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Byrd-Bennett wants to get CPS students prepared for college

New Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks City Club Chicago lunch Maggiano's Banquets 111 W. GrAve. Monday Nov.26 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

New Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at the City Club of Chicago lunch at Maggiano's Banquets, 111 W. Grand Ave., Monday, Nov.26, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 12, 2013 6:14AM

Within weeks of confirming the closure of a record 50 Chicago Public Schools, the schools chief unveiled some details of an ambitious five-year plan to get the city’s students prepared for college.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s “pillars” include welcoming more parents into schools, meeting students’ emotional needs in addition to their academics, and setting high standards for all children to prepare them for life in the 21st century.

“We fundamentally believe that all of our children are capable of success, and to ensure that success, every child must have equitable access to a high-quality education,” said Byrd-Bennett, accompanied at Westinghouse College Prep on Monday by a video called “The CPS Way” and a glossy, 25-page brochure titled “The Next Generation: Chicago’s Children.”

“Our vision is that we intend for every student in every neighborhood to be engaged in a rigorous, well-rounded program and that each student will graduate prepared for college, prepared for career, and it’s so important — to be prepared for life, just to be good people who want to come back to their community, come back to our city and give back,” she told the crowd, which included Board of Education members.

Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, who attended the speech, appreciated that Byrd-Benentt has a long-term plan, since she hadn’t seen anything of the sort in her 13 years as alderman.

“If she’s trying to build trust, this plan is at least in line with the statement she made about not closing any more schools for five years. She said she wanted to give the schools time to rebuild.”

The plan was short on specifics and devoid of any discussion on how a school system struggling to erase a $1 billion shortfall without pension relief can afford to do anything new, let alone bankroll Byrd-Bennett’s “five pillars.”

The Chicago Teachers Union said that schools don’t need a new initiative, they need revenue, especially given that the Illinois legislature declined to further delay CPS pension payments set to balloon to more than $612 million next year, and that Byrd-Bennett claims a $1 billion budget deficit.

“It obscures the importance of carrying through previous initiatives and finishing what you start, especially when there’s a big budget crisis,” CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey said. Many principals are lamenting that their draft budgets for the new school year are smaller than last year’s.

“I don’t know how they’re going to follow through with the longer school day,” Sharkey said. “ Last year, schools were able to add art through the new longer school day when the district hired hundreds of extra teachers to teach the arts and other special subjects.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said funding is in place for some of Byrd-Bennett’s plans.

“In others, we will be partnering with donors to identify funds and in others we may need to shift around our budget priorities — but not everything is going to take money in order to have an impact.”

Sharkey said, “What I think is crazy is the amount of puffery. There’s a big roll out, a lot of fanfare for essentially a rehashing of corporate marketing-speak, and then some parts of plan, which is like old wine in a new bottle.”

The single application for all high schools was already floated a few years ago, he said. Teacher evaluations already started and the district already announced its plans for recruiting and keeping good principals, and for changing how schools are funded per student instead of a set number of staff positions. And the state already requires a 10-year Educational Master Facilities Plan that’s due later this year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who championed many of the initiatives comprising the plan, is a master of message control and media packaging who attempts to sell his plans as new, even when they’re not.

In March, 2012, the mayor unveiled, what he called, “Building a New Chicago,” a $7.3 billion plan to rebuild Chicago’s infrastructure and create 30,000 jobs.

But it was little more than political packaging by a new administration that had fast become famous for it.

Most, if not all, of the CTA, water, sewer, parks, schools and City Colleges project had been announced before. So had the $1.7 billion Infrastructure Trust the mayor hoped to use to bankroll some of the projects.

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