‘Forget the athletic fields, we need another building’

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A crucial event in Gage Park’s calendar, the annual lottery for next year’s freshman class, weaves in and out of daily life at the Southwest Side school in the past several months.

The lottery has two purposes: It keeps the school’s swelling enrollment in check, and it contributes to racial and ethnic balance.

The lottery’s twin goals demand a balance of sacrifices from both the school and local families. Each year, hundreds of students are sent miles away to less crowded schools like Tilden and Harlan. To both ease and share the pain, Gage accepts more students than its building is supposed to serve. Built for about 1,250, Gage enrolls almost 1,450 students this year. Teachers shoulder much of the burden by accepting classes that are packed a little fuller than their union contract allows.

These sacrifices do produce important benefits, notes Gage Park Principal Audrey Donaldson. “We feel there’s something beautiful about diversity,” she says. “And kids gain something important from the experience of living with people who are different from themselves.”

Integration is a hard-won, long-standing tradition at Gage, and the lottery is an important part of it. Both were originally ordered in 1978 by a federal court judge who had found that blacks had been barred from the largely white school.

After 20 years, the local demographics have changed, and the school’s quotas have changed with them. In 1978, the lottery was geared to produce a student body that was 44 percent black, 44 percent white and 11 percent Latino. Now, after years of white flight and an influx of Latinos, the enrollment quotas are set at 43 percent black, 43 percent Latino and 14 percent Caucasian and “other.”

NOV. 28 School Board issues employee discipline code Gage Park hosts a mid-day meeting today for counselors from nearby elementary schools, with two purposes. First, to advertise Gage Park as a destination for current 8th-graders. Second, to remind the counselors of how complicated it can be to get a child into Gage. To help attract the counselors to today’s meeting, Gage Park is serving them brunch. “We live in a culture where, when you invite someone to your home, you offer them something,” explains Arlene Crandall, the school’s bilingual coordinator and a member of a team of staffers in charge of student recruitment.

Last summer, schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas captured some of his first headlines with a ban on taxpayer-funded food for Pershing Road meetings, but Gage isn’t violating the spirit of that order. Most of the food is paid for by profits from the vending machines in the teachers’ lounge, and the rest—along with decorations, paper plates, etc.—comes out of the pockets of the principal, the LSC chair and a few teachers. Student volunteers serve the meal.

Later, at an after-school meeting, teachers receive copies of a new document that also sparked headlines—an employee discipline code listing approved measures to deal with everything from tardiness and smoking on school grounds to hitting a kid. The most controversial part gives principals the authority to suspend staff members for one to five days without prior review. Although Gage Park teachers don’t seem worried that Donaldson will take unfair advantage of the rules, some do object on principle. In a discussion the next week, one veteran teacher calls it “an insult—especially to those of us who consider ourselves professionals.”

Later, Donaldson says she thinks the code could be useful in some situations. “In the past, we’ve just counseled and counseled and counseled with some employees who would come in 5, 10, 15 minutes late. Now, we have some recourse.” Donaldson thinks that if the rule has “an impact on pocketbooks, it may have an impact on their behavior.”

She doubts there will be widespread abuse. And she’s hopeful that she won’t have to use the code. “Just the fact that [staffers] know this is available could be an incentive to change their behavior,” she speculates.

Teachers union delegate Ivory Hobbs, interviewed later, seems to agree with his boss. “If you’re doing your job, you don’t even know about these rules,” he points out, “because you’re not tardy, you know your subject, and you’re in your classroom, teaching children to become effective citizens.” He also applauds Donaldson for distributing the rules as soon as they came out. Six weeks later, at the time of the interview, some principals have still not done so, he says.

Union spokesperson Jackie Gallagher is philosophical about the guidelines: “It is not something we are happy with,” she admits, “but we realize that it could have been much worse.” The law that brought the system’s current leadership into existence gave school administrators sweeping powers. As it stands, she thinks, the code is reasonable indeed.

In mid-January, Donaldson reports that tardiness is down, and she hasn’t had to counsel, cajole or suspend a single person.

DEC. 5 Swim class, fully clothed, sits poolside for its hour Principal Donaldson accompanies her gym department head, Thomas Miller, to a meeting at central office. Schools with swimming pools are now strongly advised to hire a lifeguard in addition to swimming teachers, who also hold lifesaving certificates. The increased safety is a plus, Donaldson says, but the cost—which she will have to take out of the school’s discretionary funds—is not.

But for now, the news isn’t especially urgent, considering that Gage Park’s swimming pool has been out of commission since Nov. 10. The needed repair isn’t a big one, but the School Board’s “customer service” repair hotline has been so backed up that the school has no idea when help may arrive. Meanwhile, students who are scheduled for swim class just sit poolside in street clothes for an hour. The school is so overcrowded that there’s no other place for them to go. Some do homework, some play checkers.

DEC. 11 A good LSC meeting: More pluses than minuses Tonight’s LSC meeting is a genial, low-key affair, but three of the topics that come up link events both large and small at the school to the new management team. Another demonstrates how the school has changed under Donaldson’s leadership.

When the meeting begins, Principal Donaldson passes out applications for the LSC Advisory Board to the School Board, which was mandated by recent state legislation. “Mr. Vallas is saying that he wants to make sure he has a regular forum to hear from council members. I think it would be great if we had a member of our LSC serving on that board.” Council Chair Koestner, who seems to put in dozens of hours a week at Gage Park, hesitates before taking one, wary of taking on even more work, but a look from Donaldson charms her into it.

While the new administration has acted with lightning speed in a number of areas, the LSC advisory group has been slow in forming. Last month, the Board of Trustees accepted a set of recommendations from an interim group on how to form the permanent group; board President Gery Chico said that it would take a month or two to act. Tonight was to have been the application deadline, but someone realized that some councils would not have met since the applications were issued. So the deadline was extended to early January. But still no word on how members will be selected.

A month later, even after applications have been closed out, there is still no word. Board policy chief Len Dominguez says he hopes everything will be resolved in time to announce the council’s members at the end of February.

During her report, Donaldson gives Koestner a certificate from the School Board recognizing the LSC chair’s participation in a recent workshop. The workshop was part of the Pathways to Achievement program initiated last school year by then-Supt. Argie Johnson. Now the program is part of the new administration’s Children First campaign. Koestner and Donaldson, who attended together, say that the staff development workshop was “fantastic.” Another workshop is scheduled for late winter, but shortly after New Years, Donaldson gets a letter saying the program has been discontinued.

At the end of the meeting, Koestner asks about the matching funds for anti-truancy efforts that CEO Vallas had promised in October. Donaldson says the promised $18,000 has come in, and she’ll be hiring a part-time, off-duty police officer to monitor kids sent to the discipline office during “hallsweep.” The officer will be a help to chief disciplinarian James Gorecki, who now splits his focus between monitoring the hallsweep kids and counseling students referred to him for other problems.

Finally, as part of her report, Donaldson sums up some recent improvements at the school—lots of new computers and networking, new furniture and carpeting in the library, carpet for music rooms, a dividing wall in the gym and, coming soon, security cameras. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, should bankrupt us for the year.”

The money for some of these improvements came from school-based operations funds established by the Board of Education a couple of years ago. Other money was snared by Donaldson herself. Previous Gage Park administrations had under-counted students eligible for state anti-poverty funds, which are keyed to the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches. Donaldson had the staff mount a campaign to get every student to apply for the lunch program, maximizing the number of eligible kids.

Donaldson also filed an application for federal Title I funds. While the school had once been ineligible, no one had bothered to apply for years. Donaldson did, and Gage Park has made the cut for funds every year since she arrived in 1993. Thanks to a change in federal law, all high schools got federal Title I money this year, some more than $1 million.

DEC. 12 Building repair plan for Chicago schools: Privatization This morning, Gage Park hosts a regional meeting for principals and engineers, featuring the system’s operations chief, Ben Reyes. Reyes has brought a few of his top aides to the school to help him explain the details of a new plan for school repair work—one that will make Chicago the nation’s largest school system to go completely private with repairs.

When the repair plan is up and running a few months from now, each school should be able to call up its regional property advisor—a contractor who will send out a sub-contractor to fix whatever ails the building. Reyes assures the engineers that no contractors would be taking their places.

Theodore Curran, Gage Park’s chief engineer, hopes that repair help gets more efficient soon. “Right now, it’s kind of slow,” he says. Not that he thinks things are any worse than last year, before Vallas & Co. dumped the board’s tradesmen for private contractors. It’s just that Curran, with about 30 years in the system, remembers the good old days: “Twenty years ago, you could call up and you’d get a tradesman there that day. You used to have a carpenter stationed right there in the school.” Shrugging, he adds, “But I guess that’s not what they’re looking for today. I understand, with all the downsizing.”

But Curran does complain about the new administration’s sacking of maintenance assistants. “When we lost them, we lost a lot,” he says. Gage Park’s assistant lent a hand with snow removal, lawn care and routine maintenance on equipment. Doing without them leaves the engineers a bit overextended. In a few weeks, Reyes will propose a solution: hiring students and parents part time to take on some of those chores.

Once Reyes and staff have completed their explanations, they take questions and complaints from the audience. “If it takes all day, it takes all day. That was their attitude, which was nice,” Koestner reports.

Instead of waiting in line, Koestner nabs Reyes on his way out, pleading for the swimming pool repair. Reyes says his department won’t take on any “major problems” like this until after New Years, but Koestner persists. Speaking to a top Reyes aide, she says, “Can’t we just hire a plumber ourselves? I mean, the money’s got to be there somewhere.”

“Ok,” says the aide. “What do you need?”

“A valve, a plumber, and two hours.”

The aide promises relief before Christmas. It arrives Dec. 22.

DEC. 13 Gage Park gets After-School Academy grant After class, English teacher Chris Collias talks a little bit about teaching at Gage Park. He knows the place well: His father taught here until just a few years ago, and their tenures overlapped by a year or two.

Collias says he enjoys the students, but the work can be exhausting; after a half dozen years of teaching, he’s guarding against burnout. “I can see where 15 or 20 years in this business, you’d start to take shortcuts,” he says.

Arlene Crandall bursts in on Collias’ reflections with fresh news: The school has just landed a $42,000 grant from the School Board for an after-school program, starting in February. Crandall, who wrote the application with Principal Donaldson and shop teacher Ed Bieryla, is ecstatic. “I just kissed Ed Bieryla and hugged him in the hallway,” she reports.

Each of the 50 high schools that has applied for the program, called an After-School Academy, has gotten a similar grant. At Gage Park, the program will run five days a week, 2:45 to 4:45 p.m.

DEC. 15 Districtwide peer-tutoring program Principal Donaldson picks special education teacher Patricia Hubbard to run a new peer-tutoring program next semester. Every high school in the city is part of the program, which is administered by Sylvan Learning Systems, a for-profit company. Last month, the School Board awarded Sylvan a $796,180 contract to create and manage the program citywide.

Sylvan is no stranger at Gage Park, which since last summer has hosted a center where full-time Sylvan staff tutor freshmen in reading and math. (See CATALYST, December 1995.) Gage’s Sylvan center is thriving, according to Donaldson. The center’s hefty price tag—over $200,000—is worth “every penny,” she says. “We could use another one. It would really be worth it.” At the center, each teacher works with only three students at a time; some students like the program enough to show up for extra hours before school.

Here’s how the peer-tutoring program will work: Under Hubbard’s guidance, 20 students will each take on two struggling schoolmates as pupils; each pupil will get two hours of help a week—one on reading, and one on math. Hubbard will get a stipend, the tutors will get paid $4 an hour for their work, and the pupils will get Sylvan-supplied trinkets as rewards for their work. Sylvan will provide curricular materials, the trinkets, and training and guidance for school coordinators like Hubbard; the board will pay the stipends as well as Sylvan’s fees.

Hubbard came to Gage this year after the old School Board voted to close the site of her former school, the Industrial Skills Center. The center, an alternative program for kids who didn’t make it at other schools, moved to Phillips High School, but only a third of the students moved with it—gang boundaries made Phillips off-limits for many. In any event, Phillips currently doesn’t have room for more.

Hubbard is happy to be at Gage, but she wishes the Skills Center had a better home. “That was a life-saver for a lot of those kids. They were 17, 18 years old, with two credits. Where were they going to go?

“I was under some pretty rough influences myself when I was 14 or 15,” she adds. If not for a strict father, she says, she might well have succumbed to them.

Next week, the School Board votes to negotiate contracts with dozens of outside agencies to provide alternative schools for 1,000 kids, starting second semester. Although the Industrial Skills Center isn’t on the list, its program is expected to continue.

A month later, with the new schools only weeks away from their scheduled opening, principals will still be waiting for the particulars. “I don’t know where the schools are, or when they’re opening,” Donaldson says in mid-January. “I don’t know how many people each school will be able to enroll.”

The principal says maybe 35 Gage Park students could benefit from a less traditional setting. “The restraints of a traditional high school are not conducive to learning for them,” she says.

But those students may be out of luck. The alternative schools, as planned, fall into two categories—schools for kids who consistently create serious discipline problems and schools for kids who have already dropped out. None has been designated for kids who simply would do better in a different environment.

JAN. 8 Overcrowding at Gage Park School Arlene Crandall is busily filing letters and calling counselors from nearby elementary schools. Today is the deadline for this year’s 8th-graders to register their interest in attending Gage Park. But a few schools still haven’t filed the necessary paperwork, to Crandall’s annoyance.

Meanwhile LSC Chair Donna Koestner is trying to arrange a meeting with CEO Paul Vallas to plead for some relief from Gage Park’s overcrowding. As she reads the new Capital Improvement Program, unveiled this week, it includes no high school annexes. Not that she thinks Vallas’s people made a mistake in emphasizing overcrowding relief for elementary schools. “The elementary schools definitely needed to be done first,” she says. “That was just a nightmare. I sympathize with all those people who had to have their kids bused.”

Koestner doesn’t get through to Vallas, but she says she’ll keep trying.

The five-year plan does contain one morsel for Gage Park; like most schools, Gage is slated to get a $20,000-a-year allotment for its most pressing needs.

In a small way, the new management team has made Gage Park’s overcrowding more manageable: It created an official referral form for controlled-enrollment schools. “So that if somebody comes and we’re filled to the gills, we have them fill out this form and refer them elsewhere,” explains Crandall. Having an official form makes for better local relations, she says: Parents may be upset that their children can’t attend the school, but they can see that the decision was board-approved policy, not local caprice.

JAN. 11 After school: chess club, gospel choir, workout sessions Electronics teacher Ed Bieryla takes an uncharacteristic absence today: First, he attends the funeral of a colleague’s father; later, he brings some documents to School Board headquarters for Gage Park’s upcoming after-school program.

This will be the first comprehensive after-school program at Gage in the 20 years Bieryla has been there. A dozen or so teachers will offer daily programs ranging from a chess club and a gospel choir to workout sessions and Junior Achievement. At 4:45, when the program is over, a chartered bus will drop students off near their homes, if they don’t want to walk. It’s scheduled to begin next month.

“I know it’s gonna start slow,” says Bieryla, “but once it catches on, I’d hope to have a couple hundred kids here after school every day.”

JAN. 16 School Board hears: New buildings instead of athletic fields Tonight’s School Board hearing on the five-year, $800 million capital improvement plan is a high priority for LSC Chair Donna Koestner. Koestner thinks her daughter may have broken her foot, but she goes to the hearing before driving her daughter to the hospital.

By the time Koestner arrives, 70 people have signed up to testify; board chambers are so crowded that Koestner and other latecomers have to watch the meeting on closed-circuit TV from another room.

Several speakers surprise the board’s people by asking them to reconsider priorities. Specifically, building new schools to relieve overcrowding rates much higher than renovating athletic fields and creating “campus parks” around schools—another feature of the plan. “People were saying, ‘Forget the athletic fields, we need another building,'” Koestner recalls.

The board members impress Koestner by taking such questions seriously. “They had to stop for a while, to take out their books,” she reports. “And they said, ‘But you’re absolutely right. For the money we’d spend on this, we could be putting new buildings up.’ ”

At 9 p.m., when Koestner leaves to take her daughter to the hospital, only half of the 70 people have spoken. The hearing lasts until 12:30 a.m. Koestner’s daughter, it turns out, just has a bad sprain.

JAN. 18 Annual lotter for admission to Gage Park This is the first day of a Principals Training Academy—a set of workshops for some of the system’s novice principals, each of whom also will be paired with a veteran principal for mentoring. Donaldson, a veteran, hasn’t volunteered because she’s busy finishing her doctorate. But she is a strong believer in continuing development for principals and teachers alike. When she became a principal, she had to seek out help on her own.

In the next couple of months, Donaldson and members of Gage Park’s faculty will go to several conferences and seminars—sometimes to present their own work, sometimes to shop around for ideas to bring home.

Today is lottery day at Gage Park: 543 8th-graders compete for 377 slots.

Yesterday, Donaldson dashed off a letter to Paul Vallas, pleading for overcrowding relief. She proposed an annex to the back of Gage Park’s building, one that might be designed as a junior high, for grades 7 through 9. That would relieve overcrowding for local elementary schools, ease Gage’s crush and give Donaldson’s staff a chance to work with kids for six years.

Donaldson envisions a six-year tech-prep program. “If we had the kids starting career guidance in 7th grade— rather than 10th or 11th—we could really help mold them. I am truly excited by that possibility,” she says.

Koestner likes that idea but seems even more excited by the idea of just opening Gage to more students.

To maintain public confidence, Gage officials conduct the lottery in public. One parent has shown up, but, since names are not called out in the process, she will await the arrival of a letter to find out whether her child will get in. The drawing starts at 9 and is over by 10:30, when Donaldson and Koestner drop by to buoy the lottery work crew. A frazzled clerk glares at Donaldson playfully, then slumps over the table.

Finally, 377 letters of congratulations and 166 letters of condolence are ready to be sent out. Applications will continue to roll in over the next few months, but few will be successful. “This is why we need that fantasy building—so these kids don’t have to be bused,” says Koestner.

Aside from the lottery, there are two other ways into Gage Park. First, siblings of current students are promised a place. That’s a change the LSC requested from the board after parents showed up in force to complain.

Second, the school runs special programs to attract white and black students from beyond the immediate neighborhood, helping the school to make its quotas. This year, Gage expects to recruit about 60 African-American students through the special programs. There are substantial numbers of black children in the immediate area, but not enough enter the lottery to fill the 43 percent quota. Each non-Latino recruit opens up another place for a Latino child—one more local kid who won’t have to ride a bus to a far-off school.

The limit comes when the school gets too overcrowded, something Donaldson is determined to prevent this year. “We’ve really crammed ourselves this year,” she says. “We started the year with 1,445 students, and we kept telling ourselves, ‘Well, there’ll be attrition.’ And there was: four students.”

Considering how stuffed the school is, Donaldson is amazed that parents want their kids here: “What surprises me is, you tell them that the school is very overcrowded, that their child might well be the 38th student in a class, that there may not be a desk. And I tell parents, Maybe your child would be better off some place where there are only 28 or 30 kids in a class. But parents don’t care about that; they’re saying, This school is safe, it’s secure, the halls are quiet, it looks good in here.

“It’s almost as if they care more about the cosmetics than about getting a quality education for their child,” she says. “Of course, we at Gage Park pride ourselves on providing that quality education in spite of our handicaps.”

That’s not an idle boast, Koestner points out. The school has enhanced its reputation greatly in the last couple of years—and the proof is that the number of people pounding on the door continues to rise. Low test scores have kept Gage Park on the state’s academic watch list, but that hasn’t kept people away.

But it’s evident that change here goes beyond orderly hallways. Among recent improvements: Staff management teams now run events like the lottery. The school has acquired corporate partners like accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, which sponsors a top-notch ACT-prep course now available free to seniors. The curriculum is expanding to include new electives like African-American History and Latin-American Literature.