Lake Calumet school closings hearing tries to avoid the facts... In conjunction with 'Network' chiefs and outside consultants, CPS Communications Department tries to bar reporters from most of the hearing and suppress any press coverage
The “Far South Side Network Community Utilization Engagement Meetings” (as per the billing on a local flyer), otherwise known as the Lake Calumet public hearing for school closings due to CPS-concocted space "underutilization" claims, took place on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM at Olive Harvey College. The college is located at 10001 S. Woodlawn (off 103rd Street near Stony Island Avenue), so it was accessible to people from the community, with ample parking.
This was the fourth in a series of meetings being conducted in CPS "Networks" across the city. Focus groups for the hearings are privatized: funded by the Walton Family Foundation (as the audience was informed by CTU organizer Martin Ritter during the meeting). The Waltons, the Wal Mart family, have been a huge financial supporter of charter schools. This report has various sections...
MEDIA: The official filming for CPS was done by an outfit called Free Spirit Media, a "partner" with CPS in providing “education, access, and opportunity in media production to under-served urban youth,” according to their promotional material. CPS has been working very hard to control the "messaging" and thwart reporters from actually covering the hearings. Most of the city's corporate media has been absent from the hearings (although there has been more coverage than in previous years). They are trying to block coverage by Substance and other independent media. As I was taking photos, I was quickly approached by Frank Shuftan, from CPS Communications, who informed me that the media was not allowed in the Breakout Sessions, where the focus groups were to take place. No explanation was give as to how CPS officials had the power to keep reporters out of public meetings during a widely publicized public event.
SET UP AND 'VIP' ATTENDEES: The Olive Harvey gym was filled with approximately 400-500 people at the start time. CPS apparently did not anticipate the large crowd (although the same thing has been happening at other events, going back to the Horner Park hearing by the "Commission" on the north side). Chairs were set up for approximately 150 people. These quickly filled, forcing the crowd off to the side into the stadium-style seats against the wall. The rooms for the planned “Breakout Sessions” did not have anywhere near enough room available for those who wanted to attend; people were sent back in droves to the gym. The physical set-up was as follows: there were two tables set up on the sides of a basically unused podium. To the audience’s left sat Andrea Hall, Senior FACE (Family and Community Engagement) Manager, and Phillip Hampton, Chief FACE Officer. Andrea Hall is currently listed by CPS in its "Position File" as a "Senior Manager in FACE" at an annual salary of $95,000 per year. Phillip Hampton is the "Chief Officer for Family and Community Engagement (FACE)" at an annual salary of $144,000. (All job titles and salaries below are from CPS current records, which CPS refuses to publish publicly, but which were obtained by Substance reporters under the Freedom of Information Act).
The table to the audience’s right remained empty. When asked, Ms. Hall said that she was not born in Chicago but, having lived here for over 10 years, this was “her city.” She has been with CPS for just over a year, she said. Mr. Hampton said that he was born and raised in Chicago, but though he only came back to CPS in March 2012, he said that he has been "on-and-off" with CPS for years. The mic was set up in front of the audience chairs to the right. Those who spoke took the mic and turned their backs to the empty table in the front of it and spoke directly to the audience(s).
For a very brief time only, the Lake Calumet and Far South Side Network Chief, Harrison Peters (annual salary $151,000), sat very uncomfortably near the FACE table. Also for a time, but not for the entire meeting, Denise Little, "Chief Officer of Network Quality," sat at the FACE table, but was otherwise indistinguishable from the other CPS employees off to the opposite side of the wall from the audience in the stands. (Prior to being assigned to this position, according to District 299, Ms. Little was an Area Instructional Officer assigned to Casals School where she spoke in favor of its turnaround to AUSL.)
Other CPS employees had this to say when asked for their names and positions: “We were told that we can’t talk to the media,” and they would not speak on the record.
One of the individuals stating this, ironically, was listed on the community flyer for the meeting. Joseph N. Sobus's name was listed as "FACE Manager" under the name of Harrison Peters, who was listed as "Chief of Schools" for the "Network". Sobus is one of the growing number of FACE people in the "Networks." By January 2013, he was listed as "Manager, FACE, for Calumet Network" at an annual salary of $60,000.
No one from CPS can explain why reporters are not allowed to cover important parts of these public meetings.
Later, Mr. Sobus could be seen through windows conducting some sort of PowerPoint presentation to one of the Breakout Sessions for those who made it inside the room before it quickly filled beyond capacity. (In 2010, Mr. Sobus was the “Education General” at Youth Connections Charter Schools.) When asked for IDs, a few well-dressed individuals completely refused and walked away; others opened their suit jackets to reveal backwards IDs attached to their belt buckles, otherwise hidden from view.
Two who gave their names were John Price, Chief of Schools for Burnham Park; and Alex Fralin, listed on recent sources as Deputy Chief of Staff for the CEO, but when asked he identified himself as the Deputy Chief for the Rock Island Network.For the audience, Phillip Hampton pointed out Dr. Karen Saffold, Rock Island Network Chief, who was in attendance off to the side, Denise Little, and Harrison Peters.
Michael Brunson, CTU Recording Secretary was present but did not speak. CTU organizers Kathy Murray and Martin Ritter spoke (ahead in text) to a cheering audience. The only local elected official present was Alderman Matthew O-Shea, 19th Ward, who spoke at the end of the meeting to those who were in the gym (ahead in text) with the audience booing at his final comments.
Comments/instructions: Phillip Hampton informed the audience that CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett wanted “rounds of engagement” with them. There would be two 45-minute sessions: the first would be for public participation, with speakers given 2 minutes each to speak, with schools choosing individuals to speak on their behalf; the second would be "Breakout Sessions", with the 35 Lake Calumet Network Schools pre-assigned to three separate sessions, the purpose of which was to have “intimate conversations.”
It was stated just before the Breakout Sessions that in these sessions CPS wanted the schools to inform them of the following: what the school needed; what the school had and would like to keep; and if closed, what considerations should CPS have for a safe and efficient process. As this was stated post the public participation portion, one woman from the audience yelled out the obvious: “That’s what we said all night!” At the start of the meeting, Mr. Hampton begged the audience (“we beg you…”) to remain respectful because there were young people here, not mentioning that the same young people’s schools were being threatened by CPS. John Scott was the moderator. Scott has become well known to those opposing the "Underutilization Crisis" for his bullying during hearings. He is currently listed in CPS records as "FACE Strategic Initiatives Leader" at an annual salary of $75,000.
This year’s threatened schools (read: elementary schools listed as “underutilized” on the CPS Lake Calumet Network handout) are: Aldridge (42%); Bright (43%); Brown, R. (74%); Carver, G. (50%); CICS Hawkins (45%); Dubois (41%); Gompers (55%); Higgins (71%); Lawrence (47%); Metcalfe (54%); Owens (68%); Poe (71%); Pullman 48%); Schmid (39%); Smith (51%); Songhai (44%); West Pullman (44%); Whistler (49%); and White (65%).
It appeared that the schools with the largest contingents at this meeting were Whistler, DuBois, and White. Illustration of one grossly inaccurate, CPS-concocted, definition of “underutilized”: The William E. B. Dubois elementary school community carried photo enlargements of appalling, totally busted out classrooms — crumbling ceilings, torn-up floor tiles, broken windows. CPS was including in the Dubois “space data” a second building, nearby, totally unused and should-be-condemned, in its calculations.
When it was their turn to speak, they marched the photos up to the front table to “show CPS what CPS said they would come out to see but never did.” The audience cheered them on.
Audience participation: From community businesses partnered with local, neighborhood, public schools to the South Side NAACP (ahead in text) to a selected community pastor representative to students, parents, and school personnel, not one speaker from the public was in favor of any school being closed for any reason. The only speaker in favor of some schools closing was an elected official, Alderman Matt O’Shea (ahead in text). The schools that were able to have speakers speak before the Breakout Sessions were: John Whistler (with a 16% special education student population); William E.B. Dubois; Ed White Elementary Career Academy; and Orville T. Bright. There may have been others, but in the second half’s chaos I was only able to discern speakers from Songhai Elementary Learning Institute and Wendell Smith. The order of the speakers appeared to be taken from some kind of stacking from the sign-in sheets.
One of the top issues was the safety of the students. Speakers mentioned railroad crossings, viaducts, bridges, etc. that elementary school children would have to travel. Ida Marshall from Dubois stated: “We know what happened at Carver and Fenger” (referring to the beating death of CPS student Derrion Albert). One teacher, Monica Rojas, from Bright, said that she dreaded listening to the news for fear of hearing one of their students’ names. Without their local neighborhood schools, the question was repeatedly asked: Where were these students to go? The answer was: to the streets.
School spokespersons, with Whistler in particular, advocated for CPS to give new principals a chance to achieve the schools’ goals. How would CPS students not give up when CPS was giving up? The issue of closing public, neighborhood schools while opening up privatized charter operations was also in the forefront. One parent asked how Chicago could build a casino but not keep the schools open. As with all previous school closing hearings, schools were forced to publicly defend themselves -- touting their programs, partnerships, academic performance/improvements, curriculum, professional development, etc. (How many schools in the suburbs or the rest of the state of Illinois need to concentrate on this kind of fight just before the state’s ISAT exams?)
Ronald Jackson, from the Southside Branch of the NAACP, informed the audience that the people here from CPS for this meeting had to be here as per the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force legislation. They were here for the Board, not for you. They could all get a new job with CPS, but the communities could not get new schools. CTU Organizer Kathy Murray, recognized and cheered before she even began to speak, spoke of the disinvestment of CPS in the communities, particularly of Roseland and Pullman.
The only time anyone came down here from CPS was to close schools. And they were now here to close schools to pass them on to their charter school friends. The Board of Education recently approved two charters to open in this area, as these hearings were scheduled to take place. Ms. Murray said loudly, “I see you over there” to one woman she recognized from a charter school organization, hiding in the back corner of the gym stands. (Later, this woman refused to give me any information. She said that she was not here on the record. When I asked why she didn’t proudly go up to the front to tell the audience about her charter school, she said that this audience was not representative of the community.)
CTU Organizer Martin Ritter, with loud audience support (beginning with the echo chant of: Whose schools? Our schools!), called out Network Chief Harrison Peters to stop the charter school cronies. He told the audience to remember Rahm Emanuel come election time if/when their schools were closed. He said that CTU brought 26,000 people to the streets for school justice in September so just wait till you close these schools. He informed the audience that these hearings were bought and paid for by the Walton Family Foundation, the great supporter of charter schools. The crowd supported all the speakers but went especially wild for Mr. Ritter.
CPS representative Denise Little pleadingly told the audience that she was a teacher, a principal, a Chief, a parent, and a proud product of Chicago public, neighborhood schools. When she speaks, she speaks as a parent… people at Central Office have children… “Your voice has been heard.” She recalled the gists of each schools’ message – and these would be taken, along with the photos from Dubois (“I did not know Dubois had those classrooms like this”), to CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett.
The 19th Ward (which includes Lake Calumet and Rock Island schools) Alderman Matthew O’Shea spoke as people were going in and out, confused from the overflow of the Breakout Sessions just outside of the gym. He said that of all the issues before him, very few were as polarizing as the state of public education in Chicago. He respected and appreciated CPS for this public process, but, that said, resources needed to be better allocated. He was not impressed with the relationships of the Networks to the parents. Schools needed autonomy. He loudly stated: Stop fixing what isn’t broken! But then, to audience booing, he said that some schools needed to be closed, but that he would fight like hell for the 19th Ward schools.
The meeting was chaotic after the call for the Breakout Sessions that couldn’t contain all who were instructed to leave the gym to attend them busted back out into the gym. Those who had their session scheduled in the gym were pretty drowned out by the chaos at this point. Two members of the Chicago Police Department were on hand out in the hallway upon exit from the meeting.