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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Education: Conversations about the Future

Last night I went to a meeting held in the Thorne Auditorium at the beautiful Northwestern Law School on Lake Michigan. The meeting was the brain child of its commentator, Bruce Dold, the editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune. It was a meeting whose time had come, with all the important people who determine the future of Chicago's children but cannot agree on much. And Chicago's children suffer because of this conflict. Those present for the Mr. Dold's discussion included:
Ron Huberman, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools,
Karen Lewis, elected president of the 30,000 strong Chicago Teachers' Union in June 2010,
State Senator James Meeks, founder of Salem Christian Academy and now serving his third term (15th district) as the first independent ever elected to the Illinois Senate,
Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago,
Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce for Prevention Fund, fought for and secured funding for early childhood education, including Preschool for All, making Illinois the first state to offer preschool to all three and four year olds.

The following are comments I have included below because I felt they were significant. I apologize but my voice recorder did not work so I have had to reconstruct the conversation from my brief notes.

Ron Huberman began by saying he sees ineffective teachers as central to CPS's problems, and to correct this he has now replaced many principals with stronger ones who are not afraid of dismissing those ineffective teachers. (There are 120 principals in the Chicago Public Schools.) He has deduced this as a solution because the great majority of ineffective teachers are to be found in the same schools, many at schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

Karen Lewis defended teachers and said removing an ineffective teacher is a process that takes no more than three months BUT the process may not be circumvented. She said Chicago schools are still stuck in a 19th century model. But the major problem that she sees with schools is underfunding, that those schools in the poorest neighborhoods receive the least money and have the greatest problems to overcome because there are no jobs, they are crime ridden, and they offer no promising vision for the students' future.

James Meeks observed that the radical changes CPS needs will not occur until we reclaim our schools, taking them away from the politicians; i.e., Mayor Daley and his appointed board. He supports the use of school vouchers so that children can have an opportunity to go to the school of their own choosing. That way they can select schools having programs that match their aptitudes and their interests, and avoid schools in neighborhoods that put them in harm's way.

Sister McCaughey was introduced as being successful in maintaining schools (Chicago's Catholic Schools) having records of little violence. She said that there are occasional problems between students but there is basically a peaceful atmosphere in her schools. She credits this to the schools' close ties to the children's families and that this cooperative effort is understood by the parents as a prerequisite for admission. She said although it is true that some very difficult children must be dismissed, this is also true for any Chicago Public School. She also pointedly credited early childhood education as being essential to having fewer problems in her schools.

Harriet Meyer, probably the person we have to thank for Chicago's new childhood programs, was confronted with the idea that Chicago elementary teachers feel that local funding of these recently added preschool programs has taken money away from them. Meyer said that we are one of the few western nations that have not funded early childhood programs. She added that research shows that children having an early childhood education, even missing an effective elementary education can become effective adults. Without the early childhood education, any defective educational effort is apt to impair that adult's ability to function positively in society.

At the end of the meeting Ron Huberman stated “The school's culture has to be established by the teachers—not the kids.”

So true, sir. But build a school like the one in my neighborhood, one large enough to house 942 students, 84.5% living below the poverty line, one like Roberto Clemente. Look at the surrounding neighborhoods where they live, and the only obvious wealth seems to come from dealing drugs. By the time most of our boys reach Clemente, they are committed to a neighborhood gang for its power if not its drugs. The gangs have already taught them to be loyal and tough. So even though only half these students are boys, the neighborhood girls defer to them. A company of marines might be able to change their culture, but adults wanting them to read books and write papers... Get real! You are too late. Listen to Harriet Meyer: we have to get there first!

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