Parents see a 'Done Deal'... Board continues illegal 'parent' meetings with one at Wendell Smith, a school on the Hit List for a CPS turnaround

Wendell Smith Elementary School, located at 744 E. 103rd Street is presently the only school within in the new "Lake Calumet Network" to be slated for “school actions,” the latest term used to describe the destruction of a neighborhood public school. "School Actions" includes the “turnaround” model proposed for Wendell Smith.

Teachers and community leaders protest inside the lobby of Wendell Smith elementary school on Chicago's south side after they were told they would be arrested if they tried to enter a meeting hosted by Chicago Public Schools officials for a select list of "parents" who were expected to speak in favor of the proposed "turnaround" of Smith. Substance photo by Susan Zupan.As all of the schools proposed for “turnaround by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in its latest “hit list,” Wendell Smith is located in an African-American community. On Thursday, December 15, 2011, beginning at 6:00 P.M., CPS hosted a meeting in the school’s vast gym exclusively for the parents and/or legal guardians of students who attended Wendell Smith. The meeting, like dozens of others that have been reported across Chicago since the turnarounds were announced on November 29, not only excluded interested citizens, but reporters as well.

If your name did not appear on the printout on the nearby table, you were not allowed to enter the gym for the meeting. Those excluded from the CPS meeting included neighborhood home owners, former parents, present grandmothers, school volunteers, former students, teachers or any other employees of the school, reporters, CTU officers, — and even the principal of the school, Mr. Johnny Banks.

A group of approximately 30-35 protesters made up of parents, teachers, community residents (which would include LSC members), and supporters of public education began chanting outside; they took the march inside to chant just outside of the gym in the first floor Commons area until they were made to exit the building. The parents in the group who were allowed left to attend the meeting as a large remaining group of Chicago residents and taxpayers excluded by CPS waited in the school’s offices.

"Calumet Network" "Chief of Schools" Harrison Peters leans out from behind his security phalanx to review the by-invitaiton-only list of official parents invited to Wendell Smith Elementary School for a "turnaround" briefing on December 15, 2011. Substance photo by Susan Zupan.The meeting was scheduled for one hour, but the gym doors did not re-open until 7:25. P.M. Inside, in addition to "Chief of Schools" (Calumet Region) Harrison Peters were Tim Cawley, the former AUSL official who is now the CPS "Chief Administrative Officer" and other CPS officials. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has charged that the selection of AUSL for the turnarounds constitutes a clear conflict of interest, since until April of this year Cawley was an AUSL executive, and current Board of Education President David Vitale was on the AUSL Board. According to CPS at the present time, AUSL is supposed to receive six of the proposed ten turnarounds, and CPS's "Office of Turnaround" four. Wendell Smith is currently supposed to be subjected to turnaround by CPS, not AUSL.

Chants supplied by "OCCUPY The South Side" included: Our “Public Education is Not a Corporation,” and "These Are Our Children, Not Yours.” (Some of the same chants were used by the public as the Board of Education members and the Chief Executive Officer staged their “work stoppage,” some might call their “strike” against the public, when they walked out of their monthly public meeting on December 14, 2011).

As members of the school community were turned away from the table for not being parents of students in the school, one person remarked, “Oh, wow.”

Insults to the school's teachers and other staff begin long before "turnaround" is approved, as was evident.

As the engineer walked by, apparently too close to the guarded gym door, he was asked for ID by CPS security, who obviously didn't know the school staff at all. Then he said, “I work here,” and they let him pass to the other area nearby where he was headed.

A community resident and former parent, Mekeba Divinity, who said that she now volunteered as tutor in the school, could not believe she was not allowed in the meeting. She exclaimed, “I’ve done too much here for them not to let me in.”

CPS also would not allow entrance to her daughter, a former student of Wendell Smith. Children were allowed to enter with their parents or guardians. However, if the children exited, they were required to point out their parent’s name on the listing in order to reenter, even as adults who were with them said who the kids were with.

Another excluded supporter of public education remarked: “I guess this is what CPS calls transparency” (and she might have added “input” and “community involvement” as well).

Ironically, a poster with basketball players Derrick Rose and Candace Parker on the closed gym door read: “This Is Where Legends Begin.” According to the parents who were in the meeting, there were a total of 10-12 parents in attendance.

When CTU Recording Secretary Michael Brunson arrived before the meeting began, upon request Harrison Peters, the CPS Chief of the Lake Calumet Network, exited the gym to speak with him very briefly. According to Mr. Brunson, when questioned about the legality of the meeting under the Open Meetings Act, Mr. Peters said that the Open Meetings Act did not apply because this was not a Local School Council meeting.

I overheard Mr. Peters remark, “CTU is here all day with the kids” when Mr. Brunson asked about even the teachers from the school being excluded. Prior to this, when I questioned Michael Ricketts, who was seated at the table before the meeting, and who would only state that his job description was “an employee of CPS,” he replied that he only knew that this meeting was “exclusively for parents.”

Steve Golombicki, Deputy Director of Safety and Security for CPS replied the same, “I don’t know ma’am, I only know it’s for parents.”

Only two other CPS employees, of about 13 that I was able to count, would give me their names, with one woman from the Office of LSC Relations covering her CPS ID on its lanyard with her purse. Three men wore jackets from “Chicago Public Schools Security.” One person gave information that he was from the Office of Early Childhood. I recognized and was recognized by the SSA of my own school, Ms. Redmond. Only one person from CPS would speak on the record: Tim Cawley, Chief Administrative Officer of CPS. The rest just repeatedly replied, “No comment,” if that.

When asked about the meeting’s possible problems under the Open Meetings Act, Mr. Cawley said that he did not see the logic and couldn’t imagine the meeting was against it. He said that very often when CPS held meetings, “as we saw at the Board meeting yesterday,” parents do not get to be heard; even at this meeting they even had to stop some parents from speaking in order for others to be heard. After students, parents came first with CPS. When asked, for example, why neighborhood homeowners could not attend the meeting, he said that there would be other meetings/opportunities for them to be heard. He told me, “if you want to argue that CPS’s concern for parents to be heard is wrong, then go ahead and argue that.”

The question remains: Did representatives of CPS violate the Open Meetings Act with this meeting?

The following is the Agenda that was followed, a copy of which was shared with Substance by a parent.

“Agenda for Meeting with Smith Parents,” chaired by Harrison Peters, Lake Calumet Elementary School Network Chief:

I. Welcome, purpose of the meeting, and introduce CPS leadership in attendance;

II. Opening remarks and vision for the work;

III. Why is there a proposal to make a change for this school and what does it mean for students?;

IV. Dates for school action hearings and community meetings;

V. What are your outstanding concerns regarding the change to the school?; and

VI. Adjourn.

According to parents who were exiting during the meeting (to keep those who were excluded from the meeting informed) and after the meeting, the parents’ voices were not heard. The consensus seemed to be that this was “already decided.”

Darnella Vonneedo, a former LSC chairperson who resigned, said that they pretended to listen but every concern or question asked by parents was met with basically one answer: “Don’t take our word for it, go see these other turnaround schools.”

When the parents asked any question about money, apparently the representatives from CPS told them that the LSC had (fill in the blank with differing massive amounts of federal and state) money that they did not spend for the improvement of the school as the parents at the meeting wanted. Ms. Vonneedo said that they were told the principal and the LSC were to blame for anything related to money in the school; either that or “blame the teachers, blame the teachers, blame the teachers.”

Even the parents who were in favor of doing “something” for the school, for example turning it into a charter school, expressed concern and puzzlement over the fact that all of the faculty and staff as well as the custodial and lunchroom workers would be removed from the school; their children have bonds and deep connections with these school employees.

For example, one comment from such a concerned grandparent was: “Someone tell me how my grandchild’s PreKindergarten teacher is responsible for any problems in this school?”

No one seemed to have an answer to the parents’ repeated questions concerning why CPS ignored Wendell Smith for years and years but was now planning to flood the school with all this money and all these programs - - so why couldn’t CPS just do that for Wendell Smith right now without the turnaround? The following is only a partial listing of “supports” for turnarounds from a CPS press release: intervention and tutoring services for students who need extra support in reading and math; academic after school programs; extensive extracurricular enhancements including fine arts and athletics; systems in place to increase student attendance and decrease student misconducts; a full-time social worker to provide one-on-one counseling; and evidence-based social-emotional programming.

As for the “athletics,” on the east side of a vast parking lot across from Wendell Smith Public School is the recently renovated Gately Stadium, and to the north and east there are three baseball fields. And Corliss High School is located across the street, just in case there are any as-of-yet unspoken plans for some type of future “grow our student population” expansions.

By the way, Wendell Smith is not the “lowest scoring” school in the Lake Calumet Network. So, taking one drive past the school will have you asking yourself if this is simply not some kind of a preliminary maneuver for the future grab of the public’s property by private interests, even though CPS presently is planning to operate the “turnaround” itself as opposed to the Academy for Urban Leadership (AUSL).

The following was the written statement prepared by Parent Coordinator Mrs. Sharisa Lee-Vaval for the Chicago Board of Education meeting held yesterday, Wednesday, December 14, 2011:

“From 2002 to 2011, Wendell Smith has almost tripled its gains in the ISAT MEETS or EXCEEDS category. Our school’s academic performance improved from 21% in 2002 to 58% in the 2010-2011 school year. Despite the historical instability of administrative changes, the dismantling of the LSC by CPS, and then its later reconstitution, and the extreme continuous lack of resources and funding, more than adequate gains have been achieved due to the dedicated commitment of students, parents and teachers. Wendell Smith is on the path to success in the face of the above mentioned challenges. NOW IS NOT THE TIME to break up the students, parents and teacher community that has worked together to make this progress. Now IS the time to support us with the resources and funding that is so sorely needed.”

The question that remains regarding Wendell Smith or any “failing” CPS neighborhood public school is this: would any schools need these “school actions” if all of these planned supports for the turnarounds (or closings) were in place from CPS in the first place? Why weren’t these “school actions” the modus operandi of the school system in the first place? Who is the “failure”? the students, the parents, the teachers, the lunchroom staff? OR, could it be, perhaps, just possibly, the de-formers in charge of CPS?


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