Garfield Park meeting rife with longer-day concerns

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Despite small turnout, a West Garfield Park community meeting on next year’s longer school day turned contentious Tuesday night, with audience members and panelists charging that the district’s plans will only exacerbate inequality.About 20 people showed up to the forum, held at Bethel Lutheran Church and sponsored by Progressive Action Coalition for Education, the Lawndale Alliance, the Black Star Project and Raise Your Hand.

Early on, Caroline Bilicki, the Parent-Teacher Association president at Disney II Magnet, said that her children’s school spends just three hours a day on reading and math, using the rest of its extended-day schedule for physical education, music, art, technology, and recess.

Her description at first drew scoffs from those who noted it was not representative of the rest of the system – particularly of schools in the neighborhood near the meeting – but then became a rallying cry for others who spoke during the question-and-answer session. “Why can’t it be (representative)?” Bilicki asked. “This is a great school. Let’s demand that out of CPS.”

Several teachers described more challenging conditions in their schools. Among them was retired Ellington Elementary reading teacher Bonita Robinson, who said that in her last year of teaching, out-of-control testing and a decrease in the school’s focus on literacy instruction frustrated her efforts.

“I could not teach. It was test prep, data collection,” she said. “How are you going to ensure equity? Because my children deserve what (Bilicki’s) children are getting.”

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard’s deputy chief of staff, Arnie Rivera, conceded that over-testing is a problem and noted that CPS is in the process of evaluating the amount of time spent on assessments.

He also admitted that resources are a problem. “We know the way in which we’ve funded schools historically has not been equitable, has not been fair,” Rivera said.

But that did not placate audience members, or Rivera’s fellow panelists.

“I see this longer day as creating a bigger equity gap,” said Raise Your Hand co-director Sonia Kwon. “A lot of the well-performing schools are such because parents fundraise. The kids in schools where they are not able to fundraise… will be bored out of their minds and will probably have a higher drop-out rate.  How can CPS, with annual deficits of $500 to $800 million, hope to finance a longer school day?”

Wendy Katten, also of Raise Your Hand, said that unless CPS funded foundational parts of the curriculum (like art, music, and physical education), “there’s not going to be a 7.5-hour day, because no one tells us what’s happening with our kids.”

However, steering committee member Amy Smolensky clarified that Raise Your Hand does not plan to block the extended day.

“The main concern isn’t the 7.5-hour day; the main concern is the quality of the day regardless of the time,” Smolensky said. “We are not opposed to extending the day, we just want to make sure that it’s done in a way that’s going to be most beneficial to the student.”

After the meeting, parent Jackie Beeks expressed her skepticism about CPS plans for a longer day.

“I have two kids that go to Tilton School, and I don’t think the extended school day will help,” she said. “Because they can barely get the students to come half a day.”

But Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward) said that without more turnout to similar events, the community would be stuck with whatever CPS came up with.

“Until we decide to make education a priority for our children, we will consistently be handed things that we may like, or may not like… that someone else thinks is better,” he said.