Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fighting another Rahm school closure at NTA

Niketa Brar (left) and Elisabeth Greer from National Teachers Academy 
Most of yesterday's show focused on the planned closing of another "high-performing" Chicago elementary school with an African-American student population. Our two in-studio guests, Niketa Brar and Elisabeth Greer, both elected members of the Local School Council (Elisabeth is the LSC chair) at National Teachers Academy (NTA), told the story of their community's struggle to save their school.

It's both an inspiring and heart-breaking tale of a school community that has managed to survive and thrive despite district misleadership and the rigors of 15 years of top-down, corporate-style reform, only to find itself on the chopping block. After finally achieving Level 1 status, NTA has been marked for closure. Its students could be moved into an expanded (1,800 students) South Loop Elementary -- an elementary school that size is criminal -- and NTA turned into a new high school for Chinatown.

As one parent put it, "they've got us fighting over scraps".

The school was launched in 2002 against the background of gentrification of the South Loop neighborhood, with a fancy misleading title (it was never a national teacher training academy) under the direction of a consortium of 15 school partners including universities who promised to deliver strong professional development for teachers at a neighborhood school.

Instead, what the school got was a takeover by a private turnaround company, AUSL, leading to teacher firings and principal churn. Since 2006, the school has stabilized, developed a strong teacher residency program in partnership with UIC and has now been declared a Level 1 school, based on its rising test scores. Most of the credit for the gains goes to the school's teachers and students as well as its two most recent principals, Amy Rome and Isaac Castelaz. 

Niketa and Elisabeth's story recalled the legacy of then-CEO Arne Duncan's so-called Renaissance 2010 reform initiative which was launched by Mayor Daley in 2004. It called for the closing of more than 80 schools to be replaced by 100 shiny new charters, contract schools, performance schools, turnaround schools, the year 2010.

I still remember Duncan speaking to Dodge Elementary parents who were angry over his handing their school over to AUSL, without any input from the community, and promising them that they would be thrilled with his new Renaissance alternatives. But by 2013, CPS was already closing many of the schools Duncan had created.

Ren 10 was a disaster on all levels. But it was the manufactured spin of this debacle as a "Chicago Miracle" which paved the way for Duncan's appointment as head of the Department of Education.

WBEZ's Becky Vevea wrote at the time:
In 2008, Dodge was where then president-elect Barack Obama announced Duncan as his pick for Secretary of Education.
“He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs, even when it was unpopular,” Obama said at the time. “This school right here, Dodge Renaissance Academy, is a perfect example. Since this school was revamped and reopened in 2003, the number of students meeting state standards has more than tripled.”
But fast forward another five years, Dodge and Williams are closing  their doors.
This story must have a familiar ring to the parents and students at NTA.

But, as Elisabeth assured us yesterday, "We're gonna win... We are an army of parents and allies from all over the city. This is not over." 

I believe her.

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