Total Eclipse in a time of Extreme Political Angst

According to Annie Dillard a partial eclipse bears almost no relation to a total eclipse; rather it is like the difference between kissing someone and marrying him. I didn’t quite get the analogy until I experienced one myself, and since then I’ve decided everyone should witness a total eclipse.

For one thing, it was the first time in a long time I found myself in a crowd of strangers not holding a sign and protesting. For days afterwards I felt an exhilarated peace with our world, and I couldn’t even bear to watch the news. Much of the fun came from the party atmosphere and the surrounding fanfare, but I must admit – I didn’t expect to be so wowed. Thanks to Annie Dillard’s 1979 essay, my expectations were exceedingly high, and I thought surely they could not be met.

At the Piney Creek Nature Reserve in southern Illinois, we trekked up a half mile tractor path in the 90 degree heat to an open clearing. The sound system blared themed songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Moondance.” The burgers on the grill were donated by a local farmer, as were the heirloom tomatoes, and a nearby winery sent cases of wine. The festive atmosphere was something I hadn’t expected, but then again, most crowds I’m a part of these days are marching and chanting loudly against Trump and fascism.

It seemed to happen slowly at first; we all donned our NASA-approved sunglasses and sat in lawn chairs, sipping wine and commenting on the progress of the heretofore unremarkable Great American Eclipse (how it became our eclipse I don’t know). Then things started to change ever so subtly. The light and the very air took on an eerie quality. The oppressive heat remained, but I no longer felt like the skin was burning off me. The atmosphere seemed just slightly ominous, taking on a green-ish hue as in just before a storm. But unlike the pre-storm sky that sends us heartlanders running to the basement, it seemed to heighten the anticipation. Looking around me, I had the sudden idea I was in one of those dioramas at a museum that I loved so much as a kid (before holograms and 3D experiences). It looks real but the lighting was somehow off-kilter, the colors from a palette that’s not quite life-like and not quite real. A bit like technicolor, or the anti-thesis of technicolor, which is too contrast-y and suggesting of an alternate reality. This tinge in the air contributed to the feeling that something magical was happening.

What followed was a beautifully orchestrated and harmonious event that left me quite breathless as it unfolded as neatly as the notes on a musical score rise to a crescendo. Darkness descended gradually, like a curtain dropping, and the cicadas came up on cue just as you realize the birds have gone quiet.  The excitement of the crowd was like a drumroll until somebody yelled “Now! Take off your glasses!” The joy around me was as total as the eclipse:  happy people shrieking and cheering and whooping and simply enraptured as they whip off the eye protection and gasp at the corona – this shimmering narrow orb perfectly positioned behind the geometrically flawless black circle.  Then as quickly as it began, the light comes back up and the birds come swooping back like a grand finale.

Then just as suddenly, as you look at people in this dim and other worldly cast amid gasps and laughter and clapping, the light slowly returns, and the birds come swooping back like a grand finale.

And when you look again through your NASA-approved eyeware you see it is only a tiny sliver still, slowly making its way across the sun, and you marvel that such a tiny glimmer could bring that much light. You realize what a powerful start the sun in fact is

So back to Annie Dillard’s analogy: A marriage is a commitment – a powerful and life-changing event not to be taken lightly. A kiss is a passing whimsy that may or may not be remembered. When called to mind most likely it’s wistfully or fondly – perhaps with regret – but not with much lasting impact. A total eclipse is a powerful act as well, but unlike marriage it has a force completely beyond human control.

Perhaps there’s something about nature doing its thing in an unexpected way that can leave one awestruck. We usually only get that feeling during a tornado or an earthquake or tsunami or some other destructive phenomenon. This event left us elated, not terrified, and with a profound sense of community not just at Piney Creek but on social media and various people texting photos. A bit like how everyone comes together to clean up after a natural disaster, but the euphoric bond of seeing this incredible thing and appreciating the planet and humanity in general is something I think we badly needed.

So I kept the news off …. for a couple of days as a reminder that there is power in beauty and good despite our catastrophes, but natural and manmade.


Shootings, schools, and “values”

Over 500 people have been shot in Chicago in just four months. My teenage son casually  commented that they are picking up fast these past few weeks. Last night a 14-year-old girl shot another 14-year-old girl over a boy. When the summer comes, I’m grateful that my son is at camp in Michigan where he might fall out of a tree or get bit by a snake but he won’t get shot.

Last week Rahm Emmanuel suggested that the people who live in the communities that see the most violence must “live by a moral code …. It’s whether you have values.” Now this is the same mayor who has made it clear that many communities have no value to him. He’s closed their PassiSahlbergschools, their libraries, their mental health centers. He’s starved neighborhood schools in most communities but particularly those of color while he gives millions of dollars in TIF money to private universities.

I also had the opportunity to hear Passi Sahlberg this weekend, the Finnish educator and author who  has studied education systems and reforms around the world. What struck me is the overall attitude in Finland is the philosophy that every child should have access to equal opportunities in education.

This came on the heels of Rahm’s announcement that another Selective Enrollment school will be built on the near North Side with $60 million in TIF funds. While he’s clearly playing to his demographic – white middle class North side – it’s outrageous that a school named after an African American president wouldn’t go in or near the South Side neighborhood he calls home.

Lack of values? Or perhaps it’s just that what Rahm values is all too clear.

Is Public Education a “Radical” Idea?

At a recent family picnic, an elderly uncle growled at me for wearing a “radical political” t-shirt. My shirt has the popular internet meme “Every Chicago Public School is My School,” which accurately captured the groundswell of anger at Rahm Emanuel’s closing of 50 neighborhood schools. Every schoolIn fact, when Parents4Teachers spokesperson Erica Clark read out the names of the school at the CPS meeting finalizing this deal (the Board did not; they voted them closed in an omnibus vote that took all of one second) people began shouting “my school” when they heard their school’s name. Very shortly the entire room was shouting “My school!” after every name read.

I’ve been wearing this shirt a lot because it gets such a response, mainly “I like your shirt!” But to my uncle I took the opportunity to say, “It’s a sad day in this country when public education is a ‘radical’ concept, isn’t it Uncle Moe?”

Yesterday Catalyst reported that a $20 million no-bid contract went to an organization with connections to CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett. This comes as no surprise to CPS teacher and parent Timothy Meehan who claims in his SunTimes commentary that CPS is starving schools n order to privatize.

This corporate reform of education is part of the neoliberal viewpoint that says that school systems should be run like businesses. There’s an inherent problem with this view: it collides with a societal view that democratic ideals include a thriving public school system that offers opportunities. As we go to hearings and protests and file lawsuits, we need to keep alive the question of what is meant by democracy and what is really meant by freedom.

Freedom is not throwing public education open to the free market so parents are free to “choose” a charter school; freedom is knowing that your child can walk to school in a safe neighborhood.

Is Mayor Emanuel Here?

Last week as some 60 parents, students, teachers, and community activists from Manierre School on the near north side embarked on the third “Walk the Walk” protest against school closings, organizer Sherise McDaniel called out, “Is Mayor Emanuel here?”

Since the announcement of 54 school closings, parents of soon-to-be-closed schools have commenced walking the route children will have to take to their receiving schools, inviting the press and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to join them.


So far, the mayor has not shown up. He did respond to queries from reporters that he wanted to ensure that Manierre kids “have a bright and successful future.” However, they can’t do that if they’re threatened by gang violence.

Yesterday Manierre parents made their last pleas at the CPS impartial hearings.Manierre received a $200,000 library renovation from Target that included a computers, televisions, iPods, 2000 books and a parent corner as well as murals on the wall. Further, the teachers at the Child Parent Center receive training and other benefits from the prestigious Erikson Center for Early Childhood Education.

George Manierre Elementary School is located at 1420 N Hudson Ave. The receiving school, Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts, is located at 1119 N Cleveland, across a busy intersection including a street that is five lanes wide.

Ten years ago, this area was teeming with children from the Cabrini Green High Rises. In 2000, before residents were relocated, Manierre had over 800 students enrolled. As of this year, they have 351 according to CPS data. Jenner also once had hundreds of Cabrini Green children. But while the enrollment has declined, gang rivalries and tensions have not.

Alderman William Burnett pointed out that the families in this community have “a generational curse. Some of these kid’s parents were killed by other kid’s parents. That’s the real stuff in that neighborhood.”

Parents say they have already seen gang threats on Facebook. CPS could decide to send Manierre kids to Franklin Fine Arts Academy, which is three blocks closer. Or LaSalle Language Academy, or Walter L. Newberry Math and Science Academy – all of which are nearby. But these are selected enrollment schools reserved for the city’s cream of the crop.

On the walk, Sherise McDaniel from the Parent Action Council pointed repeatedly across Sedgwick to how “nice” the neighborhood looked as she warned us not to be fooled. The Evergreen Terrace Apartments are largely Section 8 and the Marshall Field homes are little pockets of low income housing nestled between posh Old Town townhouses and mixed development on the busy riverfront. Parents fear this closing will spark an “all out gang war.

Throughout these stressful weeks since the announcement about school closings frustrated parents are beginning to say, “I’m just going to move” or “I’m going to find a different school.” School closings to further gentrification is nothing new; and with the list for charter schools just getting longer Rahm has more reason to demand more charter schools.

I have a feeling in the upcoming weeks we’ll see more drastic parent actions….


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.


Busy week for education in the news….

At long last, it seems that education is making headline news across the country. Unfortunately, it’s not good news. Perhaps we can thank Rahm Emanuel for his insistence on closing a record 54 schools  while “turning around” 11 even though schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett thought the system could only handle 40 closings, according to Newstips‘ Curtis Black. WBEZ reports that school closings will not save money and in fact will cost $25 million a year for the next 30 years, while research continues to demonstrate that school closings in fact do more harm than good. (See the Washington Post and Education Weekly.) Ironically, the Education Weekly article is headlined “Proceed with Caution,” a statement Emanuel does not understand.

Standardized testing is also in the news, and fingers are once again pointed to schools’ chief Arne Duncan. His “Race to the Top” put more emphasis on test scores, despite continued evidence that social issues like poverty contribute more to a failing system than inadequate teaching. Headlines are not only lumping President Obama’s policies with Bush, but Duncan’s much touted Chicago method of closing schools is now proven to be a failed policy.

Are you listening Mr. President?

Divesting in Neighborhoods IS Racist

The first comment Rahm Emmanuel had about school closings was that he wasn’t going to get pulled into name-calling and “schoolyard taunts.” The intent of that was to further polarize the city by throwing it back to Chicago Teacher’s Union president Karen Lewis. Further, it allowed Barbara Byrd Bennett to get all indignant as a “woman of color.” But as Curtis Black points out, institutionalized racism is a whole other ballgame. We all know that BBB is taking the hit for Rahm, and her attempts to downplay the impact on the community by staging her a counterwalk to the “Walk the Walk” campaign shows she is far removed.

Perhaps he didn’t count on the organization of parents citywide who are arming themselves with facts. The recent protest walk conducted by Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy in Garfield Park highlighted questionable CPS planning. Pegged for closing, Ericson is at 3600 W. 5th. The receiving school, Charles Sumner Math and Science Academy, is at 4320 W. 5th Avenue, just sic blocks away, right? Wrong! Fifth Ave. is intersected by both Garfield Park and the Eisenhower Expressway. The sidewalks crossing these busy intersections have no parkways, and cars entering and leaving the expressway are mere inches from the sidewalk. The thought of primary school children prancing along or dawdling and daydreaming or running along the curb would give any parent nightmares.

Parents and students walk past one of the many abandoned buildings on the proposed CPS route to the "welcoming" school.

Parents and students walk past one of the many abandoned buildings on the proposed CPS route to the “welcoming” school.

Further, the remaining blocks are lined with abandoned buildings, and according to parents, as many as four gangs intersect in this area. On the map it may look short as the bird flies, but it’s well over a mile. I’m a hardy walker – I can easily do a mile in 15 minutes. I walked briskly for 20 minutes and found myself two blocks shy of Sumner when I realized I had to turn around to get back to my car or I’d miss a meeting.

CPS bounces back from their position: first it’s about lack of funds, then underutilization and poorly performing schools. So why close Ericson? Ericson’s reading scores have been on the rise since 2007 – from 41 percent reading at or above state levels to 77 percent. In Math they’ve gone from 58 percent to 79 percent. Ericson is at 65 percent capacity (according to CPS, whose utilization calculations would have autistic kids in a closet and no art rooms, libraries, or computer labs), and while the receiving school appears to have a low enrollment (28 percent utilization) and higher test scores (94 percent in reading and 83 percent in Math) the mobility rate is twice that of CPS average at nearly 34 percent. This means that test scores are unreliable since they don’t necessarily reflect the same students. Ericson’s mobility rate is 16.5 percent and below the CPS average. This reflects a stable school.

The decisions made by CPS do not make sense when looking at these schools on the ground. We have food deserts in these neighborhoods, and now we are creating education deserts. Strong schools make for strong neighborhoods, and if we continue to remove them people will eventually stop sending their kids to overcrowded schools and start clamoring for “choice,” thus allowing Rahm to open more charter schools. Or they pick up and move to Aurora or Kenosha, but Rahm doesn’t care about that because it’s clear from the 250 people marching in Garfield Park amid a cacophony of horn-blowing support – firefighters, CTA bus drivers, lone drivers in cars – his approval rating of 19 percent will only go down. I go back to my point … is this racist or whose interests does he have at heart?

Rahm and Bennett have posited that they will not “short change” CPS students by leaving them with the status quo. However, no one has pointed out that investing in education – a logical principal in a democratic society – is an option as well. Let’s make sure that his education policies become synonymous with the blizzard of ’79 that bounced Bilandic out of office.

Wal-Mart Funds Charters While Running CPS School Closure Hearings.

Note: This post was from February25, 2013

How hypocritical is it that CPS says that school closings have nothing to do with charter schools – yet the Walton Family Foundation (who have made CPS the largest recipient of funds for charter schools in their massive funding around the country, according to the Daily Kos) are running the community outreach hearings on school closings?

I attended last Monday’s hearing for the Burnham district (my district) and it was somewhat surreal. The church at 60th and Michigan was packed, including the balcony, and it was  standing room only. Three CPS officials sat at a table while two representatives from the 44 schools in the district were called to the microphone alphabetically where their pleas were met with raucous cheers from the audience.

School ClosingsSuddenly, about halfway through the school list, the moderator announced that if your school had spoken they should retire to the basement for “break-out” sessions. Now, not only was this diluting the support for schools most at risk, but these “break-out sessions” were nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation informing the community that the process for “right-sizing” these schools (I hate it when people create new verbs) was going to be done in a way that addressed everyone’s concerns. CPS would protect children from gang crossfire as well as preserve every special program in the school. (And if you believe that ….)

Beyond the chaos of people speaking over each other to one of the two “session leaders” – who by the way don’t work for CPS and were allegedly taking notes and trying to hear above the din, was the acceptance that schools are closing. It quickly then became every school for himself/herself. “Here’s why you shouldn’t close MY school” became the theme.

My favorite part of the night when was when Joy Clendenning, a member of Hyde Park Community Area Residents Empowering Schools (HPCARES) and parent of four children who attend three different CPS schools,  stood up and outshouted everyone to urge parents not to fall prey to the Board’s divide and conquer strategy.

It’s also likely that CPS is strategizing by starting with a big list and hoping people will be relieved when they cut it in half.

DOE Faces Pressure Nationwide on School Closings

On Monday, the U.S.. Department of Education confirmed it will investigate complaints that school closings are discriminating against black and hispanic students and students with disabilities, the New York Times reports. While the Philadelphia city council just voted to enact a moratorium on school closings, community activists from 18 cities will meet with Education Secretary Arne Duncan this week to protest widespread school closings. This comes at a time when the Chicago Board of Education will hold hearings around the city on its school utilization plans. Mike Klonsky reports on a particularly rowdy meeting at Truman College in Uptown and Substance News details the failure of the Duncan’s “Chicago Plan” to replace public schools with selective Charter schools.

For more about Chicago’s plan to shutter over 100 neighborhood schools read Ben Joravsky’s Reader article here.

I’ve posted this video before but it’s a moving clip from the student’s perspective: