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Neighborhoods Agenda for Schools (11/18/11)

A Neighborhoods Agenda for Schools

If your organization would like to be added as an endorser, please contact Joanna Brown at or (773) 384-4370.  For pdf of this article.November 2011

The following community organizations endorse the Neighborhoods Agenda for Schools:

Action Now

Albany Park Neighborhood Council

Brighton Park Neighborhood Council

Enlace Chicago

Kenwood Oakland Community Organization

Logan Square Neighborhood Association

Organization of the Northeast

Southwest Organizing Project

TARGET Area Development Corporation

 As parents, youth, and community-based organizations with an extensive understanding of neighborhood schools, we wish to articulate some basic truths we have learned about what works and what doesn’t work to improve public education in Chicago.  Having witnessed our Chicago Public Schools experience numerous transitions with multiple top-down initiatives attempted and abandoned, we are still left with a system that graduates only half of its students and that struggles to prepare students adequately for college.  

 We believe it is time to end the inequitable policies which have left low-income students of color in the bottom tier of schools, and which have left schools isolated from their communities.  It is also time to move beyond the over-reliance on standardized testing which is narrowing the curriculum and disempowering both teachers and students.

 Our existing neighborhood schools can become world-class schools if a serious commitment and long-term investment is made in the priorities described below. These priorities come out of lessons we have learned through our lived experiences as students and parents of CPS students, our history of working in partnership with neighborhood schools to improve student success, and our understanding of the best research available on how to obtain dramatic improvements in our neighborhood schools.

 While selective enrollment schools and charters have provided an alternative for some families, we believe that the focus of available resources and of CPS must be on improving our neighborhood schools -- schools that are responsible for educating the vast majority of CPS students and those students that have the most needs. 

Despite the current budget crisis we believe that these priorities can and should be supported by CPS. We are confident that it is possible to align budget priorities with the strategies described below, and to be creative about bringing in additional funds to Chicago Public Schools from TIF and other resources that should rightfully be supporting neighborhood schools.  Furthermore, while charter schools have received significant investment from CPS, research has shown that a vast majority of these charter schools have performed at the same or even a lower level than the neighborhood schools that they replaced

 All neighborhood schools need to be community schools, open long hours with services and extended learning for the whole family. Community schools must be planned and run with deep and democratic involvement by parents and others, and must be welcoming learning communities responsive to community needs and cultures.

 Chicago community-based organizations (CBOs) have a solid history of developing school-community partnerships to address many of the gaps in CPS, collaborating with neighborhood schools and achieving considerable results despite limited resources. We ask that CPS partners more aggressively with CBOs, building on existing successes and parents’ commitment to see their children succeed.

 As parents and students, we cannot afford to wait. Let’s do what we know will work to improve our schools, and let’s do it together in a way that builds on the great strengths that our families, educators, and communities bring to the table.

Highly Effective Teaching

We believe that highly effective teaching not only builds the basicacademic skills of students, but challenges and engages students at a deep level, encourages critical thinking and problem solving, and builds upon the native language skills, culture, and community of students as an asset, rather than a deficit. Towards that goal, we believe it is essential for CPS to invest in the following priorities to improve instruction in our schools:

 The training, recruitment and support of effective teachers, focused on teachers who make a long-term commitment to the teaching profession, who understand the family and community culture, hold their children to rigorous standards, and serve as positive role models within the school and community.

 Teachers who are fully trained to deal effectively with the second language needs of the majority of CPS students so that they graduate from high school with strong language abilities in standard English and their native languages.  The bilingual program must be restructured to meet the best practices identified by research, including dual language.

 Smaller class sizes that give teachers the opportunity to build relationships with their students and families, and that enable teachers to meet the different needs and learning styles of their students, as well as support for teachers to conduct home visits to further strengthen those relationships.

 Parents in classrooms, giving more individual attention to the children falling furthest behind.

 Recognizing that children learn differently and have varying talents and interests, arts should be included as a part of learning for every student – whether that be music, dance, theater or visual art.

 Ongoing teacher support and growth facilitated by a high-quality professional development system that and builds trust and collaboration in the school community, promotes high standards and expectations of students, and is tailored to the specific needs of individual schools and teachers to foster ongoing improvement.

College Preparation and Career Readiness        

We believe that all students must have the opportunity to attend college.  Students must also be prepared for life and careers. In order to make that goal a reality, CPS as a system needs to do much more to ensure that all students receive the motivation and encouragement to attend college, receive strong guidance from their schools to navigate the college application process, and prepare their students academically to enter college without the need for remediation. The following components are essential:

 All students should be prepared to arrive at public school at level: pre-school for all and full-day kindergarten should be provided in a structure that can meet the needs of working parents.

 Exposure to college should start early, at least in middle school, through college visits as well as opportunities to take college courses while in high schools.

 High quality academic and college counseling, especially for high school students and their parents, most of whom do not come from families with college experience.  CPS neighborhood high school counselors have enormous caseloads, compared to suburban schools, even though the need is much greater. Counselors should be paired with students all four years of high school and should be familiar with the processes for sending undocumented students to college.

 Coursework should be aligned with college readiness standards to ensure that students are prepared academically to enter college, without the need for remediation.

 All students must receive the knowledge to go into the world and succeed, and for those students who for whatever reason do not choose college, there must be engaging alternative paths through high school, including options that lead to successful careers, trades and living wage jobs.  These students also need a level of knowledge and skills that enable them to continue lifelong learning. 

Safe and Supportive Learning Environments

Safe, supportive and healthy learning environments are essential for any good learning to take place. It is our experience that harsh discipline policies only make the problem worse, and that to really make our schools safer, an investment needs to be made in building strong relationships and a culture of high expectations, as well as strong support systems for students. An investment begins with:

 Extending and improving the school day through building on the innovative community schools model that leverages community assets from morning to night and provides academic supports, enrichment, and other support services to students and their families. Fair teacher compensation for additional work required to make a longer, better school day possible.

 Social-emotional support systems that build a positive school culture and foster greater academic engagement through the development of strong peer-to-peer and student-staff relationships. These supports, such as peer-mentoring and in-depth relationship-building, are especially critical during the transition to high school.

 The replacement of harsh discipline policies, which push students out of school and damage the student-parent-teacher relationships necessary to build a safe school culture, with an approach to school discipline and safety that emphasizes prevention, restoration, and effective intervention. School leadership that inspires teachers and helps students build community with each other and resolve conflicts and tensions.

 A curriculum and school environment that reflects students’ home culture and language, empowering children and parents, building the self-esteem necessary to pursue learning and visualize a future, and inspiring students to work to develop their communities for the good of all.

 An investment in students’ overall health and wellness through physical activity including recess, where they can play and develop social skills.   Mental health counseling that supports strong relationships between students, their parents and the school.  Access to health care, dental care, and healthy food, preferably at a site that all children can access – the school.

Effective Governance

Effective governance starts at the top with Central Office and extends to our neighborhood schools, and is essential if we are to expect any substantial improvement in our schools. Central Office should model transparency and accountability, and at all levels of governance, parents and students should be at the table to contribute their valuable experience and expertise. Effective governance requires:

 Budget transparency at the district and school level in a format clearly understandable to parents and students.

 Principals who maintain an open schoolhouse door, understand the school cannot operate in isolation, and welcome student, parent and community leadership.

 Genuine student leadership in the planning and evaluation of programs and curriculum to ensure quality and relevance to students’ lives.

 Genuine parent leadership opportunities, both as resources for the school as volunteers and tutors and as policy makers through Local School Councils and parent committees.

 Effective support and training for Local School Councils and Parent Advisory Councils in all schools.

 A Local School Council with real decision-making power at every school that receives public funding.

 In all arenas, from the Board of Education and Central Office to local schools, meetings held at accessible times and  places and in formats which encourage democratic participation and where respect is shown for parents and students.

Fostering Innovation through CPS Partnerships with Community Organizations

Community-based organizations (CBOs) have a solid history of developing projects to address many of the priorities described above, working collaboratively with neighborhood schools to implement them, and achieving considerable results despite limited resources. Our community-based innovations, rooted in the experience and expertise of parents, students and educators, as well as research, include, but are in no way limited to:

-       engaging parents to provide academic support to students in the classroom,

-       students working to make sure their peers are on track to graduate,

-       working with teachers to smooth the transition from elementary school to high school,

-       partnering with schools to offer programs after school hours, and

-       developing a pipeline of effective teachers that come from our communities.

CBOs are essential partners to CPS schools.  In schools with a strong CBO partnership, test scores increase, the student drop-out rate is lower, parents are more engaged, and the entire community takes ownership of the hard work needed to strengthen our schools.

 We are in a time of unprecedented change in the City of Chicago and at CPS, and we believe the time is ripe for CPS and community-based organizations to work closely together to strengthen our partnership models.

Community-Based Solutions for Our Neighborhood Schools

Community groups have developed policies and projects which address some of the above priorities, and have worked collaboratively with CPS to bring down barriers and implement them. Here are some specific initiatives that have achieved considerable results despite limited resources:

 Highly Effective Teachers of Color: Grow Your Own teachers (GYO)  This project led by 7 Chicago community organizations is developing highly qualified teachers from 16 low-income communities around Illinois who are passionate about students and about teaching in their own neighborhoods.  GYO provides a pipeline of teachers of color, which is particularly important now as their representation in CPS continues to shrink.

 Student Leadership: Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE)  High school students from 7 Chicago community organizations are implementing pilot projects that help keep freshmen on track and prevent drop-outs, while building student-student and student-teacher relationships to improve curriculum and discipline strategies at neighborhood high schools.

 Community Schools  First developed by community organizations in the mid 1990s, there are now more than 150 Community Schools in Chicago, partnered with community-based organizations and social service agencies.  Done well, Community Schools extend the school day, provide additional academic supports, recreation and the arts, strengthen relationships between families and schools, provide wrap-around supports for families, and incorporate the voices of parents, students and teachers who help identify the academic and other needs of the individual schools. 

 Parent Leadership: Parents and Residents Invested in School and Education Reform (PRISE) Parents, students, and other residents representing 10 organizations in Chicago and around the state drive a parent-led policy reform effort to improve the public school system in regards to parent involvement, school/community engagement, teacher evaluation, reduction-in-force, funding, and public safety.

 Parent Leadership: Parent Mentor Program  Successfully building parent engagement in 12 schools in Logan Square and Chicago Lawn, the Parent Mentor program provides a structure for parents to assist students in the classroom and to learn how the school system works from the inside out. After an interview process and training, parent mentors volunteer in the classroom or participate in professional development two hours a day. Parent mentors build relationships with teachers, work one-on-one or in small groups with students, and form a parent network that can foster broad-based school improvement.

 Positive School Climate and Safety: Restorative Justice  A variety of coalitions throughout the city, including GYO and VOYCE, have been calling for schools to eliminate counter-productive punitive measures and create more positive school climates that emphasize learning.  Community organizations are training teachers and students to implement these processes within schools to stop the cycle of violence that feed off inappropriate punitive discipline.