Saturday, December 20, 2008

Gallery 37 and Censorship of Student Art

Tomi Mick, a home-schooled high school-age student was taking AP photo classes at Gallery 37, called a protest for Dec. 19, when her photos, a series exploring female bodies at different ages, was censored from the final exhibition. The protest was organized by Females United for Action (FUFA), a Chicago-wide social change organization for people who identify as young women and gender-queer/ gender-neutral youth, with the leadership of youth of color at the center of their organizing. FUFA is a sister group of Women and Girls Collective Action Network. Here, Tomi shows her censored art in front of Gallery 37. Students going and going from classes in the building were overwhelmingly supportive of Tomi and FUFA’s requests that Gallery 37:
  • Educate students and parents about the need for freedom of artistic expression;
  • Clearly outline its art-making boundaries;
  • Meet with youth from FUFA to discuss setting a policy welcoming thought-provoking art and young feminist visibility.
These seem like reasonable, even fairly mild, requests.

Here is Tomi’s statement about what happened to her:

Gallery 37 in downtown Chicago, Illinois has a very prestigious AP art program for high school juniors and seniors looking to advance in their art career and prepare AP portfolios. They advertise their students as "the best of the best," and once inside, they force us through tons of college prep workshops and encourage us to apply to at least 10 art schools each.

I auditioned for and was admitted to the AP Photographic Explorations program. As a photography student of two years (this being my third), I was ready to explore my ideas and find my artistic concentration. Recently I've been working on images that portray women in un-conventional ways in order to challenge common ideas about the female body. I created an unfinished piece of my little sister, me, and my mother, neck to belly-button, nude. The photos are created to sit next to each other in chronological order. They are supposed to demonstrate the differences in our bodies due to age, development, shape, body-type, etc. I was hoping to post the series in this Friday's end of the semester's art show. My teacher, Mr. Cinoman, was with me all the way. He supported me when my idea was just an idea, and he supported me once it was executed. Monday, 4 days before the show, Mr. Cinoman tells me that he decided that my piece was too controversial to display, and that I would not be able to put them in the show. He also refused to give me my prints until the end of the two-hour period, after I said that I was leaving and not coming back.

There were never any written or verbal rules explaining what the boundaries were at Gallery 37, and as I said before, my teacher supported me until he had time to think about "the conservative Hispanic parents" that would be attending the show (Yes, he really said that).

Art is supposed to be controversial. We can't stand for this type of censorship of arts, especially the body-positive feminist kind. :) Who knows how many young artists have lost the desire to make art after encountering programs like this?

There’s a lot packed into Tomi’s analysis, but the bottom line is that a young woman lost a chance to show her art and get real feedback from an audience. But Tomi and FUFA turned this into a “teachable moment” anyway. Good for them. But too bad for all the rest of Gallery 37’s students that the organization, or perhaps just one teacher, couldn’t figure out how to educate by showing this work.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Making Chicago’s Schools Safer for All: Gardens, Solidarity and Social Justice

Before it went belly-up, Chicago’s nascent gay-and-allies high school was known as Social Justice Pride Campus, then, in an apparent attempt to gain broader support, it took on the name Social Justice Solidarity Campus. The former name—Pride—was the inaugural version; the planners switched to the latter—Solidarity—after encountering opposition, notably by evangelical ministers. The shift in nomenclature is telling; the school’s planners always seemed stuck somewhere between missions—were they about fostering gay pride or developing between-group solidarity? And, as seems likely, were they trying to mollify the wrong folks? After all, these ministers think queers are doing “the work of the devil.” Why try to reason with that?

Queer youth suffer in many schools, that’s for sure. But I still have questions: Will the goal of safety for gender and sexual minority youth be best achieved through the establishment of one school or the enforcement of the city’s already strong anti-discrimination policies? What about providing education toward justice for queer youth across city schools? Remember when Billie Jean King donated $10,000 to provide copies of the film It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School to every school in Chicago? What would happen if Duncan and Daley required these schools to show the film and discuss the “issues”? Can schools be made safer across the board, say, by repairing every broken window, boiler, and plaster wall, filling classrooms with art, plants, books, and computers, inviting neighbors to visit classes and plant school gardens, and strongly representing love and respect for every person in the building and community, so that all kids flourish? Bigger vision, bigger results.

Let’s refuse to let Daley spend a penny on the Olympics before every child is safe in every Chicago school.

And every school has a garden.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Jihad for Love at Senn High School

Gay Muslim filmmaker Parvez Sharma visited Nicholas Senn High School and showed his film, Jihad for Love. In this picture, Senn LSC member, student Umme Rubab, listens to a student’s comment. Over 70 IB, GSA and other Senn students attended, along with some community members, teachers and others. We loved the talk and film; Sharma is funny and generous—he stayed after the screening for over an hour to answer every question students asked, and gave us all a tutorial in Islamic precepts. He also invited students to continue the dialogue about Islamophobia and homophobia at the film’s blog.

Another great event at a school that everyone should know about.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Statement of Support for Professor William Ayers

October 14, 2008

We, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Education Alumni Board, write to champion our colleague Professor William Ayers। A purpose of our Alumni Association is to “support the College’s mission of ensuring that all children and youth in America’s urban schools receive a quality education।” This charge describes Dr. Ayers’ contributions in our field and to Chicago; his work toward that end has been unceasing.

Dr। Ayers is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a nationally known scholar, member of the Faculty Senate at UIC, Vice President-elect of the American Educational Research Association, and a sought after speaker and visiting scholar at other universities. Throughout his twenty years as a valued faculty member at UIC, Dr. Ayers has taught, advised, mentored, and supported hundreds of undergraduate, Masters and Ph.D. students. Helping educators develop the capacity and ethical commitment to promote critical inquiry, dialogue, and debate; to encourage questioning and independent thinking; and to value the full humanity of every person and to work for access and equity are Professor Ayers’ essential commitments. His unflagging dedication to these goals is an inspiration to College of Education students and alumni.

We reject the recent and ongoing derogations of his character in the media and blogosphere, and by politicians, and stand beside Professor William Ayers, an advocate for education devoted to human enlightenment and liberation. That goal is also ours.

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Education Alumni Board

Patrick O’Reilly, Vice President of UIC COE Alumni Board
Therese Quinn, Ph. D., Member of UIC COE Alumni Board

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Bill Ayers I Know

Teaching for Social Justice, or Passing the Gift Along

Bill Ayers, in all of his life’s work, within and outside of the field of education—for he is active much more broadly—has embraced what Maxine Greene describes as the “difficult matter of moral choice.” Bill includes this quote in one of his finest books—To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher—a teaching memoir and guide, which is widely used in teacher education courses and certification programs, including my own at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In it, Bill writes that students must be fully seen by their teachers, of the power of observation, of teachers as detectives. He speaks of teaching as being fundamentally about love.

Lewis Hyde, the author of The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, too, speaks of love, or more precisely, of eros, and its relation to gifts and to art. Gift exchange is, he says, an erotic commerce. Eros is the principle of attraction, union, involvement which binds together, while logos, reason and logic, and differentiation, is exemplified by the market economy. And he claims that, in his words, “a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies”, a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art.” And to that I’ll add this spin—it is the quality of gift that makes the teacher.

This is, I think, what Bill Ayers offers the field, and the world, a committed, activist, love-infused and hopeful vision of teaching, that is grounded, against the grain of governmental push and current trend, not-at-all in the interests of the market, but rather, in the specific lives of particular children, and is all about, as he has written, teaching in “the hope of making the world a better place.” These considerations are evident in all his writings, which emphasize the importance of listening to those who have witnessed and experienced—hence his interest in autobiography and children’s voices, and work on student lore and teacher lore, projects developed with another wonderful Bill, William Schubert.

Here, I’m following Bill’s lead once again, by turning to an autobiographical reflection on access and “moral choice.” My real educational journey began in libraries and bookstores—places that were simply open, and let me wander through, grazing the fantasy shelf in the children’s room, as well as cruising the adult stacks. I foundered in school; junior high was difficult and high school was even worse, especially after I “came out” as a lesbian. But a high school history teacher’s kind decision to count as a class project an extracurricular poetry reading I participated in allowed me to graduate. He made what must have been a complicated decision—a moral choice of the sort Bill Ayers describes, and commends.

Graduation allowed me to continue. And I eventually enrolled in a city college where I began to study art. I still loved libraries (I scoured them for queer authors, looking for family; I found Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, and Sappho) but was critical of and estranged from formal education and its narrow priorities (I primarily used school as a way to survive—financial aid and work study jobs).

Eventually I completed an AA degree. Because I was living in California I was then able to enter a state university without passing through the grinder of SATS. I finally completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at age 29 or 30, and started working in museums with so many other artists. It was during that time that I met Bill Ayers, when I was invited, with a selection of other city-and-culture engaged folks, to speak to one of his classes of pre-service teachers. I urged them to use and also to critique museums; Bill urged me to come back to school for a Ph.D. The idea surprised me into seeing myself differently, and a decade later, in 2001, I completed that degree.

I gave a talk recently that I titled, “Growing Marigolds by Moonlight, or, Why Aren’t Museums Libraries?” That wasn’t what I titled my dissertation, but that’s basically what it considers—why museums aren’t accessible and how they could open up. Growing Marigolds By Moonlight is the title of a book written by an old woman in San Francisco that was accessioned into a very public library in that city, one dreamed up and described by writer Richard Brautigan in his novel, The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966. The library welcomed books written by everyone—any person could leave their stories on its shelves. Any people could read them. It was a library even better than the ones that supported my curiosities as a child and helped me survive as a gay teen. That’s the kind of museum-as-library I imagine these days, an institution fractured open. Even an old woman living in a small apartment in the Tenderloin, or Uptown, should be able to display her insights there, for us all to appreciate. That’s my specific vision, shaped by my experiences and abiding passions. But its undergirding, its girdle, I want to say, what surrounds it and supports it, in a kind of firmly erotic way, is the gift passed to me by Bill. Enter the conversation, he said, just enter. And I did.

Ayers, W. (1993). To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.

Brautigan, R. (1971). The Abortion: An Historical Romance, 1966. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hyde, L. (1983, 1980, 1979). The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books.

Pinar, W., Reynolds, W., Slattery, P. & Taubman, P. (1995). Understanding Curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Queers, Safety, and Schools

A proposal for Pride Campus, an open admission public high school that will implement a college prep curriculum in all subject areas, was approved by the CPS Office of New Schools last week. The school will serve LGBTQA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, questioning and allied, according to the school’s planners) students from all over the city.

The Greater Lawndale Little Village School for Social Justice submitted the proposal to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Office of New Schools for the Social Justice High School-Pride Campus.

A CPS community hearing about Pride Campus will be held Thursday, Sept. 18, 6-8 PM, 2008 at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted. If, after the hearing, CPS gives the school its final approval, Pride Campus will open in 2010. No location has been selected for Pride Campus yet.

I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the school. I understand that schools can be lethal and are often dangerous and scary for queer and queerish kids; all the stats support that. And as a girl who liked to hold hands with other girls, hung out with drama-kids, and dressed like a freak in high school, I was called dyke and other lesbian-baiting names, shoved into lockers, and had bottles thrown at me; I hated most of my time at high school (I always loved drama club), barely graduated, and would have gladly escaped to another, safer, place if one had been available.

I became an educator, in part, to create schools that are not just healthy and safe places for all students, but joyous, art-rich, and vibrant zones where all kinds of people encounter and learn about and from each other. I know this is possible, and it is public education at its best. From this perspective, the idea of a Pride Campus prompts questions:

  • With the advent of Pride, what happens to the queer and otherwise non-conforming kids left behind in all the other schools? Shame?
  • Will Pride Campus let CPS continue to avoid really making sure all schools respect and care for all students?
  • Will schools push their trannies, fags, and dykes out to Pride Campus, rather than work with their teachers, parents and students to develop an inclusive educational culture?
  • Is the school a retreat, really, an admission of systemic failure to love our queer youth?

It seems to me that Pride Campus is still a “choice” school, one that plays to the fantasy that we can all just choose our ways into better situations, and those left behind, who just didn’t choose as well as we, aren’t our concern. It’s exclusionary, in this case, not because it requires high SATs or signed contracts for admission, but because it asks for a declaration of identity/affiliation that many youth just can’t make.

If we have given up on the big job of building a society, or even a city school system, that actively recognizes everyone’s rights, why settle for a queer day campus? Maybe we should demand a Pride Boarding School, a 24 hour safe zone, a home for all the LGBTQ kids thrown out by parents, forced to attend “ex-gay” Christian camps, afflicted by abstinence programs that ignore their existence, subjected to “marriage is for a man and a woman” speeches by politicians and preachers. Let’s make it big, let’s take over city hall, hey, how about declaring the whole city a Pride Campus?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Art Education for the Exclusive Few

The exclusive, albeit nominally public Chicago High School for the Arts is scheduled to open in fall 2009, according to a recent Chicago Reader article.

It will be a “contract" school as part of Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 program, and highly selective—students will be chosen on the basis of audition, academic record, and “potential” (whatever that means). The school will also be able to hire uncertified, nonunion teachers, and will not have a Local School Council (LSC). In other words, it’s business as usual for Chicago’s unelected CPS CEO Arne Duncan, and more to the point, Mayor Daley, who apparently likes keeping the city’s good stuff for a rarified few, even when it’s funded publicly.

Rev. Meeks has it right—all Chicago’s children deserve a top quality education, and this long-awaited public school for the arts should be open to all, regardless of prior opportunities. How about this for a plan?

Next year, a roaring river of Chicago’s young artists and creative youth should show up at the school’s doors and demand a seat, an instrument, a palette and paints, and the stage—this school should be for you, all of you, so take it!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Politicians, Free Speech, and Generosity

After months of invitations from the Senn Strategic Planning Committee, Alderwoman Mary Ann Smith finally came to Senn High School to talk about the school’s future. The meeting was “brokered” by State Rep. Harry Osterman. Unfortunately, of the nine members of Senn’s Strategic Planning Committee, including three amazing Senn students, Christine, Bagi, and Umme, who rearranged their lives to be able to attend the Friday meeting at 3:00 PM, only four were allowed into the meeting room. The rest, including all three students, were sent to the hallway, where we waited for nearly two hours.

At the close of the meeting, we were invited in, at the insistence of Linda England, Senn’s LSC Chair, to introduce ourselves to David Pickens (CPS), Nancy Myerson and Mary Ann Smith (Alderwoman’s office), and others. Bagi took the opportunity to express his “sadness” about being excluded and Smith’s plan to close Senn as a general admission school. He came here a year ago (his mother country is Mongolia), he said, and “thought America believes in freedom of speech.” Smith jumped in to explain her view that, “Whether truth or lies, it’s all free speech.” Although only loosely related to what Bagi was expressing, that actually explains a lot about Smith, who dissembles rather frequently—she’s a just good public servant, upholding and enacting our Constitutional rights, even when truth-challenged.

In a very little nutshell, the word at meeting’s end was that Smith’s office will commit to providing funding for an “educational consultant” which Senn doesn’t need (it has highly qualified teachers, administrators, and Strategic Planning Committee members, including several with advanced education and content area degrees). And we will all work together to craft a plan we “can all sign off on” by January 2009. It seems, for new, that Senn will stay one school, open to all, with a wide range “differentiated learning opportunities” inside the building, including International Baccalaureate, AVID, and more.

Now if only the school could get someone to provide funds for lost positions and needed equipment—how about a few LCD projectors (Smith’s office promised some more than a year ago, but they never showed up); reviving the band (the instruments are gathering dust in a closet, waiting for the instructor position to be funded); service learning (which may be cut this year, though the program was award-winning); a Freshman counselor; equipment for the one up-to-date science lab, and even another science lab? Isn’t that what all students deserve?

I have a proposal: The parents of Northside Prep and Walter Payton students, who raise funds by assessing fees from families, holding auctions, and asking for contributions for their own children—maybe they could share, and send a little of that money over to Senn and the many other Chicago schools with largely low income, English-as-a-Second-Language, immigrant student and family populations. I’d like Bagi to know that America might tolerate lies, but we also support generosity.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Undocumented Dreams

A guest editorial by Christina Gómez, Erica Meiners, and the 8 Project
Chicago, Illinois

José, a charismatic 18 year old, wrote his personal essay for his college application about crossing the border and avoiding la migra. His classmates, a wiry seventeen year old, Ana, made a YouTube video before the 2006 immigration marches that documents the violence she endured while crossing the border and Jorge, with a level gaze, calmly states that since he and his mother pay taxes, why shouldn’t he have equal access to higher education?

In a nation where the landscape of K-12 education is increasingly dominated by privatization, militarization and the proliferation of tightly competitive selective enrollment “boutique” schools, a vibrant open Chicago enrollment high school like Senn High School is almost a dying breed. José, Ana, and Jorge are a few of the approximately 42 out of the 210 graduates of the Senn class of 2008 that are undocumented. And this number, as Alicia states with her eyes set on a future as a nurse, does not include the ones that dropped out to work in 11th or 10th grade, convinced that a high school diploma offered no real routes to a future.

Despite skyrocketing tuition costs at “wealth hoarding” elite private (and public) colleges and universities, 2008 was a record setting year for college applications because of the demographic bulge (an increase in number of 18-year olds), the ease of on-line applications, and, in the face of an economic downturn, the awareness of the sheer necessity of college for future living-wage job opportunities. Yet, invisible in the mainstream media reports that celebrate “hard-working” high school students and their paths to elite post-secondary institutions are the estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school across the U.S. this June. Like José, Ana, Alicia, Jorge and the many other undocumented students we have talked too, they are all too aware of the pathways awaiting them in the U.S.A. – physically demanding low-wage work or acquisition (and deportation) by one of our nation’s well endowed public entities: the Orwellian-titled Department of Homeland Security.

Yet, with supportive teachers, counselors, families, and peers, they are resisting these state sanctioned deadening futures. They are working to become some of only 7,000 – 13,000 undocumented immigrants enrolled in colleges across the country. In Chicago, available research suggests that approximately 20,000 undocumented high school students live in our city, and approximately 6.1 percent of all undocumented students are enrolled in a post-secondary institution. Even if accepted at other public or private four-year institutions, most of those undocumented at Senn will attend the overflowing public community colleges in Chicago, because they are not eligible to receive any federal or state financial aid. Although Illinois (as well as nine other states including Texas, California, Utah, Washington, New York, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nebraska) is a supportive state in terms of access to post-secondary education - undocumented students pay in-state tuition as long as they meet the required admission criteria by the institution of higher education they applied to as stated by Illinois House Bill 60. With the price-tag for 2007-2008 undergraduate in-state tuition at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) topping $15,036 for the 2007-2008 school year, many students, including those ineligible for most financial aid, simply cannot afford higher education.

The increasingly prohibitive fees for higher education, even when the consequences of under-education are much more costly, is just one of many public policies that disproportionately hurts communities of color and poor people। Immigration, and criminal justice policies, frequently senselessly punitive, do nothing to make our communities “safer” and bear no relationship to the daily lives of those most impacted। The undocumented students at Senn High School know this. José can’t get a driver’s license but the limitations of public transit in Chicago and the exigencies of his employment, make driving without a license a reality. (Currently only eight states allow undocumented immigrants to receive their drivers’ licenses or permits.) Ana can’t get legal employment, but needs to support her mother and siblings, therefore she works in a restaurant that doesn’t ask any questions. Jorge also works at a restaurant. Every weekday he arrives at work 4PM and leaves after midnight. Most youth that we talk to to, work on a fake social security number or under the table in dehumanizing and often dangerous contexts in jobs that sustain our cities and economy. No fancy non-profit internships or skill and network building “summer jobs” for these youth. A day without an undocumented Mexican youth in Chicago, to riff on the title of Sergio Arau’s 2004 mockumentary, would shut down many a restaurant.

With the looming presence of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids (like the April 24, 2007 raid in the predominantly Mexican Little Village neighborhood in Chicago), fear for oneself and for family, is a constant. Without legal routes to employment, their lives are, like increasing number of residents in the United States, criminalized. At over two million in prisons and jails and counting, the U.S. is the global savant on incarceration. The U.S. government currently has more than 300 publicly and privately run jails, “detention centers,” where the undocumented are held, some for years, until decisions are reached on deportation; about 30,000 people are awaiting trial or deportation. With the Sentencing Project estimates of approximately 5.3 million people disenfranchised in 2007 due to felony convictions, and the Pew Hispanic Center documenting upwards of 10 million undocumented adults, this expanding disenfranchisement of millions, signals the resurgence of Juan and Jim Crow.

As immigrants ourselves, we count ourselves honored to have the opportunity to work and learn alongside many of these students and their families. Their belief in higher education and tenacity is impressive and their contributions in classrooms, as in our communities, are invaluable. Without legislation like the DREAM ACT (the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), a bill that would have granted legal status to these students, the future of many of our students and their families, looks bleak. We deeply question the de facto economic and racial draft implicit in the DREAM Act, and we challenge the narrowness of the population selected to “benefit” from a complicated potential access to legalization, because “hard work” or “innocence” should never be used to justify the allocation of rights. Yet, along with many across the nation, we mourned last October when the bill failed to pass in the Senate by a vote of 52 to 44. The dreams of many students were crushed across this country. In 2009, there will be approximately 2.9 million high school graduates, and more undocumented youth, seeking futures with their families and loved ones, in the U.S.A.

The silence of presidential candidates on meaningful and systemic immigration reform grows more deafening. We know our nation can do better. We must.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Vigil for One School’s Survival

It’s nearly beyond belief, that a community would have to beg its local public official to keep its neighborhood high school alive. It’s shocking that she—Alderwoman Mary Ann Smith—can hold up the plans for school improvement that over 2,000 local folks have weighed in on, and that others, including teachers, parents, administrators, and residents, have been meeting nearly weekly (after work, and on Saturdays) to research, consult, brainstorm, develop, and write. So much labor, good will, energy, and hope held hostage by…what exactly?

So here’s how it’s playing out: Senn’s Strategic Planning Committee has developed a plan to strengthen the community school over a five-year period. But Alderwoman Smith wants to close Senn down and install in its place several selective small high schools; this news reached Senn via a leaked document after a year’s work on the strategic plan, with one of Smith’s aides in weekly attendance. Then Senn was turned down for some grant renewals—the word was that they didn’t want to fund a school with an “uncertain future.” Senn’s principal heard from a colleague that Board of Education documents related to Senn were red-flagged—take no action. Chicago Public Schools says it can’t promise to work with the Senn Strategic Planning Committee to improve the school unless Senn is working with Smith, but Smith won’t set a date to meet.

The Organization of the Northeast (ONE) tried to move the issue by making Senn’s future the center of its yearly convention on June 2. Smith was invited but didn’t show. So we took the meeting to her home, and asked her to support Senn. But really, it’s maddening—why should a public school have to plead for survival? Especially, why should it have to get permission to exist from one local official? Except, of course, that’s not what’s really going on—Daley has his plans and Duncan (CPS CEO), Smith, and the unelected Board of Education simply do his bidding. Smith does it by refusing to answer her door, as you see here.

ONE should take the next vigil to Daley’s doorstep.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Public School Give-away—Bids Accepted Now!

Alderwoman Mary Ann Smith (48th ward) was the main show at a recent Edgewater block club meeting. I “crashed” the meeting after seeing flyers posted in the neighborhood that said Smith would be talking about “her plans for Senn High School.” I’m on Senn’s Local School Council (a Community rep). Since Senn’s Strategic Planning Committee has been asking to meet with Smith for months about a “plan for Senn” someone leaked from her office to Senn’s principal (she just refuses), I figured I better find out what she had to say.

After telling the room (about 40 people, including at least 5 reps from her office) about great things she’s responsible for, Smith announced big news—in June work will start on a 2 million dollar re-do of Senn’s auditorium, to accommodate an in-house theater company. The idea was brought to Smith by an Uptown theater, she said, which brought her a curriculum for Senn (why didn’t they come to the school?), something to help prepare students for jobs (because there are so many jobs looking for theater people!).

Then the bomb dropped—in September 2009, Smith said, four new schools will open in Senn’s building, forming a “four-part school”—one, the current military school, one a theater arts school, the third a language and diplomacy school, and the fourth a college prep school.

Smith and State Rep. Harry Osterman are working together on this plan, “showing leadership,” she said. "Children attending Senn now won't be thrown out, though they may choose to leave.” And, “There will be no tests to get in,” she assured us, except, oh, “there will be a test for the college prep school,” she responded to a question. And “a contract may be required” of students and parents. Other than those things, the new schools will be open to all (who manage to figure out how to apply, get the contracts signed, score well on the tests).

Senn, in contrast, is open to all students in its attendance boundaries.

A member of the audience asked another clarifying question. The question addressed Smith's description of Senn, with enrollment of around 1,200, as underenrolled and her assertions that the community wanted to send their children to a good local high school (not Senn, with all those low income, non-English speaking, immigrant students), so more spaces were needed, and that all of Senn's current students could stay at Senn.

“How many students will attend each of the four high schools?” Smith said 400. The audience member pointed out that one of the four schools would be selective, so its 400 wouldn't be part of the count. That left 1,200 spaces for the current Senn students (all 1,200 of them), and all the other people who would want to go to the school—not an increase, in other words.

Smith began to look very angry, and back-tracked. “The building can accommodate 3,000, so we’ll divide that number by the number of schools.” Things blew up then.

Smith pointed her finger at the audience member, shaking it, and raised
her voice. "I know you,” she said, “You’re with Senn, and I won't talk to you. I’m through talking to you people." Smith continued ranting. The room burst into applause several times. I asked why she was yelling at a community member who asked a question. Nobody else said anything. The meeting went on and then ended. The berated audience member burst into tears. “Why was she yelling at me?”

Smith’s tactics—self-praise, unstable "facts," and yelling down opposing views seems to be the common and unpleasant ruse of her office. I've seen two of her aides use the same methods in other meetings. Even worse is Smith’s direct giveaway of Senn High School to outside entities—a military that needs recruits, a theater that needs space. Indirectly, Smith has “given” Senn up to real estate developers that need a local high status school to boost property values.

Can someone please run against Smith next time?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Green Schools without Green

Maybe it’s just Illinois, where aiming-for-green schools can't seem to get growing. We are at the bottom now, in school funding by the state—49 of 49 (Nevada is out—its school funding comes largely from casinos). So when Senn sets out to recast its curriculum and programs as green initiatives, who will fund the shift? Our alderwoman, Mary Ann Smith, seems set on parlaying her office’s funding into high visibility projects—an auditorium overhaul is the latest plan.

Nothing wrong with visibility—Senn is hoping its new green and global sustainability projects get some of that, too. But the school’s plans were all developed openly, with plenty of discussion, even debate. The alderwoman simply announced hers—planning by decree!

In any case, Senn’s auditorium is in great shape and doesn’t need a redo, but the rest of the school is another matter. It needs everything from science labs and plaster wall repair, to class book and lap-top sets. It lacks enough social workers. It could use funding to make up for the over $300,000 in state funding cuts this year, that resulted in the loss of eight teachers and a security person. And then some.

Public schools are all about the environment these days, and they should be. Big plans are fantastic. But to get the work done, schools also need enough green.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Green Global Senn

Nicholas Senn High School is launching a bold new Green Arts and Design initiative; global education and environmental sustainability concepts and projects will be implemented across subject areas. Senn’s Green and Global initiative will have three main strands—Arts and design for sustainability; green jobs and technologies; and global environmental awareness.

First—Arts and design for sustainability. Creative attention to global environmental issues is increasingly important--check out this image by Chicago artist and forager, Nance Klehm. Senn’s students, working with local and international artists and designers, will learn ways that the arts and design can pose questions about and offer solutions to the problems of our environment.

Next—Green jobs and technologies. Senn’s focus on green collar jobs will prepare interested students to enter a growing field. For example, there is a greater demand for solar panel installation, than there are installers. Students doing this work will earn a living while also helping to heal our earth.

And last—Global environmental awareness. Senn is a diverse school, with students and families from every part of the world. In other words, Senn is already global. At the same time, we know more clearly now than ever before, that the earth is one place—what we eat, drive, and wear in Chicago affects the lives of families everywhere else. Senn’s Green and Global focus will ground its celebration of diversity within an emphasis on interrelatedness and our responsibilities to each other as world citizens.

Here are a few specific proposals (the school’s Curriculum Committee will consider these and others before selecting inaugural projects):

1). Starting a corps of international Green Senn Friends to serve as advisors. Possible Friends include Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva, Oakland’s Ella Baker Center and Ken Dunn, founder of Chicago’s Resource Center.

2). Founding an independent International Center for Green Art and Design Education within Senn to serve as hub for green-related activities, including visual and performing arts events and exhibits, and a Green Artists and Designers in Residence program.

3). Initiate an international Open Call for Proposals for the Green Re-design of Senn’s Campus and Building. The visual and written plans will be exhibited at Senn.

4). Developing Green Corp Career business and culture partners who will provide internships and resources for Senn’s innovative green programming.

5) And of course…rooftop gardens and beehives (this isn’t a new idea for CPS—there are already beekeeping programs at Marshall High, Roosevelt High and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.

More ideas? Send them to me at

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Teachers Against Militarized Education—TAME the Beast!

Decommission Public Military Academies
A National Call to Action

As military recruiters across the nation fall short of their enlistment goals and the number of African Americans enlistees continue to decline, the Department of the Defense (DOD) has partnered with the Department of Education and city governments to sell its “brand” to young people.

Today, Chicago has the most military-branded public school system in the nation. When an Air Force high school opens in 2009 it will be the only city in the United States to have public academies representing all branches of the military.

This recruitment tactic is effective: Nearly half of the students participating in public military schools and JROTC programs, according to the DOD’s own reports, enlist after graduation.

Six reasons all citizens should oppose public military schools and programs.

1. Public education is a civilian, not a military, system.
Public education in a democracy aims to broadly prepare youth for full participation in civil society so that they can make informed decisions about their lives and become full and active participants in civil society. The DOD has a dramatically more constrained goal in our schools: influencing students to “choose” a military career.

2. Military programs and schools offer a substandard education.
Instead of receiving a well-rounded education, students study subjects like “Military Science” and “Army Customs and Courtesies.” With that kind of preparation, it is no surprise that at Chicago’s Carver Military Academy only 49% of its seniors graduated in 2007.

3. Military programs and schools target low-income youth of color.
The Chicago Board of Education targets low-income, primarily African American, communities for military-themed high schools, while upper-income white communities are offered gifted, magnet, and college prep schools and programs. This reinforces a negative and unfortunately familiar message: poor youth of color merit second-class education.

4. Military schools and programs promote obedience and conformity.
Confusing obedience with self-direction, and conformity with independence, Mayor Daley has claimed that military programs promote discipline and leadership. An authentic commitment to youth development would start by offering all students what the most privileged youngsters receive: art education, dance and music instruction, theater and performance, sports and physical education, clubs and games, after-school opportunities, science and math labs, lower teacher-student ratios, smaller schools, curriculum that promotes critical thinking, and more.

5. Military schools are a last resort, not a real choice.
The rhetoric of “choice” absolves CPS officials and politicians of leadership responsibilities. Because most CPS students have been denied a first-rate public school education, they are not able to test into the best public high schools. Instead, they are urged to “choose” from among the high schools that will accept them. Better-funded military schools or decaying neighborhood schools—which would you choose?

6. Military schools and programs practice double standards and discrimination.
Although the Chicago Board of Education, City of Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois all prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the United States Military condones discrimination against lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Military schools and programs willfully ignore the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) students can’t access military college benefits or employment possibilities, and that LGBT teachers can’t be hired to serve as JROTC instructors in these schools. This double standard should not be tolerated.

Call to Action
Let’s bring our schools home! Join TAME in this call for a moratorium on any new military-themed public schools or programs.

Email me your name at to add to this Call to Action.
Email Mayor Daley at and tell him to keep our public schools military-free.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

It’s Not the End of Senn High School

Fifteen members of the Senn High School Strategic Planning Committee, including students and school staff members, met with Alderwoman Mary Ann Smith last week. They talked for over an hour and a half, but Smith refused to endorse either Senn’s Plan or process, which are both impressive. To date, the Committee has surveyed, focus grouped, interviewed, brainstormed, been “expert” advised and more, to come up with a Plan that can keep Senn as a single school serving the needs of all its students. Smith, on the other hand, is promoting her own “plan” for the school, created by…who knows? All that’s clear is that Smith wants to close Senn and open in its place four small schools in the building, three with selective admission policies, meaning they won’t accept all kids in Senn’s attendance boundaries, within which 70% of its students currently live, and one voc tech school. Senn’s plan calls for keeping the school united and open to all students, with programs to serve the different needs in the building.

Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, has said that Senn will take in a freshman class in Fall 2008. That’s good news, but the work to keep Senn open isn’t over.

The next Strategic planning Committee Meeting will take place on Feb. 9 at Senn, in Room 115, 9:00 AM. Everyone is invited to show up and be part of the important community work of improving public education. You’ll meet parents, students, teachers, local residents and a host of others who care about what happens in our local schools. It’s good work. Please do it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Senn High School and a Vision for Public Education

The Alderwoman of the 48th Ward, Mary Ann Smith, has been floating around the community, via email and visits to sympathetic block clubs, what looks on first glance like a vision for the future of Senn High School, but when examined more closely turns out to be evidence of some pretty nasty local back-stabbing by the politician and her aide, Nancy Myerson.

After the rough period at Senn, during which Smith had her will with the school by imposing on it, against the expressed wishes of the school and local community, a military academy (which was given one wing of Senn’s building), the school rebounded by forming a Strategic Planning Committee and beginning to draft a vision for the school’s next five years. The committee was open to the public and comprised of representatives from the school (students, teachers, parents, LSC members, and administrators), community members, and local politicians and their representatives (State Rep. Harry Osterman and Nancy Myerson from Smith’s office attended).

The group met bi-weekly for a year and a half, held focus groups, collected survey data, talked to many residents, and were just getting ready to unveil the Senn Strategic Plan when someone from Smith’s office leaked a suspiciously similar but also crucially different plan to the LSC. This one had Smith’s name on it, and included some apparently plagiarized bits from the Senn Strategic Plan, but also the stunning information that Smith wanted to close down Senn and open, in its building, four small schools with new names, new programs, and most importantly, new students. Of the four planned schools, three would be selective, admitting students based on test scores. Senn, on the other hand, is an open enrollment school, open to all students living in its boundaries. Right now, Senn is one of the most diverse schools in the city, with students from at least 60 countries, according the its website. Closing it to all but the few students who can test in would do a disservice to its current students, to its community, and to all citizens of Chicago, who must begin to demand that all our schools be well-funded, excellent, and open to every child.

The Senn Strategic Planning Committee is moving ahead with its plan, that has created a vision of just such a school, developed in open and with the benefit of community residents’ insights, rather than behind closed doors. I’ll post it soon.