Friday, February 19, 2010

In which something good might happen in Chicago Public Schools

I'm at Wendell Phillips Academy High School today, one of the worst high schools in Illinois, and one of the schools CPS is proposing to turn around in 2010. This has, of course, been gone about exactly the wrong way: the Phillips community wasn't consulted until the proposal had already been made, there's virtually no opportunity for community input into the process, and it's well established that turnarounds circumvent not only teachers' unions but also Local School Councils.

As a teacher, one of the things that's struck me is that teachers in schools like Phillips are hamstrung by attendance and behavior issues. For one thing, many of the methods that have the best best-case scenarios also involve the worst worst-case scenarios (because they involve increasing student freedom and placing more responsibility on students for their own learning and the learning of others). So if you don't trust your class, you're going to rely on more rigid structures, you're going to make less resources available to your kids, and you're therefore going to provide less opportunities for them to learn. Also, if you only have a third of the class attending regularly, lessons that use multiple days just aren't feasible -- the people who are there the second day won't overlap much with the people who are there the first day. And the best teaching methods require you to emphasize continuity from day to day.

So if you're going to address the failures of teachers, you've got to address the reasons why kids ditch and disrupt classes. But if you talk to kids about why they ditch and disrupt classes (I spent a good amount of time doing this today), the answer, of course, is that they do so because they're not learning anything anyway.

In game theory, this is called an Assurance game: each player has an incentive to cooperate if and only if the other player is cooperating. And the key to Assurance games is in the name: it really matters what you believe the other person is going to do. If you can convince each other and yourselves that cooperation will work, then it will.

This is the big potential advantage of the turnaround process. In normal years, everyone knows Phillips is going to be the same from one year to the next. In a turnaround year, people could come to believe that this year is different -- it sure as hell will feel different, what with none of the faces being familiar. If people do believe this year is different, it will actually be different.

The thing is, no one fucking believes it's going to be different. Talking to students, maybe a quarter of them (the ones that show up, at least) think this is going to spell significant change for the school. They've been given no reason to believe their concerns will be addressed, because no one has even asked them what their concerns are.

In the school business, the community isn't an obstacle to your success, or even just a customer. They're most of the people involved. If they don't feel their perspectives are being taken into account, and that they have the opportunity to change the things they feel need changing, it's not going to work. CPS, increasingly, has been forgetting that.

Which is why it's really exciting that the Hazel Johnson School of Environmental Justice might actually happen.

The backstory here is that Carver High School, which served Riverdale, was closed in 2005 and Carver Military Academy -- a selective, citywide military high school -- was opened in its place. Kids from Carver who either didn't want to wear the uniform or didn't have the grades got sent to Fenger, which is in Roseland (actually, I think at the time everyone was sent to Fenger, and Carver Military accepted only frosh).

The problem is, there are and have been tensions between youth in Riverdale and Roseland -- specifically, between the Altgeld Gardens projects and the Ville -- which erupted into the killing of Derrion Albert a few months ago. This also might have had something to do with the fact that all the Fenger teachers who knew the community had been canned in the turning-around of that school last year.

All of which provides pretty strong support for the idea that people from Riverdale need their own high school. So the community organizations in the area (notably People for Community Recovery) proposed the Hazel Johnson School of Environmental Justice, a new neighborhood school which will take over part of the old Carver building (the military academy is way underutilizing it).

I was sure this wasn't going to happen. It's got the support of the local community (and that community is almost all black), it's a good idea, it's a move toward neighborhood schools with Local School Councils -- all of these are things that tend to doom an idea in the current CPS climate. But when I called People for Community Recovery, they told me that even though it's dropped out of the news, it's still moving forward: they've got some meetings in high places, and they're going before the Board soon.

By the way, it's worth mentioning that if names say anything about what a school is going to be about, this is exactly the right name. Hazel Johnson, one of the founders of the environmental justice movement, is from Altgeld Gardens. At the time, the big problem was air pollution: she discovered in 1982 that 90 percent of the residents suffered from pollution-related ailments, and managed to stop the expansion of toxic waste dumping in the area.

The list goes on (from Chicago Politics, Ward by Ward):
Environmental concerns also seem to affect this ward more than any other. The sprawling Altgeld Gardens CHA project made headlines in 1986 when high levels of asbestos were found in some of the buildings, and residents made vociferous demands that the toxic substance be removed. Those in the southwest portion of the ward faced health tests after five cases of lead poisoning were attributed to a nearby recently closed paint plant. Residents of Maryland Manor, eight homes near 134th Street and the Calumet Expressway, for years drank well water before discovering cyanide, benzene, and toluene in it. Manor residents obtained hookups to Lake Michigan water in 1986.
It's still not over:
Altgeld Gardens is a heavily polluted area, a study by the University of Wisconsin has warned. Dozens of toxic facilities and 90 percent of the city’s landfills are located nearby. There is evidence of exceptionally high rates of miscarriage, stillbirths, and birth defects among residents, along with higher incidence of asthma and skin rashes. Residents say that during Chicago’s hot and humid summers, the smell emanating from the dumps is unbearable.
In a school that is coming about due to community activism among poor black people in housing projects as a way to protect their children from violence, named after an organizer in that community, people might start to believe this is the year. Shit, I might even start believing it.

I'll post more information about this as I find it, but for now, it looks like the places to bear witness are the City Council hearing Monday on the proposed moratorium on school closings, and the School Board meeting Wednesday. I won't be at either, as they (not coincidentally) schedule these things when teachers have to work.

[UPDATE: I recently learned about an innovative strategy for tackling the problem of moving between equilibria in Assurance games like this, taken in Bogota in the late nineties and early oughts.]

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