On the morning of the November board meeting, school closings are on everyone’s mind. But 15 parents and CPS alumni, affiliated with Stand for Children, New Schools for Chicago, and Education Reform Now, have gathered to ask the district to open more high-quality schools.

“My concern is for my 8th-grader. I would like to have a nice high school in my neighborhood. A Whitney Young [or] a Morgan Park. But that’s not possible because I live in Auburn Gresham,” says parent Davetta Williams, who participates in New Schools for Chicago.

Soon after, Spencer Elementary parent and Stand for Children member Darryl Bright lays out that group’s platform: open more high-quality magnet and charter schools; transition students whose schools are closed to a school that is at least at Level 2 in the CPS performance rating system; and if this is not possible, give receiving schools extra resources through turnarounds, changes of academic focus, and magnet cluster programs.

With CPS and parent groups on all sides headed for a lengthy school closing battle – one that may now be headed to the Illinois legislature – both Stand and New Schools for Chicago are mobilizing increasing numbers of parents around issues of school achievement and quality.

Because of their support of charters and ties to wealthy donors, both groups have been viewed with skepticism by some grassroots advocates.

The new outreach parallels the Chicago Teachers Union’s focus on parent organizing this year, as heated contract talks led to a strike.

Another new parent group on the scene, unlike other groups, says it will not do advocacy: CSF Parents, which co-founder Christina Shaver says will only conduct polls. The group changed its name from Chicago Students First to eliminate confusion with Michelle Rhee’s national organization. Shaver hopes that it can become a trusted source of survey data “like the Nielsen ratings, or Gallup.”

“We are currently surveying parents to ask why they chose CPS and whether CPS is meeting their expectations,” she said at the Oct.  24 school board meeting.

She asked CPS to promote the survey, and help the organization verify whether survey respondents are actually CPS parents to make sure the data is valid.

“We really are interested in parental feedback, and we want to work with you in every way we legally can,” said David Vitale, chair of the Chicago Board of Education. Shaver and fellow co-founder Kimberly Sledgister said that since this fall’s teacher strike, when the group was founded, they have had several dozen meetings with officials in the Family and Community Engagement office.

Existing groups gain steam

This year, Stand for Children Illinois, which first made waves with its substantial contributions to candidates in the state’s fall 2010 political races, has dramatically expanded two parent training and leadership development programs.

One is Stand University for Parents. A total of 135 parents have participated in the program since the spring and Bright, who spoke at Wednesday’s press conference, is a graduate.

“It’s a 10-week program focused on the home environment and how that complements the school environment,” says Juan Jose Gonzalez, the Chicago director of Stand for Children. “This is a program that meets parents where they are at, for parents who are not ready for the full-fledged advocacy – but [aims] to get them more engaged in their local school.”

During a recent class at Bradwell Elementary, parent Mary Dale, a spokesperson for the 15 parents in attendance, asks a tough question for Principal Staci Bennett.

“At 79th and Burnham, as well as Marquette, there are no school zone signs,” Dale, whose son is in pre-kindergarten at the school. Drivers speed by, making it difficult for students and even crossing guards to cross 79th Street.

Bennett replies that she will call the Office of Safety and Security and try to get some put up.

“Did everybody hear that? We already got one of our issues addressed. It’s that easy,” chimes in parent educator Sharifa Townsend.

In schools that host the program, principals and teachers are asked to commit to attending trainings on best practices for family engagement. Principals must also attend a class session where, as at Bradwell, they are put on the hot seat. One key component is helping parents practice advocacy skills in a low-stakes situation.

The group has also organized study circles, and since June, more than 323 parents have participated. The circles are aimed toward helping participants learn about the state of public education in Chicago, and what individuals and the community can do “to raise expectations and improve our schools.”

Individual sessions are held on understanding school report cards; how schools are funded and the different types of schools, including inequities in school funding among different types of schools; and how to participate in education advocacy. In one session, which is particularly timely, participants create their own version of school proposals and actions, and take them to CPS decision-makers.

Stand is also bringing together parent leaders – 24, at a recent meeting – to strategize around school actions.

“We are one of the few organizations from the city that has parents from all school types — selective enrollment, traditional, charter and even turnaround,” Gonzalez says. “We had a leader meeting where we brought all these people together and they really started to educate each other.”

The organization presented the legally required school closings process, information about what CPS might do, and asked the parents to figure out what the group should advocate for.

“From that meeting we started to see a consensus around improving student performance,” Gonzalez says. “We know CPS is going to be doing a lot of actions and interventions. [But] is a student moving from a low-quality seat to a high-quality seat? We are going to be kind of a watchdog of CPS through the school actions process. We are going to be keeping an eye on that.”

Providing information to spark involvement

At the start of class, Sharifa Townsend began by reviewing the topic of data. “Why do you think it’s important? Why is it important to get this information?” she asked the group.

“It tells you the progress of the kid,” a man says. “The more data you collect, you can get a sense of what they’re understanding, comprehending.”

Townsend nods. “Exactly,” she says, then expands on his answer. “You know if the teachers are actually doing their job. Are they instructing the students?”

Alicia James, whose nephew attends the school, says she’s learned that she can help her nephew, who was just diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder), by coming to meetings at school and listening to teachers’ recommendations for how to help him at home. “If you don’t attend meetings, you don’t understand anything,” she says.

The class has also covered things she already knew, like the importance of setting aside a specific time and place for homework every night.

Later in the class, Bennett takes the reins to present the school’s data and answer questions the parents have decided on in advance.

Bennett explains that with 800 students and 24 new teachers, she often has deans and assistant principals deal with issues that come up, sharing the “chain of command” with parents so they know how to effectively get issues addressed.

She shows parents that the percentage of students meeting and exceeding standards on the ISAT composite has increased from 52.5 percent two years ago to 58.2 percent last year, and her goal for next year is 66 percent.

One reason the numbers are so low, she notes, is because when she arrived many students were reading – and still are reading – far below grade level.  And, she says, parents can ask teachers for recommendations of reading-level appropriate books for their children to read, even books that “look like the books everyone else is reading” so students who are behind won’t be stuck with embarrassing books.

She also shares goals for student attendance – noting that she is organizing a bus trip to help students get required physicals and immunizations done – as well as teacher attendance, report card pick-up attendance, positive parent survey results, MAP scores (which she explains are “like a dip stick to see if we are moving toward our target”), and the percentage of students who use online learning software outside of school.

Next, Bennett hands out a copy of Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, which she uses to observe teachers. “When we go into classrooms, if I have students sitting there off-task… I’m not looking at the kid, I’m looking at the teacher,” she explains.  And she notes a key change in instructional expectations. “Distinguished teachers are those that can push the learning on the students, where the students can run the classroom and the teacher can be off on the side,” she says.

Close to the end, she hands out a sheet of the “Teach Like a Champion” behavior strategies that teachers use, and tells parents they can support the school by using the same strategies – like refusing to argue with children, and not accepting a task until directions are followed to the letter – at home.

At the end, Bennett answers more questions. The parents complain that the kindergarten pickup area is unsupervised, and Bennett explains that she has hired more safety and security staff who will begin covering the area.  Some complain that events are not publicized far enough in advance, and Bennett explains that everything is noted ahead of time in the school newsletter. One parent offers the idea of a hotline that parents can call to hear about upcoming events, and another suggests text reminders.

On the issue of students being disrespected by teachers – a hot-button – Bennett explains that she trained new teachers just the day before in an effort to stop the yelling. “I have 24 new teachers, many of whom are new to the teaching profession,” she says.  “Know that we know that, and that we’re working on it.”

At the end of the class, Townsend pulls up a slide showing the spectrum of places parents can advocate: teacher, principal, district, superintendent, school board.

“Keep in mind, it starts in the classroom, but there is one thing missing on here. Where does it really start? At home,” she says.

As homework, the parents are assigned to find out how to join their school’s improvement plan team; ask their children what they like about school, if they were president what would they do to fix the world, and also who is a good teacher and why.

“We talked about affective learning,” Townsend says. “Children can’t learn if they feel like the teacher doesn’t like them. They shut down.”

One parent shares that she used to think Bennett was “the worst principal” but that now she understood why Bennett was so often busy working with teachers and improving instruction. “At first we were all upset and disgusted with how things were being handled,” Dale says, but now she sees the principal’s perspective.

“Running this building is like running the country,” Bennett says. “I have people pulling on me from every direction.”

Evaluating schools, navigating choice, teaching advocacy

New Schools for Chicago, a longstanding charter advocacy group previously known as the Renaissance Schools Fund, began its own set of broader parent outreach efforts this spring and has offered leadership trainings to over 200 parents since February.

The first part of the two-part training aims to help parents understand how to evaluate school culture and academic performance in relation to their children’s needs. The second is focused on advocacy.

In addition, dozens of parent volunteers and 867 families – representing 1,400 students – participated in the group’s Increase Your Odds program in 2011-12. “We work with parents to try to simplify the [school choice] process, to help them try to stay on top of deadlines,” says Chris Butler, director of advocacy and outreach for the group. “Once the lotteries are over, we have worked with the charter schools and with parents to try to connect parents and schools to one another.”

From what parents report back to the organization, about a quarter of participating students are able to get into charters.

But perhaps the group’s biggest organizing effort is still going on. Starting in late September, New Schools for Chicago launched 123 consecutive days of events, a number inspired by what CPS claims are 123,000 students in underperforming schools.

The group is also trying to get people to observe 123 seconds of silence every day at 1:23 p.m. to raise awareness of the issue. Over 2,000 people have signed a pledge to support high-quality schools, which a gathering of 200 parents in April defined as those with strong academics, respect and high expectations for students, meaningful assessments, quality instruction and supported teachers, and community involvement.

“The pledge says all schools must deliver these things or they must change,” Butler says. “It calls on city leadership and the education community to bring these high-quality schools to substantially more students.”

Butler says that as part of the 123 days of action, the group has created a variety of platforms for pledge signers to express this demand, including a vigil and press conference in late October outside the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. “We have had rallies, we’ve had information days where we go out and try to educate the community around the need,” he says. “We have done events with churches on Sundays… We are working really closely with parent leaders, and encourage folks to be creative.”

Claudia Herrera, a mother of four with three children in private schools (the fourth has already graduated), is one parent who took advantage of Increase Your Odds.

When paying the $10,000 high school tuition for her second-oldest son at Mount Carmel Academy became a challenge this year, Herrera looked into Benito Juarez High School, her neighborhood option.

“It’s a really, really, really bad school right now,” she says. “There’s like a 50 percent dropout rate. A lot of gang violence. There was no way I was going to put him in that school.”

Herrera started looking at charter schools, but found that those in her area had long waiting lists. Through Increase Your Odds, she was able to connect with two charter schools on the North Side, but they were too far away for her to get her son to.

“There’s not enough schools like that here in my neighborhood,” Herrera says. Her son remains on the waiting list for several charter schools but is unlikely to transfer in at this point. “It is his junior year and he will be taking his important tests this year. I believe a lot of [charter] schools don’t take seniors, so we are going to be stuck with this $10,000 tuition for another two years,” Herrera says.

Now, she is attending leadership classes run by New Schools for Chicago.

Before the class, “I knew there was a report card for the schools [but] it was so difficult for me to find the website,” Herrera says. “Now that I have this information I am passing it out to my nieces and nephews so their parents can find the right school for them.”

Her oldest two children attended Irma Ruiz Elementary, which is overcrowded, she says. “I don’t want to make the same mistake with my other two,” she says. “My son that’s in private school used to be an A student here at Irma Ruiz and when I put him into this private school he was like, ‘Mom, I don’t understand anything.’ He would come home crying.”

The same thing, she notes, happened to her oldest son, a graduate of Rauner College Prep.

“I thought they were learning, I thought they were getting the right education, but unfortunately that’s not the way it happened,” Herrera says. “When they went to high school they were just lost.”

A parent trigger?

The momentum for both Stand and New Schools for Chicago comes in the wake of the release of the movie “Won’t Back Down,” about parents who fight to improve a failing school through a “parent trigger” policy, where parents can vote on whether to have a failing school taken over by a charter.

Several local groups, including Democrats for Education Reform, organized screenings. Rebeca Nieves Huffman, Illinois state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said at the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options legislative summit that the group has talked to aldermen about a potential parent trigger policy – though it’s not clear what jurisdiction aldermen would have over the issue.

Aldermen suggested that “if you want a parent trigger, make it a community trigger” so the neighborhood has a voice in education reform, Huffman told the group.

But New Schools for Chicago, which also held screenings, says it isn’t exploring the possibility of a parent trigger law. Butler says the group held screenings because the movie is about “what can happen when parents get really engaged in demanding quality schools for their kids.”

He says the group’s organizing work at Wendell Smith Elementary, which led to its local school council voting to have the school turned into a charter, was not an effort to support the parent trigger.

“If there are parents who want to get real specific about bringing a specific kind of transformation to a school, that is something we would be supportive of, but there is nothing like that (going on) right now that I can really point out,” Butler says.

Stand for Children is not working on a parent trigger, either. Gonzalez says that with the local school council model of governance in place at most CPS schools, he doesn’t see the need.

“To me, through the LSC system, that is an existing parent trigger type model,” he says.

He adds that the timing of CPS’ decision to turn around Smith, following an LSC vote asking the district to turn it into a charter school, shows that perhaps “parent trigger is in full effect already.”

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