[PCR is the acronym for People for Community Recovery. Founded 30 years ago by Hazel Johnson, this organization was formed to fight the environmental pollution visited on this community by decades of industrial waste dumping. The projects themselves were built for returning vets to work in the factories of Southeast Chicago and Northwestern Indiana — where a vast complex of steel mills used to belch smoke into the air 24 hours a day. Today, according to an October article published in Medill Reports (http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=143467): “If you live in the housing project, off 130th Street on Chicago’s Far South Side, a few things are within convenient walking distance: A wastewater treatment plant, a rolling mountain range of Chicago’s garbage, a polluted river.” Today you would live in a community without a library and where the neighborhood public school is five miles away.
Perhaps even more significant is that the facts of pollution have been hidden from the community and only uncovered under a Freedom Of Information Act inquiry by PCR. Here is what a report published by researchers at U. of Wisconsin said (http://www.geology.wisc.edu/~wang/EJBaldwin/PCR/pcrenvhealth.htm): “The presence of [polychlorobiphenyl, or PCB) contamination was not disclosed to local residents until 1995 when People for Community Recovery submitted a Freedom of Information Act. Disturbed groundwater conditions in the area lead to removal of drinking fountains in public areas and the closing of nearby private wells. Because of high water table, this contaminated ground water discharges into several open and accessible low lying areas throughout Altgeld Gardens. These areas are characterized by standing water. ”
Wednesday, December 16 hundreds of parents and supporters gathered at the Chicago School Board regular monthly meeting to express their anger at the disregard of the city powers to address the community concerns which have escalated since the death of Gardens resident Derrion Albert. They had to get to the building by 6 AM to sign up to speak during the meeting and be guaranteed a seat in the main hearing room. They came from 15 miles away in the bitter cold. And they came bearing a concrete, well thought out, 38 page proposal to establish a public high school in the 2/3 of their local facility which isn’t being used. When Carver school was taken away from them in 2006, the school became a “selective enrollment” military academy. Aside from the many protests going on in the city as schools are being turned into military recruitment bases, the selective enrollment nature of the school limited the number of students who would be allowed to enter from the immediately surrounding area.
What happened at this School Board Meeting was both a demonstration of the clear focus that Altgeld parents and their partners in the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) have; and an example of the disregard that the Board has for the people in the community. The School Board agreed to take under advisement the comments and the proposal of the Altgeld community and their supporters. But what expectation can anyone who has worked in that community for 30 years have, when time and again the powers that be have blocked information and blocked remediating action?
Pauline Lipman, a UIC professor who has researched Chicago Public Schools for years and had occasion to observe the School Board in inaction on many occasions, summed it up well when she told the Board that the death of Derrion Albert has become a national wake-up call and that the School Board “just doesn’t get it.” Following is a report from Substance News on this meeting, and photos by George Schmidt of Substance News and David Marques of Teachers for Social Justice.]
Board of Education snubs massive protests, continues pushing Mayor’s agenda at December 16 meeting
Jim Vail – December 17, 2009
In what could only be described as an all-out assault on the Chicago Board of Education’s corporate agenda and the pretensions of its “Chief Executive Officer”, Ron Huberman, swarms of people surrounded the microphone all morning during public presentations at the Board’s monthly meeting on December 16, 2009. The speakers and crowds demand a neighborhood public high school in the Altgeld Gardens; they protested the Renaissance Plan to close public schools; they objected to the new ‘desegregation’ plan in which selective enrollment schools will no longer use race to determine admission; and they tried to address a dozen other topics. The Board listened to only half the people who had come downtown to speak before cutting off public participation, rushing through their agenda, passing every proposal submitted to them by Ron Huberman, and leaving until next month.
The December 16th meeting began by honoring the family of Mayor Daley’s confidant and Board of Education President Michael Scott. Scott was found shot to death on November 16, 2009, last month in an apparent suicide, though many continue to harbor doubts. (After an extensive investigation, the Chicago Police Department affirmed an earlier decision by the Cook County Medical Examiner that Scott’s death was a suicide).
Cheryl Johnson of People for Community Recovery and a resident of Altgeld Gardens speaks to the Board, while supporters from the Gardens, CORE, TSJ and others unfurl a banner with 1300 signatures supporting her position. Photo by George Schmidt
The traditional monthly awards ceremony — the “Good News” part of each Board meeting — went to honor Kevin Rutter, an economics teacher and debate coach at Schurz High School who was named the Illinois Teacher of the Year, and Whitney Young Magnet High School, which was named a Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education.
Rutter told the Board it is important to note that Schurz “is a neighborhood school that doesn’t get enough recognition.”
Then Whitney Young principal Joyce Kenner accepted the Board’s praise for Whitney Young’s being named one of the top public schools in the USA. Dr. Kenner made a major point in who she brought with her: she was accompanied by teachers, administrators, students, and LSC members from the school.
The temporary early morning calm quickly gave way to speaker after speaker in the opening round demanding that the Altgeld Gardens community get a public neighborhood high school. After Carver High School was closed and opened as a selective military school (the process was complete by 2006, when the last Carver general high school students graduated), students in the neighborhood — the massive Altgeld Gardens public housing project — have been forced to travel five miles away to the Fenger High School.
The closing of Carver as a general high school, coupled with the 2009 “turnaround” at Fenger High School (firing virtually all the veteran staff) resulted in the tragic fatal beating of Fenger junior Derion Albert on September 24, 2009. Fenger was a “turnaround school,” a controversial experiment in which the entire staff of the school is fired and replaced.
Student Deontea Jones, who lives in Altgeld Gardens, complained that Fenger was too dangerous and told the Board (and an earlier press conference) that he had to be ready to fight every day this year at Fenger. Parent Marguerite Jacobs said the Chicago International Charter School — which the Board later voted on to place a new 6-12 CICS charter school in the Carver Middle School — is not the answer. Charters have an application process that can weed out “undesirable” students.
“The community doesn’t want a charter school,” said Cheryl Johnson, who helped work on the proposal for a new environmental school. “We want a public school.”
Altgeld parents and students hold banner documenting community support for a public high school photo by David Marques
The message for a neighborhood school then unfolded literally before the Board’s eyes as students and other concerned community members held up a long list of over 1300 signed petitions by residents who agree with the proposal for a public school. One speaker noted that the Carver Miliatry Academy High School is only 26% utilized (the Board will close schools that are just under 40 percent utilized) and has space to fit at least 1,500 students.
Michael Brunson, a displaced teacher and member of CORE, said he taught in the Altgeld Gardens area for years and that the recent tragedy at Fenger told them they needed a neighborhood school. “We need a school with a functioning LSC and experienced teachers to avoid the type of tragedy that took place,” Brunson told the Board.
The Board responded that their TAC (“Transition Advisory Council) committee had invited the community and it decided the Chicago International Charter School would be the best fit, while Chief Administrative Officer Robert Runcie said they have helped facilitate over 150 transfers for Fenger students who wanted to leave the school and that other security measures are now in place
Brunson noted earlier that the Board’s TAC’s force represented a lot of real estate interests, and told the Board that while the TAC may have served some purpose, “we’re still burning.”
“Will you read the proposal and schedule another meeting,” said UIC professor Rico Gutstein, “or do you want the blood of another child on your hands?”
Amid shouts of “What will the Board do?” Board member and moderator Clare Munana said they would meet with everyone in 30 days.
The next wave of attacks focused on the corporate Renaissance Plan to to close and privatize neighborhood public schools. A series of speakers including this reporter demanded to know when this plan will end and who on the Board will take responsibility for the increase in school violence and chaos that has resulted from it.
Jitu Brown, from the Kenwood Oakwood Community Organization (KOCO), noted that after a number of schools were closed in the early years of “Renaissance 2010” in the so-called “Mid South” area, violence skyrocketed at the feeder schools. One receiving school — Doolittle East Elementary — had an increase of more than 300 students but did not receive any increase in security, Brown said.
“Who’s held accountable for this,” Brown thundered. “We’ve had enough missteps to stop these school closings!”
UIC Professor Pauline Lipman continued the assault.
“It seems the agenda of the Board is to close minority schools and transfer them across the street with no better results for real estate interests,” she said. “In Chicago it is not an education plan, it’s a corporate plan. Who will take responsibility for this?”
Julie Woestehoff from PURE said it was time for each Board member to be held accountable — not just students and teachers — and, guess what, they all failed. She also asked that they refund all the money allocated to their expense accounts over the years. Woestehoff then read the amounts of money each of the Board members should refund to the taxpayers.
“I’m a teacher in Englewood and we’re constantly worried about our school being shut down,” said Berenice Salas, who added that she has been displaced three times and her life “turned upside down” despite the fact that she is a Golden Apple teacher.
Many speakers spoke beyond their two minute allotted time. Unlike the late Board President Scott, who would have limited the number of speakers speaking on the same topic, Munana’s weak pleading did little to deflect the loud artillery barrage.
While the Board said they would follow the order of speakers who signed up to speak, some arriving as early as 6 a.m., once again an exception was made for the politicians.
State Representative Kenneth Dunkin and an aide to Alderman Pat Dowell both spoke against the selective and magnet school policy changes that will no longer use race to determine admission, which they claim will lead to less diversity.
The final assault on the Board began when almost 80 angry African American people entered the Board chambers chanting “Educate or Die!” Phillip Jackson, the head of the Black Star Project and former Chicago Housing Department chief, said the civil rights of black children are on trial here today and if the Board passes the new policy for admissions to selective enrollment schools that will no longer consider race (it did), then “you’ll be on the wrong side of history.”
Jackson noted that race is still being used throughout the country to ensure diversity in school admissions while another speaker noted that even though only 8% of public school students are white, they make up 40% of the selective enrollment schools.
“You want our kids to go to the worst schools? You are not giving kids a choice, you are giving them a sentence,” Jackson said to applause all around. Many speakers who followed Jackson noted the Board’s decision will “re-segregate the selective schools.”
When the public portion of the Board meeting ended and the smoke started to fade, Huberman then made two slick presentations on why the Board must pass the new one-year policy on magnet selective enrollment admissions and modifications to the school closing guidelines.
Huberman said the new admissions policy which will ensure more socio-economic diversity was mandated by the recent court ruling that struck down the desegregation consent decree in Chicago. It is for only one year, after which they can revisit the policy that will take a look at several categories including the parent’s income level, English spoken as a second language, and single parent status, he said.
Board of Education attorney Pat Rocks said those schools that still use race as a factor for admission do so because they were able to prove there is a “compelling government interest” on an individual basis.
Huberman’s next presentation focused on modifications to the school closing guidelines that will include a “Student Bill of Rights.”
Keeping one step ahead of his opponents, Huberman said, in answer to the critical University of Chicago consortium report that stated the Renaissance Plan has failed because most kids at closing schools didn’t do better in their new schools, now CPS will only assign students to schools that have performed better than their original school on the CPS performance policy, and those who transfer will get extended school time and a mentor to ensure a smooth transition. If there is no better school within a 1.5 mile radius of the home, then they will bus the student.
Also according to the new guidelines, a school can be recommended for closure if the school earned less than 33.3% of available points on the performance policy for two consecutive years. Huberman’s infamous “performance data” includes test scores, attendance data, trends and “other key indicators.”
A school can also be recommended for closing if its current or projected enrollment falls below 250 students and it is utilizing less than 40% of the building’s design capacity.
Despite the fact that Mayor Daley and his schools chief intend to continue a hated policy that will continue to shuffle kids around schools when research shows mobility hurts children’s academic growth, privatization, union busting, and anti-affirmative action continue to roll on orders from City Hall and its corporate backers.