Be transparent, listen to kids

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Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte

Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte

Imagine yourself as a teenager living in one of the city’s tough neighborhoods. In a fairer, more ideal world, when you got to school, you’d be in a sanctuary where, at least for the day, you could escape the troubles of the community, broaden your horizons and prepare for a better future.

Yet for too many teens, and even younger schoolchildren, schools aren’t the sanctuaries they should be.

Chicago Public Schools posted a heartening decline in school violence last year. But a third of schools, according to our analysis of CPS incident reports, still have significant problems with fights, gang activity and other conflicts. That doesn’t bode well for improved learning at these schools.

Who can expect kids to concentrate on algebra or biology when they are nervous that a fight is going to break out in the lunchroom or hear gang slogans exchanged in the halls as a prelude to an after-school clash?

Making further inroads on violence needs to start with transparency. Right now, there’s no way to determine whether principals are accurately reporting serious incidents to central office so extra resources can be deployed to help out. And parents have no easy way to find out what’s going on at their schools. That has to change. Parents and the public have the right to know what’s happening inside schools, and schools that aren’t reporting incidents—or are racking up police calls that never get reported to the district—need to know that such reporting is a must, not an option.

CPS has a chance to be a leader on this front. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is intended to help parents sort out the safe schools from the unsafe, but Illinois’ criteria are so weak that parents can’t rely on it. By providing accurate data on incidents of violence to the public, CPS has a chance to show it’s not afraid of tough scrutiny—and might even generate momentum for improvement in schools that need help the most.

The district also should listen to kids. They know the problems first-hand. Arne Duncan and his top deputies should take the suggestion of a student leader who recommends surprise visits to find out the real deal in schools and get past the dog-and-pony shows that are staged for planned visits.

More counseling for troubled kids and strategies such as peer juries are called for, too. Metal detectors and security guards may be an unfortunate necessity at some schools in the roughest neighborhoods, but they don’t take the place of programs that will do more than impose surface calm.

Finally, a word about teaching. As one principal told us, some school violence is, in the final analysis, due to lack of classroom management and poor instruction. Interesting, relevant lessons won’t keep every unruly student from picking fights. But dull classes, especially in high schools, don’t help curb violence either. Kids who are bored are more likely to cause trouble than those who are busy and engaged.

Looking ahead

Next March, a CPS-Chicago Teachers Union committee is set to unveil a new teacher evaluation process that will replace the current one. In addition to coming up with sound criteria for identifying and supporting the best teachers and helping struggling teachers to improve, the committee ought to take to heart the suggestions of Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project: Stop giving seniority raises to unsatisfactory teachers and make sure performance, not just seniority, is a factor that determines which teachers will lose jobs due to budget cuts. These changes would keep schools from losing strong newcomers and give the evaluation process some sorely needed heft.

Clarification: In the September issue, we stated that the Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching are presented to CPS teachers. However, the awards are presented to 10 teachers every year in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, and Will counties, not just Chicago.

About Us: Editor-in-Chief Veronica Anderson is on sabbatical until mid-November. Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte will serve as editor-in-chief during her absence.