Canter School Makes The Nation

This week The Nation took the struggle to keep Canter Leadership Academy open nationwide. While it’s a great boost for the community fighting to keep it open, it also should heighten the debate about public education and corporate school reform.

As I pointed out in my earlier post, more and more research is surfacing that shows how closing schools has not solved any problems, financially or otherwise, and in fact has been proven to be harmful to children.

In meetings with our elected representatives they have raised the issue that many Canter students, a middle school in Hyde Park, are not from the feeder schools the school was intended to serve. Perlstein’s article supports this with testimony from many of the kids who found Canter after floundering in other schools. As one young man put it (and I’m paraphrasing), “It takes a lot for me to walk through my neighborhood with bus money in my pocket, but I do it because I want to learn something.”

Canter students plead with CPS officials not to close their school.

Canter students plead with CPS officials not to close their school.

It’s useless to point out that if we had strong schools in every neighborhood this wouldn’t be the case because these officials are more concerned with who votes for them. In fact, one local official pretty much admitted that Canter was the sacrificial lamb to keep other schools in his district open.

But Canter has an interesting history. Formerly Louis Wirth Elementary School, it opened in 1969 after completion of the new building for Kenwood High School (now Kenwood Academy and formally housed in the Wirth/Canter building). The school was meant to be a place where students from different socio-economic, and racial backgrounds from surrounding schools (Reavis, Kozminski, Shoesmith, Ray, and Murray) that fed Kenwood High School could meet each other before they would all be in school together in High School. This was the dream of Miriam G. Canter, a community activist who championed the cause of an integrated middle school, according to her son Evan.

Wirth served grades 6th through 8th. In 2002, school’s CEO Arne Duncan decided that the Middle School model was the way to go. Further, it made financial sense to consolidate the considerable resources necessary for the upper grades (counselors, algebra teachers, etc.) in one building rather than have it duplicated through all Hyde Park schools. Wirth would lose a grade (6th) in order to house the influx of 7th and 8th graders from feeder schools and be renamed Miriam G. Canter Middle School.

The Board of Ed promised to invest $1.5 million into the school, and $500,000 in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds were promised for a new science building. Of the promised $2 million, only $300,000 (half of that TIF money) found its way to Canter, according to those involved in the transition.

Despite reneged promises and lack of CPS support, Canter built an excellent program and attracted stellar teachers. As The Nation article and four hours of testimony have demonstrated, under the guidance of Dr. Collen Conlon they have carried out exactly the remit of a Middle School: it is a safe environment sensitive to the needs of kids transitioning into high school with high academic standards.

But according to CPS, Canter is “underutilized” at 58 percent with 228 students in a building that they say should house 390 (as per their 30 students in a classroom and special needs kids in a closet formula). Seventy-nine percent of its students are reading at or above state level, while 78 percent are at or above state math levels. Enrollment levels are on the rise, and the mobility rate is relatively low at 10 percent.

The relevant fact for Canter is that Barbara Byrd Bennett has decided that the K-8 model is what CPS should be following, similar to the way Arne Duncan did the opposite just ten years ago. And, since we’ve had five CEOs in just four years, does it make sense to instigate this massive upheaval in the lives of these middle schoolers because she is the flavor of the month?

Further, it’s not clear whether the trend to eliminate middle schools for K-8 schools is based on sound research. A five-year longitudinal study of 40,883 eighth-grade students in the Philadelphia City School District in the concluded that the “higher student achievement in math and reading associated with K-8 schools has more to do with student demographics, grade size and the school transition issue than with the K-8 grade structure.”

Bennett was brought here for the scorched earth policy she initiated in Detroit, where 124 school district properties languished on the market at the end of 2012. Beyond Chicago’s deplorable policy of revolving door CEOs, why should our children suffer such a massive change when it’s unclear she will even stick around (especially since she’s still registered to vote in Cleveland.)

We need to slow down the trend from middle schools to K-8 as much as stop the massive closures due to be wrapped up May 22.