Teacher defends Senn and general high schools at December 19, 2007, Chicago Board of Education meeting

[Editor's Note: The following remarks were prepared by Senn High School teacher Jesse Sharkey and delivered to the Chicago Board of Education at its December 19, 2007 meeting].

My name is Jesse Sharkey. I have taught in Chicago for nine years, for the past six at Senn High School.

In the past six weeks, our local alderman, Mary Ann Smith, has proposed to close our school and replace it with four small schools. I know that she has had a chance to meet with Arne Duncan, and I’m worried that the board will be receptive to her proposal, not because the Alderman’s scheme makes sense for the community or students whom our school serves, but because the “failure” of urban general education schools seems to be axiomatic — a “truth” which doesn’t have to be evaluated, merely stated.

But don’t close my school because some people and who barely set foot in urban high schools, much less teach in them have drawn a straw image, some NCLB caricature of our schools as “factories for failure” or places where “most children are left behind.” (1. This is a reference to two recently published books on urban schools.)

I know there are low test scores. Frankly, ours are a lot like everyone’s — Mather, Lakeview, Amundsen, Schurz, in short, every general admission school on the north side. And too many kids drop out. That’s not some abstract statistic for me — I think about it every time I see Marisela, my former student, working the checkout line at Dominicks to support her family.

But what does our school actually do?

First, there’s this false premise operating that general ed high schools are one big, undifferentiated mass. In fact, there are a number of programs operating at Senn which create small, personalized communities within the school, where teachers know all the kids, where success is expected, where no one falls through the cracks. I’m talking about an ELL program with about 225 kids, an IB program with 100 kids paired with eight AP courses serving another 100 or so students. We offer an AVID program with 97 students, an ETC program with three courses of study. If you add it up, about 55 percent of our student body is in one of these cohorts. And I’m not an educational researcher, but I’m sure if you disaggregated the progress of these students you’d see high rates of success.

In other words, Senn offers an academically rigorous track, where our graduates go on to top colleges, an English language instruction course that teaches immigrant kids, a career track that offers computer design and auto shop, and a college preparation program for middle-tier students. It’s a rational design; it fits the needs of our students, and it gives lie to the central point of the argument that breaking up our school would magically solve our problems.

Second, if we shift our focus from those students in the programs like ELL, IB and ETC, we see a school serving African American, and second generation Latino kids from working class backgrounds. Here again, Senn is far from failing. We provide a safe, well-run school. In terms of security, Senn has made a remarkable turnaround in the past few years–what Andres Durbak called, “a sea change.” We offer over 40 sports and clubs, perform tens of thousands of Service Learning hours a year, partner with 15 local agencies and service providers, and are one of Truman College’s largest feeder schools. Senn has functional computer labs, a highly qualified teaching staff, a computerized book inventory system, is clean, and frankly well run in most ways. We have a well-staffed college and career center with a good track record of admission into community college.

I’m sure that the members of this board are well aware that there has been a change of educational mission over the past decade or so — students are considered ‘below state standards’ for doing work that once put them on track to graduate and get a job — not so unusual for working class kids! Perhaps our society is no longer willing to accept a high school where many students go hoping to have a good time, graduate, and get a job. We call that ‘low performing.’

But the argument I’m making is that far from being dysfunctional, Senn fulfills the role it has been assigned. Every teacher would rather have a school made up entirely of high scoring, highly motivated, upwardly mobile kids, as would every alderman. But all rhetoric aside, we do a good job at what were actually called on and funded to do — provide a safe school and well-run school to working class kids who choose not to enter one of our programs. If the Chicago Board or our Alderman wants us to do more, then give us the resources.

Now perhaps Senn is changing — the neighborhood lost 900 rental units a year over the past decade and we have almost 1000 students fewer than we did in 1996. The neighborhood’s a lot wealthier. But there’s still 1,200 students who go to Senn, overwhelmingly from Black, Latino, and immigrant families, and that’s the population we serve. But Alderman Smith’s scheme will get rid of the low performing school by getting rid of the low performing kids, shipping them to other schools, with predictably dismal results.

Unfortunately, for the past couple of years when we have the opposite — the Navy has come in, letters about our shortcomings go out to all our feeder schools, our teaching staff has fallen from 128 to 85 — a 33 percent drop, we have lost our literacy team, our metal works program, and most of our young teachers.

Small schools are better, we are told. If this is simply board dogma, and you know what you are going to find before you even start looking, then I have nothing more to say, except that our schools have been taken over by ideologues, and I’m sorry for the kids who will have to sacrifice their future to this precept.

But those of us who teach at Senn know it is not a failure, and that’s why we put up so much of a stink four years ago when the Naval Academy was proposed, and that’s why we spent hundreds of hours working with the community to write a Strategic Plan, and that why we’ll fight to keep our school open today. 


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