After the story in The Guardian about my experiences working in Englewood, I was contacted by the Mike McConnell radio show on WGN radio. After doing some background I was a little hesistant to go on, because Mike McConnell is on the more conservative side and has a history of attempting to bully his interviewees. Other than him trying to get me to talk bad about my student’s parents, calling my kids gang bangers, and implying that because I worked in Englewood I must not be a good teacher, because I couldn’t get a job somewhere else, the interview went pretty well.
Over the past 6 years I have seen the public high school I work at on the South Side, TEAM Englewood, lose funding little by little, that is until this year. Our school was part of Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 plan which was based on the faulty premise that one could simply make education better by closing schools, firing everyone that worked in the building and opening a new school. Being new to Chicago and not knowing anything about this plan, school closings and turnarounds I decided to work at TEAM Englewood (which replaced Englewood Tech Prep). I chose to work in the Englewood community, not because I didn’t have job options of where to work, but because I wanted to work in the Englewood neighborhood.
Our school’s motto is simply “Opportunity”. We want to give our students in Englewood the same opportunities that students all across the city get. I am one of the original teachers who started at this school when it first opened.
During the past six years I have seen our school do amazing things. Maybe the most impressive is that we average about a 93% graduation rate for our senior classes. However, the opportunities that we are able to give our kids are slowly dwindling and being taken away by CPS and this city in the name of “mandatory” budget cuts.
These cuts started small. 4 years ago we had two counselors, we had to cut one. In that same year, we had to cut our librarian (we are “lucky” to be a school that actually has a library). 3 years ago we cut our Assistant Principal position. Last year we did get an Assistant Principal back, but we cut our College Readiness Coordinator. Also that year we had to cut our attendance clerk, school accountant, and tech coordinator.
The implied message from CPS was to do more with less.
Obviously little by little our computers stopped working, school staff had to take on more and more roles. Our Curriculum Coordinator now became in charge of fixing technology, organizing all the CPS mandated standardized testing we are forced to give, helping teachers, observing classrooms, acting as an administrator, among other roles.
All these cuts though very large and detrimental at the time now pale in comparison to the cuts CPS is forcing our school (and all CPS public schools to make) this year. Our school of 500 students had our budget reduced by about 15%, which translated into a $400,000 budget deficit. So now our school, due to the CPS budget, is being forced to eliminate 3 teaching positions and 3 non-teaching positions (for example: clerks, deans, assistant principal, curriculum coordinators).
Now that we have less staff, larger class sizes, and less resources our school will be demanded to improve or have the threat of being “turned around”.
Every neighborhood school in the city is facing similar or even worse cuts.
Our city claims it doesn’t have money to fund schools or teachers’ pensions. Yet our city has money to build new stadiums, river walks, give $85 million to charter schools, and a host of other “necessities”.
I agree with the late John Henrik Clarke who said, “Powerful people cannot afford to educate the people that they oppress, because once you are truly educated, you will not ask for power. You will take it.”
The people who run this city truly do not want a fully educated public. They want great magnet schools that are fully funded with experienced teachers for a select few and neighborhood schools that are poorly funded with an inexperienced teaching staff for the majority.
This is not some conspiracy there is historical precedent for the actions of limiting educational opportunities in lower income communities of color around the world. What this city is attempting to do is a human rights violation. If what was going on here in Chicago was happening in a different country we would easily classify the actions of this city as a human rights travesty.
As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon in which you can use to change the world.” Our city clearly agrees as it is restricting the education of the majority to keep in power a powerful largely white minority.
This is the video version of my radio interview this past Saturday morning on the Live From the Heartland Radio Show on 88.7 FM here in Chicago. I am talking about school closings, unions, and education in Chicago.
The coolest part is that my dad Arny Stieber was on the same show talking about Veterans for Peace and the militarization of Chicago Public Schools his interview starts at 32 mins.
Those of us who work with students day in and day out know the brilliance and potential that our students have. We also find ourselves as educators, parents, and tax payers becoming increasingly frustrated by a mayor, “CEO” and appointed school board that consistently and blatantly does not have the best interest of our students at heart.
Have no fear our students will lead the way. Yes, our students that the media far too often labels as “gang bangers” “thugs” or “criminals” will lead the way against the harming polices implemented by CPS.
Students have been organizing to fight the ill proposed school closings and over testing taking place in our schools. This student led group made up of hundreds of students from various schools across the city goes by the name Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools or CSOSOS.
This student led group meets weekly, creates agendas, plans and organizes. These students from various parts of the city cross gang lines, racial lines, to come together to improve this city from the inside out. CSOSOS has organized a walkout/protest of Day 2 of the PSAE testing. Students from other schools have followed in their footsteps and walked out of school to protest the unfair firing of their teachers like what happened at Lincoln Park High School last week.
These student groups and student actions aren’t just happening out of thin air, there is a long historical precedent of students leading this city.
As a history teacher I decided to do some research and find out as many examples of student actions in Chicago as I could. The following list is not conclusive, but it is a start to give us all the understanding that our students are not only brilliant but are capable of leading this city. The student actions are well rehearsed and organized. Their actions cannot be measured with a multiple choice bubble test.
1.Freedom Day 1963 : 200,000 students walk out city wide to protest funding cuts to education
2.Equal Rights Walkouts 1968 : City wide student demand for equal rights for all students led by African American & Latino students
3.Anti-Immigration Law Walkouts 1995 : City wide student protests against legislation that would take away basic human rights for immigrants.
4.Iraq War Protest Walkout 2003: City wide students walked out of class to protest the U.S. led war in Iraq.
5.Senn High School Student Walkout 2004: Students and community protesting becoming a Military School .
6.School Closing Walkout 2009: City wide walkouts against the proposed school closings.
7.System Wide Proposed Funding Cuts Walkout April 2010: CPS was thinking about cutting extra curricular activities and programs.
8.Social Justice HS Students protest firing of teachers & principal Aug. 2012
9.King High School Student Sit In to Protest Principal Dec. 2012
10.Lane Tech Students Protest Banning of Persepolis March 2013
11.Day 2 PSAE walkout April 2013: Students walked out on the 2nd day of PSAE testing against school closings and over testing.
12.Lincoln Park High School students walkout May 2013: Students protesting the wrongful firing of many of their teachers.
Needless to say our students are intelligent and partake in the democratic process that this country was founded on. So if our students feel forced to have a protest to make their voices heard, join them. They are teaching all of us what Democracy looks like, sounds like, and feels like.
Yesterday I a Chicago Public Schools history teacher, a father, and husband was arrested for sitting down on La Salle Street in front of City Hall and refusing to move when asked to do so by the police. I along with nearly 150 others was taking part in an act of civil disobedience against the school closing policies implemented by Mayor Emmanuel, Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the CPS Board of Education.
You see those of us that chose to get arrested and the other couple thousand marching legally against the CPS plan to close over 54 public schools are beyond frustrated that we live in a city that is governed by lies and press releases.
The “justifications” that CPS are using to try to convince the public how “necessary” it is to close public elementary schools in African-American communities are typically these main four points:
1) CPS says closing schools will save money.
2) CPS has been toting an alleged $1 billion budget deficit, which is again not true. CPS actually has a $500 million SURPLUS not deficit.
3) The formula that CPS uses to determine if a school is “under utilized” is not a valid measure of deciding under utilization according to research done by Raise Your Hand Illinois.
4) CPS claims that students from closed schools will go to “better” schools. Again this is untrue in a report released by the Sun-Times.
So with all this in mind when I was originally asked if I was willing to participate and be trained for a civil disobedience that would lead to my arrest I stopped to think;
How much longer can I go on letting my students in Englewood be treated as second-class citizens by a school system that says it cares about them?
I believe and am constantly telling my students that if you work hard enough you can overcome many obstacles in life. The issue is that CPS has forced my school (and many like it) to have to get rid of our librarian, second counselor, attendance clerk, technology coordinator, schools accountant, and only have half a nurse for a half-day on Fridays all in the name of “budgetary reasons”. It seems to me that our mayor and CEO no matter what they claim about their policies not being racist are very much in fact promoting and implementing racist policies while letting institutional racism permeate through this district.
Before the disobedience I also thought of my one year old son and what kind of person I want him to be. I thought of my wife who is an amazing CPS teacher, but because of many of the harmful CPS policies like schools closings sometimes she thinks about other careers besides teaching that she could do.
I thought of every person that inspired me to be a history teacher and all the amazing actions they took. I knew that I had no choice but to participate in this act of civil disobedience.
While I sat on the cold cement among lunchroom staff, custodians, teachers, and clergy I couldn’t help but feel angry that we live in a society that tries to close public schools. While sitting on the ground next to a man in his seventies with bad knees waiting to be arrested I couldn’t help but wonder how many more arrests will it take before this racist mayor actually listens to the people?
While the police treated all of those arrested with the upmost respect, while the crowd of protestors cheered for us and our disobedient actions, I thought to myself we get arrested for sitting on the cold cement in front of city hall, yet our mayor is legally allowed to close 54 public schools and praise that his actions are a positive step for communities he never even visits.
This whole fight around school closings and public education comes down to whom will you believe?
Will you believe a mayor who sends his kids to one of the best private schools in the state with art, world languages, counselors, and resources?
Will you listen to Barbara Byrd-Bennett who was responsible for closing public schools in Detroit in the name of “what’s best for the community”?
Will you listen to the students, parents, clergy, school employees, and people of the communities where these schools are located that are demanding and have been demanding that NO schools be closed?
As Gandhi eloquently states, “All through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.”
Remember everyone this is our 4th CEO in three years and Barbabra Byrd-Bennett will soon be gone like Brizard, Manzany, and Huberman.
Our Mayor only has a 19% approval rating so then in a few short years hopefully he will be gone too.
The important thing is to make sure that NONE of their policies like school closings last any longer than either of the people attempting to implement them.
It will take many more arrests, sit-ins, occupations and forms of civil disobedience to bring these school closings to a halt, but once again to quote Gandhi, “First they (CPS) ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. CPS and the Mayor are in a full on attack against truth and against democracy, but as we will see, truth always wins.
As we are all aware now last week at Lane Tech Persepolis was removed from classrooms as demanded by a CPS mandate. The removal of the books and the banning of Persepolis immediately prompted students and teachers to protest this decision at Lane Tech. Later that same day, Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the banning of Persepolis is only for grades 7 and under. She went on to say that the book will be reviewed to determine if it is appropriate for grades 8-10.
Currently only 11th and 12th graders are allowed to read the book per the new CPS ruling.
The book is a historical and autobiographical account of the author as a young girl growing up under dictatorial rule in Iran and the revolutions led by the people in an attempt to bring in Democracy.
As a history teacher I decided to let my students review the book and decide if the banning of Persepolis by CPS and Barbara Byrd-Bennett was justified.
Out of the 71 students who took part in the lesson, discussions, and read through Persepolis 53 students did not agree with the ban imposed by CPS and Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Many of the other 18 students thought that the teacher should decide if the book is appropriate for their students, not CPS.
The following are direct quotes from my junior and senior high school students in Englewood.
Renika, “Persepolis is not inappropriate, it may have violence but violence is in the everyday life of a 7th grader.”
Ty’Neequa, “P is something that actually happened, just like people were tortured and killed in the Holocaust. CPS shouldn’t be able to keep information like this from students. We need to learn about revolutions in other countries. The banning of Persepolis would be like CPS trying to prevent teachers from teaching slavery.”
Jaydeisha, “Teachers know what their students are capable of handling, so if the feel their students couldn’t take the book they wouldn’t let them read it.”
Malik, “Children deserve to know the truth.”
Toriana, “There are things in this book that we need to know. Young students in CPS learn about slavery and just like slavery bad things happen to different races too. I think students need to know every piece of information that we can. “
Latoria’ “The truth of the book is not much different than what kids see in their neighborhoods every day.”
Amanda, “There isn’t a problem when teachers teach about the tragedies around Native Americans, African slaves, Mexicans or any other culture that has experienced tragedies and racism, so what is the difference with this?”
Tomas, “Teachers should be able to decide if they want to teach the book or not to their students. “
Ray, “This book tells us what actually happened during the Iranian Revolution.”
Alexis, “This book shows a lot of emotions such as love, hate, and struggle. It is important to know the true events surrounding the life of this girl.”
Tyranesha, “Teachers should be able to decide at what age to teach this book, because teachers know if their students are mature enough for the book. Students shouldn’t be disrupted of their education because CPS thinks they are not mature enough. The teachers know what the kids can and cannot handle.”
As teachers we are the experts in curriculum and instruction. If teachers felt like students would not be mature enough or able to understand the content then teachers would not use a book such as this.
Chicago Public Schools under the “guidance” of Barbara Byrd-Bennett is taking the ability of planning and making appropriate instructional practices away from the experts (we teachers).
This book until last week was only banned in Iran, but now Chicago and Iran have much more in common.
“I feel badly for the children because it sends a message to them that there is something wrong with reading,that we don’t want them to read this book because there’s something in it that we don’t want them to know.” –Judy Blume
The quote from Judy Blume famous childrens author sums up the repressive state that Chicago Public Schools is sadly becoming by banning books and closing schools.
Since the teachers strike ended it is obvious that the Chicago Public Schools appointed Board of Education and Mayor Emmanuel are gearing up to close a large number of public schools. Their rhetoric is that public schools have large numbers of under utilized buildings, meaning that there are not enough students for all the available seats in public schools across the city.
The claim by the Mayor and Board of Education is there are 600,000 seats and only 400,000 students. On December 1st CPS is legally required to announce any plans for closing schools. When CPS announces the expected school closing list a large number of schools will be closed (expect 80-120 schools) students will have new teachers, principals, and building staff. The community will lose institutions that are central parts of the neighborhood. CPS has been closing schools for the past ten years and the date shows no real improvement is made by closing schools, in fact the research shows that when a school is closed it further destabilizes a community. CPS’ primary justification for closing schools is based on standardized test scores (even though again research shows test scores not an accurate measure of intelligence)
In fact there is already an official hit list of 80 schools that UNO charter school leader Juan Rangel (who also served on Mayor Emanuel’s education team) wants to close. Rangel wants these 80 public schools to be turned over into privately run charter schools. Turning public schools into charter schools would benefit Mr. Rangel as well as the other charter school network heads, because they could get more public and private funds, which increases their already large salaries.
So even though CPS claims there are 200,000 “empty seats” CPS and the Mayor now want to reopen many of the closed public schools as new charter schools If there really was 200,000 empty seats wouldn’t the logic be that we do not need to open any more schools? Yet our Mayor in all his genius wants to open even more charter schools even though research shows charters do NOT perform better than public schools.
One other important point that the Mayor and Board of Education are failing to mention in this case is the projected $1 billion CPS budget deficit. The mayor was so quick to mention the budget deficit during the teachers strike, yet now when he wants to open possibly 100 charter schools the budget deficit is not mentioned.
On top of that the charter schools in CPS actually have open seats in their own buildings. Charter schools because they get public and private money are able to spend money on advertising and PR campaigns. So many of us are familiar with the rhetoric that charter schools have a lottery system and very long wait lists to get into them…well this is not actually true. The proof? The day before the CPS teachers strike happened the various charter school leaders got together and held a press conference where they announced their were open seats in their schools (remember it was about a month into their school calendar) in fact “that 1/3 of the city’s charter schools had open seats”.
So lets be clear one month into school 1/3 of all charter schools had open seats. Yet CPS wants to close under utilized public schools and open the exact same buildings with more under utilized not as effective charter schools?
As a teacher, a parent, and a citizen of Chicago this “plan” does not make sense.
Charters perform no better than public schools, 1/3 of all charter schools are under enrolled, there is a projected budget deficit…. so what is really going on? What is behind the Mayors plan to close public schools? Is he doing it for the kids like he claims? The overwhelming evidence says no. Demand truth from the Mayor, Demand an elected school board, Demand that your alderman ask for transparency around the issue of school closings.
There is money in this city. The budget is a political document not a financial one. The budget is all about priorities and it is time we make the Mayor and the appointed Board of Education understand ours, because as a teachers and parents our priorities are about the kids.