Stand for Children launches campaign on school turnarounds

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After scoring a legislative win with a recently-enacted state law limiting teacher tenure and strike rights, the well-heeled education advocacy group Stand for Children is turning its attention to issues specific to Chicago—including school turnarounds.

On Wednesday, the group announced that it is launching a radio campaign to “educate Chicagoans about the value of public turnaround schools.” Group leaders also plan to host “telephone town hall meetings” where CPS officials and community leaders can discuss with residents of the South and West sides the “need for quality schools.”

Executive Director Mary Anderson says turnarounds—in which the entire staff of a school are fired and must reapply for their jobs–are a proven way to improve schools. CPS officials have proposed turning around 10 schools this year, including two high schools.

Anderson emphasizes that Stand for Children supports neighborhood schools, and supports turnaround schools because they improve them.

“We believe every child should be able to walk out their door and go to a good school,” she says.

In addition to holding their own events, Anderson says that Stand for Children will get the parents they work with out to the community and public hearings on the school actions.

“We want to make sure their voices are heard,” she says. However, Mary McClelland, the director of communications for Stand for Children Illinois, says Stand for Children did not work with or support the parents who were bused into the community meetings last week.

But Anderson notes that Stand for Children is not working alone on the turnaround campaign. Some faith-based and community leaders will be on hand to talk to parents who join the tele-town halls.

One of the people who will be joining the conversation is Chris Harris, pastor of the Bright Star Church of God and the chairman of the Bronzeville Community Action Council. Harris also serves on the local school council for Woodson Elementary School, which is slated to be turned around. He did not return calls confirming his involvement.

Anderson notes that not everyone who is participating agrees completely with Stand for Children’s position. “We just want to have an open conversation,” she says.

Chicago’s Stand for Children office has been laying the ground work for the campaign for months, making connections with a variety of parent and advocacy groups. But some of the most already-established parent groups are hesitant to join forces.

In other states and cities where the Portland-based Stand for Children is active, the organization started by working with parents before moving into advocacy, McClelland says. Stand for Children has affiliates in eight other cities.  She says the organization began by pushing legislation in Illinois because “the political opportunity” was available.

“We are now going back to what we do best,” she says.

In recent months, to get the work going, Stand for Children hired Chicago Director Juan Gonzalez, who spent time organizing for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Gonzalez, who grew up in California, hired two local organizers.

Gonzalez says that he and the organizers have spent time going out to churches and schools presenting their agenda and signing up members and supporters. Gonzalez says the group has signed up more than 4,000 supporters and members. Being a member of Stand for Children is akin to being a member of the Sierra Club, in that parents are basically pledging to support the agenda of Stand for Children, Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez and Anderson describe their agenda like this: They want to make sure that students have access to quality schools, they support the longer school day that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing and they want to make sure that students are prepared for high school and college.

“We want to get past the noise,” Anderson says.

Yet some of Stand for Children’s agenda can be interpreted as having a particular point of view. For example, “access to quality schools” can mean more charter schools, if a group sees them as quality schools. Also, the drive for the longer school day has wound up pitting CPS against the Chicago Teachers Union, which won a state labor board complaint that accused the district of sidestepping the contract by urging teachers to vote for waivers allowing a longer day this year.

The group also works with parents to become more effective leaders. “We prepare them to speak in public, how to address the board and the media,” Gonzalez says.

In recent months, Gonzalez and other Stand for Children staff have been present at Chicago Board of Education meetings, along with parents supporting such issues as a longer school day.

But as they maneuver around the city, Gonzalez is aware that the organization carries with it a negative weight, especially among unionized teachers and grassroots organizations. Stand for Children was a staunch supporter of Senate Bill 7, which limited teacher tenure and made it more difficult for teachers to strike. Senate Bill 7 also gave Chicago school leaders the power to unilaterally lengthen the school day, which had previously been a subject in collective bargaining.

After the bill was passed last year, in a speech in front of the Aspen Institute, Executive Director Jonah Edelman described how his group outfoxed the CTU in getting the bill passed and bragged that the bill would effectively prevent the teachers from ever striking.

Edelman wound up apologizing for his remarks, but his descriptions left a bad taste for many, including lawmakers who worked on Senate Bill 7.

Local activists have also been skeptical of Stand for Children because of its supporters. Though the Illinois chapter has not raised much money this year, last year it collected more than $3 million from local deep pockets including Sam Zell, formerly of the Tribune Co., and the Pritzker and Crown families. (Penny Pritzker was appointed to the Chicago Board of Education by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.)

Jitu Brown, an education organizer from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, says his organization and Stand for Children differ on how they see education issues. KOCO was founded in 1960 by community and religious leaders, and Brown notes that it is a grassroots organization that wants to see more investment in neighborhood schools.

Stand for Children, in his view, is trying to push a top-down, corporate agenda that ultimately harms neighborhood schools and teachers.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, says her group will never work with Stand for Children after Edelman’s speech. She says the group wants to destroy teachers unions as well as the democracy in the school system.

“Stand for Children comes into states with a pre-determined agenda and centrally-written legislative proposals,” she says.

Stand for Children leaders provided a list of 14 organizations that the group has worked with, including Northwestern Settlement House, the Illinois PTA and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

Some organizations on the list, however, stress that they don’t support Stand for Children’s entire agenda. The Black Star Project put together a forum on Senate Bill 7 with Stand for Children.

Black Star Project president Phillip Jackson says he wanted to do the forum to inform the African-American community about the bill.

“We didn’t take a side. We didn’t promote an agenda or one side or another,” he says.

Jackson says he would work with the organization again if an issue came up that he wanted to inform the community about or promote. But he also says he works with the teachers’ union and other groups when they are on similar sides of an issue.

Gonzalez, however, is not fazed by the skeptics.

“My experience is that everyone is skeptical of the new kids on the block,” he says. “How we are received will depend on what policies we advance and what impact they have. We need to build a base.”

Candelaria Rosales and Lindsay Abbassian contributed to this story.