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Deplorable teaching conditions? Not at Crown Elementary Academy in North Lawndale

Lee Jacksprincipal Crown Elementary Community Academy Fine Arts Center 2128 S. Saint Louis Chicago. Archived September 21 2012. | Mary

Lee Jackson, principal of Crown Elementary Community Academy and Fine Arts Center at 2128 S. Saint Louis, Chicago. Archived September 21, 2012. | Mary Mitchell photo

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:44AM

With the teachers strike history, both the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Public Schools are taking bows.

That’s OK. Both sides gave up something in order to get kids back in the classroom. But, it will be a while before anyone can say that the deal hashed out during the strike really helped public school children.

One of the things that might have made a difference for students fell by the wayside — smaller classrooms.

On an annual “Learning Environment Survey” by the New York City Department of Education, “smaller class size” has been ranked as the No. 1 desired improvement by parents for the fifth year, according to the Huffington Post.

No parent, even those who are struggling to make ends meet, can feel good about leaving a child in a crowded classroom.

During the strike, I talked to teachers who told me they were working under such deplorable conditions, I wondered how any learning was going on at all.

Last Thursday when I visited Crown Elementary Academy and Fine Arts Center in North Lawndale, I expected the lack of resources to be readily apparent. After all, North Lawndale is a low-income community with plenty of struggling families.

But you couldn’t tell that from the school environment. The building was bright and welcoming. It was both peaceful and stimulating.

“We looked to brighten the building up and give a more appealing feel to it so that it didn’t feel like you were walking into a cave,” said Lee Jackson, who has been principal at Crown since 2003.

Jackson was able to tap local artists to help create murals throughout the building. The school also got new windows and doors and was rewired to accommodate a classroom full of desktop computers.

“I think that gives [students] a positive feeling about this place called school,” Jackson told me. “Obviously, looking at the community we serve, we want to try to build some type of positive feedback and positive feeling with all of our kids.”

If parents were glad to get back to work and teachers were ready to go back to the classrooms, you can imagine how excited the preschoolers were.

Three little girls, looking like triplets in their school uniforms, ran up to Jackson for a hug. Dressed in light-blue tops and dark-blue bottoms, the pre-K students walked through the cafeteria line selecting their own food (on Thursday it was potatoes and hot dogs), as their teacher encouraged each child to also grab an orange.

Because about 98 percent of the student population is entitled to a free or reduced lunch, the school provides hot breakfast and lunch, and also serves meals to kids in the after-school program.

“We are an extension of the family,” Jackson told me.

Crown offers half-day pre-kindergarten, all-day kindergarten and goes up to the eighth grade. Average classroom size is 24. First grade has 29 students, and sixth grade has 28.

Jackson split the second and third grades, however, so there are only 12 to 13 kids in each classroom. That allows students to get more “focused instruction” and a lot of “supported work done,” he said.

Despite their preoccupation with technology, students in primary grades still like personal attention, noted Iris Hildreth, a third-grade teacher.

She was expertly wielding a stapler to put borders on a bulletin board outside her classroom.

“They notice when I put something that they did on display. They notice when I put someone else’s work on display, too,” Hildreth said. “It’s a confidence builder.”

Hildreth has been a teacher for 15 years, 12 years at Chicago Public Schools.

Under the contract that teachers are expected to ratify, CPS preserves a principal’s right to hire teachers who will fit with their schools.

Although teachers will be evaluated, in part on the basis of student growth, the principal ultimately will be the person who is held accountable.

Jackson doesn’t expect the contract will change his attitude toward hiring.

“It’s always been get the best person out there. We are always looking for the best-qualified candidate that will fit with the culture and climate of our building,” he said.

“Once you peel back some of those layers, many people find out these kids have the same type of dreams and aspirations that you’ll find in any other school anywhere in the country.”

Here’s hoping this contract between the teachers and CPS makes it a lot easier for public school kids to realize their dreams.

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