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Parents, students from other cities join Chicagoans in claiming school ‘reforms’ violate minority students’ rights

Jitu Brown Kenwood-OaklCommunity Organizaticalls Thursday for meeting with U.S. EducatiSecretary Arne Duncan.  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Jitu Brown, of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, calls Thursday for a meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:44AM



Parents and students from seven cities are joining those in Chicago in filing civil rights complaints against school closings, phase-outs and other “rampantly horrible” reform upheavals they contend have disproportionately victimized minority communities, school activists said Thursday.

The group called for a “national moratorium’’ on the kind of school reform shakeups that they say began in Chicago under former Schools CEO Paul Vallas; ramped up under his successor, Arne Duncan, and have spread nationwide during Duncan’s tenure as U.S. Education Secretary.

“This is the birthplace of all this mess,” said Jitu Brown of Chicago’s Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. “What’s happening around this country is insane.”

Brown said that residents of New York City; Detroit; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Atlanta; Wichita, Kan.; and Eureka, Miss., were filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that school closings and other “reform” efforts in those cities had disproportionately impacted African American and Hispanic students, thereby violating their civil rights.

“These policies have not only not improved education, in many communities, they have made education worse,” Brown said. “We want sustainable school reform, not this mess.”

Brown said the group was also demanding a meeting within two weeks with Duncan and Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary of the Department of Ed’s office of civil rights. Ali and Peter Cunningham, the department’s Assistant Secretary of Outreach, were hoping to meet with Brown, a U.S. Department of Ed spokeswoman said later Thursday.

Among those gathered outside the U.S. Department of Ed’s Chicago office Thursday was Helen Moore, a Detroit school activist for 45 years.

“I’ve never seen anything so rampantly horrible as this reform movement,” Moore said. Detroit has closed so many schools that “they have caused parents to move away because they do not know what to do. There’s confusion everywhere. ... The parents who have the money are getting the hell out.”

Ten years ago, Moore said, the Detroit school system had 300 schools; now it has 86. The system has been shattered into a crazy quilt of neighborhood schools, charter schools, “site-based” schools overseen by a selected school board and schools run by an outside agency. An “emergency manager” runs the place like a “dictator,” she said.

“No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. The charter experiment — we were better off with reading, writing and arithmetic,’’ Moore said. “We want to blow the top off of that. It’s not working and we want to tell the world. Enough is enough.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office weeks ago received a Chicago civil rights complaint, triggered by the phase out of Dyett High and student objections that they were being routed to a “turnaround” vendor whose only high school is in the same bottom-tier level as Dyett.

“We will evaluate the allegations on the merits, as we do all complaints,’’ said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.“We are committed to vigorously upholding civil rights laws and to ensuring that every child has access to the world class education they deserve.’’

Joining Brown Thursday also were New York City residents who echoed the frustration many Chicago parents have expressed at the upheaval of their schools in the name of “reform.”

Jorel Moore of New York City said schools labeled there as low-achieving have been replaced with schools with similar or minimally better achievement.

Jorel Moore said his high school was among more than 100 to close or phase out in 2003. During the phase out of Franklin D. Lane High, a fifth high school — a charter — was placed inside the building, leaving Lane’s classrooms some days with literally “not enough seats,” Jorel Moore said.

“We lost our resources, our teachers, our space, because our school was not good enough,” Jorel Moore said. “This sends the message that you do not care about us. You are not willing to give us the time and resources we need.”

The Education Department’s Cunningham said turnarounds and other reforms nationally have spurred “a lot of success but like every reform, nobody bats a thousand. ... The question is not if the approach is wrong, it’s if the results are there. If the results aren’t there, everybody should be held accountable.’’

In Chicago, one study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that Chicago elementary school “turnarounds’’ produced better academic gains than other “worst of the worst’’ schools, but that “turnaround” high schools performed no differently.

In contrast, a study by Chicago’s Designs for Change contended that 33 Chicago neighborhood elementary schools with at least 95 percent low-income students were outperforming “turnaround’’ elementary schools with similar poverty rates and far more resources.



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