As 8th District State Rep. LaShawn Ford took to the podium for a special House education hearing taking place Monday in Austin, the freshman legislator was visibly aware of the tone of impatience that permeated the standing-room-only gathering.
Convening his first state subcommittee hearing on elementary and secondary education, Ford sought to provide a forum for the community to express the problems it sees with the educational system on the West Side.
The hearing took place at the 15th District Police headquarters, 5701 W. Madison.
Ford was joined by fellow state legislators. The lawmakers were there to listen and take the feedback from the community back to Springfield. Many of the attendees in the audience were educators and parents who had a wide range of concerns.
Austin resident James T. Smith called for a change in CPS policy of placing students in certain school districts based on their grades or locale.
“My daughter attends Mark Skinner School, one of the best elementary schools in Chicago, but my son who graded just a few points off of the required level will be forced to attend a school that I would rather not see him attend,” Smith said, who’s also a teacher youth advocate.
“This makes me disheartened as a parent and a taxpayer that the Chicago Public School system is going to dictate to me where my child belongs.”
Smith also had an issue with the high truancy among CPS students. Smith said he likes what the school system in northern Freeport, Ill. does to handle their truancy problem.
“They have officers actually cruise for students who are supposed to be in school but are just hanging around. They pick them up and check to see if they have any priors. If they have none, they contact their parents. If parents are reached, they drop them off at home and offer a warning to the parents about a potential fine if the child is caught again,” Smith said. “If the parent is not reached, then the child is sent to the Truancy Center where the child will receive a days worth of educational instruction based on their grade level. This model would be ideal for dealing with truancy on the West Side.”
Jack Weiss of the Alternative Schools Network voiced his support for funding of more small and alternative schools.
“Every child does not thrive in the same environment,” he said. “Some students need that extra attention to allow them to be successful. Of all the money and resources that are placed into funding CPS schools, not nearly enough money is used to finance the opening of new alternative and small schools.”
Isaiah Sanders, a senior at Community Christian Academy, a private school on the South Side, talked about his experience at an alternative school.
“I was attending Farragut High School initially and felt that I was treated more as a number than as a student,” Sanders said. “I thought, ‘I have better things to do’ and dropped out. But after I got in trouble and was briefly incarcerated I realized that going back to school was what I needed to do. I went to CCA and my life really changed. The instructors worked with me and I discovered a passion for school involvement I never had before. I am currently on the Deans list at my school and am also on the student board.”
Spenser Academy Principal Carolyn Palmer, however, opposes the idea of looking at alternative schools when addressing elementary school problems.
Palmer worked more than 10 years as a high school teacher before becoming a principal three years ago. Spenser Academy enrolls nearly 1,000 students, but overcrowding is just one of the many issues Palmer’s had to face.
“Elementary school principals work harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I’ve been an assistant at an alternative school before and know that it is also hard work. They do some good things at small schools, but teachers, principals and school counsel members in public schools are the ones in the trenches dealing with the troubled kids who are given no programs to help prepare them for life after grade school.”
Palmer supports after school college prep programs for high school students.
Some community members had other concerns.
“What I think needs to happen is for teachers to put a new emphasis on English,” said Austin business woman Phylis Logan, who’s also a member of the African-American Business Network.
“I’ve been to schools with students that are not even native English speakers that have a better grasp of the language than our kids,” Logan said. “This has got to change.”
Ford concluded the hearing by assuring that solutions would be forthcoming but would take time.
“These problems will never be solved overnight, but through the continued dedication of our citizenry we can accomplish these goals,” he said. “It takes persistence on all our parts to get it done.”