In a first-floor technology room at Spencer Elementary Academy, educators, advocates, parents and an alderman have been meeting since June, often several times a week. They’ve been debating education policy and airing grievances over the state of schools on the West Side.
Their goal: To write a set of recommendations for Chicago Public Schools’ top administrators that they hope will reshape education in Austin.
Chaired by Ald. Deborah Graham (D-29th), the Austin Community Action Council approved an 18-page report its hopes to present this month to CPS’ top officials, including CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. The council totals 18 people but membership has ebb and flowed.
Austin is one of five communities that will be presenting its education plans to the Chicago Public Schools. The project began in October 2010 by CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement, a department charged with involving parents and community groups in schools. Other Chicago neighborhoods participating include Bronzeville, as well as East and West Humboldt Park. Each community, however, is devising, and will present, their ideas separately. Similar groups have since been formed in Roseland and South Shore.
Bill Gerstein, head of the community engagement office, expects next month’s presentation to spark an ongoing relationship between communities and their schools.
“This is just the beginning of a real engagement process for CPS,” Gerstein said.
While CPS is not required to follow the group’s recommendations, committee members hope their words will translate into action. Especially, as the newly-appointed Brizard tries to raise standards in schools struggling with low achievement, violence and high drop-out rates.
“I’m not here for a dog-and-pony show,” Graham said. “These people are here sincerely fighting for improved educational quality for our children. We want our voices to be heard.”
Dwayne Truss, a local education activist and vice-chair of the committee, noted that standardized test scores in each of Austin’s schools have shown an improvement in the past several years. But Leviis Haney, an assistant principal at Spencer, 214 N. Lavergne, offers a different view-that his and other schools continue to struggle with poverty, safety issues and low academic achievement.
“The problem is bigger than the schools,” said Haney, who has been at Spencer for four years. “That’s why we need to band together.”
Recommendations of the group fell into three categories: Early Childhood, Middle School/High School Transition and Parent Engagement (a partial list is included below). Among the recommendations in the Early Childhood category were suggestions that CPS: 1) facilitate educational workshops about child development for parents of kids ages 3-5; and 2) hire a youth outreach worker at each school to reach out to chronically truant students.
In the middle school and high school areas, the committee’s recommendation included: 1) building a new neighborhood high school to serve Austin; and 2) improving articulation in curricular between the middle schools and high schools.
To involve parents in their kids’ education, the committee said CPS should: 1) creating a staffed “parent resource room” in every school that offers parents-led programs, computers and Internet access; and 2) offer job training, health services and financial literacy classes at schools.
Among the Austin group’s top recommendations was building a new neighborhood high school. But the committee stopped short of proposing a specific location for the school, and voted to remove reference of the divisive Brach’s Candy site from the report.
Truss said an appendix, which called for a new high school and detailed the history of the proposed Brach’s site, was omitted because its subcommittee never voted on the document.