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J. N. Thorp next on CPS Hit List?... "Hands off Thorp!" meeting held in South Chicago

The recently formed neighborhood group called “Friends of Thorp” sponsored a real hearing on the evening of Thursday, September 24, 2009.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has sponsored public “hearings” across the city, in recent cases pretending to give communities “choice” by offering Transitional ADVISORY Councils (TACs) a role in determining which “new school” (read: not your neighborhood, public school) will be brought into their communities to facilitate CPS’s/Mayor Daley’s destruction of PUBLIC education in Chicago. Prior to the hearings, most people in the community have never heard of the TAC, let alone had any choice in selecting the TACs.

After CPS’s Office of New Schools holds “hearings,” the ritual of blanket, rubber-stamped approval from the Board of Education to any and all CPS/Mayoral requests and proposals takes place.

Thus, it is appropriate and reasonable to question the “listening” aspect the term implies.

A diverse audience of about 70 people (plus 20 children) learned about what’s really in store for J. N. Thorp Elementary School located at 8914 S. Buffalo Avenue, on the far southeast side of Chicago, under CPS’s Renaissance 2010 plans for “new schools.”

The hearing took place at the Pilgrim Baptist Church located a few blocks south from the school at 3235 E. 91st Street. The event was structured as follows:

1) opening remarks by Friends of Thorp moderator, Robert Garcia;

2) slideshow presentation of Thorp’s academic achievements by Dave Vance (Friends of Thorp, Labor Beat, and member of CORE);

3) parent testimonial and advice from her experience at Carpenter School by Maria Hernandez;

4) teachers’ perspective on a real education plan versus that of REN 2010 from Karen Jennings-Lewis (National Board Certified Teacher and Co-Chairperson of CORE);

5) testimonial and advice from the city-wide experience of Wanda Hopkins from Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE); and

6) a Question/Answer session for the audience.

Robert Garcia got the attention of and fired up the audience with his opening remarks, beginning with the words, “The ballot or bullets…” quoting and briefly explaining a 1964 speech by Malcolm X. He said, “Change can come from the united efforts of people who are willing to fight, who are willing to stand for justice.” Mr. Garcia told the audience the fight they face today is the same.

BACKGROUND: The J. N. Thorp building has been labeled as “underutilized” by the Chicago Board of Education. The area surrounding the school was hit hard and has not recovered from the closing of the steel mills. The area consists of a LOT of VACANT LAND VERY NEAR THE LAKEFRONT, and vested interests have their eyes on this near future prize.

Mr. Garcia noted in his introductory remarks that millions of dollars have already been invested in the area for the land rather than invested in “our existing schools.” He asked/argued that if the city has money for charter and other new schools, “You also have money for existing schools.” Private schools benefit SOME of the children; public schools benefit ALL. If the city has money for $500,000 condos and redevelopment, then they also have money to “help the people who live here, rather than the people you want to bring in here.” Mr. Garcia had to pause often from the applause to his words.

A basic question regarding some of these “new schools” “sharing space” in “underutilized” CPS buildings across the city has been: Why not leave the existing public schools alone, since the buildings will predictably fill back up as planned, new housing is developed? The answers, not given by Mayor Daley, the City Council, the Chicago Board of Education, and vested business interests, were given at the hearing by parents, teachers, and real community activists.

Further background information is needed. In the case of J. N. Thorp, CPS’s Office of New Schools presided over a “hearing,” basically a “competition for new schools,” for the planned “space-sharing” this past summer in South Chicago. With the process still underway, J.N. Thorp is already listed in the CPS Budget under “Citywide” as opposed to its usual listing under “Neighborhood Schools.”

(If one plans to look it up, the J stands for James, since the CPS Budget lists the schools in ABC order by first name.) Of the seven new schools that made presentations, sponsored by CPS in partnership with the neighborhood TAC, two are left:

LEARN Charter and South Loop.

Interestingly, these two “new” schools and their modus operandi have actually become “old” news to veteran REN 2010 watchers. When LEARN presented its case this summer at a CPS “hearing” for a new school on the north side, they openly referred that audience to their web site; on their web site, parents can find LEARN’s policy of kicking students out who do not comply with what they determine to be the rules. In contrast, when LEARN presented its case this summer on the south side, in South Chicago, that audience could find a phone number on the flyer to call for any further questions; in their presentation, while mentioning strong discipline (a parental favorite), no mention was made of their policy of kicking students out. J. N. Thorp and other neighborhood, public schools cannot make their own rules and/or kick students out. At the same CPS summer “hearing” in South Chicago, South Loop shamelessly boasted about their standardized test scores going up from some 20% to 80% of their students being at or above level.

What they neglected to mention to the audience of the changing neighborhood in South Chicago was that their student population had turned-over about the same amount as their test scores. South Loop’s “transformational teaching miracle” is based on having a knack for moving into an area right before the gentrification payout. And now they want to move into South Chicago… Straight-faced, they spoke enthusiastically about their wonderful “new school” for the community, full-well knowing they were speaking to an audience they assumed wouldn’t even be there, in that “new school,” in a few years’ time.

What a “CHOICE” for the South Chicago community! Why is it that CPS’s REN 2010 does not offer the TACs (Transitional Advisory Councils) or the taxpaying, public citizenry of Chicago the options, aka real choices, of: “None of the Above,” “Leave the Public School(s) Alone,” or “Fund the Neighborhood School(s)”?

Next on the agenda, Dave Vance showed the audience a slide show to counter any impression or rumors that J. N. Thorp was a school “on the way down.” He showed test score data and an “Award for Exemplary Achievement” signed by Arne Duncan.

At one point in the presentation, Mr. Vance commented, “Holy cow, Mayor Daley. Get out of here.” The audience erupted in supportive laughter and applause.

The moderator introduced Maria Hernandez, a parent from Carpenter School. BACKGROUND: CPS assured (translation: lied to) that school community a few years back that they were simply “sharing space” with 'Ogden International High School.'

Carpenter Elementary School was swallowed up by Ogden, and what’s left today is being spit out in giant chunks (of children/students) in a process CPS calls “Phase Out.” Ms. Hernandez gave forewarnings and advice to the South Chicago audience, a community presently confronting what her school community already unfortunately experienced:

Test scores do not matter to CPS in this fight; as with Thorps’ and many other targeted schools’ standardized test scores, Carpenter’s were also on the rise. The people at the Board of Education and CPS are cruel, dishonest, “smooth talkers,” and crooked. Question everything. They are scared of numbers. Stay united and keep the community informed with lots of meetings. Pressure your politicians. You put them in office, you can take them out. (She later informed some surprised and angry audience members during the question/answer portion that none of this could have even begun without the consent of the alderman. In this case, the 10th Ward Alderman is John A. Pope.)

She told the audience of how there will be more downs than ups, and how their children would sense their being upset, as children do, and to remember that this fight was not only for them, but for all the children of the school (and the city). They needed to keep their eyes and ears open, and be ready for both open and stealth attacks of all kinds against them from CPS. They should be prepared for a lot of work and time commitment. She said what hurt her most were the “traitors.” She told everyone to not let that get them down. Even if they lost, they were setting a most important example for their children by fighting with their best efforts against something that was unfair and doing it without violence.

Ms. Hernandez closed by wishing the audience the best of luck. She would keep them in her prayers. Up until this point the audience listened rather spell-bound as Ms. Hernandez calmly and systematically described what she had gone through with CPS. After her closing remarks, a sonic-boom of applause was given for Maria Hernandez.

The next speaker was Karen Jennings-Lewis. She introduced herself as a teacher, not of Thorp, but she explained that we all needed to come together because this was happening all over the city. Ms. Lewis told of how when REN 2010 began, “they picked us off one by one.” That was not the case now.

She spoke against the people in charge, closing the public schools, who do not value public education, never attended public schools themselves, and do not send their own children to public schools. The schools they open are only “PUBLIC” in that they use our public TAX DOLLARS.

Ms. Jennings-Lewis said, “I did not get into education to become wealthy.” (These “new schools” are in it for a private, business profit.) She told the audience that her employer was them, the taxpaying public and parents who allowed her the honor, privilege, and responsibility of teaching their children. She had to pause here and elsewhere for thunderous applause. Ms. Lewis said it straight to the audience: “They want your building.” The area is gentrifying, and where there is “big money,” they need to “get rid of us.”

She spoke about what the “new schools” promise as opposed to what they deliver. For example, when they speak of student-teacher ratios of 22:1, they neglect to tell you the teachers are neither experienced nor certified; and the teachers leave after 2-3 years from the working conditions, thus leaving children, parents, and staff without the traditional public schools’ stability and sense of community/family. She asked the audience members to hold up their hands if they ever experienced problems at home that led to feelings of “meltdown.” Everyone (doubtfully) laughed when a few hands didn’t go up. She then asked if it was fair to kick kids out of school, as these new schools do, for acting out, as kids do when they are also under such stresses. She asked if as parents they were able to volunteer X hours per week or month, in order to keep their child in that school.

(Later, Ms. Hernandez informed the audience of $5 fees required of students serving detentions, this being on top of entry and other fees into the hundreds. She also spoke of the great promises made for recess, music, art, etc. that never materialized.) Much of this information seemed to catch many in the audience by surprise.

Ms. Jennings-Lewis ended by reiterating that this was a “land grab.” CPS does not have an “education plan” for our schools, they have a “business plan.” And now was the time in South Chicago to draw the line in the sand and say, “NO!”

The last speaker was Wanda Hopkins from PURE. She started by telling the audience that much of what she had prepared to say had already been said. She focused the audience by asking, “Are we ready to fight?!” She spoke of McNair School on the west side succeeding in kicking out a charter and told the audience she would fight with them as well. She reinforced the testimonials of how CPS’s idea of “sharing space” quickly moves from half to three-quarters to all of a building. Ms. Hopkins stated that CPS, the Mayor, and the civic/commercial groups have decided they know what’s better for poor African-American and Hispanic children.

She apologized for being “politically incorrect” when she stated that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of the way that CPS and the Mayor “piss in our face and tell us it’s raining.” (The audience roared its approval.) She reiterated that CPS’s REN 2010 was NOT a plan for teachers, parents, students, or J. N. Thorp School.

The problem is it’s not about the children; it’s about how the rich get richer. They could change it by saying, “NO.” They would have to meet and organize and “get in Michael Scott’s face” saying, “No. Or Else.” She ended by saying that we have to do what we have to do to SAVE OUR SCHOOLS!

Time was given for questions from the audience for the three speakers. Members of the audience sought and received more information regarding: what to do to fight, further information on the role of the local alderman in all of this, and further explanation of the concept of Chicago’s “business plan” as opposed to “education plan” in CPS. One man from the audience spoke at length on the above issues and referred everyone to the Stanford/Credo research and other data indicating how these “new schools” are documented failures for the children. His personal experience with REN 2010 was in North Lawndale. He told the audience not to believe the hype and that it was all about race, class, and gentrification, not education. It was about public money for private gain, with the money for “us” going to the back end for incarceration.

A final, refresher “history lesson” from Wanda Hopkins held the audience captive: we, the public, allowed this to start because we were originally promised that these “new schools” were going to create and sustain themselves. These schools were going to find their own buildings and their own funding. (Karen Jennings-Lewis pointed out that CPS presently rents out property to some for $1 a year.)

Typical, Chicago-style, politically-connected games have been and are being played by the Gates Foundation and other rich, business interests, such that these promised, self-sustaining, “new schools” are presently and increasingly publically-funded by CPS and the city of Chicago. Ms. Hopkins ended the event by sharing something she was told by a politician in Springfield: It is not about living, breathing children and their education - It is about the money.

The Friends of Thorp acknowledged members of the TAC in the audience and thanked Reverend Hilliard C. Hudson for the use of the church’s meeting room.

OUTSIDE, one person with a vested interest in REN 2010 started calling a member of the Friends of Thorp a “liar!” It is interesting that this person didn’t challenge anything or anyone at the hearing, having been given the opportunity. Perhaps this pot calling the kettle black knew she could not have handled herself effectively against the responses of the three speakers, and did not want that on videotape?

Perhaps her comfort level for community-speaking was shocked into silence from the challenge of a real hearing as opposed to the staged, done-deal events sponsored by CPS’s Office of New Schools all over the city? On September 25, 2009, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, across the street and one block west of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, the CPS coliseum returns to the community, with the two surviving “new” schools fiercely competing for the spoils of the South Chicago community. 

[Full Disclosure: This reporter is a member of CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators) and took part in the planning of this hearing sponsored by the Friends of Thorp.]



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