Friday, April 1, 2016

So what's going on today? A strike?

Last summer I was apart of the efforts to begin to educate parents across the city on the potential Chicago Teachers Union strike for the 2015/2016 School year. For us, it was important that we begin the conversation with parents early, rather than later about what exactly negotiations entailed. In this town, complex political debates can easily come down to sound bites that don't explain the underlying issues, the past attempts, and the LIES. Sometimes issues can come down to simple hashtags...

Unfortunately education around the strike hasn't been the best. At my children's own schools we are left clueless, and if it wasn't for my own research and advocacy I would be confused and frustrated. In case you are, this blog is for you.

Back in June I detailed what were the original contract demands that Chicago Teachers Union had put forward last year this time. Fast forward to April 1st 2016, and today's walk out not only is the Union and CPS' contract negotiations being  brought to the forefront, attention to the funding crisis we have in the state and it's impact on CPS is also at the center of today's mass actions. The state crisis has been pitched as the blame to why the district is offering teachers to pay more into their pensions which serves as their social security.

Today's walk out hopes to use the united power of the union and ally community groups and other organizations and the shared frustration of state budget cuts and unfair political and policy systems to pressure government officials. However, it has been very easy to have today's walkout, the 2012 strike, and the 2013 mass school closures for that matter be about the union versus the Mayor/Claypool/Rauner...but what is happening in the state and our school system is much more complicated, and should move parents beyond today.

For years the district has mis-prioritized funds, like the continuation of the building of another selective enrollment highs school in the near loop area despite the same ward it's being built in having tremendous capital needs for the other schools. When it comes to the districts prioritizations of funds I have another blog that shows more examples. There is also the complicated story of our unspent TIF funds and the reality of it's slush fund behavior, something else my blog has addressed, and if you know me well can tell you too much about.

Sometimes when I am in education activist spaces Chicago Public School parents are not at the helm of the decision making. My point is whatever your situation is on April 1st I suggest us parents work on a few things to ensure that our love for OUR children is resonated. While you can join many of the actions going on throughout the city there are ways we can begin to make sure we our state budget crisis and the CTU negotiations encompass increased learning support for out children. Here are some ways you can be involved today and moving forward:

1. Make sure you vote in your schools LSC elections and attend your LSC meetings at your children's schools. LSC's are a way to learn from your Teacher rep about what is going on and ask questions in general about your school.

2. Try to sign up for Board of Education meetings. This can be difficult, but usually a week before the monthly meetings you can sign up via phone and online at the CPS website to give testimony and share your own position of education issues.

3. Organize a meeting and request a CTU delegate or your school's delegate to discuss the contract negotiations. Our parents need to know what is going on, and right know our media does not do a good job telling the story. The delegate should be willing to even if it is after school and maybe outside of the school.

5. Contact your state legislators for both the Elected representative School Board legislation and the need for a passed state budget that restores our human services and funds our CPS schools fairly. Below are some key numbers that I borrowed from the great people at Raise Your Hand.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Elected Representative School Board

The movement to win an elected representative school board comes from the lived experiences of parents and educators throughout the city that have witnessed unsound and unjust policies and practices that have been finalized by the Chicago Board of Education. Much of this has come in the last ten years, as the past appointed boards have gone against much criticism and moved forward with  mass school closures. The reality of many of the past school actions is that they have used ineffective measurements for academic and school utilization. This means the school board has made devastating decisions while families across the city saw schools that were not underutilized-closed and sent to schools where they experienced over crowding, and school communities experienced increased bullying and saw resources irresponsibly spent, despite the reasons for many of these difficult decisions being based in "fiscal responsibility".

The work around winning an elected school board has been moving as many throughout the City were asking the questions, "how do we change this system"? The roots of this is based in the lack of accountability and democracy, which does not allow for the tension between the people and elected officials that makes for those in power to want to seem to do the right thing, and encourages deliberation.

Will it work?

So many have shared that this approach may not work and will intensify politics in Chicago Public Schools. Well...politics exists in the current Board. The current Board has been and continues to be full of political interests, from the bad bonds authorized by stakeholders of those financial institutions, bad contracts with paybacks, and land and real estate interests guiding decisions. There is also an opportunity for measures that can limit things like caps on financial contributions to allow for less politics.

What is the proposal?

·         House Bill 4268 provides that: 

o   On March 15, 2016, the terms of all currently appointed members of the Board will expire and abolish.

o   13 new members are to then be elected.
§  Four electoral regions: Southeast Side, Southwest Side, West/Central Region, and the North Region. Each region must be represented by 3 members, except the North region which will have 4 members. Each region must have 2 parent members and 1 community member.
§  Eligibility requirements: must be at least 18 years old; parent or legal guardian of a child enrolled in the public school region; and be a resident of the region. Eligible persons must obtain a petition with at least 250 signatures in order to be placed on the ballot.

§  7 members will serve 4-year terms and 6 members will serve 2-year terms, in order to create staggered terms.

In the 26th and 27th ward over 2,500 petition signatures were collected in 2014 where residents, and over 89% of the residents all over the City voted for an elected representative school board. However, now there is political maneuvering for the State and the Governor who once used the same unelected system for his own education reform agenda, now wants control. This would make the state have control over the Charter School Commission and the Board. Let's be clear at this point it is only the people that are really thinking about our children first.

Friday, September 18, 2015


If you know my work in education organizing in Chicago, a lot of what Blocks Together has focused on in the last five years is the complicated but necessary changes needed in how Chicago Public School makes facility decisions that have negatively impacted education and communities, such as school openings, closures, and attendance boundaries to name a few.

BT's work has also addressed the critical capital needs in our local schools, helping to win millions in building repairs. Buildings that are safe, clean, and comfortable,  as well as accommodating space for class size, enrichment programming, and programming for students with diverse learning needs, are all important to student success, but at times are not available to many Chicago Public Schools students.

Much of the building condition issues can be blamed on budget cuts, or the misalignment of priorities, but more overarching is the lack of educational planning, or the lack of creating and implementing a facilities plan to stabilize facilities in the system with an educational vision to provide quality educational programming in all buildings. This same facilities long term thinking also creates a plan around school actions such as closures, openings, annexes, and overcrowding relief.

Recent educational controversies show how the district has not implemented an educational vision that has supported financial and educational ingenuity. The debate around the growth of Charter schools is a major one of these controversies. In the last few years I have witnessed critical building needs in local neighborhood schools be unaddressed while renovations at other types of schools proceed despite a dwindling capital budget in the district.

Matter of fact, I have written that after the mass school closures of 2013 a number of Charters were approved including their capital and lease costs, despite the months prior where there was the message of "budget constraints and right sizing the district".

Currently there is the Southwest Side of the City struggling to understand new charter proposals under the financial strain of the district and neighborhood high schools in need of capital and other resources go unmet.

A more prevalent example was the Hunger strike of the Dyett High School community members whose story is one of Charter school proliferation, while an advancing neighborhood high school lost enrollment and resources.

Many of the past facility decisions lacked the critical analysis that the district should have been thinking through:

-          What are the current facility needs of our schools?
-          What curriculum needs be addressed that our buildings need to accommodate?
-          Is the average class size in a community being considered, including the space needed for our young people with learning disabilities/diverse learners?
-          And are we utilizing any underutilized space to support wrap around services for students and their communities?

In 2013 the hope was that many of these thoughts would be the framework for the mandated 10 Year Master Facility Plan, but it was not entirely considered. While the plan has addressed some of the needed transparency and updated facility assessments for each CPS school, the plan has not addressed things like embedding community needs in the educational planning of communities to avoid the disruption of some closures and school openings that take away from current community school capacity. The current plan has not been explicit about including any Charter school expansion, and it has not analyzed community growth and needs through more rich data that is available. This information can tell the story of vacant schools potential re-purposing, and plans to address capital needs in the district for a more wholistic educational vision, mean while avoid unnecessary facility decisions during such "financially stressful times".

This fall and winter there is an opportunity for changes to be made to the current 10 Year Master Facility Plan, and the Chicago Educational Facilities Task force yet again will be collecting data and hearing from stakeholders around individual issues around facilities and overarching changes to how school planning should be initiated in this city. What should be the districts priorities, how can your school community be engaged in addressing it's capital needs, and what does the district need to know about your community's education needs?

Despite the avenue of the task force provides through its community meetings, community stakeholders should share directly with the district needed changes on how CPS plans for school buildings.

Additionally this Thursday, September 24th the City of Chicago City Council meeting will be considering a resolution being introduced by Ald. Sawyer of the 6th Ward to establish a moratorium on charter school expansion for the 2015-2016 school year, until a comprehensive study of long term facility and school programming needs is completed with significant public input, and CPS’ financial balance sheet demonstrates long term stability. This resolution is to go before the big October board meeting where a number of Charter School proposals are to be voted on to operate next school year.

Please review the following fact sheets to learn more about how to be involved in the issues around facilities and reform and stay tune to Blocks Together's work around Facility Reform on our website or email the taskforce at to get more information about upcoming meetings.

Facilities Fact Sheet
 QandA_What is the EFMP

Charter School Moratorium Fact Sheet

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Another teacher strike?

In fall of 2012 the highly anticipated (based on who you ask) Chicago Teachers Strike ensued. I was a parent that was impacted as a mother of a first grader, matter of fact my kids and I went to the picket lines with my daughter's teachers. My connection to the strike was more than being impacted as a Chicago Public Schools parent, but as an organizer that has worked on education issues and working in solidarity with Chicago Teachers Union leadership for years. We have worked together around the pressing issues that have been impacting Chicago Public Schools, and the issues that impact my own community where public education institutions are critical to community development.  With this, the contract negotiations were always more than just about the longer school day debate and fair pay (please don't hate that teachers are making living wages and most of us don't have a union to support us to receive a fair living wage), but was about the larger issues facing Chicago Public Schools students and parents, their contract included classroom improvement demands like:

  • Smaller class sizes.
  • More playgrounds, recess time and physical education classes.
  • More art, dance, theater, music and foreign language instruction.
  • More funding for libraries.
  • Healthier school lunches.
  • An end to the "apartheid-like" Chicago Public School system today and to "discipline policies with a disproportionate harm on students of color."
  • Guarantee pre-K and full-day kindergarten for all students.
  • Higher teacher salaries and more teacher "autonomy."
  • Better bilingual and special needs programs.
  • Higher-quality school facilities.

Unfortunately contract negotiations did not win many of these classroom changes, so as we move forward into new contract negotiations it is still critical that the new demands, which revisit many of the 2012  classroom demands, are again on the table and pushed through. Despite that budget issues are even more pervasive. We do know (see previous blog) that the finances of the district are not always what they seem, and while the district has made cuts that have been impacted certain communities in the name of austerity, the district has moved forward with problematic spending, even recent scandals have shown this to be true. It has been proven that financial dooms day has been used as a distraction, so I press on in the name of winning classroom changes for my community, my children, and schools across the city. Optimal learning conditions or teacher working conditions are important and are necessary for closing the achievement gaps and anchoring positive spaces of learning throughout our city such as;  restorative justice coordinators in each school, decrease nurse ratio per student, smaller class size through fees for large class size.

But the question is how do we create the environment for these important issues to be negotiated and be exempt from the question of "who's going to pay". What the contract negotiations begin to start is a dialogue around not only the potential of a teachers strike,  the budget crisis, continued privatization, and the mass closures of 2013, but a dialogue that should be happening around public schools and the financial reforms that must take place in order to fulfill many of these classroom demands that CTU is negotiating around such as: 

Establish lower and compulsory class size limits in all schools.

Ensure that every school has: the necessary clinicians and a school counselor and nurse; a truant officer, restorative justice coordinator, librarian and playground instructors; and art, music, physical education and other teachers to create robust and effective educational programs.

Restore adequate preparation time and enforce paperwork limits for teachers.

Dedicate resources previously committed to Teach for America to the Grow Your Own Program instead to develop a more diverse and local teaching force directly from CPS student graduates.

Engage in legal action against big banks to retrieve upwards of $1 billion for our classrooms; end contracts with these same financial institutions that refuse to renegotiate excessive fees and penalties.

Return diverted revenues from the tax increment financing (TIF) program to the schools.

Expanded pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) for parents at 300% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Establish 50 sustainable community schools and strive for policies to achieve increasing integration of students and increased access to curriculum which reflects the experiences and identities of our students.

The upcoming publicity aka "the spin" will be focused on the challenging financial conditions of the district, despite the oversimplification around "lack of funds" and "greedy teachers",  it is important we maintain these critical pieces of classroom and school improvements and the ways to fund them be pushed forward in the new contract negotiations. The CTU has brought forward a number of new revenue mechanisms that are PAINLESS, and worth making investments in Chicago's children education.

This is what is important for both sides, improving the learning conditions for our children.

To become involved in learning more about the contract negotiations, and learn how to advocate for these changes there are forums happening across the city. Blocks Together will sponsor a forum on Wednesday, June, 10, 2015 from 6-8pm at the Kelly Hall YMCA, 824 N. Hamlin. Representatives from the CTU bargaining team will be there, CPS has declined coming to the event to discuss the negotiations.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Introducing SoulBoricua...

Earlier this year my sister, Jessica, and I began to think about how we can create change in our communities. This was on our mind as the creativity in the food industry has been impacting my own community of West Englewood.

See my sister has been in culinary and hospitality industry since 15 years old. She enjoys the demands and creativity of that life. I have been working in social justice and community building since I was 15. Dedicated to our careers-or lifestyles- we decided to begin a social enterprise that would combine our passions and create a company that would grow into a beautiful extension of our callings....

So SoulBoricua was born. 

My sister and I grew up in a home filled with lots of love and connection. We were the family that ate dinner together each night. And my mother had perfected a menu rotation that infused our Black roots and Puerto Rican roots. My mother's family was recent immigrants from the Island, and when she meet my Dad 33 years ago she would learn about his culture from my Grandmother, Lenora Carroll. My Dad's family also had just moved from the South to Chicago, still close to their own story and culture. With my mother's mom still close we have been able to stand on their hard work and love and take on the world with good food in our bellies.

It wasn't until we were older that I understood what privilege it was to grow up in a home like ours. We didn't have much, but we were connected, and was able to embrace our cultures. My sister and I wanted to share that love, and that privilege of being able to be who we were and the support we had from our parents to inspire.

SoulBoricua is our catering and event planning company. It was what we did this year...when we could. My sister and I have juggled Grad School, demanding full time jobs, oh yeah and kids and husbands!!! But we have been given an opportunity this year to grow and fully realize our vision of creating a social enterprise in the food industry. Our goals include:

Deleting the BOX. Hiring those that may have a criminal past. We were taught not to judge people, and to be humble. Our job application does not have the box that asks and limits hiring based on criminal convictions.

Becoming Sustainable and Organic. As mothers this is important to us. It is our visions to grow to become a sustainable company using alternative methods for energy and other resources. And we have begun and will continue to expand our sources of food to be non-GMO, no pesticides or hormones.

Fair and just employment policies. We believe in equitable pay and will pay accordingly with a $15 minimum wage. Providing our employees with maternity and paternity leaves that are evolved like other countries have already done. And also providing staff with personal and sick days that take into account families and health. Being a great employer for families.

Providing support for personal development. So many jobs are dead end, or demand so much from employees with little support. We want to provide job training and support and take into account the whole employee for a great future with our company and beyond.

Supporting community building. Our service will benefit the community organizations and building that is happening in the Chicagoland area with reasonable cost in food and event support.

We hope you try us out and watch our growth and chime in with any good advise you may have. Please check out our website to learn more about this new side venture.

“This food is the gift of the whole universe – the earth, the sky, and much hard work.
May we live in a way that is worthy of this food.
May we transform our unskillful states of mind, especially that of greed.
May we eat only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.
May we accept this food for the realization of the way of understanding and love.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

It's our money and we want it now!

The West Humboldt Park community in Chicago, has long been neglected in terms of development, as evidenced by its old housing stock, many vacant residential and storefront lots, no major places of employment, and few local businesses. Currently the community suffers from lack of opportunities in employment and affordable housing, with high unemployment. 

Blocks Together's housing and economic development campaign goals were to impact policy and practices around resource allocation of public funds for more direct benefit in the West Humboldt Park community. While the usual rhetoric is there is no money, BT members initiated a campaign that would led them to the issues of local Tax Increment Financing, where there was "money"

Photo of West Humboldt Park Library, BT members organized for over 7 years to win this library and demanded the local TIF be used to build it after elected officials said there were no funds for the project. The Library has become an anchoring institution for learning, and employment support. 

In 2008 – BT’s Housing Committee began participatory action research around school closures and the intersection with Tax Increment Financing dollars. From here the Housing Committee created a long term agenda to bring more transparency and direct benefit from the local TIF and organized the first town hall meeting around the Chicago Central Park TIF, the TIF district that covers most of West Humboldt Park.
2009 – BT members worked on a campaign to use Chicago Central Park TIF funds to bring an affordable housing development into the community with a community developer.
2010 – BT and Westside United members created a Community Benefit Agreement (CBA) for the project but the developer of the affordable housing project refused to sign. From here BT and Westside United members wanted to require CBA’s with public funds used in the community.
2011 – The Chicago Central Park TIF was underestimated and residents worked with the City’s Department of Planning to reallocate funds into community informed budget line items such as increasing funds for job training and daycare services.
2013–  BT staff and members work with the Participatory Budget (PB) project and University of Illinois at Chicago, Great Cities Institute to learn how to use PB in the community. BT Members also visited other wards in Chicago and other organizations throughout the country to learn how public dollars were being used through PB.
2014 – Alderman Walter Burnett commits to using the $2 million in TIF funds from the canceled housing development to the PB process to allow residents to directly decide how to use those funds!
Organizing around Tax Increment Financing has been gaining momentum in the last few years, when BT started to work on it years ago we had a funder tell us it was irrelevant work, their actual words was that it was "so 1990's". The work around making changes around TIF illuminates quality community building strategies. Organizing around TIF accountability and increased benefit forces communities to understand the numbers, the policy and legislation around TIF, and a little bit of urban planning. In West Humboldt Park residents learned together and strategized together, organizing community teach in's about TIFs  and made TIF the "community gossip". 

It was clear as worked together as a community to research the TIF budget that these funds were being taking from the community and expenditures were not matching the critical needs and redevelopment goals that would have created long term change. We could do better. 

The work around TIF organizing BT has been doing is about changing the policies and practices of public dollars that takes from a community while leaving that same community in more economic vulnerability. The work to address this inequity is grassroots and powerful as it moves residents to think about what economic development looks like, and holds elected officials accountable to real investment, calling out the political games. 

A new controversial City steered development in Englewood is prime opportunity to begin a campaign that further illuminates the issue of low income communities being taken advantaged of, residents own funds not being used to maximize development. While development projects are being announced, the reality of jobs and contribution of institutions to the larger local economy must be spelled out and held accountable to the needs of a community. 

As the municipal election realities are facing Chicago head on, the issue of TIF reform is critical. The complexities of the City's financial dealings is interconnected with many of the issues that face Chicago; school funding, unemployment, safety, and infrastructure. Our candidates must have positions on changing how we utilize TIF, how to continue the program or not, and support challenging the status quo of vague and ineffective redevelopment that has continued to leave so many Chicagons behind, and work with residents to create new realities through with own investment. 

Photo: 63rd and Halsted, Google Images

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How Numbers Lied After Schools Closed

During last year’s historic school closure process in Chicago I advocated against the closing of schools in multiple ways. I have seen schools as anchors in a community and it is sometimes through the facility itself and what happens in that space that could never be measured through a blunt utilization formula.  For example the closed Ryerson Elementary School, it was a Level 2 School according to CPS, and not on probation. The school serviced a high poverty student population. The school had been Level 1 for past three years. The school received citywide attention for its 6-8th grade single sex class that had made remarkable gains. It was the first school to pilot Longer School Day before the Emmanuel administration. It had a neighborhood clinic occupy one of the classrooms, a Chicago Bulls Health and Fitness Center, and a state of the Art Library and Media Center donated by Target, with recess rooms with computers and a community rooms which were useful spaces as the outside park area had been a drug dealing hang out. The enrollment reported when it was slated to closed was 398 with a student capacity of 690 students. The utilization rate according to CPS was 58%. When parents took it among themselves to count their own classrooms and special education rooms they used the formula and determined they were 77% utilized.

The Chicago Board of Education voted to consolidate Ryerson with Laura Ward Elementary School but inside the Ryeron building. The Laura Ward building is now vacant, the school had a capacity for 720 students versus Ryerson’s capacity of 690 students. Ryerson according to data from the Utilization Commission needed $16 mil., and Laura Ward needed over $9 mil. But both schools 2008 facility assessments had reduced numbers, matter of fact Laura Ward only needed $3 mil. During the school closure decision process there was never any clarity on those maintenance dollars.

So now here we are in 2014 and the one pager for Real Estate Brokers from CPS recently posted RFP states that the yearly maintenance of Laura Ward is a little over $200,000 a year, and the information given to the brokers explicitly shows the available Tax Increment Financing dollars available to be potentially used.

Why couldn’t we have used those funds to lower the cost of Laura Ward and Ryerson maintenance and keep these high performing schools in the community? Keeping two schools with high academic achievement with relatively high utilization (Laura Ward's utilization was 55%) and continuing to support the stabilization of these anchoring schools who before the closure had eighth graders going elite high schools across the City. Matter of fact, Laura Ward is now back to being a Level 1 school. The new Laura Ward which is the consolidation with Ryerson no longer has a Fitness room, and has over 694 students in a building made for 690. 

The vacant school buildings mean so much more than a potential development project they must be a part of restoring the hurt, any damage done by the school closures and uplift these communities through community decision making and advising the disposition of these anchor institutions determined by those impacted.