Last month I wrote about the school board meeting in North Chicago. This month was the fourth and final meeting on the topic.
The local community was there in force. In the end the local board, many of whom were appointed by the state, voted unanimously to deny the 2nd charter school.
The quandary was and still is that the charter will just go to the state on appeal and the State Charter School Commission will approve the charter, over the objections of the local community.
It is true that for years the district was stuck in the doldrums. Any teacher will tell you it is easier to disrupt than to create unity. It only takes a few bad apples to break things, but takes almost the whole community to build it up. But it was more than that. The history of the district has been in freefall for many years. Read more details on that below.
What we need right now is help. Local, state, and maybe even national help. The state charter commission has a history of ignoring local decisions and allowing charter schools to force themselves into school districts.
During the board meeting many parents, children, and staff members spoke of how the charter schools will financially devastate the district. It is true, a charter is a public school using public tax dollars for the bulk of their financing.
When a charter opens it’s doors to 200 more students, these students don’t just magically appear, they come from the local schools. The tax dollars that are paid to the local schools are then sent to the charter. This sounds fine, let the money follow the students. The problem is buildings cost money, having too many schools in one place makes it difficult to run any one of the buildings.
On the other side the charter supporters often spoke of choice. If another school is opened in the community the hundreds of students on the waiting list will automatically be able to join a better school.
I contend that charter schools don’t actually give students a better choice. Having a different school does not automatically give us a better choice. Schools are more than just the building we inhabit, they are also the curriculum we deliver. Curriculum is more than just the subject, but also the style and pace of the delivery. (Dr. Martindale’s and Mr. Pollack’s presentation to the board explained succinctly how the district and charter are completely equal in terms of academics, how the district is much better in terms of satisfaction for teachers, parents, and students, and how the financial strain the the district will cause hardship)
If a community cannot support 8 big schools it may sound like a good idea to reduce the size of each building to create more choice. The reality is that small schools tend to reduce choice because each school has to offer the same basic curriculum, but the extracurricular choices are limited. There isn’t a diverse enough population to support the less popular activities like chess clubs or makerspaces.
Another premise is that a new school with new staff will be able to create a culture of learning excellence. Oh, if only that were true. Public schools and communities are inexorably connected in the United States of America. To truly tear down the school and start over would require tearing down the entire community and starting over. Schools are a reflection of the community, it is the bedrock that makes a school. We can create a private school divorced of the greater local community, but that isn’t a public school, by definition it is limited to a subset of the community.
The model of a new charter school or a turnaround school is to start over from the beginning and do it right this time. The implication being that it was done wrong the first time. Of course it wasn’t, it deteriorated over time, as I explain further down, but it isn’t wrong. To make a great school requires a great community around it and vice versa. The nice thing about that it striving for excellence in one helps push the other towards excellence.
It isn’t choice that makes for better schools. It’s responsiveness to the needs of the community. The biggest problem with the school district is that the community has lost faith. This isn’t to say that we can restore faith with a magic wand, or even if we could that things would turn around tomorrow. It means that until we do we will never actually turn around the district for the long term.
Too many people in North Chicago, and our neediest communities, gave up on education years ago. It has stopped being a gateway to the middle class, instead it has become a pipeline for prison. Dividing a community won’t fix that. We must come together and create our own pathway to the future.
North Chicago History
I’m not a historian, but a quick look at the history of the city tells a pretty grim story. Is it any wonder the school system was a mess.
Fifteen years ago (2000) when I first started teaching the district had already earned a poor reputation. The advice to me, as a new teacher, was to get a year or two of experience and then move to a good district. As Senator Link said when he addressed the board. North Chicago used to be one of the best districts in the county.
Maybe twenty or thirty years ago, when the Navy base was strong and pumped tons of money into the district, before the gangs and drugs (Probably around the 70’s or early 80’s after Chicago started its war on gangs. This is also the same time that many of the manufacturing jobs in the city started disappearing.) had taken a strong foothold, the district was the jewel of the north suburbs.
The ugly side of North Chicago School District 187 history.
I’m sure the reasons for the decline of North Chicago are many and varied, it did happen. And while a city declines so does it school system. We have had a good twenty to forty years of decline. As it is with many things government it takes a while for change, even negative change. If the city started it’s decline in the 70’s then the school may not have really started to decline for 5 or 10 years. By the late 1980’s though we can see solid evidence of the school district in decline.
Patricia Pickles was superintendent when I started in 2000.
The board hired Pickles as superintendent in 1997 with high hopes of changing what had become a go-it-alone culture in which principals, lacking consistent leadership from above, ran their schools as nominally independent entities. Before Pickles, the district went through nine superintendents in as many years. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-06-03/news/0106030293_1_district-s-school-education-meetings-round-lake
We can see as early as 1988 the city knew the district was on the wrong path.
Pickles left in the middle of the year in 2002. The school board hired an interim superintendent to finish the year. If I remember correctly the next guy lasted maybe a year or two. Not just that, though, Pickles had spent millions on upgrades to schools and the new superintendent changed direction, basically wasting most of that money. This is what happens when you have a revolving door at the top. I left soon after that. Having three building principals and 4 superintendents in 5 years was enough for me.
That was 2005, and it seems that Pickles 5 year stint as superintendent, as short as it was, may have been an island of stability in the district.
Mr Thompson, hired in March 2011, was the 14th superintendent to take the reins of the troubled school district since 1991. http://schoolsnapshots.org/blog/2012/09/06/another-superintendent-out-at-north-chicago/
Is it any surprise that the lack of leadership eventually led to corruption? Like these incidents in 2009 and 2014, and those are the two that are easy to find with a ten second google search.
Our current superintendent Ben Martindale took over when the state dissolved the locally elected school board in 2012. Normally, I’m not for state takeover of schools, and this one did have it’s problems, but on the other hand Dr Martindale seems to have been a very steady influence on the district.
The question is are things getting better?
I think North Chicago is on the rise again. Like a decline the process is slow and there are many factors that contribute to the rise. The enforced stabilization at the top of the school district has helped. It has only been four years and that isn’t very long, but there is hope.
Around 2012 Abbot, a 100 year old company in North Chicago, split into two Abbot and Abbvie. I don’t know if that was a catalyst, but they have been strong supporters of North Chicago Community Partners and the school district ever since.
In 2008 North Chicago Community Partners, NCCP was started. A non-profit specifically centered on helping the North Chicago community. I was a bit skeptical at first, but they won me over. Many school districts have PTO’s and educational foundations, NCCP goes one step beyond. They make fundraising and support for the schools and community a full time professional endeavor. I can’t tell you how nice it is when as a teacher you find a grant or something that you would like to work towards, but you don’t know where to start. NCCP is there to help. They help us write grants, they are a 501c3 so we can use them to manage money, they have connections everywhere so if we want to partner with say a theater company they can help facilitate that. It isn’t a blank checkbook to do things, it’s better, it’s a partner that can help us and our students do things for ourselves.
North Chicago is lead by Dr. Martindale and Mr. Pollack. Martindale has a track record of successfully helping districts rebound while under state take over. Mr. Pollack is an interesting leader, his resume is the standard charter school reform leader. He worked at the Academy for Urban School Leadership (a charter school) and graduated from New Leaders (A leadership program noted for its support by many of the same groups that support charter schools) program. Judging by his history and education Mr. Pollack is the man you would expect to be leading the drive for a charter school in North Chicago. Instead he has very firmly and logically opposed charter expansion.
But what about test scores
Nope. Those scores are some of the worst in the state. They will continue to be some of the worst in the state for many years. It takes time to make changes.
I know what you want to say, “Tear it all down and start over”. Sounds great on paper, and in some respects that has already been done. Removing a locally elected school board is a pretty drastic step that has been taken. Opening a charter school as an alternative is also a drastic step that has been taken. Firing a principal and half a school staff is also a drastic step that has been taken. If we closed every school, razed the buildings and started over from the beginning with new staff and everything it still wouldn’t fix the schools in North Chicago.
The fix for North Chicago schools, just like every other school district in the country that is failing, is to rebuild the trust and faith in education. When the community believes education is important they will give the schools the support they need to grow. Money, yes, volunteer time, yes, well adjusted students, yes, time, yes and so much more.
Not every student or parent in our school has faith in the district, but that is true for every school district. I have been a part of many school districts in many states and I have never found one that hold unanimous support from the community. What we do have is the beginnings of a culture change. The question is, will this new fire be snuffed out or fanned?