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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

An educator and consultant

As an educator and consultant, I’ve helped to start a number of new schools and reviewed many charter proposals. So one of my main jobs at INCS is to work with design teams seeking to start new charter schools, and to field questions from people who want to get started on the process. One of the most uplifting aspects of this work is that there are so many people throughout Illinois who care deeply about improving life opportunities for kids, particularly for underserved populations. And they have a great many innovative and well-thought-out ideas about how to do this. They are usually not interested in putting down or replacing existing school districts, but simply seeking exciting alternatives – individualized learning plans for kids, engaging real-world inquiry projects, collaboration among teachers, strong school cultures that respect children, focus on preparing all students for college and getting them there. These are things that good educators seek everywhere, though charters often make it easier to get them started. In some of the political back-and-forth and concerns about testing and control, it can be easy to lose sight of this great fund of energy and inspiration. But if you are someone who would like to launch a start-up effort yourself, or to get involved in one of the teams that is already making progress, call us here at INCS and we’re ready to help and to give you our best guidance.

--Steve Zemelman, Director of School Innovation and Planning

Carlos Perez testimony

INCS testimony at CPS Board Meeting 11-23-09, given by Carlos Perez, Director of Public Policy

On behalf of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, we’d like to extend our deepest sympathy for the loss of Michael Scott. Our thoughts remain with his family and colleagues.

Today you will vote to convert a number of contract schools to charters and to create 5 new charter school campuses which will provide new educational opportunities for hundreds of Chicago’s families.

These schools started as one new school with the intention to provide innovative educational practices. Nearly ten years ago, the CPS board supported two teachers when they took a chance to create Noble St. charter school. Today you will be voting to continue that schools expansion as they work to put thousands of Chicago’s children in college.

Over ten years ago, this body voted to create LEARN charter school, a small school that grew from a 3 flat apartment building in North Lawndale to one of the top performing elementary schools in the city. Today you will vote to expand that educational opportunity from the Westside to the city’s South Shore community.

Years ago the CPS board showed leadership when this body authorized the United Neighborhood Organization to open an elementary school on the city’s Westside. This relationship serves as one example of the many ways community organizations can work together with the school district. Today, UNO continues to serve to help alleviate overcrowding in the city’s Latino communities while providing a rigorous education.

Unfortunately, today you will not be voting to create any new charter schools that have come through this year’s request for proposal process.

At the heart of the charter law, and indeed the lifeblood of a robust charter sector, is the infusion of new innovative techniques and new educational entrepreneurs. You are witnessing first-hand those successes being brought to scale. The visionaries of the future may be dreaming of their ideal school for Englewood, or Logan Square, or Beverly as I speak. Don’t close the door on their chance to strengthen public education in their community.

We encourage CPS to continue to exert leadership and it is our hope that new charter public school operators will be given the chance to create the next great school for Chicago’s children.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An unlikely trio on Meet the Press

This past Sunday on Meet the Press with David Gregory, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Reverend Al Sharpton sat down to talk about the state of public education in our country and how President Obama’s Race to the Top Fund is seeking to improve states’ school systems. The trio -- which brings both liberal and conservative ideals to the table -- is not the most likely group to band together in addressing one of the nation’s most important 21st century challenges. However, it is nice to see bipartisan support for education since the futures of our children should not be held victim to partisan politics.

Charter schools, ever since they burst on the scene less than twenty years ago have been thought of as engines of innovation, schools that could be used to discover new best practices that could in turn be shared across school districts. The Race to the Top fund recognizes successful approaches states have taken to increase student achievement and encourages competition between states to keep raising the bar.

This kind of competition sounds pretty healthy if the payoff is more students achieving above state standards. With 1.2 million students dropping out of school each year, unique approaches must be taken.

States begin applying for the competitive grant in the beginning of the year; new ideas will be implemented -- ideas like data systems that track a student’s entire record from kindergarten through high school, and using data to track principal performance. Imagine what could happen if we keep pushing for more of these “unlikely alliances” to solve our nation’s biggest challenges.

-Marvin Smith

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The charter choice

As I was dropping my children off at their Chicago Public School this morning, another mother stopped to ask me about charter schools. Her child is a 7th grader and she has begun the arduous task of investigating the multitude of high school options. She had just attended an open house at CICS Northtown, and came away very impressed.

This mother wanted to know how admissions worked for charter schools. When I explained that it was a citywide lottery, done in public with full transparency, she was impressed -- but discouraged. As she told me, “I don’t want to get too enthusiastic about a charter school when I know my child literally has to win the lottery to gain admission.” I don’t know that the odds of gaining admission to one of the college prep magnets are any better or worse than winning a charter school lottery, but it doesn’t really matter -- the odds are stacked against your child in both instances.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended an open house at the Disney II performance school and was wowed by the fabulous work being done there. But, like my friend, I walked away discouraged, knowing it was all but impossible to get my 7 year old twins into the school.

This dilemma is occurring across the city. And what it really comes down to is the fact that there are not enough high quality options for ALL children -- charter, magnet, or neighborhood schools. I work daily to serve and promote charter schools because I believe they dramatically raise the academic achievement -- and brighten the future -- for so many children that would otherwise be stuck in failing schools.

Charters are not the only answer, but right now they are the best lever we have to push the public school system to close the achievement gap. I just wish there were more of them!

--Pamela Clarke

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chicago mourns Michael Scott

The city of Chicago suffered a tremendous loss with the death of Michael Scott. Mr. Scott, the President of the Chicago Board of Education, was a well respected figure in the community. He could interact positively with people from all walks of life, whether they came from CPS, City Hall or the street.

During his tenure with Chicago’s Board of Education, Chicago saw the number of charter schools rise, providing more opportunities for the city’s kids, including in his own Lawndale community.

We who fight for educational reform should redouble our efforts to fix what is wrong with the system, and we should remember that we are the stewards of our children’s future.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Senator James Meeks and the CTU

State Senator James Meeks is coming under fire for his editorial in the Chicago Tribune on October 29th entitled “Their Blood is on Our Hands.” In it, he bemoans the issues of school violence that have put Chicago in the national spotlight. Another story appeared on Friday describing the fallout between CTU and Sen. Meeks, and things are heating up quickly.

I applaud Sen. Meeks for his support of charter schools and his dedication to educational reform, even if our political views and goals do not agree on every point. He was able to put politics aside and speak to the shortcomings of Illinois schools, risking campaign contributions from CTU (which he has now roundly rejected) in the process. But the system will never change if we, as a state, do not stand together to improve Illinois schools.

Charter schools in Illinois serve more than 30,000 students and work for thousands of families. They are changing the face of education. And, since CPS just announced the new charters opening next year, the movement is gaining more support each month. It’s good to receive recognition in the Senator’s sweeping reform plan.

Sen. Meeks concludes his editorial by saying “We must begin making decisions that are in the best interest of children.” We here at INCS could not agree more.
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