Year-round schools media event fails to answer question: Why promote the opening of school more than two weeks before the opening of school?

The announcement to the press was fairly straightforward.

It read: FOR PLANNING PURPOSES: July 17, 2009

Top CPS Officials Emphasize Year-Round Schools’ Start Date, Take Campaign Door-to-Door on West Side

WHO: Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott

Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman

Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Dr. Barbara Eason-Watkins

37th Ward Alderman Emma M. Mitts

Brian Piccolo School Principal Althea Hammond

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte

Uplift High School Band

Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ron Huberman (above right, at podium speaking) told the July 20 crowd that "Track E" year-round schools in Chicago were increasing test scores. CPS expanded the total of "Track E" schools for the 2009-2010 school year to 132, the biggest expansion in history, despite flimsy or no evidence that the program has any benefits for schools, children, families or teachers. In addition to Huberman, those identified in the above photo were (left to right), Willie Johnson (a Piccolo parent), Alderman Emma Mitts (37th Ward), Chicago Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason Watkins, and Althea Hammond (Principal of Piccolo school). The three others in the photograph (to the right of Althea Hammond) did not speak and were not introduced in press materials. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Piccolo School parents, students and community leaders

WHAT: Press conference and Back-to-School kickoff for CPS year-round schools

WHEN: 10 a.m. Monday July 20

WHERE: Brian Piccolo School, 1040 N. Keeler

Top CPS officials will join with community leaders at a press conference and festive Back-to-School event to emphasize the Aug. 10 start date for the district’s year-round Track E schools. This year, some 132 schools will operate on the district’s year-round schedule, up from 41 schools that were on the Track E calendar a year ago.

"Track E" — as CPS refers to the 132 public schools that are going to be "year-round" for the 2009-2010 school year — requires that schools end the traditional summer vacation (which doesn't end for the remainder of the city's public school children until they return to class September 8, 2009) and begin the official school year in August. Instead of one, lengthy summer vacation, "Track E" schools have several breaks within the school year. The Track E program, CPS officials acknowledge, does not had days to the children's school year, nor does it add hours of instruction to any child's school days. Despite some confusion about those two facts, the only thing "Track E" does right now in Chicago is add to the number of schools and children who will be in school most of August and who will have some of their "vacations" in the middle of everyone else's school year.

The elaborate media event of July 20, 2009, on behalf of the year-round schools included music played by the Uplift Community High School marching band and cheerleaders (above). Uplift is a small high school located in what was once the Joan Arai Middle School building at 900 W. Wilson in Chicago's 46th Ward, miles from Piccolo. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. "The 2009-2010 school year for students at 132 Chicago Public Schools will begin in three weeks, top CPS officials reminded the city's school community today," the CPS press release distributed during the event stated. "Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott, Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman, and Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins delivered the message during a press conference and back-to-school kickoff event at Brian Piccolo School, 1040 N. Keeler..." After the press conference, CEO Huberman, Chief Education Officer Eason-Watkins, Alderman Mitts, Chicago Bear Forte and others will walk to homes near Piccolo and distribute fliers and backpacks with school supplies as a way of further emphasizing the impending Track E school year start date. Media is invited to join.

Weather permitting, the event will take place in the grassy area to the west of Piccolo School with entry on Cortez Street, which runs along the south side of the school property...

July 20 event to promote August 10 start of school?

Alderman Emma Mitts (left in photo above, wearing sunglasses) joined Ron Huberman in passing out 100 pack packs to children on the blocks adjacent to Piccolo school. The event was carefully staged for the media, as can be seen from the cameras on both sides of the photo above. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Although the CPS press release noted that the first day of school for Chicago's expanded "year-round" schools (called "Track E" for bureaucratic reasons) was August 10, there was no detailed explanation as to why the media event took place more than two weeks before school begins for the "Track E" children and nearly eight weeks before school begins (September 8) for most Chicago public schools children.

It turned out there was no press conference in the traditional sense — when reporters are able to ask questions — so that some questions that arose during the event were left unanswered.

According to CPS officials, more than 80,000 children will be in year-round schools in the coming school year, a dramatic increase over previous years.

"An increasing number of elementary schools have been shifting to the year-round calendar over the past several years," a CPS press release dated July 20 states. "While CPS had year-round schools for a while, the number of schools moving to the Track E calendar has increased from 18 two years ago to 41 last year to 132 this year. All of the Track E schools are elementary schools except one."

The closest thing CPS had to an explanation for the mid-July event came during the remarks by CEO Ron Huberman.

One of the reasons why public officials stage more media events such as the one organized by the Chicago Public Schools on July 20, 2009, is that cutbacks in newsroom staff in print, radio and television news have have resulted in a peculiar situation such as the one above. Instead of sending reporters and camera crews to cover a news story, many TV news divisions are simply sending out camera crews without reporters. The result is that any "news" that might see air time on television is based on the description of the event provided by the newsmaking organization (such as CPS), with the news really consisting of the public relations material from the organization being read while the video of the event is aired. At each of the homes selected by the Huberman administration to receive the "back to school" back packs, the children and their parents were waiting at the door for the arrival of the large group of people. The large groups consisted of TV camera crews, following Ron Huberman and Alderman Emma Mitts. Huberman (above in white shirt, back to camera) referred all questions to his press secretary, Monique Bond. The media event struck at least one observer as particularly interesting given the recent death of reporter Walter Cronkite and the reflections in the press about the meaning of Cronkite's life and work. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. "For the approximately 80,000 plus students who attend our year-round schools, now is the time to begin preparing for the upcoming school year," Huberman stated (and was quoted in press materials). "We've come to Piccolo today to remind families in our Track E communities about the importance of making sure their children are in school on August 10, ready to engage in the serious business of learning..."

After beginning his remarks by talking about the increase in gang violence the previous weekend, Huberman led into his prepared remarks about Track E by reminding his audience that none of the children murdered in Chicago last year had been killed in a public school, and that for many children, the public school is the safest place in a community.

Then he read directly from his prepared remarks, which were provided to Substance by the CPS Communications Department.

"Thanks to Principal Althea Hammond for her leadership here at Piccolo…… At CPS, we have made year-round learning an important option for our school communities," he began, "Increasingly, many principals, teachers and parents are embracing the district’s efforts and Mayor Daley’s vision for year-round learning. This year, some 132 schools will operate on the year round calendar…..what we refer to as the Track E calendar. And for those schools, the first day of instruction is Aug. 10, two weeks from today."

"Up to 80,000 Chicago Public School students are expected to participate with more than a quarter of our elementary schools participating on this schedule," he continued. "Like the Mayor has said time and time again, we must educate our young people and prepare them to compete in a global economy so they can succeed in a global society. And that means more consistent engagement in learning, which is what the year-round calendar allows us to do. In two weeks, our students at Track E schools like Brian Piccolo will begin their 2009-2010 academic year. Most of these students will have had 8 full weeks of vacation since the last school year ended June 12. By any measure, 8 weeks is a pretty good vacation."

Huberman noted that Track E does not increase the number of days of instruction per year or the number of hours of instruction per day, as some people may have believed.

"The reality is that 170 days of classroom instruction in year round school is the same 170 days for regular school…." he continued. "the difference is that the breaks are spread out. The huge learning loss that students experience over the summer is greatly minimized. Equally important, the longer we can keep students in the classroom, the safer they will be…..engaged in learning and out of harm’s way."

Claims of gains from Track E schools

"And, these students are actually learning faster," Huberman stated, citing data that was not made available to the media. "In reviewing our preliminary 09 ISAT data, we are again finding that while the district is making gains as a whole, students in these year-round schools are making even greater gains over the same period of time. But beyond our commitment to raising awareness about our year-round schools, today also marks the beginning of our annual Back to School campaign. For the next month, you will be hearing a regular and consistent message: go to school on the first day, and stay in school every day."

Back to school campaign begins early

"In the coming weeks, at community festivals, at the Bud Billiken parade, at Hopefest, our back to school message is: Just Go and Become … Become doctor….a scientist… a football player….a plumber….a businessperson … a teacher...become whatever your education and training prepares you to be. But remember that it all starts on the first day of school, and a good education is a path to success. For our Track E families, if you haven’t already done so, mark Aug. 10 on your calendars as the first day of school. And for the remainder of our school communities, mark Sept. 8 for the same reason. Let’s make it a great year of learning and progress for all. Thank you."

Radical expansion of year-round schools in Chicago

In addition to speaking during the speeches at Piccolo school, 37th Ward alderman Emma Mitts (above left) stayed close to CEO Ron Huberman as the crowd walked from home-to-home distributing the back packs to children. Above, Mitts sits on the porch of the home of Olga Rosa (right) while her two sons Kevin and Jimmy hold the back packs they have just been given by Ron Huberman. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The radical expansion of year-round ("Track E") schools in Chicago is one of the first major initiatives of the administration of Ron Huberman, who was appointed CEO of the nation's third largest school system by Mayor Richard M. Daley in January 2009. Huberman was appointed following the departure of former CEO Arne Duncan, who was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education by President Barack Obama in December 2008 and who took office following Obama's inauguration in January 2009.

According to the CPS press release distributed to reporters during the events of July 20, all of the schools that are entering Track E in August 2009 voluntarily went into the program.

"Individual school petition the district for permission to move to a Track E calender," the CPS press release stated. "The process begins at the local school level, with collaboration among the principal, teachers, and larger school community."

A 'petition' to join Track E or a top-down order to do so?

In most of the schools surveyed so far by Substance, the decision to go to Track E was a top-down one. Substance staff and others tried to clarify the Track E selection process when it was announced and have begun trying to reconstruct the history of the process again this month.

According to many teachers and others, the decision was forced on the principal, who in turn worked on the Local School Council and the teachers.

One of the departments that was not cut in a major way by CEO Ron Huberman was "Youth Outreach," which often provides unique services to city officials and CPS executives during media events such as the July 20 Track E event at Piccolo school. In addition to maintaining the perimeter during the press conference behind Piccolo, Youth Outreach workers (above) ran the necessary number of back packs to CEO Huberman (third from left, above) during the walkabout along two of the four blocks adjacent to Piccolo. After Huberman left, according to CPS officials, Youth Outreach workers distributed the rest of the 100 backpacks to children along the route who were not included in the two-block photo opportunity. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.As early as April 2009, when the Huberman administration announced the vast expansion of Track E now taking place, Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart questioned Huberman's claim that the schools had all gone through a kind of buy-in process.

Stewart, speaking at the Board of Education meeting the month the year-round additions were approved, was skeptical. However, the union had not had time to get detailed answers about the nature of the petition Huberman claims came from a process at each school, so the skepticism remained just that.

On July 20, 2009, CTU Press Secretary Rosemarie Genova was on vacation, and no one returned a Substance phone call asking for comment. No one from the teachers union was present at the July 20 media event at Piccolo school.

Calls to the CTU press office were returned on July 21 by Illinois Federation of Teachers press spokeperson Gail Purkey. Purkey told Substance that to the best of her knowledge the union had not been invited to participate in the July 20 media event at Piccolo school. She also noted that in the past, when Paul Vallas was CEO of Chicago's schools, the attempt to open schools before the end of Labor Day weekend had produced problems.

Barbara Eason-Watkins claims year-round schools score better than traditional scheduled schools

In brief remarks at the event, Chicago schools Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins claimed that students learned more in Track E schools, even though the number of school days remain the same. "The mission of year-round schools is to improve student achievement by reconfiguring the school year to increase learning opportunities," she said in prepared remarks distributed to the press. "The traditional school calendar has a long summer break. Students attending a year-round program have the same number of school attendance days, but vacation is spread throughout the year into shorter, more frequent breaks."

As soon as the media had departed, 'Chief Executive Officer' Ron Huberman was driven away from Piccolo by his driver in his Board of Education car (above). Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Eason-Watkins did not provide any written documentation to support the administration's claim that year-round schools were doing better than schools following the traditional calendar.

No one from the Chicago Teachers Union was present at the July 20 media event.

Push for year-round schools has little support

Despite the expensive media event on July 20 and the placement of banners promoting "NANO" at all of the Track E schools, CPS officials are reluctant to allow a full public debate on the issue or to have an actual press conference regarding their claims for one of Mayor Daley's pet projects.

As soon as the media had departed, 'Chief Education Officer' Barbara Eason Watkins was driven away from Piccolo by her driver in his Board of Education car (above). Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.No officials of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association was present at the July 20 media event.

Two of the announced participants in the event were no-shows. Board of Education President Michael Scott did not arrive, despite assurances from his special assistant Greg Minniefield that he was "on the way."

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte also skipped the event, but sent two public relations people.

Ron Huberman and Barbara Eason-Watkins were spirited away from the event as soon as the TV cameras began to pack up and leave. Each was driven away by their own driver in their own Board car before the event was completely over.

The Board had 100 back packs to give out, according to the Board's communications department. The remaining ones were distributed in the community by Youth Outreach staff following the departure of Huberman, Eason Watkins, the TV cameras, and the alderman. 

Final edited version of this article posted at July 22, 2009, 2:30 a.m. CDT. If you choose to reproduce this article in whole or in part, or any of the graphical material included with it, please give full credit to SubstanceNews as follows: Copyright © 2009 Substance, Inc., Please provide Substance with a copy of any reproductions of this material and we will let you know our terms. We are asking all of our readers to either subscribe to the print edition of Substance (a bargain at $16 per year) or make a donation. Both options are available on the right side of our Home Page. For further information, feel free to call us at our office at 773-725-7502.


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