I wrote this during the recent teachers' strike in Chicago. It was originally meant for the church newsletter, but wound up being a bit personal.
When Windmills Wobble
As many at my church know, my son Jacob is autistic. Regular attendees at the 8:15 service can attest that he has improved tremendously over the past decade. I think it’s fair to say that he’s now a far cry from the little boy who used to scream “Thanks be to God!” at irregular intervals in the hopes that he could make church end sooner. What people may not know, however, is that most of this difference comes from his experiences at three CPS (Chicago Public Schools) schools.
Jacob attended a private school for pre-school, and his experience there was frankly terrible. He was allowed to sit in the corner and play legos by himself for months and was then abruptly expelled for being “an outcast.” Private schools don’t have to deal with non-standard children, you see, and thus they often don’t. Luckily for us, this expulsion came at almost the same time that CPS finished their evaluation of Jacob. He was diagnosed as autistic and was sent to an early intervention program at Raymond Elementary.
Raymond Elementary sits at 3663 South Wabash Ave, near where the Robert Taylor homes used to be. They had an unusually high number of Special Education students in addition to a highly regarded autism program, one of the first in the city. They had resources and knowledgeable people, and they helped my son. For the first time, going to school wasn’t a complete misery for him, and he started to gain the skills he needed to get through a day without having a meltdown.
Given the high number of special ed students at Raymond, perhaps it isn’t a surprise that their test scores put them on the endangered list for school closings. An odd thing happened after that warning, however: the school worked hard and scores improved. Here’s a lovely thing: the school used their test scores diagnostically and improved. That’s what’s supposed to happen, right? What actually happened is that Raymond was closed despite all the progress they made.
The reason given for Raymond’s closing was “underutilization.” Supposedly, only 20% of the building was in use, and so it wasn’t needed. There were several mitigating factors here, however. 1) Raymond had a large number of special education students, as I said. Special Ed students require smaller classrooms in order to learn, so of course not every classroom would be packed to the gills. 2) Raymond had a thriving Head Start program in addition to its early intervention classes. There were almost 150 pre-schoolers in Head Start at Raymond in addition to the sixty pre-schoolers in early intervention. None of these children were counted. Over 200 little bodies take up space, but CPS only counted K-8th graders for the school population and thus came up with a figure of ~300 students for the building. 3) The district allocated an entire wing of the school for administrative offices, and thus prevented the school from putting any children in those rooms. Nevertheless, that space was counted when CPS compared square footage with the number of students and determined that the building was underutilized.
In the five months that Jacob attended Raymond, our family saw tremendous amounts of improvement in him, so we decided to make our voices heard in opposition to this closing. I gathered figures and made handouts; my oldest child wrote a speech begging the city to save her brother’s school.
I could see that my daughter, Sandy, imagined herself in a movie. She would give a rousing speech, the evil school board members would have their hearts softened, and Jacob’s school would be saved. I knew that none of these things would happen, so I tried to cushion her for disappointment. I told her of Don Quixote, who tilted at windmills. I explained to her that sometimes you HAVE to tilt at windmills, not because you expect them to come down, but because sometimes that’s what you have to do. If something is unjust, you have an obligation to say so, even if you’ll never, ever change it. It’s not always about bringing about right in the world; it’s about ensuring that you, yourself, are doing the right thing in the world. It was a hard lesson to give an eight-year old child, but city bureaucracies are hard.
Things happened the way I anticipated. The head of CPS didn’t bother to show up for the hearing. He missed the impassioned pleas of parents, my dry recitation of facts, and my daughter’s tearful begging… but he did not miss an appearance on the 10:00 news to say “I honestly don’t know what these parents are complaining about” and to confirm Raymond’s closing. He’s now the Secretary of Education for the entire country and Raymond is renamed “Perspectives IIT Charter School.” It has 500 students in 6th-11th grades… about the same number in the old “underutilized” school. The school has use of the entire building now and all of it has heating and air-conditioning, which wasn’t the case when Jacob was there. Ah well.
In the eight years since Raymond closed, corporations have discovered that there’s money to be made in charter schools, and so they have encouraged CPS to accelerate this practice. Over one hundred schools have closed since 2004, and perhaps as many as 120 schools are scheduled to close next year alone. Most of these institutions have reopened, or will reopen, as charter schools with non-Unionized teachers. In order to move this process along, Chicago adopted strict evaluation processes, much harsher on teachers than those used by the rest of the state. All 88 members of the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CREATE) informed the city that it was a terrible plan, to no avail. Nobody had stood up to CPS before, so why should they now?
But a funny thing happened last week. After years of just taking it from CPS, the teachers said, “enough.” They saw the increasing stringency of evaluations, understood it to be the first step towards more school closings, and they said, “enough.” And then they said, “STRIKE!”
I’ll admit it. I thought this was just another windmill. I thought the teachers would chant for a while, the parents would grumble, and the Union would fold. I thought that the CTU would be so vilified that Rahm Emanuel and Perspectives ITT Charter Schools would stand up as the only winners at the end. Isn’t that how power works in this country? And after all, this is Chicago.
But because I’ve always tried to teach my children to tilt at windmills, I decided that it didn’t matter whether the teachers could win or not. I set up a food table for Murray teachers. I marched with them. I wore a placard and my youngest handed out leaflets. I sent my oldest, now in high school, down to Kenwood and she marched with her teachers. One day I even had Jacob put on his noise-cancelling headphones and brought him out. We weren’t a big part of the protest, only very much on the periphery, but I wanted my children to see that you can protest against injustice even if you can’t change it.
After a week-long strike, however, it appears that the windmill isn’t as solid as I had believed. The teachers’ union appears to be on the verge of getting what it wanted. In return for a pay raise that is half of what the city originally offered, CPS will go with the state’s minimum requirements when considering standardized testing as part of teacher evaluations. New and reopened schools will have to consider existing teachers when staffing their schools, thus curtailing union-busting and making charter schools far less profitable to corporate interests. CPS promises to have books on hand for students on the first day of school. None of these things will fix every public school in Chicago, but taken collectively, they should help. The windmill isn’t going down, but by God, it’s wobbling. It’s wobbling, and I’m left wondering whether I inadvertently taught my children the right lesson after all.