BOARDWATCH: Languid Board of Education meeting during week before school begins in Chicago

Attendance was sparse at the regular monthly meeting of the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday, August 17, 2014 at 125 S. Clark Street. Many people were at Millennium Park to honor the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team, winners of the 2014 National Little League World Series and second in the world.

When parent Matt Luskin challenged the Board's claims, he was pulled from the podium by security. Luskin, who has children in CPS, is also an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. He told the Board that the disruption in communities caused by closings and other Board actions was damaging the schools, and that the claims made earlier about the dramatic rises in CPS "metrics" were questionable. Substance photo by David Vance.For the first time in several months, all seven Board members were present: Dr. Henry Bienen, Dr. Mahalia Hines, Board Vice-President Jesse Ruiz, Board President David Vitale, Andrea Zopp, Dr. Carlos Azcoitia, and Deborah Quazzo. Also present were Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Chief Counsel James Bebley.

At the beginning of the meeting, Beth Swanson, Deputy Chief of Staff for Education to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was thanked for her work with the Board. Swanson went from being budget director at CPS to a stint working for Penny Pritzker's foundation, and then after May 2011 to being Rahm Emanuel's City Hall liaison to the school board. She now begins work with the Joyce Foundation.

Both Board President David Vitale and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett congratulated the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team for "spectacular achievement."

Next, several schools were recognized for their academic achievement:

Back of the Yards High School

Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary

Lincoln Elementary

Ronald H. Brown Elementary

Hefferan Elementary

Poe Elementary

The "New" Schmid Elementary School

Laura Ward Elementary

Three KIPP charter schools -- Ascent, Bloom, and Create -- were also recognized.

After remarks by principals and a parent from the various schools, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett spoke about the new design for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) logo. Winners of the contest to create the new logo were Ivan Delgado and Phoung Lee. The all-blue design shows a young student entering a circle, an older student completely within the circle, and a graduate exiting the circle. Two hundred submissions were received in the logo contest, Byrd Bennett said.

The business portion of the meeting followed.

CEO Byrd-Bennett announced that on Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 655 public schools will open. She summarized what she said were the achievements that occurred during the 2013 - 2014 school year: the student code of conduct, a discipline system that is based on restorative justice and conflict resolution, the drop in suspensions resulting from the new student code of conduct, and the five consolidations that took place last year.

After her summary, John Barker, Chief Accountability Officer, gave a Power Point presentation on the high school college-admissions tests: the American College Testing (ACT) and the SAT, and also on the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) given to high school juniors to measure progress and the Northwest Evaluation Assessments (NWEA) given to elementary students. Barker also presented statistics regarding overall district attendance rates for 2008-2014. Barker's presentation claimed that CPS had reached the highest levels ever based on these data sets.

CEO Byrd-Bennett then went on to summarize what she said other achievements during the 2013 - 2014 school year: expanded International Baccalaureate I.B. programs, resources for social-emotional support, dual-enrollment credits, air-conditioning, high-speed fiber optics and the single-year calendar, the easier-to-read district website, the new CPS logo, the improvements planned for the popular on-line parent portal, overage student options, strengthening of the neighborhood schools, Stay the Course plans, and the aim for student success in college, career, and life.

Following her report, Dr. Henry Bienen, Vice-President Ruiz, and Dr. Mahalia commented.

Then President Vitale reminded everyone that office hours for those who wish to meet Board members are available by calling 773-553-1600. Board Secretary Estela Beltran announced that the next BOE meeting will be held on Wednesday, September 23, 2014, at 125 S. Clark. Sign-up to speak at the meeting begins at 8 a.m. on Monday, September 14, and ends on Friday, September 18, or sooner if all the slots are filled before Friday, September 18.

At 11:56 a.m., public participation began. Of the fifty-one people who were signed up to speak, only 17, plus Michael Brunson, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Recording Secretary, spoke. It was the smallest number of people who spoke during a Board meeting in recent memory.

Charter schools continued their promotional testimony. First to speak was Linda Capers, a resident of North Lawndale. She said she had two children at the Catalyst Charter School in the old Howland Elementary School buidling. She told the Board she was angry when Paderewski School was closed, a school she had attended. When she began looking for a school for her children, she said, she thought parents had to pay for charter schools. She noted that some charter schools forced the children on to waiting lists, but that Catalyst immediately took them in. Her children now attend Catalyst Charter School and she said that this has been good for her family.

William Drew of the McKinley Park Progressive Alliance added his voice to those opposing the Board's plans to continue the expansion of the corrupt Concept charter schools into his community. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.William Drew, of the McKinley Park Progressive Alliance, was signed up to speak in opposition to the expansion of the Concept Charter Schools. spoke of the privatization of schools and abandonment of neighborhoods like his. He reminded the Board of the unscrupulous practices of the Concept charter schools, which are under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He spoke about the politicizing of a locally elected school board. Regarding school buildings, he asked, "Who owns these buildings?" " What about outreach?" "Accountability?" He stated that he is opposed to the expansion of anything to do with Concept Charter Schools.

Tiffany Pryor, the Chicagoland Organization Manager for the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH), explained what the law requires. When signing up to speak, she indicated that "ICAH works in partnership with CPS. Our School Network will address the US Dept of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recommendations to support pregnant and parenting students under Title IX."

Danette Sokacich, Assistant Principal of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School and part of the Illinois Caucus for the Adolescent Health School Network, also was "talking about supporting pregnant and parenting students." She mentioned that absences for child-related issues were excused at her school. She added that 20 percent graduated in the last four years.

Michelle Hoppe Villegas returned again to a Board meeting to reiterate the fact that the majority of residents in the area near Lincoln Elementary School oppose the proposed annex the Board is trying to build at Lincoln School. She told the Board that the information upon which the Board had made its decision to build the $18 million annex had been false, and that the claim that Lincoln was exploding with students was also a lie. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Michelle Hoppe Villegas, of Equity in Education Chicago, continued to bring the Board the community's input on the expansion of Lincoln Elementary School. She expressed "opposition to the massive, unneeded Lincoln Annex." She said the committee that worked on the annex was larger than those whose children are currently enrolled. She asked, "Why is the Lincoln decision so roundly condemned?" "Why condemned by so many?" She answered that it was a terrible decision and that a brand-new alderman had shut out the community. During Board meetings over the past year, someone had told the Board that there were only six opponents to the Lincoln Annex. But, she pointed out, there were sixty funders to the lawsuit that has currently stopped construction of the annex. She added that there were hundreds of signatures on petitions opposing the annex. She also challenged claims made by those who wanted the annex that Lincoln had experienced extraordinary growth during the past few years.

Next to speak on the same subject was Jay Armstrong, a former Lincoln School parent, who also opposed the annex. He told the Board he wanted to speak about a "level playing field." He expressed opposition to the Lincoln Annex and spoke of 500 available seats at adjoining elementary schools. He suggested that the attendance boundaries be changed, the IB program be moved, and that LaSalle School become a neighborhood magnet school. He added that the money which can be saved by terminating the plan for the annex should be spent on schools on the south and west sides.

Chicago Teachers Union Recording Secretary Michael Brunson was ignored by the Board when public participation began, and finally recognized to speak about halfway through the speakers. Brunson added his voice to those opposing the expansion of the Concept charter schools, and then reminded the Board of the need to restore vocational education. Substance photo by David Vance.Michael Brunson, Chicago Teachers Union Recording Secretary, said he could see why they were not opening the newest Concept School. He said he lives right around the corner from the proposed location. He suggested they delay rather than just saying no. He recommended that the FBI investigation be taken into account first. He added that our children deserve better.

Brunson also said he was glad that the Board had reinstated the electricity program at Simeon because it was an extremely important program. He asked that the Board also look into career and technical programs. He remarked that we need to rebuild this city and to bring back programs and jobs for youth, for which Simeon is a model.

Another speaker regarding Lincoln School was Peter Harrison. He said Kemper Place will be closed throughout the day so that kids can play in the street. He said there would be more traffic in the alley, more garbage, more and higher speeds, and more transit time. He asked if the principal was qualified to make this decision. He remarked that recess could be held in classrooms and the gym and at a location across the street. He concluded that this decision was too much to ask of residents.

Brian Sigcho, of Jungman School, said he would give an F grade to the Mayor and the BOE for failing our children and for closing schools. He remarked that the Board needs to invest in real programs. He also stated that the Board be excused because of conflicts of interest and for constantly reading during meetings. Regarding charter schools, he said that the rules don't apply to them, they refuse to give records. He asked for a response from the Board. Later, Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz stated, after Sigcho had left, that those who wanted information about charter schools should utilize the Freedom of Information Act and complain to the Illinois Attorney General if that route failed. Ruiz spoke as if the Board had no part in making charter schools provide the same detailed information about their finances and operations as all other public schools.

Vernee Green, a former CPS teacher, and now working at an full-day Pre-K classroom at an Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) in North Lawndale which is partnered with the Erikson Institute, mentioned that she was chosen as a lead partner to integrate Arts across the curriculum.

As usual, Board member Henry Bienend tried to contradict one of the speakers at the end of public participation, but was surprised that Matt Luskin was still in the room. Beinen asked a question of Luskin which was obviously meant to be a rhetorical put down. When Luskin stood in the audience and tried to continue the discussion, Board President David Vitale (above right) said "You had your time..." and nodded to security to take another shove at Luskin. Substance photo by David Vance.Matthew Luskin, parent of three children and a CPS organizer, said he heard self-congratulating today. He feels this is paternalistic and alienates the community. He said CEO Byrd-Bennett spoke of Concepts Schools, but he asked whether any schools deserve millions of dollars when there are cuts in individual schools. He added that 11 out of 17 schools in that Network have no library.

Wendy Katten, of Raise Your Hand, planned to speak on funding, she said, but instead told of her experience taking the Partnership of Assessment for College and Career (PARCC) test on line last week. After listing her many personal achievements and credentials, she said she couldn't get some of the answers right. She said that the PARCC instructions were confusing, the answers were vague or wrong, and the word choice was horrific.

She added that this test would be a disaster in the Spring and that it should never be a high-stakes test. She told the Board that only nine states are left which are giving the PAARC. She also said that of the time period from January to June, there are only three weeks with no testing. She asked that the Board work with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to delay this test or it will be a nightmare.

Spencer Leak spoke of what he said were 5,000 homicides that involved predominantly Black people. He claimed that CPS students are functionally illiterate. Then he launched into a dramatic claim that the Board should teach the "one book" that could change it all. He said that the Bible is the missing element and should be included in the curriculum so that students can learn values, morals and character. He said that the Bible is an agent of change that can cause students to chart a different course, implying that if CPS taught the Bible the murders of young people would end. He asked the Board to make the Bible a part of the curriculum of CPS.

George Schmidt, a retired teacher, parent, and editor of Substance News, told the Board that he had to use part of his time to talk baseball, since it was a big day for baseball. He spoke of the discrepancy in the quality of baseball playing fields on the south side compared to northern suburbs. He said that baseball players could not play on two out of three fields controlled by CPS and the Park District.

Schmidt then remarked that there was no Power Point on accountability for this meeting, even though the Board was going to vote on Board Report 13-0828-PO5, the new "performance policy" for all schools. He said that CPS needed to adopt a school accountability policy that made sense, and said that the one on the Board's agenda did not make sense. He said that if John Barker (CPS Accountability Chief Officer) were here (absent at the time Mr. Schmidt was speaking), he would discuss this with Mr. Barker the built in inequities in the proposed plan. He asked on what basis are high schools evaluated. He added that he taught Advanced Placement (AP) classes for ten years and he would like the BOE to read the School Quality Rating Policy.

Jasmine Hernandez went to a charter school, Pritzker College Prep, and is now in Cornell College. She has had to write ten-page papers each week. She thanked the Board for giving families a choice of schools.

The problems of Hanson Park Elementary School returned. Nortensia Santos, of Hanson Park Elementary, spoke in Spanish, about how the enrollment process for our school changed to far away schools, not neighborhood schools. Transferring is an issue. She asked that families be allowed to enroll at neighborhood schools again. She added that the annex process needs to be explained and updated.

President Vitale remarked that he visited the school two to three weeks ago. To ease overcrowding, he said that the Board has invested heavily in the nearby no-longer-used Catholic School and more investment will come in the future.

Markisha Washington told the Board that has a son at James N. Thorp School, which is on the Southeast Side. She said he is reading at the first grade level and also doing math at the first grade level. She said his Individual Education Plan (IEP) was dropped even though he has been getting straight Fs all year. Although he is physically jumped on once a week, there is no protection from the school. She wants an IEP resolution and a transfer for safety issues. She was referred to staff.

Robert Durst, a parent of a high school student at Chicago International Charter School (CICS) in Northtown, sang the praises of the school. He said his son is a Special Needs child and he himself is a teacher. He remarked that his son said he is a student who learns differently.

Rosita Chatonda warned the Board that she and her organization, called CAUSE, would be lobbying. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Last to speak was Rosita Chatonda who said she came here from today's parade after she dropped off her grandsons. She spoke of being a young single parent with three sons, a daughter, and grandchildren. She noted that she is always speaker #51, and added that the Bible says that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, implying that one day she would be first at the Board. She told the Board members that her last job with Special Ed students had been lost, and said that she now she advocates for teachers who are in the same position she was in through her group, called CAUSE. She also talked about a CPS policy in which the police and Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) were called but said the teacher had done nothing wrong, but that the Board still disciplines teachers even after they have been exonerated by other public bodies. She said that she will talk to legislators about this -- and added, "You will hear from me!"

Public participation ended her after about one hour. Comments by Board members followed: Dr. Bienen questioned Matthew Luskin about his remarks. Matthew Luskin responded, but when he tried to elaborate on his answer, he was told by President Vitale that if he had anything more to say, office hours are available to talk to Dr. Bienen.

Responding to what Wendy Katten had reported, James Bebley said that there was no PARCC test yet and there will be changes in Spring 2015.

Andrea Zopp spoke about the concerns of Pre-K enrollment and remarked that parents want neighborhood schools and that there were a lot of other factors. President Vitale mentioned that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Opening Meetings Act applies to all charter schools and if the charter schools are not doing this, to see the Attorney General.

After this, President Vitale was nominated for another year as President of the BOE and Vice-President Jesse Ruiz was nominated for another year as Vice-President. All Board members voted yes.

Then the Board went into closed session.


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