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NCP groups gain voice in school closings

Spurred in part by the threat of school closings, groups in neighborhoods served by NCP are organizing like never before to influence district decision-making.

Chicago plans to drastically reduce the number of its schools this year in the wake of a budget crisis and dwindling enrollment. Four NCP neighborhoods – Bronzeville, Englewood, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale – have formed Community Action Councils to provide input on school closings and other actions at the district's urging.

Photo: Juan Francisco Hernandez

Logan Square Neighborhood Association has formed the Logan Square School Facilities Council to protest replacement of neighborhood schools with those that have selective or lottery enrollment. They're especially alarmed about an alderman’s proposal to transform under-enrolled Ames Middle School, into a military academy.

At the same time, other NCP neighborhoods not in immediate danger of school closings are organizing to influence the district's 10-year plan for investing in school facilities, due in draft this month. The North River Commission in Albany Park, for instance, wants sufficient seats in a variety of magnet programs.

In recent years, NCP groups have become a growing force in education organizing as well as a stabilizing force in a changing district, observed Chris Brown, LISC Chicago’s NCP director.

"In the past five years, Chicago Public Schools has had five CEOs, rapid turnover of principals and central office staff and two district reorganizations,” he said. “At the same time only one executive director of an NCP lead agency has left."

NCP groups are able to sustain relationships with parents and teachers, consistent programming in schools and the momentum for school improvement, he said. "They are the institutional memory."

Photo: Gordon Walek

Lead agencies from New Communities Program neighborhood provide institutional memory to the education planning process, says Chris Brown, NCP director and former education director at LISC Chicago.

Some wonder, however, how much influence NCP groups will ultimately wield on school closings or other decisions. “You are always hopeful, but you know that CPS has a tendency to do exactly what they want to do,” remarked Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corp. CPS, she noted, initiated the Bronzeville Community Action Council and asked QCDC to participate.

“The good news is that we’ve been at the table together,” Johnson-Gabriel added, explaining that district staff attend council meetings and provide needed data.

NCP groups have already influenced the board's thinking on community decision-making, said Bill Gerstein, special projects manager for the district's Office of Family and Community Engagement.

The idea for Community Action Councils came from observing the intensive, community-wide education planning carried out by two NCP groups – The Resurrection Project, which organized the Pilsen Education Task Force, and the Network of Woodlawn, which launched the Woodlawn Promise Community, said Gerstein.

And when CPS decided to open a new high school in Back of the Yards, the district reached out to an NCP education committee to bring community members into the planning process, said Craig Chico, executive director of Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. “With our NCP education committee, we were bringing all the stakeholders and community residents together, anyway,” he said. “So it was a natural fit.”

School closings

Photo: Eric Young Smith

“You are always hopeful, but you know that CPS has a tendency to do exactly what they want to do,” remarked Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corp. “The good news is that we’ve been at the table together.”

In 2002, the district began closing low-performing and under-enrolled neighborhood schools, often replacing them with magnet or specialty schools that drew students from outside the neighborhood.

These closings were done with little community input, however, other than an emotionally charged, last-minute hearing at CPS’s Clark Street headquarters before the school board made its final decision.

"It was frustrating," said Tracie Worthy, NCP director at
Lawndale Christian Development Corp. "People felt like their opinions and thoughts didn't matter. Somebody else made the decision and you had to react to it."

In 2010, Bob Runcie, a chief district administrator overseeing school closings, decided that the community needed a greater voice in those decisions but also more information. “He noticed a lot of parents didn't know their schools were underperforming and underutilized,” Gerstein said.

Runcie thought that the planning done by Pilsen and Woodlawn seemed like the right model for getting community input. The new Office of Family and Community Engagement, organized under Runcie's leadership, began reaching out to community organizations to form the Community Action Councils. Some of the first organizations they approached were lead NCP agencies, said Gerstein.

“These were community-based organizations deeply embedded in the community that represented the community,” Gerstein explained. “You've got a lot more cohesion [than some other neighborhoods] because they’ve already done the work, they’ve brought a lot of stakeholders to the table, they’ve got a quality-of-life plan,” he added. “What we tried to tease out of them was more specific education plans.”

Photo: Gordon Walek

Prior to the establishment of the Community Action Councils in partnership with LISC, Chicago Public Schools often seemed to be unconcerned about community input, says Tracie Worthy (center), NCP director at Lawndale Christian Development Corp.


Community Action Councils from three NCP neighborhoods were among those who submitted education plans to the board in September and October 2011 (North Lawndale will do so in 2013).

Bronzeville's plan included launching the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at more schools and magnet programs at neighborhood schools in each quadrant of the community. East Humboldt Park's plan covered birth to high school graduation and included all-day preschool, classes for high school credit in middle school, and the option to enroll in college classes during high school.

Changing leadership stalled progress on the plans. Begun during CEO Ron Huberman's tenure, the plans were completed and presented in fall 2011 to his successor, Jean-Claude Brizard. But he never responded to the councils, leaving many frustrated.

But the new Chicago schools chief, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, already has met with the councils and in early November appointed a nine-person School Utilization Commission, including civic leaders, retired school employees and an elementary school parent to review their proposals.

To provide time for that review, the state legislature agreed to extend the district’s deadline from December 1 to March 31 to report on its plan for school closings, consolidations and other school actions that would go into effect at the end of the current school year.

Budget shortfalls

The district’s push to close an increasing number of neighborhood schools comes in the wake of city budget shortfalls and declining population. Chicago Public Schools has space in its 681 schools for 500,000 students but an enrollment of only 400,000.

Photo: Gordon Walek

Mike Rodriguez (center), executive director at Enlace Chicago in Little Village, said his agency--which doesn't have a formal Community Action Council--has been organizing to transform one of its under-enrolled schools into an early education center.



Bronzeville has 32 under-enrolled schools, according to the district, and soon its Community Action Council will need to recommend which should close or remain open. It will also insist, however, that schools receiving displaced students have adequate resources, such as computer labs and school libraries, said Johnson-Gabriel of QCDC. "You're going to save operating money [by closing a school] so at least some of it should be invested in the receiving site."

North Lawndale Community Action Council, organized by Lawndale Christian Development Corp., found out from the district that all but one of its eight neighborhood schools under-enrolled. The council asked neighborhood principals to write a plan for housing more than one school in a building.

The growing number of charter and other specialty schools with citywide enrollment is also contributing to the shrinking of neighborhood school enrollments, noted Betty Green, a retired principal and nonprofit leader who is North Lawndale Community Action Council's co-chair. In addition to its eight neighborhood schools, North Lawndale has five charter schools, she said.

Enlace Chicago in Little Village, which does not have a community action council, has been organizing to transform one of its under-enrolled schools into an early education center, said Executive Director Mike Rodriguez. The center would include childcare for infants and toddlers, preschool, all-day kindergarten and afterschool programs.

In Albany Park, the North River Commission launched what Executive Director Perry Gunn calls “an unofficial community action council” last spring to set an agenda for improving education in the neighborhood. A chief concern: ensuring the district’s master facilities plan includes sufficient seats in magnet programs, magnet schools and other specialty schools to suit a variety of student interests, including technology and the arts.

“The North River Commission has had CPS officials at meetings in the past, but this has been a very intentional effort on [our] part to be at the table while plans are unfolding,” said Gunn.

Logan Square Neighborhood Association, meanwhile, declined to start a community action council. Instead it organized local school council members to form the Logan Square School Facilities Council. That council is protesting the replacement of under-performing or under-enrolled neighborhood schools with those having selective or lottery enrollment, said Joanna Brown, LSNA's lead education organizer.

North River Commission in Albany Park is working hard to ensure that enough magnet and other specialty schools exist to suit a range of student interests, such as technology and the arts, according to Perry Gunn, executive director.

They are alarmed in particular about an alderman’s proposal to transform Ames Middle School, which is at 60 percent of its enrollment capacity, into a military academy.

“The resources are going to specialized schools and schools that have citywide attendance areas. We see a real disinterest in improving neighborhood [schools]," said Brown.

School opening

Back of the Yards doesn’t have any under-enrolled schools to target for closing. Instead, the 30 members of its NCP education committee are working closely with CPS officials on a more desirable task – opening the neighborhood’s first high school in September 2013.

In late October 2012, Southwest Side High School Network Chief Liz Kirby and her deputy sat down in an elementary school conference room with education committee members, who include neighborhood nonprofits, residents and school principals.

Members discussed the school’s proposed curriculum, its admission procedures and especially safety in and around the new school building.

“I think you have some good ideas,” said Kirby, “getting the [police] commander here, even [the man] who places the safe passage workers.”

Later, Kirby said that having the NCP committee in place was a huge advantage in planning the high school. “You get a sense of what the community wants – their needs, their concerns, the resources they bring to developing a new school.”

It also helps city entities to coordinate services, she added. Since the community’s plan calls for park district programs in the school after hours and a strong police presence to ensure safety, “This provides a place for the police department, the park, to work in concert.”

Kirby even invited two members of the education committee to join the five-person team that selected the high school’s first principal.

“It seems like some doors have been opened to us [in] becoming an NCP neighborhood,” remarked Craig Chico of Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, the NCP lead agency. “[It] helped us learn the model of collaboration that that brought so many voices from the community together and made one a louder, stronger voice.”

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