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.