as a CPS parent and teacher, and the managing editor of Substance Newspaper, Schmidt thanked the Board for providing information about the Learning First Benchmark and Scantron tests, administered to students in grades 3-8, three times a year, on top of the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT), after she spoke at the February board meeting.

Schmidt said she had requested information about the tests and how parents are able to opt out their children. Schmidt said that a March letter from Barbara Eason Watkins explained that “if parents choose to exclude their children … your child will be asked to engage in a silent self-guided activity.”

Schmidt said that she [and Substance editor George Schmidt] opted out their third-grader Sam from testing on May 10, May 11, May 17 and May 24. Instead of participating in the Board’s excessive, experimental and inappropriate testing program, Sam read for more than eight hours from “The Red Pyramid,” the new novel by Rick Riordan, and a Calvin and Hobbes collection.

Schmidt explained that the tests could harm her son because of the repeated pressure to perform, the results that come home to families as a ranking on a bar graph, the reinforcement of a false notion that learning can be shown by standardized test data, and the time these tests steal from worthwhile school activities. Schmidt concluded by asking for more information about the Learning First Benchmark and Scantron tests:

“How much money are we spending on these tests?” Schmidt said. “Recently you’ve cut vital programs in the schools. Two examples are full-day kindergarten and high school sophomore sports. I think the people of Chicago need to know this: How much money are you spending on these tests?”

Richardson-Lowry referred her concerns to Huberman, who said he would find out the amount.

Elizabeth Kastid, of LEARN charter school in South Chicago, thanked the BOE for its support. J.N.Thorp shares its building with LEARN charter school.

Christine Zelaenka, principal of Murphy School, wants the school expanded to 7th grade next year and 8th grade the following year.

Geneva Gayle, of Nettlehorst, was at the Board on behalf of her daughter who had been accepted into a lottery program. She said a male staff member has been harassing her. They live on the West Side, not in the neighborhood of Nettlehorst and getting to Nettlehorst has caused her daughter to be absent thirteen times last year. (These were converted to thirteen tardies.) This year, she has been absent five times. Mr. Huberman asked Mr. Rocks and Miguel Rodriguez to work with her.

James Jenkins, a parent at Nettlehorst, went to school to observe his daughter who is now getting Ds and Fs. The teacher told the child that she could add an attachment to her ISAT and then told her "No." His said his child feels tricked. This was referred to Mr. Rocks.

Gema Gaete, of the Pilsen Alliance, wants TIF funds and the Olympic Bid money to be used to save schools. She also wants a disclosure of how funds will be used next year. Ms. Lowry told her it would be taken under advisement and CEO Huberman will provide a response.

Marie Guice wanted to know if Driver Education was being taken out of the schools. This was referred to Mr. Huberman who said that no changes in Driver Education are being planned.

Otha Miller also asked about Driver Education, vocational education, and budget cuts and remarked that not all students were meant to go to college.

Roderick Sawyer, Chair of the LSC at McDade Classical, was concerned about a reduction in staff, including the Assistant Principal. He said McDade has been a beacon of education on the South Side and that the achievements at McDade are equivalent to the suburb of Kenilworth with far less resources. He said they have petitions and would be open to several other options.

Lucille Russell, Curtis School, and John Biskup, Peterson Elementary School, were next in line. Mr. Biskup said 21% of the staff was scheduled to be lost, Fine Arts would be decimated by the cuts, as would a good percentage of the Special Education students. Mr. Huberman said he would have someone on the staff follow up.

Asia Snyder, of CYIC, spoke of the effect of sports cuts. She mentioned that everyone says "Children are the future," but, by taking away sports, students will turn to gangs. She said, if you take away a ball or a book from a student, you are putting a gun in his hand. She asked that tourism dollars be put into education. She concluded that the city is corrupt and so is the Board. Ms. Lowry mentioned that Board members (Ms. Munana, Mr. Bobins, Ms. Davis, Mr. Carrero, Dr. Butt, etc.) do not get paid.

Sarah Duncan, of the University of Chicago Leadership Program, wants to see an increase in high school graduation rates.

Kristine Mayle, a Special Education teacher at Eberhart and a member of CORE, said that OSS has needed reform for some time, Individual Education Plan (IEP) paperwork is required in advance of meetings and less restrictive environments are being pushed for students. Patricia Breckenridge, of CORE and PUSH, with a master's degree and in the system for fifteen years, said that TIF funds are being used to establish charter schools.

Deborah Sawyer and Michelle Russell, of the Young Women's Leadership Charter School, an all-women's school, asked that the charter for the school be renewed. Mr. Bobins asked how the student enrollment was selected because he said he thought all charter schools had selective enrollment. He was told by selection was by lottery.

Mary Mastalski, a school clerk at Foreman High School, signed up to speak about her termination vote. She mentioned her multiple strokes and asked to be able to have a later start time so she could continue to work at Foremen. It now takes her 1 1/2 hours to take two buses and one train to Foreman.

Darryl Cobb, of ACT charter school, asked the BOE to suspend operations at ACT at the end of this year because outcomes are lower than the goals, the resources are not here, and the students have been placed elsewhere.

Derek Swank, of DePaul University, spoke of the future for prospective teachers in Chicago. He mentioned the anxiety in college students about going into teaching and wondered how the budget crisis was going to affect those going into teaching. Ms. Lowry said we recognize the uncertainty of so many unknowns and are trying to resolve them. Marcus Tabb, President of Ariel Community Academy Men's Club, said CPS budget cuts would lead to a loss of four magnet clusters, world language, math, science, and deal a devastating blow to the city of Chicago. He asked that OSS contact the principal.

Shina London, of Burnside, expressed concerns about the principal. She felt there was retaliation stemming from her role as an LSC member. She had disagreed with the principal about a fundraiser in May, her son was suspended, and no behavior report was given. Mr. Rocks and a staff member will follow up.

Anna Lopez, a parent and grandparent of children at James Ward school does not want World Language cut. She mentioned that early language learning, which is compulsory in many other countries, has many benefits.

Andrew Nelson, of Bronzeville, announced his candidacy for mayor of the city of Chicago. He asked Mr. Huberman if he was familiar with the Kaballah. Mr. Huberman did not answer. Ms. Lowry called his remarks "rhetorical questions."

Derrick Harris, who signed up to speak about the topic "Exacting the nature of CPS budget problems is lies, dam (sic) lies, and statistics." expressed concerns about the budget. He said that Xian Barrett and Danielle Cisielski were not forwarded information about the budget from Mr. Huberman. He added that Title I funds, which are for free and reduced-price lunch eligible students, are going to non-Title I schools. He remarked that there will be a budget hearing with Mayor Daley, but it will not be in this controlled environment. His concerns were referred to Mr. Huberman.

One of the few speakers to laughingly brush off the hostility from the Board President was West Side community activist Derrick Harris, above, who spoke near the end of the long-delayed public participation at the May 26, 2010 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education. Harris, who had been a personal friend (yet often political adversary) of former Board President Michael Scott, seemed to view the attempted crackdowns of Mary Richardson-Lowry and CEO Ron Huberman as slightly funny. But even Harris didn't get all the jokes and double endtendres at the May Board meeting. For example, sitting behind Harris as he was speaking on the budget was one of the newest additions to the executive ranks (at more than $100,000 per year) in public education in Chicago, Sean Harden. Harden was in charge of the famous "preacher patronage" for Mayor Daley at City Hall. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. Following the public participation, Mr. Huberman gave a Power-Point presentation on updates to the safety and security plan. Five points were listed: How to identify students at risk of violence, how to create a Culture of Calm in high schools, Safe Passage, how to coordinate with the police department, and school safety centers at CPS. Mr. Huberman mentioned the number of students shot this year is down, twenty community and faith-based organizations will work with the Board, a Blue Ribbon Panel has been selected to evaluate RFP, and that six schools of 38 have been identified as pilot schools for the Culture of Calm program. They are Farragut, Robeson, Harlan, Julian, Clemente, and Manley. He said attendance is up 7%, behavior violations are down 77%, there are fewer Ds and Fs, and 46% fewer students have been shot. Mr. Huberman then elaborated on the Culture of Calm activities which were listed on a handout. He said the 15th floor at CPS will be one single point of 24/7 contact for student safety, an information hub, and a place to track conflicts as they occur. Principals, Security Officers, and Administrators will provide and receive information. The Chicago Police Department will provide real-time information. All schools will have staff training, retreats, and parents cafes, which will ramp up throughout the summer. Board Member, Peggy Davis, expressed concerns about how much money would be needed to fund this and where was the money coming from. Next, Alice Painter, asked for an amendment to the student transportation policy. Presently one adult is required for every 1-10 students on one-day trips with a minimum of two chaperones regardless of number of students. Color Guards generally have 4-6 students. This means that two instructors are pulled to supervise four JROTC students. A problem that comes to a head on Memorial Day is that 7000 students participating in Memorial Day activities would require 700 adults to supervise them. The Board understood her request for this amendment and will act on it.

After this, the Board went into executive session for more than two hours before emerging at 5:00 p.m. 