Holmes gets VIP visit... Chicago Board of Education President Rufus Williams decides to see for himself a school slated for 'Turnaround'

(CHICAGO). Perhaps moved by the outpouring of powerful testimonies at Monday’s hearing on the proposed corporate "turnaround" of the school, Chicago School Board President Rufus Williams visited the Oliver Wendell Holmes school the very next day, an unprecedented move by a Board member.

On Monday night, February 9, Holmes Elementary School teacher librarian Lara Krejka (above, at microphone) made an impassioned plea that the two members of the Chicago Board of Education who attended the Holmes "turnaround" hearing actually visit the school and talk to the school's students about the reading programs. On February 10, Chicago Board of Education President Rufus Williams took the teacher up on her offer and reviewed much of the school's reading program. Williams has sponsored a major initiative in Chicago's public schools called "Real Men Read" (see feature in Substance, on the web in back issues). Seated behind Kerjka (second from right wearing white shirt and beige jacket) is Holmes Principal Wendy Naughton, who also spoke against the proposed "turnaround", listing the programs Holmes offers its children and the challenges Holmes faces in the community with the highest rate of violent crime in the USA. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.“He came here and asked questions about our reading programs, and I showed him the A.R. [Accelerated Reader] reports of our little student who testified at the hearing yesterday,” said Holmes teacher and librarian Lara Krejca. “Rufus said he remembered the girl who needed a chair to speak. He said he is also familiar with Accelerated Reader.”

Chicago Board of Education President Rufus Williams (above right) listened intently as more than a dozen students and a larger number of teachers testified about how Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School (955 W. Garfield Blvd) in Chicago's crime-infested Englewood community has responded to the challenges of operating a public school in a community that has the highest crime rate in the USA. Holmes teachers told the Board members present at the February 9, 2009 hearing that despite the murder of one of their seventh grade students in gang violence last school year, every teacher and staff member returned this school year to continue their struggle on behalf of the children they refer to as their "family." Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Williams also noticed a big sign hanging outside Krejca’s library that said, “Save Our School!” Williams told Krejca he liked the sign and was told by Holmes Principal Wendy Naughton that Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. made a similar comment, Krejca said.

The Holmes hearing on Monday, February 9, 2009, was packed with many students, teachers, community members, CORE and Chicago Teachers Union representatives who gave powerful testimonies to how great a school Holmes is -- and the disbelief that CPS would want to stop what is happening.

“We have improved our test scores over 19 percentage points in the past three years,” said Angela Thomas, assistant principal at Holmes. “I am a proud Holmes product who was a student, then a teacher and now the assistant principal."

In fact, the testimonies from students who read powerful statements in support of their teachers, from parents who admonished the Board for daring to break up the Holmes family, from teachers who outlined the many programs they have for the students and even a legal challenge about whether the Board is properly following NCLB guidelines from a dean of students – impressed Hearing Officer Frederick Bates so much, that he remarked:

Hearing Officer Fred Bates, who has been recommending the reconstitution of Chicago public schools since he began doing such hearings against Englewood High School in 1997, insisted to the teachers, parents, and students of Holmes Elementary School that he was really impressed with their testimony at the February 9 hearing on the proposed 'turnaround' of the school. Bates (above, center, with the court reporter and timekeeper during the Holmes hearing) also told the Holmes representatives that he was raised in Chicago's Englewood community and knows it well. From time to time during the recent round of hearings, Bates has admonished students not to get discouraged about the problems at their school, and to think about what Chicagoan Barack Obama has accomplished. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.“I’m very impressed with what I heard today,” Bates said at the end of the hearing. “You clearly have made progress. You should not feel stigmatized, you should keep working hard.”

'I'm nobody's Yes Man'

Perhaps Bates, as well as the Board members -- Rufus Williams and Roxanne Ward who attended the hearing -- felt the pressure to respond. Bates was again questioned about his claim to being an “independent” hearing officer which he vigorously defends when questioned at the hearings. “I’m nobody’s yes man,” he said at one point during the Holmes hearings. “I’m an independent officer. “ However, this writer asked him about the many hearings on reconstitutions and turnarounds Bate’s attended over the years, if he has ever made a ruling to stop such a decision by the Board. Bates could only look down and not comment.

Bates also continued his practice of ordering reporters not to photograph students who attended the hearings and spoke out against the closings. Bates has maintained that the students require explicit parental permission not merely to attend the hearings, but to speak publicly against the closings of their schools.

Despite the fact that the Chicago Public Schools had scheduled the Holmes hearing to begin at 3:00 p.m., limited the length of the hearing to two hours, ordered that no one speak for more than two minutes, refused to allow Power Point presentations on behalf of schools (but allowed them from the Board against the schools), and closed 'the record' less than 24 hours following each of the hearings, large numbers of teachers, parents, students, and administrators attended the hearings. By the middle of the Holmes hearing, more than 50 persons were in the hearing room, as shown above. Many of the most eloquent speeches in defense of the school came from students, but the hearing officer ordered that students not be photographed and identified them only in the official record as "Student A," "Student B," etc. Those who objected to the ruling, which slanted the record in favor of the Board and left out one of the more powerful visual depictions of the fact that the Board's turnarounds are affecting black children from segregated schools, did not have the time or resources to take the issue to court. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.As a result of Bates's rulings, more than 50 students are only identified in the official transcripts of the various hearings as "Student A", "Student B", etc. At least ten students spoke at the Holmes hearing under these provisions.

Since many of the most powerful voices against the hearings are from students, the ruling also undermines the eloquence of the record. The ruling also makes it more difficult for the public to see that all of the children facing the disruption of their lives as a result of this year's 'turnarounds' are African-Americans attending some of the most racially segregated schools in the USA.

CTU President returns to hearings

Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart was asked to first speak at the hearing. Looking a bit tired, and not sounding as energetic as at previous hearings, she nonetheless questioned why AUSL has to come in and run a school without the teachers currently in place.

“You’re saying the teachers can go to other schools, they just can’t work at Holmes,” Stewart said. “For a lot of the students, the school is the only stable thing for them.”

Stewart again questioned the cost of instituting a “Reconstitution” (which involves firing and replacing the entire staff from teachers -- including custodial and cafeteria workers, clerks and security guards).

Despite the fact that Chicago called the process 'turnaround' (as a tribute to some corporate model), under Illinois law what is being done to the six schools this year (and another six last year) is legally 'reconstitution'. All valid educational research demonstrated as early as five years ago that 'reconstitution' failed wherever it was tried in the USA (including San Francisco ten years ago and Chicago as early as 1997).

Chicago Board of Education member Roxanne Ward (above fourth from left) listened intently to all of the testimony during the Holmes 'turnaround' hearing on February 9. Above, Ward turns towards Holmes teacher librarian Laura Krezca during the librarian's remarks to the hearing. Despite the fact that the hearing was scheduled at 3:00 p.m. (when many teachers were still working in after school programs and most working parents could not attend), Holmes brought more than 70 people to the Board chambers for the event. Teachers, parents and others have also protested against the fact that the hearings are only allowed to go on for two hours and that most of those who speak are limited to two minutes by the hearing officers. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Stewart also noted that according to the New Teacher Project, it costs the Board $87,000 to hire a new teacher. She claimed that the union has cooperated in what she referred to as an alternative 'turnaround model'. At Earle Elementary School (less than two miles from Holmes), they kept the faculty and the scores improved and it cost a lot less money.

Principals defends the school

The next speaker was Principal Wendy Naughton, who spoke against the reconstitution. During the past three weeks (since word arrived at Holmes that it was on what staff call the 'turnaround hit list'), Naughton has tried to discourage her staff from openly protesting the Board decision. She instead has asked them to work within the questionable legal parameters.

Naughton said it was unfair to make Holmes a 'Turnaround School' because their scores have gone up two of the last three years and asked that the current staff be allowed to continue their work. Holmes speakers also maintained that the scores at Holmes are better than two nearby 'Turnaround Schools' (the "Sherman School of Excellence" and the "Harvard School of Excellence") managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which is proposed to become the operator at Holmes. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Chicago's corporate media have been promoting the claims that Chicago has a secret formula for corporate 'turnaround' of public schools for more than two years, despite all evidence to the contrary. At a January 31, 2008, media event at the so-called "Sherman School of Excellence" (above), Daley touted the 'turnaround' of Sherman for the media, while representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foudation announced that they were stopping funding for so-called 'Small Schools' in Chicago and pledging nearly $10 million for so-called 'Turnaround.' With Daley at the Sherman event last January were (left to right): Donald Feinstein, executive director of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL); 16th Ward Alderman Jo Ann Thompson; and Sherman School Principal Lionel Allen. Despite widely reported claims of miracle improvements at Sherman under "turnaround" (including a page one series in the Chicago Tribune over the Labor Day weekend 2007, when there was as yet no data to support any claims about Sherman), Holmes teachers pointed out in February 2009 that the test scores at Sherman were no better than the scores at Holmes. Yet AUSL is supposed to fire all the teachers at Holmes and recast Holmes in the 'turnaround' model supposedly pioneered at Sherman. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.

Many students then spoke out in favor of their teachers who are all threatened with pink slips, several stating they should turn the Board around instead. “It’s a slap in your face,” said 8th grade student Kayla Johnson. “How would you like it if someone took your job. They need to support their families and pay the rent.” Several students noted Holmes is like one big happy family. One read a poem entitled, “Don’t turnaround our school!”

Eric Gutstein, a Teachers for Social Justice co-founder and professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted the incredible disparity in funding the “model” turnaround Sherman School gets, yet still would qualify as a Turnaround again because it has likewise not made the Annual Yearly Progress NCLB demands the CPS uses to determine its annual school reconstitutions or closings. He also noted that 40 percent of the teachers left Sherman last year while every teacher remained at Holmes.

Gutstein admonished the hearing officer, Frederick Bates, for discriminating against the communities and witnesses that come to the hearings to defend the schools. He noted that the Board had been allowed to present a Power Point presentation at the hearing on Hamilton Elementary School earlier in the hearing cycle, yet Bates had refused to allow the Hamilton Principal (and community leaders) to make a Power Point presentation at the Hamilton hearing on February 3. Bates quickly defended himself saying time was the priority, but refused to explain why every hearing had to be limited to only two hours if more people wished to bring information before the hearing.

Holmes 5th and 6th grade teacher Daisy Sharp asked again why everyone must be fired in the building if it’s only about test scores.

According to a reporter from Medill News Service who asked a Board spokesman this question, CPS feels every adult in the building affects the children’s learning.

Music teacher Laura Pahr then challenged the use of such tests in the first place. Pahr said to just use a paper and pencil test is wrong when every educator knows that the multiple intelligences need to be assessed to determine truly what the child is learning. “Have the Board people come to our school and see the children put on a play? Have they seen our children sing in the choir and conduct science experiments?” Pahr asked.

Holmes teacher assistant Kimberly Simmons (above, at microphone) read a letter from State Rep. Esther Golar into the official record. Golar, who opposes the reconstitution of Holmes, charged that the Chicago Board of Education was also violating the federal No Child Left Behind law in the way it was treating Holmes. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.A letter was read by Holmes teaching assistant Kimberly Simmons in which State Representative Esther Golar gave her support for the school. In the letter, Golar noted that the Board is in clear violation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by neglecting to notify the parents of the reconstitution evaluation. “I challenge this ruling and demand due process,” Ms. Simmons read.

Several teachers also noted the dangerous environment the students must deal with when attending school. The school has implemented many programs for the students who live in Englewood, one of the most dangerous areas in the city in which 12,000 crimes were committed last year, according to Holmes teacher Megan Dolan. A Holmes 5th grade student was murdered in gang cross fire last year and some of the students are still receiving therapy.

With Holmes teachers, students, and community residents in the background, Jitu Brown (above, speaking) of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organzation (KOCO) recounted how KOCO had been documenting the failure of 'Renaissance 2010' and school closings for more than five years, so far to no avail. Brown's persistence in opposing the mayor's program has helped bridge the gap in experience faced whenever a new school, such as Holmes, is added to what many call the mayor's public school hit lits. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Jitu Brown, a community organizer with Coco on the southside, said CPS is ignoring the evidence that this process is flawed. He mentioned that the previous school closings led to a spike in violence at receiving schools, not to mention the children who are moved from closing school to closing school, falling further behind academically due to the abrupt changes in their academic lives. “There must be a moratorium on school closings,” Brown said. “The accountability must fall on CPS.”

An interesting possible legal challenge was thrown up by Karl Hubert, the dean of students at Holmes and an attorney. Hubert said CPS has to perform certain duties to make AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) and provide further assistance. “You say you’re not a yes man,” Hubert told the hearing officer Bates. ”So what we’re asking you is to make a reasonable and very considerate decision in this matter.”

During the February 9 hearing, Bates announced that there would be a "community" hearing the following night. Leaflets announcing the community hearing were in the back of the hearing room. The leaflets said that the community hearing was being organized under the aegis of 'Renaissance 2010' so that the community could hear about AUSL. The number to call for additional information about the AUSL marketing hearing was the CPS Office of New Schools number. The next night AUSL held their own hearing on the Reconstitution of Holmes. Only four people showed up; not one of them a parent. The Holmes community decided to boycott the event meant for them. A day earlier, parents, teachers, and community leaders from another targeted school (Bethune Elementary) boycotted a similar AUSL hearing at Chalmbers Elementary School on the West Side. 


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