Community Forum

Last night, I attended CPS’s N/NWside Collaborative’s community feedback forum. I have several things to say about the experience, but before I do, I’ll share the recurring thought that I thunk during the meeting. And that is: I’m not cynical enough for these things.

It’s why I am glad for people like Wendy Katten and Jill Wohl of Raise Your Hand, because they are cynical about these meetings. I believe they know more about the processes and politics at play within CPS than I do. And I’ve said before, my math aptitude doesn’t cover statistical analysis. 

That said, I (mostly) enjoyed the forum, and I took its format, content, and tone as an attempt for CPS to show us that it actually is listening to us–parents, community members, school-level governance–as we ask for real engagement and feedback opportunities in the process. 

Unlike the Blue Ribbon Commission hearings and other CPS forums of the past, this wasn’t a panel of mute people in suits sitting on a stage at an audience while another suit ran through a slide deck and then tried to mask all emotion or response while dozens of Chicagoans made statements or asked questions in front of a microphone. Last night’s forum was a continuation of the intent behind October 15th’s School Actions Tele-Town Hall, wherein Adam Anderson and Mike Cardena* presented the guidelines, asked for directed or closed feedback, and responded to selected questions and suggestions from the audience.

I do think that CPS is really trying to engage leaders, community members, and parents in the process of change and feedback. I also think that they are cautious or guarded about the process because they are tired of being the public’s whipping post. If Brizard was the fall guy for the teachers’ strike, the various network directors, chiefs, and anyone from CPS management who attends a public meeting must be the fall guys for the public’s wrath. Teachers are saints for putting up with 38 high-needs children in a classroom and/or their low-response parents, but I also have real empathy for the the front-lines CPS officers who deal with (an often-enraged) public every day. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, on a call center, or with sales people, you probably would too.

Not that there weren’t problems with last night’s forum. First–and perhaps the biggest problem–of all, they issued invitations to the forum via email to LSC Chairs, giving ours a scant 27 hours notice of the event, if the timestamps on the emails are correct. That left our Chair little time to rearrange her schedule or ask one of her fellow council members to attend in her stead. Fortunately for us, our LSC is stacked with policy nerds who have good childcare options and fond relationships with our iPhones, like myself, and two of us were able to make the meeting. That said, the lack of lead time may have been deliberate. After all, not giving people notice also means not giving people time to ruminate on how they can turn your civil little forum into a hotbed of ire.

I later heard that some LSCs never received notice of the meeting, and complaints that only some schools (Taft, Amundsen, Disney II, Schurz) really got notice. I take that as a sign that our network officers (MaRukh Mian in O’Hare, and Jane Norton in NW High School) are really on-task with their communications, although I’m sure some readers have drawn the conclusion that CPS wants to stack its deck with these darlings. The email communication I received belies this theory; it was also sent to 86 other email addresses by the FACE Deputy, Wendy Thompson. Some digging shows that those email addresses belonged not just to the Chairs of Schurz and Disney II LSCs, but also to LSC Chairs at Alcott, Skinner West, Whitney Young, Peterson, Inter-American, Haugan, Lincoln Park, Stockton, Field, Newberry, Farnsworth, Onahan, Northside Learning Center, Oscar Mayer, Thorp, Lincoln, Agassiz, Walt Disney Magnet, Von Steuben, Murphy, Smyser, Wildwood, Hamilton, Amundsen, Drummond, Bell, Stone, and Canty.

I understand that it’s difficult to re-work your life mid-week on short notice (The Dad was not happy with solo bedtime parenting), and I’m not surprised that there were only about 30 parents/community members at the meeting. Which was seen as another problem. At my table, there was only one other non-FACE person sitting there when I arrived. Eventually, the table filled up. But most of the stakeholders at my table of 14 were non-parents. There were two FACE facilitators (Jane Norton and the guy from the Skyway Network), two CPS support/resource/vendors, one education fund angel investor, and two people affiliated with AUSL. The only other parent there was from New Field. She and I dominated the first two discussions, although I was the idealist and she was the pessimist. 

Finally, the forum ran late. What was supposed to be four presentations with three breakout discussion sessions for two hours took almost three hours. They frontloaded the most interesting–in my opinion–discussions, which meant that the hot mess that is CPS School Actions was left to a rapidly disappearing crowd. I confess I stopped paying attention once Adam Anderson explained the mathematical formula the district uses to determine whether a school is underutilized or overcrowded. I spent 40 minutes listening and tweeting to the School Actions TeleTown Hall last week, and the only experience I have with consolidation is when CPS moved the students from Irving Park Middle School to Thurgood Marshall Middle School in 2008.

I enjoyed the opportunity to offer feedback, and am reassured that CPS as an entity is actually really thinking, talking, and worrying about the problems it faces, and seems to want a dialogue. The format of the forum was that a speaker would give background information and data, and then present the dilemmas that 150 schools in the N/NWside Collaborative face, both individually and as a group. We’d break into our groups, discuss each dilemma or issue, and propose a number of solutions or concerns for each. CPS would take the top issue from each of the five groups, put it into a survey, and give us all an opportunity to “vote” for our own top issue from the aggregated list. For the first discussion, a spokesperson from each table also got to read aloud his or her top point for each of the four issues, further explaining the table’s viewpoint. Then they showed us the results immediately after each vote.

For example, the first discussion was about (a) supports or resources within the school day/at school (b) supports or resources after the school day/for parents (c) facilities improvement priorities (d) anything else you think should be added or considered. My table came up with the following top priorities for each of these:

(a) class size ratio of 1:25
(b) individualize supports at the school level to support specific school/community needs
(c) infrastructure/facilities to support technology integration
(d) improve partnerships with other Chicago institutions, such as the park district

However, this is not what came up in the general discussion, as the votes came in as follows:
(a) 38 percent of respondents chose improved social/emotional/academic intervention supports and resources
(b) 35 percent of respondents chose making schools work for families
(c) 30 percent of respondents chose conducive learning environment
(d) 44 percent of respondents chose improving trust between Board of Education and parents, teachers, and individual schools 

The second discussion was around questions you’d ask about (a) the district’s space utilization plans/policy, and (b) the School Actions guidelines.

The third discussion was one of two assigned topics, although as I said above, I was losing interest at that point and had stopped taking notes. I’m drowning under paper these days, so I left all the materials behind, which was probably not the best move. But the good news is, if you want to attend one of these forums to get some information and data, and to voice your thoughts, you can. 
This morning, I received an email from Carl Hurdlik, who runs the PTA Advisory Council on the CPS side. He was at the event last night, and sent out additional dates and times for the next planned Town Hall discussions: 

Saturday, 10/27 – 10am-12:30pm
Malcolm X College
1900 W. Van Buren

 

Monday, 10/29 – 6-8:30pm
Charles Hayes Center
4859 S. Wabash

 
Please confirm your attendance or direct inquiries to Anjanette Hosley, ahosley at cps dot edu.Breakfast/dinner provided.

* did not get the spelling of his name, and I was unable to reach a live person at FACE when I called to verify. 

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