Protesters threaten a sit-in if meeting with the mayor fails to materialize
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporter (9:57 p.m. CST, December 19, 2011)
Two weeks after they first protested outside the mayor’s office, members of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization were back at City Hall on Monday demanding a meeting to pitch an alternative plan for reforming failing schools in their neighborhood.
The group, which claims 20 years of CPS policies have destabilized their South Side community, came armed this time with a warning: If they don’t get word within seven days of an appointment with the mayor, they will stage a sit-in until they secure one.
“We want the man who makes decisions in the city to listen to his constituents,” said Shannon Bennett, a KOCO lead organizer and local school council member at Price Elementary, an underenrolled school the city hopes to close next year. “And we’re not coming here half-cocked. We’re coming here fully loaded. This is not a subtle threat. This is what we have to do to be heard.”
Clarifying that he wasn’t threatening violence, Bennett said he was simply warning city officials that community members will be relentless in their fight to stop school closings.
The mayor is on vacation, but spokeswoman Tarrah Cooper said Emanuel “respects the rights of all Chicagoans to present their opinions about the state of education in our city, but we can no longer accept a status quo that has failed our children year after year.”
KOCO is up in arms about the latest round of drastic actions proposed by CPS for underperforming schools — in the Bronzeville neighborhood, CPS is hoping to turn around two schools, close a third and phase out a fourth.
But years of such actions have not improved schools in their community, KOCO organizers and local parents said Monday. They instead want Emanuel and CPS to consider a plan they developed over two years to improve their failing schools. The plan calls for realigning curriculum from kindergarten to high school, designing a more specialized focus at each school, providing wrap-around social service supports and a full-time nurse, and encouraging more community involvement.
KOCO members said they have been “very unhappy” with their meetings so far with Brizard.
“Brizard is new in town,” Bennett said. “He doesn’t know better than these parents what’s best for our schools.”
And, says KOCO education organizer Jitu Brown, when the community first raised its plan with the incoming administration in June, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley instead said Doolittle Elementary, an underperforming neighborhood school, would be a “wonderful” turnaround option in a few years for the nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership.
Cawley was the former chief operations officer at AUSL. Board of Education president David Vitale also came to CPS from AUSL, leading to accusations of a conflict of interest because the turnaround operator is expected to receive six new schools to manage this year.
“How can you be a public official and openly campaign for AUSL to get a school?” said Brown, who sits on the local school council of Dyett High School, which is proposed for a phaseout over three years. “He’s openly brokering the responsibility of educating children in our community for this private operator which he at one time benefited from financially.”
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said AUSL’s track record in improving failing elementary schools “speaks for itself.”
“They have a tremendous record of boosting student achievement,” she said. “We would be cheating our students and our communities if we didn’t do everything we could to expand these opportunities.”
She said the district has not received a detailed plan from KOCO, which says their proposal will cost at most $200,000 per school annually. Brown estimates an AUSL takeover can run at about $1 million. AUSL receives $300,000 in initial startup costs at a school, and then $420 per student per year.
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