Gage welcomes Sylvan; Gale glimpses crowding relief

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This month, Gage Park High School on the Southwest Side joins Gale Community Academy on the Far North Side in our series on the the school system’s new leadership and policies, viewed from the bottom up.

Gage Park High sits a couple blocks west of what used to be the Southwest Side’s “color line.” As late as the 1980 census, almost no black families lived west of Western Avenue in the Gage Park and Chicago Lawn communities. The school itself had been desegregated by court order in the 1970s; some veteran Gage Park teachers remember the riots that followed.

About two decades later, after substantial white flight and the arrival of a burgeoning Latino population, Gage Park sits in the middle of one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, which mixes European American, African American, Latino and Arab cultures. Now, the racial quotas imposed on Gage Park High (48% African American, 40% Latino) frustrate nearby Latinos, some of whom can’t get their children in the school.

Students say the school is generally safer than the streets outside. And lots of things are shiny and new, including murals in the halls and the lunchrooms and dozens of computers in the school library.

Principal Audrey Donaldson arrived in 1993 after the departure of a controversial predecessor. “We had a stack of applications this high,” recalls LSC Chair Donna Koestner. “And we had some very good candidates. But Mrs. Donaldson came through with flying colors. And the school has done a complete turnaround.”

SEPT. 20 Gage Park suddenly finds itself with an extra $60,000 in federal Title 1 money. What’s happening is a massive redistribution of Chicago’s $164 million in federal Title I funds, required by a change in federal law. The board’s Department of Funded Programs had been seeking a federal waiver to allow a two-year phase in. But suddenly, weeks into the school year, it changed its mind and moved all the money at once. High schools are big winners, but many elementary schools lose out; Lowell, for example, sees more than $400,000 disappear overnight. (See Catalyst, November 1995. )

At Gage, the funds will shrink a $85,000 hole left in its budget when the School Reform Board of Trustees decided to use the system’s 1995-96 increase in state Chapter 1 funds to balance the general operating budget.

SEPT. 25 The School Board introduces proposed guidelines on state Chapter 1 spending that would prohibit the use of those funds for overnight retreats. But LSC Chair Donna Koestner says the $7,000 the school spent last February on an overnight retreat “was some of the best money we’ve ever spent.”

About 90 staffers, parents and local school council members spent Friday night and all day Saturday at a nearby Holiday Inn. They worked on Gage Park’s school improvement plan, reviewing the past year and planning for the next. “We even came up with a school song and a slogan,” Koestner recalls.

After the Friday night meetings ended around 9 p.m., Principal Audrey Donaldson stayed up with the retreat facilitator, typing minutes into a word processor so the staff could use them the next morning. Later yet, the two drove to a Kinko’s to make copies.

The retreat gave Koestner and the administration the perfect opportunity to introduce an idea that they weren’t so sure the faculty would embrace: hiring a for-profit company called Sylvan Learning Systems to provide remedial reading lessons.

Sylvan’s marketing representatives had approached the school months before, and the company had flown Koestner to Washington, D.C.—one of only two urban school systems that host Sylvan centers. The proposal was on the retreat’s agenda, but even before they got to it, English teachers “were standing up and complaining that students come to our school with such low reading levels,” says Donaldson. “And that they are not trained to be reading teachers.”

Introducing the Sylvan proposal, Donaldson warned teachers that it might mean taking over the teachers lounge. In a vote later that month, the teachers overwhelmingly gave their approval. As it turned out, teachers had to give up only half their lounge, and Sylvan paid for a new carpet and microwave oven.

The proposed restrictions on spending for retreats followed a Sun-Times article alleging that some schools had used public dollars to pay for steak dinners, cocktails and rooms that teachers’ families shared. Not us, says Donaldson. “No one ate steak. Our dollars did not go for cocktails or anything. Our teachers did double up.”

OCT. 2 The Sylvan Center welcomes its first students of the school year. Its five teachers introduce themselves and the Sylvan system, which gives students Sylvan tokens for showing up on time, doing their work and having a good attitude. Sylvan tokens can be spent in the room’s Sylvan Store, which stocks basketballs, T-shirts and plastic gumball machines, among other items.

At the end of an orientation session, center director Joyce Spight quizzes the class with “Jeopardy-style” questions on Sylvan. Sample question: “Effort, attitude and performance. This is where these things come into play.” Answer: “What is the Sylvan Center?” “Wrong” answers offered by students include “school” and “everywhere.”

Queried later, Donaldson says, “Those are not wrong answers. I’m very proud of my students” for offering them. Still, she says she appreciates Spight’s intent—to make clear that those positive qualities are valued in the Sylvan Center.

Buddy Johnson, Sylvan’s vice president in charge of urban school programs, is in town today for talks with Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, who may hire Sylvan to train Chicago public school students to become tutors.

OCT. 3 Today, the 20th day of the school year, is a crucial deadline for the school system’s budget. Under the School Reform Act, central office may not cut teaching positions—for the rest of the semester at high schools and the rest of the year at elementary schools—after the 20th day of school. Thus, the administration makes sure that no school has more teachers than its enrollment warrants. Similarly, it adds positions at schools whose enrollment is higher than had been projected.

For Gage Park, the tinkering brings an extra 3.5 positions, and Donaldson has names at her fingertips. Because the school is overcrowded, however, the newcomers won’t get their own classes but, rather, will be teamed up with other teachers. Designed for 1,250 students, the school enrolls over 1,400.

Citywide, 231 teaching positions were closed, and about 300 were opened, according to Substance newspaper, which has long campaigned against the disruptive restaffing practice.

OCT. 10 The whole neighborhood loses electrical power at 11:30 this morning, and students go home early. The next day, the lights are back on, but the clocks are all stopped at 11:30. Office staff have to ring the school’s bells every hour to signal the beginning and end of classes.

Donaldson calls the board’s new customer service number immediately, but it’s a month before a private contractor shows up to fix the clocks. Later, Chief Executive Paul Vallas says that the system’s response rate for school repairs was so good at the start of the year that it generated too many requests for the system to handle.

In the meantime, some Gage Park students who are caught in “hall sweeps” and sent to the discipline office complain that the makeshift bell system didn’t give them a full four minutes to get to class.

“They get their four minutes,” Donaldson insists. While the system may not be perfect, she says, it’s fair.

OCT. 16 The School Board distributes Requests for Proposals for creation of six alternative schools for students with major discipline code violations. Proposals are due in a month, and the schools are to open early in 1996.

Although the idea has been largely out of sight since CEO Vallas introduced it in July, it has not been out of mind. “It actually has some of my kids scared,” says Sabrena Thurmond, who teaches freshman English. “They say, ‘Ooh, ooh, I’ll be good, I’ll be good. Don’t send me there! Man, that’s a juvenile home. That’s not a school.’ “

Thurmond thinks that some of her students’ fears—but not all—may be well-grounded. “Yes, it’s going to be like a juvenile home, but it’s going to be another educational environment,” she says. And then a question occurs to her: “Ooh, I wonder who’s going to teach there?”

NOV. 1 The state’s school report cards, which report a wide range of student and school data, are made public today. Historically, the occasion has been depressing for Gage Park, whose state test scores are so low that the school, like two-thirds of all Chicago high schools, is on the state’s education “watch list.” (This year only about a quarter of Gage Park’s 10th-graders met state goals in math and reading.)

Two years ago, LSC Chair Donna Koestner set herself a goal. “I said, ‘Give us five years, and we’ll be off that list.’ This is year three. And the thing is, the kids come here, and they can’t read.”

Donaldson says that the school’s low test scores don’t surprise her, considering how low kids score when they get to high school.

But she isn’t discouraged. Before coming to Gage Park, Donaldson was principal of Darwin Elementary, where she presided over impressive gains. “When I came to Darwin, that school had been in the bottom 100 for 13 years.” After two years with Donaldson in charge, Darwin moved out of the bottom 150, she says. She expects Gage Park to improve too, only more slowly.

NOV. 9 Audrey Donaldson is very impressed with the Sylvan Center. While the results won’t be in for quite some time, she sees important signs. For instance, students are coming to school more than an hour early to get some extra time at the center. During one visit, the center’s director asked the principal to help her get a girl to leave. “She said, ‘Please, Mrs. Donaldson, I don’t want to go to lunch. I’d rather stay here and get my tokens,'” the principal recalls.

NOV. 15 The School Board ratifies a $796,180 contract with Sylvan to create the tutor training system that Buddy Johnson was negotiating last month. This year, Sylvan will train 70 Chicago teachers, who each will train 20 students to work on reading and math with freshmen at their schools. After three years, Sylvan will turn the whole program over to the school system to run.

Meanwhile, back at Gale

Gale Community Academy spent much of the fall waiting for the School Board to provide the overcrowding relief it promised last summer, after parent protests turned up the heat. Expecting quicker action, some parents began to get impatient again. But this time, they targeted Operations Chief Ben Reyes, not Gale Principal Edis Snyder.

On the political front, parent leader Florentina Leon and local school council Chair Wayne Frazier spent much of the fall sparring, as they positioned themselves for next spring’s LSC elections.

Meanwhile, money and other resources came and went: In late September, the school lost federal Title 1 money; in mid-October, it got some new after-school money; and for a few weeks it enjoyed the services of a refugee from Prosser Vocational, the first city school to be declared in “educational crisis.”

SEPT. 19 Since Gale went on a year-round schedule in 1991, September has seen the beginning of the school’s “intersession” program, which provides part-time classes and activities for kids who are on vacation in any given month. But not this year. Intersession activities were scrapped when the School Board took a $26 million increase in state Chapter 1 funds to help balance the system’s operating budget.

Now though, Assistant Principal David Ichishita says that he might be able to tap federal Title 1 funds to pay for intersession. “I’ve put everything on hold,” he says. “But I’ve been reading all these memos coming out, and basically there hasn’t been any change at the federal level.”

SEPT. 20 Central office orders Gale to immediately strip $80,000 from its federal Title I budget, dashing Ichishita’s plans for a return of intersession. (See SEPT. 20 at Gage Park.)

SEPT. 27 Overcrowding relief is in the air as the School Board ratifies a contract to rent space from nearby Good News Church. The board will spend $23,000 for 11 months rent and another $70,000 to rehab the site to meet city building codes for schools.

OCT. 3 Michelle Raffel’s 3rd-grade class in room 202 receives an influx of new classmates—displaced persons from room 207 down the hall.

This is the 20th day of the regular school year, when the board adjusts the number of teachers at each school to match the school’s enrollment. With enrollment down slightly from earlier projections, Gale loses a teaching position, and since the class in room 207 is the school’s smallest, that teacher’s position is closed.

As a year-round school, Gale starts its school year in July. Thus, the official 20th day hits rooms 202 and 207 three months into their classes.

OCT. 10 At today’s local school council meeting, Principal Edis Snyder announces more good news about overcrowding: In addition to the Good News space, Gale may get as many as 12 temporary classrooms to help tide it over until an annex is built. But she warns, “The earliest I see us being able to use any of this new space—and this is if things go well—is Thanksgiving, and very possibly the first of the year.”

The promise of an annex, the Good News site and the possibility of temporary classrooms were the School Board’s response to parent protests last summer over dual shifts at Gale, which the local school council had approved under duress. (See “The Gale Chronicles,” September 1995.) Once the promises had been made, the LSC returned the school to regular attendance hours. But tensions remain.

During the LSC meeting, protest leader Florentina Leon, who is organizing a group called United Parents for Better Education at Gale (UPBEG), and an ally present the council with a few nagging questions. For instance:

Why hasn’t Room 308, an 8th-grade class, had a permanent teacher since Gale’s school year began in July? (Snyder explains that she held the job open so that if she had to close a position, she wouldn’t have to cut anyone from the staff.)

Isn’t it difficult for children and teachers to hold kindergarten classes in the school’s old auditorium—where sound bounces off the walls and gives everybody headaches? (Yes, Snyder admits, but tiles soon will be installed to muffle the sound, and when the new classrooms open up, the kindergartners will move out of the auditorium.)

For his part, LSC Chair Wayne Frazier raises questions about UPBEG. “I don’t think, legally, that they can use Gale’s name,” he says. “As I understand it, there’s only one group that can officially use the school’s name, and that’s the PTA.” Frazier suggests that parents who want to work with the school do so through existing groups; pointedly, he cites the bilingual committee as an example.

Leon chairs the bilingual committee but has not made a report for at least three months. At this meeting, she leaves before Frazier gets to that agenda item. Leon is just trying not to be co-opted by the council, explains Horacio Peralta-Marinkovic, a local pastor who works with UPBEG.

Frazier also is worried about politics at the district level—for instance, how seats on a new LSC advisory committee to the board will be filled. Appointed to serve on an interim advisory committee, Frazier tells the council, “The question is whether the committee should be elected or appointed. This is something we fight about on our interim committee. If you have an election, that’s the democratic way, but that may exclude communities that aren’t well-organized.”

“I’m personally scared that if it goes to an election, we won’t get proper representation on this body,” he adds.

Frazier’s reasoning goes like this: (1) If there are elections, they likely would be within each of the district’s six regions. (2) The political power in Gale’s region, which stretches across the top of the city from the lake to the city limits, resides on the largely white Northwest Side. (3) Gale and other largely minority schools closer to the lakefront will lose out.

Frazier also advises council members to attend public hearings on the Board of Trustees’ hastily approved “educational crisis” policy. “My concern is that they could just come in and get rid of the LSCs, even the ones that [are] working,” he says.

Last week, CEO Vallas invoked the policy and removed the principal, two other administrators and the LSC at Prosser Vocational High School. Though Frazier may not be aware of it, Gale is feeling reverberations.

Charlotte Klugh, one of the administrators plucked from Prosser, was sent to Gale this week. Having been cleared of all but one of the charges against her—that she is not certified to teach in a high school—she was declared a “reserve teacher” and encouraged to look for work in elementary schools, according to senior board attorney Jerome Marconi.

Klugh will spend a few weeks at Gale, helping first in the counselor’s office, then in some classrooms. She is said to be very capable. (By mid-November, she is gone. Principal Edis Snyder and the personnel office decline to discuss Klugh, citing respect for her privacy.)

OCT. 12 UPBEG, the parent group, meets at Good News Church. Members are riled that central office hasn’t come through yet on its promises to relieve overcrowding, and they consider picketing School Board headquarters next week.

Meanwhile, the group decides to call the city’s Fire Prevention Bureau, which last June instructed Gale to hold fewer classes in the auditorium.

OCT. 17 The Fire Prevention Bureau inspects the auditorium but records no violations even though the situation is back to where it was in June.

Meanwhile, after talking with Operations Chief Ben Reyes’ office, the parent group has decided to postpone its march for at least a week.

OCT. 18 Gym teacher Jim Duszak gets a memo from central office, announcing the beginning of an after-school sports program. The memo, dated October 18, says the program will start October 10.

“This program is being done with the money from my old job,” complains Duszak, who was playground coordinator at Waters Elementary until the board cut the coordinator jobs to help balance its budget. “So it really pissed me off when the flag football season started without me even being notified.”

Meanwhile, the Park District has resumed its after-school program at Gale, which runs October through May. In August, board officials promised to help expand the program to seven days a week, year-round. (The board pays for maintenance staff.) So far, there’s no word from central office.

OCT. 27 Wayne Frazier drives to Foreman High School for a Region 1 hearing on proposed state Chapter 1 spending guidelines. “I was the only black person there,” he says, and he’s not surprised. Foreman sits at the southwestern corner of the region—far removed from the largely minority communities of Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown. Few of the black and Hispanic parents who live closer to the lake have cars, Frazier says, and most would feel uneasy taking a bus to an evening meeting in such a remote neighborhood.

Frazier’s experience reinforces his concern that low-income parents of color will find themselves shut out of circles of influence in the region.

OCT. 30 When Gale’s middle-school students return from vacation, Principal Snyder calls three classrooms of 7th- and 8th-graders to a meeting. They are being reshuffled, she tells them, according to how well they are doing in school. The highest achievers will be concentrated in Yvette Arnold’s room; the average kids will have Steve Santos for a teacher; and a dozen or so of the worst troublemakers and slackers will be put in the now storied Room 308—which finally has a permanent teacher: Ian Fingerman, who had lost his job as Gale’s teacher-facilitator when the board stripped that position from all schools.

OCT. 31 At Good News Church tonight, UPBEG receives a visitor: Operations Chief Ben Reyes, who trekked to Rogers Park last August to promise an annex for Gale. Reyes listens to parents complain about the board’s slowness in making good on its promises and that Gale’s principal and local school council won’t give them a voice in school affairs.

Reyes again makes promises: Mobile units are coming next month. The classrooms owned by Good News Church will be repaired and ready to open soon. Gale’s annex will not be forgotten. And Belkis Santos of the Office of School and Community Relations will soon arrive to mediate between UPBEG and the Gale LSC.

NOV. 8 Workmen arrive to break ground for the temporary classrooms.

And a few of the kids on vacation this month are getting inter-session programs after all. Assistant Principal Ichishita has found some federal Title I dollars to pay for the American Girls Club (based on a series of dolls) and Write Around the City (which takes students on field trips that become springboards for writing assignments).

NOV. 9 At a staff meeting, principal Snyder reassures her faculty that, contrary to newspaper reports, the board’s new Employee Discipline Code doesn’t give principals arbitrary powers. “This is what was talked about in the newspapers: Anyone can be suspended like that for one to five days,” she says. “I assure you, that’s not the case.” Fresh from a principals meeting where board officials explained the code’s details, Snyder says there is plenty of due process, with most disciplinary action still subject to review.

The policy does provide for one- to five-day suspensions without prior review, though. And Chicago Teachers Union President Tom Reece has warned the Board of Trustees that the new policy may provoke a storm of grievances, according to Substance newspaper.

NOV. 14 At today’s LSC meeting, architect Harry Patterson makes a presentation, showing off diagrams and computer-generated pictures of his proposal for Gale’s annex. The board had hired Patterson in August to work on the plans but dismissed him and most other architects on retainer weeks later. Now, Snyder says Patterson is “just sort of winging it,” working on spec and hoping to land a contract.

UPBEG leader Florentina Leon again spars with both Snyder and council chair Frazier.

For the first 20 minutes of the meeting, no Spanish interpretation has been provided, and Leon feels insulted. Leon, who is not fluent in English, turns to a neighbor and says, “Some people are being treated as if they weren’t human.” She then storms out of the room.

Snyder chases after her, finds an interpreter, and the two have a five-minute shouting match in the hallway. Snyder accuses Leon of making an issue out of nothing, insisting that Leon had only to request an interpreter. Eventually, Leon returns to the meeting, and a bilingual staffer translates for her.

For Leon, the matter is one of respect. “When an English-speaking person comes to one of our UPBEG meetings [where most people speak Spanish], I immediately find someone to interpret,” she says.

Then it’s Frazier’s turn to needle. The bilingual committee, which Leon chairs, is late in filing a necessary form, he says. Unless the committee files its papers soon, the school may lose funds for bilingual education. Leon counters that Frazier should have given her the form. Frazier insists she should have asked for it. Leon says that the committee will meet in two days and file the papers.

On to other business, the council hears a proposal from Debbie Olsen of the Southwest Parents Committee to spend a couple of days leading workshops on abstinence. “Is there any way to extend this to parents as well as students?” asks Frazier.

In the principal’s report, Snyder tells the council about the newly divided 7th- and 8th-grade classrooms, noting that one student from the now notorious Room 308 has straightened up and won himself a place in another room. As kindergarten enrollment has gone up, Snyder reports, the school has added a bilingual kindergarten room and hired a new teacher. And “a lot of energy has gone into facilities improvement,” she says. Temporary classrooms are coming any day now, but they won’t be ready for kids until the new year.

In fact, an hour after the meeting breaks up, Snyder issues a request over the intercom: Will anyone who has parked his car on the west side of Ashland, next to the school, please move it? Without much warning, two wide-load trucks have shown up with the first of Gale’s temporary classrooms, and they need extra room to pull up to the school.

NOV. 15 Wayne Frazier drives south to Dunbar High School for tonight’s Board of Trustees meeting. He wants to be present for the unveiling of the Interim LSC Advisory Committee’s recommendations. When the board says it won’t consider the recommendations for a month or two, Frazier raises his eyebrows and shrugs.

But the evening isn’t a total wash for the Gale LSC chair. He does get to talk with Operations Chief Reyes, who takes the opportunity to introduce Frazier to Belkis Santos from School and Community Relations, who takes Frazier’s phone number and promises to call to arrange a meeting with Frazier and UPBEG.

Frazier says that although he’s happy to work with them, Leon and UPBEG simply “don’t have the numbers” to unseat him as council chair. He casts the politics in racial terms, assuming that UPBEG can influence the votes of Latino parents and that he can influence the votes of African-American parents. “There’s 137 families in the bilingual program,” says Frazier. “And there’s about 500 African-American families. They don’t have the numbers, so they have to work with me.”