Jennie's Notes from December Office Hours at the Board of Ed

Jennie Biggs is a parent of three kids at Mark Sheridan, former teacher, and Board member of RYH. She lives in Bridgeport. She is also an excellent note-taker. 

In September, I followed the process to schedule an Office Hours session with a CPS BOE member or members (typically, two BOE members try to be at the Office Hours appointment as I understand it).  In September, I spoke with Cara Kranz who is the Deputy Chief of Staff for the BOE.  The appointment times she had available did not work as they were very close to my children's dismissal time.  When I explained this to Ms. Kranz, she said she would keep my number and call me for October Office Hours.  She did and she called me for November and December as well.  Finally, December 12 worked for me.  I really appreciated that Ms. Kranz kept calling me.  Otherwise, I think I would have forgotten that this was an option.  The Office Hours, by the way, usually take place sometime during the week before the month's board meeting.

At the meeting was Ms. Kranz, Dr. Mahalia Hines, CPS BOE member, and Mr. Phil Hampton, Executive Director of CPS's Family and Community Engagement.  They all made me feel very welcome.  Overall, I would recommend this process.  I was literally face to face with Dr. Hines.  The 15 minutes allotted does go fast so be prepared.  Ms. Kranz suggested preparing a 5 minute statement so a 10 minute discussion can occur after.  I went alone but you can bring a small group with, although Ms. Kranz recommends only 2 or 3 total people so that the discussion stays focused.  I had typed up a statement entitled “A Parent's Perspective on CPS” to help me & to give them something to remember my words.  What wound up happening was me voicing one of my concerns and all of us discussing it right after.  Then, I would move on to the next point.  I think that worked well and I was able to take some notes and ask a follow up question or make another point on the concern

After I introduced myself and gave them some background on me and my family I made my first 2 points, which are interrelated: I am not seeing much evidence of CPS's own educators (with their wealth of knowledge, education & experience) and parents being consulted when major decisions are made or when policies are written.  Nothing was said about including educators but Dr. Hines and Mr. Hampton told me that they had just been discussing how do we effectively communicate with parents?  Just that morning 3 Parent Focus Groups had been implemented and what was the best way to get that information to parents and get them involved?  They are also talking about a newsletter for parents coming from Barbara Byrd-Bennett on a regular basis.

My third point was about testing.  Before I could even begin, Dr. Hines assured me she agreed with my statement: “Our children are given way too many standardized tests.”  She does not understand either why we are testing “our babies” (preK – 2) so much.  Dr. Hines plans on addressing this with Ms. Byrd-Bennett.  Dr. Hines also wants the Department of Curriculum & Instruction and the Department of Assessment to meet to discuss what data is really necessary to have on “our babies” and what's the best approach to get it?

Next, I stated that class size is way too large.  My 1st grader has 30 students in his class. This is above the CPS Recommendation class size of 28 for K – 2.  My 3rd grader has 31 students in his class and my 5th grader has 32 students in her class.  I was told they would look into

Then, I expressed concern about the Tiers.  From my statement: “I don't quite get this Tier system for school applications.  I do think the Tier system needs to be reevaluated and/or explained again to the public in a public forum where questions can be asked & answered and you can hear from parents about how this system impacts our families.  This is a great concern at our school among our parents.  Applying to high schools is a great stressor for them and for their children.  This is really not right and it's definitely not healthy.  We need to open this discussion again.”  Dr. Hines was a little confused about the whole Tiers concept & Ms. Kranz and Mr. Hampton did a good job of explaining it to her and added in some things they had heard from parents on this topic as well.  I was also told that the Tiers topic is covered at High School Information meetings held throughout the city.  (I am a few years out from having to worry about apps to schools so I haven't paid close attention to these types of meetings.  I'll be back in next year, though...)  Dr. Hines & Mr. Hampton felt this was a good topic to be covered in Ms. Byrd-Bennett's upcoming parent newsletters.  Then, Dr. Hines said the real problem is the number of seats.  They need more seats so everyone has a chance to get into a quality school.

After November's BOE meeting, I was a little upset that a Board Member said, at the end of the meeting, that parents and community shouldn't be upset about opening charter schools while closing neighborhood schools.  This Board Member said that parents are “voting with their feet and choosing charter schools- look at the 1,000s on the waiting lists at charters.”  So I made this my next concern and asked: Can we see this data?  Where can we find the waiting lists?  I shared with Dr. Hines that parents really want fully funded, equitable schools for all and we want programming that exists in our magnet schools.  What are the waiting lists at magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, and many neighborhood schools?  I bet they are in the thousands, too.  How can we replicate what is happening in magnet schools in all schools?  Or how can we expand that magnet school?  What's happening there that families love and how can we add that into every school?

Of course I had to bring up the longer school day.  My first question: Can we shave 15 minutes off of the elementary student's day?  This would allow teachers to have time in the morning to meet with parents and to supervise as children are dropped off.  Dr. Hines was very honest (which I appreciated) and said, “No.”  She explained that there is too much change happening next year with the Common Core and now is not the time to ask this question.  She did say I could ask in a year or two.  My next question: “How will the longer day be funded next year?  Will it be funded next year?  If unfunded, my school and most schools will have a difficult time with supervision during recess and during a teacher's prep.  There are real safety concerns here for me.  How will you ensure my children are safe during recess and throughout the day?  I also wonder will my kids be doing anything worthwhile to justify CPS keeping them for this much time?  With no funds, it will be very difficult to convince me this is a “better” day.””  I wasn't very pleased with the response I got on this.  It made me feel that I was silly I asked but I really feel these are real concerns.  Anyway, Dr. Hines was a teacher & she is a recently retired principal.  Dr. Hines visits schools often.  She insists that if I have a creative principal (I do!) then I have nothing to worry about.  I tried to explain that we could lose up to 5 adults without longer school day funding next year.  (Believe me, I know how lucky my family is to be at a school that actually received longer school day funds that our principals used creatively and smartly + an art teacher due to the CTU contract.)  Many of these people cover lunch and recess duties as part of their day as well as before school supervision.  Last, I brought up that our school community is having discussions about homework amounts in conjunction with the longer day.  Furthermore, I explained, we families are all trying to balance the longer day with after school activities, family dinners, and child sleep time.  In my statement I say, “I think a 6.5 hour day is ideal.”  I was surprised when Dr. Hines told me they only added 30 minutes to the day.  I said at my school, we go for an additional 1 hour & 15 minutes this year.

Now, my time was up.  I did get in one more thing that a parent at my school asked me to state:  “A few parents at my school and within my community wanted me to point out that they are not behind school closings due to underutilization when CPS plans to open new schools.”  Plus, Raise Your Hand, in crunching the numbers finds that the formula you are using is flawed.  On my statement sheet, I had links to all the Apples to Apples Data.  Dr. Hines said, they need to present this to the Space Utilization Commission. 

As Dr. Kranz walked me out, she said she will follow up on many of the items that I brought to their attention.  Some items will take longer to follow up on than others.  I received an email from her on Friday with a Power Point on the SY13 Assessment Framework as well as a link to CPS's Department of Student Assessment.