Two schools, two councils, one dynamic personality

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Tireless. Knowledgeable. Passionate. Two months ago, Catalyst Associate Editor Debra Williams set out to find a local school council member with these qualities who would let us into his or her busy life. Carol Johnson fit the bill.

Johnson, 46, is married and has five children—three sons, ages 24, 11 and 8, and two daughters, 17 and 21. The energetic Austin resident chairs two local school councils, Spencer Elementary and Westinghouse High School—she has been on the council at Westinghouse for two years, Spencer for four. Johnson also works full time as an organizer for Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), a group that trains leaders in low-income neighborhoods.

“There are gems all over the city working their butts off,” says Nancy Jones, who works with council members for the Chicago Successful Schools Project. “Carol is one of them.”

Catalyst spent a month with Carol Johnson, tracking her LSC-related activities. Along the way, Johnson kept a log. The final tally: Between Jan. 8 and Feb. 13, Johnson spent 21 hours attending six meetings, organized and hosted a Saturday morning community breakfast, gave a speech at two-hour LSC recognition reception and made 48 LSC-related telephone calls.

Tuesday, Jan. 8

Westinghouse High School

5:00 p.m. At a time when many people are heading home from work or rushing to pick up children from day care, Carol Johnson is off to West Garfield Park for an LSC meeting at Westinghouse High School, which she co-chairs.

Johnson is eligible to serve as chair only until June, when her daughter Crystal will be graduating. Still, Johnson is committed to getting Westinghouse off of probation, which it got back on last November, and holding the School Board to its promise to build a new school.

Originally a candy factory built in 1922, the school building is outdated and infested with rodents; a ceiling is leaking; and plaster is falling off the walls. Johnson says the constant patch-up jobs are too costly to keep up. This year, Westinghouse received $5 million for construction planning and land acquisition; the new facility is to be built near the existing site.

Westinghouse’s principal, Lona Bibbs, reports she has talked to CPS Operations Chief Tim Martin, who promises he’ll come out and talk to the council about the new building at the March LSC meeting.

For this meeting, Johnson has invited The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group (NCBG) to talk about how it can become involved in the construction process. NCBG’s rep Andrea Lee tells the group that her organization will help them get the community involved in planning a new building that suits their needs. NCBG will also stick around as an advisor until the building is completed, Lee says.

When Lee finishes her presentation, Johnson gets down to business. “How much does your help cost? What’s your fee?”

Lee says there’s no fee for the group’s help, but some council members are skeptical. Johnson tries to allay their fears. “This is my opinion. It’s worth looking at [working with NCBG]. This building will have to last for many years. If we don’t like what’s built, we can’t go back to the table.”

Later, someone on the council wonders aloud whether the board will renege on the new building. Johnson counters that they can protect themselves. “May I make a suggestion? When there is a capital development meeting, we—the LSC and the community—should be there. Those who speak the loudest get heard.”

The meeting adjourns at 7:15, but Johnson sticks around until 8 to hear the latest school news from Bibbs and the assistant principal.

Back at home by 8:20, Johnson’s long day is not over yet. She makes sure her brood has eaten dinner and finished their homework. (Three of her five children still live at home.) She catches up on everyone’s day, and makes it into bed herself by 11.

Wednesday, Jan. 9

Spencer Elementary

9:30 a.m. Johnson is up around 6:45 to see her husband, Harold, off to work, iron her sons’ school uniforms and make sure her kids eat breakfast, which they fix themselves. Then, she heads to Spencer, two blocks away, for a 9:30 LSC meeting. One of the items on the agenda to be discussed: the school’s CANAL grant.

For the last two years, Spencer has applied for and received a $50,000 grant from Project CANAL, a federally-funded school board program that supports extended-day programs. Last year, the school used the grant for an after-school tutoring program for 120 primary students and for family programs like reading night, puppet making, dance classes and weekend drum and piano lessons.

“Johnson and the other parents wrote the proposal for this grant,” says Spencer Principal Sharon Bryant, proudly. “We were one of only five or seven schools to get it.”

This year, Johnson would like to see the school expand its existing programs to include GED and computer classes for parents and a family movie night.

Johnson also envisions the school staying open until 6 or 7 p.m. next year to serve as an academic and recreational safe haven for students and their families.

Over the next month, Spencer will have four meetings on Project CANAL, and Johnson will attend three of them.

Spencer’s LSC also is organizing a breakfast for community social service organizations in Austin with the hope that some will agree to offer free services on-site. “We asked our teachers what they saw as barriers to teaching,” says Bryant. “What we found was that kids needed social services like counseling and mentoring.” When the discussion was over, the council agreed to invite 20 community organizations, then follow-up with phone calls. Johnson agreed to make the calls.

When the council adjourns at 11:45, Johnson meets with Spencer’s LSC election coordinator to confirm dates for a public forum, where parents and community residents can meet and listen to LSC candidates. They wrap up minutes later, and she heads out for work.

Monday, Jan. 14

Central office, Clark Street

2:15 p.m. Johnson is at Clark Street on work-related business but runs into Tim Martin. Cornering him, she reminds him about Westinghouse’s March LSC meeting. “I told him, ‘Don’t come empty-handed—bring your architects, plans, layouts and design ideas,'” she recalls. Martin says OK.

Johnson’s style is direct. She asks for what she wants and find answers to what she doesn’t know, but in a way that does not ruffle feathers.

Thursday, Jan. 17

Spencer, home

3:00 p.m. On her way home, Johnson makes a pit stop at Spencer to turn in her candidate nomination form. Thirty minutes later, she’s back at home calling LSC members and parents who belong to SCPA (Spencer Concerned Parents of Austin), reminding them about this Friday’s CANAL meeting.

Wednesday, Jan. 23

At home

4:00 p.m. Johnson is on the telephone with Nancy Jones of the Chicago Successful Schools Project, a group that tracks council success stories and trains local leaders, like Johnson, to become LSC spokespeople. Successful Schools is sponsoring an LSC awards reception, and Jones has asked Johnson to make a two-minute speech on LSCs and the need for them to work together.

“Carol is a natural networking with other local school councils,” says Jones.

After the short conversation with Jones, Johns on heads into her “office,” the dining room, where she keeps a computer, a fax machine and everything else she needs to do LSC work. Johnson makes a round of calls confirming attendance for the Jan. 26 breakfast. She also faxes the breakfast’s agenda. She’s done by 6.

Friday, Jan. 25

Spencer

3:30 p.m. Johnson is at another CANAL planning meeting, this time to go over last-minute details for tomorrow’s breakfast. She and two other parents set up the library for the event, moving tables and chairs into place and assembling folders of Spencer literature for breakfast participants.

An hour later, she’s back at home. In between washing dishes and other household chores, Johnson spends the next couple hours making another round of calls to breakfast invitees. She’s done by 6:30. Later, she “tries to have a life” by phoning her mother and other relatives, then relaxing and watching television.

Saturday, Jan. 26

Spencer

8:15 a.m. Johnson is up and out the door, off to pick up another parent. She stops at a neighborhood store to pick up two bags of ice and arrives at Spencer at 8:25 with enough time to help set up. Guests are scheduled to arrive at 9.

Thirty minutes later, Johnson is meeting and greeting guests. Twenty organizations were invited; nine show up. A number of parents from the LSC and SCPA show up, as well as Spencer administrators. Bryant welcomes the group, asks guests to introduce themselves and then shares her vision for Spencer. Johnson speaks briefly about her vision as an LSC member, a parent and a representative of COFI, which offers leadership training to Spencer parents.

After the presentations, Bryant asks social service agencies to commit in writing to help the school. Seven organizations agree to do so. Hargrove Mental Health Facility, for one, agrees to provide mentors for male students.

Bryant declares the meeting a success. “Carol made a lot of phone calls and did a lot of legwork on this project,” Bryant says. “I’m pleased with the outcome.”

The breakfast ends at 11, but Johnson stays another hour to help clean up and put the library furniture back in order.

Monday, Jan. 28

At home

10:00 a.m. Johnson’s 11-year-old son, Harold III, is sick, so she stays home from work; however, she calls Nancy Jones to set up a meeting to talk about the LSC awards ceremony.

Tuesday, Jan. 29

Spencer

2:30 p.m. Johnson stops by Spencer for 10 minutes to check the LSC mailbox and to tell Bryant that she will not be able to attend this afternoon’s CANAL meeting. Her son is still at home sick.

Wednesday, Jan. 30

Wishbone restaurant

9:30 a.m. Today is Johnson’s birthday, but she’s not celebrating yet. She meets Nancy Jones for breakfast at a popular Near West Side restaurant to talk over the agenda for tomorrow night’s LSC award event.

Thursday, Jan. 31

Union League Club

5:00 p.m. Johnson arrives at the Union League Club, 65 W. Jackson, and mingles with other council members at the well-attended event. An MC takes the podium at 6:30 and the program begins. CEO Arne Duncan is the keynote speaker; Schools and Community Relations Officer James Deanes makes a pitch for council members to recruit candidates for the upcoming elections. Council members from six LSCs from across the city receive awards for outstanding work. Then Carol steps onstage to give final remarks.

Johnson delivers, although, she hadn’t prepared a formal speech beforehand. “Whenever I have to speak in front of people, I ask God to give me the words and then I get up there and say them,” says Johnson. “I have key points I know I have to make, but I never know what I’m going to say until I say it. I speak from my heart.”

Says Bryant, “She was really good. I think it was a nice touch that she closed out the meeting. She talked about how important LSCs are, how they need to work together and how they need to be recognized. She was the right person to do it.”

Monday, Feb. 4

At home

6:00 p.m. In her home office, Johnson is calling parents to remind them about tomorrow’s CANAL meeting. Then she calls Andrea Lee of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. Lee invites Johnson to join other LSC members at a Feb. 11 meeting with CEO Arne Duncan to discuss community involvement in new school-construction projects. Johnson has a work-related appointment the same day and cannot make the meeting, but she promises to get two Westinghouse LSC members to attend in her place.

Tuesday, Feb. 5

At home, then Spencer

9:00 a.m. Before she heads to work, Johnson calls the CPS Office of Accountability to find out who was assigned last fall to be Westinghouse’s probation manager. She’d like to meet the manager and invite him or her to the next LSC meeting. But no luck—she’s unable to reach the person who has the information.

Then, Johnson calls Westinghouse’s assistant principal to find out about the probation manager. She’s not there either.

That afternoon, at 3, Johnson is participating in another CANAL meeting. It lasts two and a half hours; then, she and her sons go home, where she checks homework and cooks dinner.

Wednesday, Feb. 6

Spencer

3:00 p.m. A month has passed, and Johnson is once again presiding over an LSC meeting at Spencer. First on the agenda: How to turn the school’s auditorium into a movie theater on Friday nights. The council is weighing options, which include purchasing a pull-down or a retractable viewing screen.

When the meeting ends, Johnson looks tired. She says she’s feeling sick; when she gets home, she heads straight for bed. She stays there all weekend. “I know I’m doing a lot,” says Johnson. “My body is telling me.”

Even so, she makes a call from her sickbed to confirm that Westinghouse LSC co-chair Robert Jones and community representative Jason Ervin will be at the Arne Duncan meeting next Monday at 2.

Monday, Feb. 11

At home

6:00 p.m. Back home from work, Johnson gets the boys settled, feeds them, checks their homework, then tries to reach Jones or Ervin to find out how the meeting with Arne Duncan went. Neither is home.

Wednesday, Feb. 13

Westinghouse

5:30 p.m. The Westinghouse LSC meeting begins a few minutes late; the new school facility is the topic of discussion. Bibbs and Johnson both share that they’ve talked to Tim Martin again about attending the March LSC meeting.

Johnson still doesn’t know what happened at the meeting with Duncan. Jones missed it, and Ervin, who did attend, is not at tonight’s LSC meeting.

Johnson moves on to the next agenda item: probation. The Office of Accountability conducted a site visit in November and made recommendations that the school must address.

“I am really concerned about this accountability thing,” says Johnson. “I’d like Accountability to address this council. There’s a lot I don’t understand. Also, when Dr. [Barbara] Sizemore was our probation manager, she was here at every meeting. This new person is not. I don’t even know who it is. I’d like whoever it is to attend an LSC meeting.”

She adds, “And if they don’t show up, we should call their boss.”

Johnson says that while the school was placed on probation in November, CPS did not assign a probation manager until January. “We’ve been waiting on them,” says Johnson. “And now that we have one, I don’t know who it is.”

The meeting adjourns at 7:20. Packing up to go home, Johnson concedes that she has not yet decided whether she’ll run again for a spot on the Westinghouse council. Being an LSC member at a high school is harder than at an elementary school, she says. “I just need to spend more time at home with my kids,” she sighs.

But a couple weeks later, when Johnson decides to run again for a seat, she discovers she can’t. Once her daughter graduates in June, she’s no longer eligible to sit as a parent. She’s also not eligible to run as a community rep—Johnson lives in Austin, Westinghouse is located in West Garfield Park.

Still, never one to quit, Johnson’s got another plan. “I’ll just find someone who can sit on that council and help Westinghouse get what it needs.”