CPS School Budgets


On Monday, July 13, 2015, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) released preliminary spending plans for the 2015-2016 school year. Many schools face significant budget cups. We made a simple [news app to let users explore how different school budgets changed](http://apps.chicagotribune.com/news/local/cps_school_budgets/).

Additional coverage:

* [CPS Budget: Deep Cuts For Neighborhood Schools, Cash Infusion For Charters](http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20150713/loop/cps-student-budgeting-holds-steady-but-schools-will-feel-pinch) (DNAinfo Chicago)
* [Chicago Public Schools’ budgets spend $500 million district doesn’t have](http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-chicago-public-schools-budgets-20150713-story.html)

The human search engine

I’m working my way through danah boyd’s recent book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and really enjoy it.  It describes the Internet in a way that feels like it actually is, situated somewhere between our worst fears, and highest aspirations for technology.  Framing youth through their use of social media also serves to forefront broader dynamics affecting the lives of young people.

In challenging the idea of universally high levels of youth literacy and agency with technology, boyd makes the observation that both youth and adults often have skewed notions of trust around Internet information sources. A simplified version of the observation is this: information users demonize Wikipedia articles and deify Google search results.

Boyd says, one reason for the trust in Google’s results over information in Wikipedia is the idea that an algorithm lacks the bias of human authors or editors.  Young people often lack an educational background that lets them understand how bias also exists in software and that ultimately leads to skills for critical consumption of any Internet information, regardless of the source.

Living with two teenagers, I often see how research projects are not engaging or exciting and how choosing sources feels like a process guided by confusing, unfounded rules rather than critical thinking.

This made me wonder, what would an activity look like that helps participants think critically about information on the Internet and better understand the technology that delivers it? I sketched this idea out, which I call “The Human Search Engine”.

The human search engine

Shout out: this is largely inspired by FreeGeek Chicago’s The Human Internet activity.

The idea of an algorithm is explained, possibly by having one participant or group of participants control the motion of a volunteer, robot style.

Collectively, the group brainstorms categories of good information and bad information listing these where they can all be seen.

Participants  break into smaller groups.  Each group is given or asked to find 5-10 pieces of media that would match a given search query, ideally about a topic of their choosing.

Participants then order the pieces of information in order of highest to lowest quality.  They must then consolidate their reasoning into an “algorithm” that would generalize the ranking of results in their search engine.

Finally, participants reconvene and are given another group’s search query/ results to pass through their ranking algorithm.  They rank the results and then share how their algorithm works.


  • What practices could be used to game the search engine algorithm and elevate low-quality information the ranking?
  • How would you design an algorithm to censor certain kinds of information.

More Chicago teacher strike context

Why the U.S. is not Finland with regard to education policy:


Disconnect from wealthy funders of anti-teacher union candidates and largely low-income public school students:


Culture of “teacher bashing”:


Infographic on growth of charter schools:


New metrics

A friend posted an image on Facebook related to the Chicago Teacher Strike that said:

Legislators want teachers to be paid according to their effectiveness as evaluated by student test scores.

How about paying legislators according to their effectiveness — as evaluated by job creation and economic growth?

To unpack this a little, I’d say that job creation and economic growth suck as metrics for whether governance is working as much as test scores work as metrics for thriving schools. The problem with the debate over teacher evaluation is both in tying pay to performance in a really punitive way, but in a larger sense, the very metrics used to gauge performance.

I like things working well. I like accountability for the foundational institutions of our culture. What I don’t like is a data-driven world where the metrics most directly reflect the needs of corporations and not working and middle class people. When we talk about test scores or jobs or GDP, we’re talking about numbers, not the livable reality that we actually want.

A job or economic growth could look like a private prison, or a deregulated industry devastating the environment where its workers live, or a crazy tax deal (at the expense of worker rights) for a corporation to attract them to a state. These are the moves that legislators are making now either in an earnest failure or a cynical charade to be accountable to their constituents.

I’m not anti-metric, but as people most affected by public schools or job creation, we need to think about the metrics we really want and not just accept the ones being offered to us. Off the top of my head, these are some ones that reflect measurable outcomes in a world I’d like to live in:

  • Number of high school students who vote or otherwise engage in some civic process
  • Average number of paid family sick days and vacation
  • Number of people with health insurance or other access to health care
  • Number of years a household is able to stay in the same dwelling
  • Racial and income dissimilarity index for a neighborhood

See Click Fix for civic processes

Growing up, I was lucky enough to be able to walk or ride my bike to my school.  When I was a bit younger, and lived farther away, the district had door-to-door bus service.  This isn’t the case in Chicago.  Students who go to magnet or selective enrollment schools have to, in many cases, figure out their transportation.  At O’s school, there is a school bus that picks students up at her school and then drops them off at neighborhood schools closer to where they live.  It’s still a few miles from her house, but slightly more convenient than having to have an adult go to her school for a pickup.

Yesterday, she called her mom to say the bus wasn’t running and she needed a pick up.  I’m picking her up today and called the school to find out if I should meet her at the bus stop or if I have to pick her up from school.  The school said the bus wasn’t running all week, but when I called the bus company, they said it ran yesterday and was running today.  This kind of communication problem, between the bus company and the school and between both entities and families sucks and there are lots of similar problems with big, bureaucratic systems like Chicago Public Schools.

SeeClickFix is a useful platform and idea for engaging different stakeholders in reporting civic problems and getting them fixed.  I’ve heard that a Code for America team will be working with Chicago’s government to implement Open311.
This is also awesome, and ultimately a move in the right direction for not only getting problems identified and fixed, but also helping people living in cities understand how governments work (or don’t work).  However, both these platforms address problems mostly dealing with infrastructure.  For many in the city, the bigger problems are issues with process: how a licensing application flows through the city, how children get picked up to and from school, income verification to get food stamp benefits … EveryBlock sometimes surfaces these issues, but its model is based around conversations and doesn’t have an accountability model or visualization of how a civic system works built into the system.

I’d really like to see a web platform and supporting on the ground community for identifying and fixing problems with the process of civic institutions.  Web platforms are often a panacea for civic problems, but I think its important in this case, just to have a document of “this is how the system is supposed to work”, “this is how it actually works”, “this is who is responsible”, “this is when a problem was identified” and “this is what was done about it.”

Counting on you

West Ridge community organizers and census representatives hope community members can get everyone counted

To get to the census workshop, attendees must first be buzzed into the building and directed to the library, past the school children lingering in the hallway.

Inside the library, chairs have been hastily arranged into a wide ‘U’ and the tables commandeered, one to hold coffee, doughnuts, and fruit and another covered with literature in a variety of languages. Despite the snow and slush outside, more than a dozen people have trickled into the room, piling their winter coats on the back of their chairs, as inspirational music plays from a promotional video looping in the background.

School children linger at the room’s window, peering curiously inside, perhaps trying to figure out why these people, mostly women, some accompanied by young children, are sitting quietly as Nathan Taylor speaks in front of a portable projection screen.

Taylor, a partnership specialist for the Chicago Regional Census Center works with community organizers like Aga Kusmierz, with Organization of the North East, to get community members to complete their census forms, which they’ll receive in the middle of March, to make sure the community receives its fair share of funding.

“How much is distributed every year, based on the census counts?” Taylor asks.  A members of the audience murmur in response, “four hundred billion dollars.”  The first woman to respond is given a prize, a tote bag emblazoned with the United States Census 2010 logo.

After Taylor finishes his presentation, Kusmierz addresses the audience.  “The reason why we’re here, you’re not in the school, you’re not in the main building is because you don’t have a school,” Kusmierz said.  The workshop was held in the back end of a West Ridge Orthodox Jewish synagogue rented by Boone Elementary School to accommodate an overflow of pre-kindergarten and first grade students.

“You know this place is extremely overcrowded,” Kusmierz said.  “The kind of curriculum we have, the books, how many teachers we have, how many kids per teacher in the classroom, how long you’re waiting in the bus stop everything the roads the bridges the sidewalks that’s all because somebody 10 years ago didn’t fill out the census.”

Taylor,  said every person amounts to roughly $12,000 over 10 years. “Last time the census was conducted almost half the people in this community did not get counted,” Taylor said.  “So that’s a lot of money that would come to the community for schools, for senior citizen programs, health for clinics, for roads, to help defer the costs of the CTA.”

Getting community members to return their census forms can be difficult in a community like West Ridge where a large and diverse immigrant population may speak many different languages and residents may have cultural experiences which make them wary of the census.

The 2000 census showed that nearly 46 percent of the total population of West Ridge was foreign born and nearly 26 percent of the total population was not a U.S. citizen.  Over 58 percent reported speaking a language other than English at home.

Hala Anwayah, a mother attending the workshop, said that people of different cultures and different religions don’t feel safe or secure with their information being distributed.  Kusmierz added that some of the community members come from countries with oppressive governments.  Oftentimes they come here with a fear of government or a misunderstanding about why the census is being taken.

The U.S. Census Bureau is trying to address both language barriers and privacy concerns.  Paper census forms are available in Chinese, English, Korean, Russian, Spanish and  Vietnamese.  Language assistance guides are available in more than 50 languages, Taylor said.  In his presentation, Taylor stressed “our individual information is totally confidential” and explained  information collected in the census is kept private for 72 years.  Anyone who discloses personal information could face a $250,000 fine and five years in prison.

The bureau is also setting up Questionnaire Assistance Centers where people can seek help filling out their census forms or get answers to questions about the census.  Oftentimes, these centers are partnerships with community organizations such as the Muslim Women Resource Center, Taylor said.

Though tested in the 2000 census, Taylor said, this year’s census efforts reflect a greater effort to reach communities. Complete Count Committees have been formed in each of Chicago’s community areas with members from community business and activist organizations.

Taylor hopes that these efforts will foster a greater awareness of what the census means to community members so they can help explain the census and its implications to their neighbors.  When asked what could be done to help elderly residents who may be cautious about census workers knocking on their door, Taylor replied, “we hope that nighbors like you will tell them that the information is important to the community.  We’re depending on you.”

The census and its impact on community resources is another way for Kusmierz to connect community leaders with the many issues that affect them.  At the end of the census workshop, she announced an upcoming meeting about a new school built in the neighborhood.

Kusmierz said she expected a larger turnout at the census workshop, but that some parents had gone to a “kill the bill” rally to protest a state senate bill that would change the powers of local school councils.  Others had gone to an early morning board of education meeting.  Still, Kusmierz said those who had attended the census workshop would spread the message throughout their community.

by Geoffrey Hing and Shane Shifflett

How to Walk to School offers a compelling blueprint, but not a foundation

Moving to Chicago with two 9-year-olds, I had my first adult experience with “shopping” for schools. My household didn’t have the resources to consider private schools and were moving long after the deadline for applications to the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) selective magnet schools. So, the search for a good school was focused on the neighborhood schools where admission was guaranteed if a family lives within the school’s district boundaries. Knowing little about the city’s schools, websites provided information about test scores, programs offered, racial demographics, and, in some cases, parent reviews. The calculus of evaluating this information was extremely challenging. What needed to be read between the lines of parent reviews? Were there schools that deeply reflected diversity when a map of the highest rated schools and the racial makeup of the student bodies so clearly reflected the harsh rigidity of Chicago’s racial segregation, white flight, and gentrification? All of the factors seemed so difficult to weigh. How was I to compare the lively artwork (with notable connections across the curriculum) with the teacher who referred to some of her students as her “fragile babies” with the frantic parent distraught over pre-school admissions? Being only a quasi-parent complicated matters further. Ultimately, I wasn’t as intimately familiar with the needs of children that I had been living with as their mother. Furthermore, I found it hard to reconcile my abstract ideology with their concrete needs. I kept thinking of the choice in terms of my parents’ stories of changing race and class dynamics in the Flint, Michigan schools of their childhood and the subsequent flight of white, middle-class families from the schools and the city. I couldn’t stop thinking of the choice for these two kids in the broader context of how parents who could make choices about their children’s education ultimately made those choices. For better and for worse, even taking such larger dynamics into account, most parents make decisions based on the difficult projection of what will make their children most happy. As their mother firmly pointed out to me, the kids “aren’t an experiment.”

We ultimately moved to the Lakeview neighborhood, within the boundaries of the Nettelhorst school. On paper, the school seemed to have solid academics, a lot of arts programming, and visual first impressions showed a good playground, and vibrant exterior. The first time I visited the school, I was most struck by how designed the interior looked. It was neither sterile nor amateurish. It looked good. Slowly I heard bits and pieces of how parents in the community had invested in the school, shifting it from a school that faced many of the same problems as the majority of Chicago public schools into a highly desired, media acclaimed success story. The story of the changes seen by Nettelhorst seem almost mythical, so even if “How To Walk To School” does little to downplay the school’s mystique, it does provide a more comprehensive view of the school’s evolution.

“How To Walk To School” is co-authored by two of the key players in the school’s redevelopment. Jacqueline Edelberg is a parent who organized other East Lakeview parents to invest energy and resources into the neighborhood school while Susan Kurland is the former Nettelhorst principal who worked with community parents to bring changes to the school. Edelberg’s strategy for building a stong neighborhood school involved first organizing a small group of resourced neighborhood parents willing to commit to investing their energy, resources, and child’s attendence into the urban neighborhood public school rather than a private school, public magnet school, or a public school in the suburbs. These parents then built a strong relationship with an administrator (Kurland), who was willing to let the parents have broad access to the school to begin altering the school’s image in order to make it more appealing to other resourced families as an alternative to private or magnet schools. These parents also built relationships with cultural and community groups to provide services and programming at the school. This, once again, made the school more attractive to neighborhood parents and also to potential funders. Throughout the ongoing process of building a neighborhood school, the parents had to navigate the capricious funding and organizational dynamics of Chicago public schools. They also had to leverage their social capital to build relationships with everyone from neighborhood businesses to well-connected foundation board members to fund every aspect of the school’s changes. Finally, those working to bring about changes to the schoool had to adopt fundraising tactics from elite private schools and public relations strategies from the business sector to compete for scarce education funding dollars.

These strategies provide some surprising insights. The initial focus on attracting investment from resourced parents caused the original core group working to change the school to act first to make changes that some would argue as superficial. One such change was to remove the familiar posters encouraging students to read or discouraging negative behavior because such signs might trigger resourced parents’ negative preconceptions about the school.

Strangely, though written by Edelberg and Kurland, the story is told in the third person. While the authors try to be open about their orientations around the complicated issues that converge in public education, the third person voice ends up sounding more detached than objective. If, as the authors repeat throughout the books, school changes such as the ones happening at Nettelhorst can be initiated by average parents, everywhere, it is difficult to understand why they chose to awkwardly obscure their personalities, perspectives, and prejudices.

Narratives about public education often focus on a polarized cast of characters: parents, teachers, principals, school district administrators, politicians, and students. How to Walk to School tells a story about public education that is largely focused on a small group of parents and a principal. While such a focus makes sense in terms of the perspectives of the authors, no story about public education exists without the other players. Conflicts and challenges with teachers and other parents are frequently mentioned, but briefly, and as minor obstacles that could be powered through or circumvented. The approach taken by Edelberg and other neighborhood parents is a starkly unilateral one. Though the results of their efforts are impressive, the singular perspective of the book left me wondering if their were high costs to the approach of the Nettelhorst reformers that go unmentioned. The model and outcomes of the changes happening at Nettelhorst are interesting and significant, so it seems like the story deserves a more objective perspective that also includes the voices of those at odds with or marginalized by the changes in the school. Certainly, if the book is truly to act as a blueprint for other parents who want to enact change in their neighborhood schools, greater focus on the interpersonal, social, and ideological conflicts implicit to any kind of change would have been useful. With most of these challenges largely glossed over, the book may inspire others who wish to bring change to neighborhood schools but gives little perspective about how to improve on the process.

Divisions in race and class and the pain and animosity associated with these social rifts scar public education systems in the United States, particularly in cities with a long history of racial and economic segregation such as Chicago. In How to Walk to School, race and class loom as uncomfortable subjects. The ultimate result of the changes in Nettelhorst is that the neighborhood public school became a great educational option for middle to upper-middle class families who likely would have had a relatively large number of options for a quality education.

The authors of this book would likely admit that the strategy that they outline is a pragmatic one. However, it may be overly cynical. Early on, rather than changing neighborhood parents’ underlying prejudices about the school and the out-of-neighborhood students who filled it or mediating conflicts between students and school neighbors, those working to change the school chose to instead paint a more pleasant veneer over the school or limit interactions with students having just endured or preparing for a long bus ride home. Furthermore, while the book does not dismiss efforts towards fundamental shift in the amount of money directed by governments to public education, it believes that such changes are unlikely or slow to come and individual schools will have to help themselves.

The authors are quick to criticize “magic bullet” solutions such as CPS’ past dramatic restructuring of city schools. Just as these strategies can’t hope to solve for the diverse and deep problems of the district’s schools, Nettlehorst’s transformation doesn’t mean that the school is perfect. Sustaining quality public education remains a nuanced confluence of factors. The experience of the kids that I live with, transferring from a less resourced school to Nettelhorst, have been positive, but not idyllic. Ample funding for numerous arts programs hasn’t proven to be a match for a single excellent art teacher. Conversely, the visionary teachers who had such an equal, intimate relationship with their students at their old school had difficulty creating the calmer learning environment that they’ve found at Nettelhorst. Still, this doesn’t mean that the students don’t have to contend with capricious friendships, social hierarchies, and childhood cruelties. While the school has close relationships with the neighborhoods queer community, this doesn’t mean that students don’t bring their own family’s discomfort with different sexual orientations.

Perhaps, though, the most important change that results from the blueprint offered by How to Walk to School is not in the monetary resources of a school, its student demographics, or its curriculum, but a greater human investment, in terms of time, attention, and concern for public education from parents, administrators, neighbors, and the community. While this book stops short at exploring how this investment can help address challenges facing schools that can’t be improved with resources, such investments, if made carefully and with ample vision, might give way to broader transformations.

Single gender classrooms

This article came across my feed reader.  From the article: “The practice of separating girls from boys in the classroom was the norm decades ago. Now, it seems to be something of a new trend.”

A few thoughts … I read a book on gender and computing that said that while girls do better in single gender classrooms (I think this was specifically wrt math/science) boys do better in mixed-gender classrooms.  This article mentions that in one school, classes are multi-gender for things like gym and computer lab time which seems strange since the aforemetioned book identifies computer education as one of the areas where learning is most gender-mediated (and gym just intuitively seems terribly gender-mediated).  Finally, I would really like to know if anyone has tried to have single gender sessions a few times a week, then merging for classes.  Would this allow different learning strategies to emerge and solidify in the gender-specific classes and then, when shared in the mixed-gender session, students of all genders could pick the strategy that worked best.  Would this not work because students would judge strategies as “girl” or “boy” strategies rather than evaluatng them on their effectiveness or creativity?  Would the confidence in the strategies that might be built from the single-gender classrooms allow people to advocate for their approaches in a way that would convince their classmates despite gender prejudice?

Reading across the lines

The book group I’m facilitating at the county jail met again this past week, interrupting an Uno game going on in the common area of the cell block.  I had just played a game of Uno that afternoon, sprawled out across a post-picnic blanket on a grassy patch just above the lake.  Kids splashed below in the warm water, teenage girls lounged allofly in inflatable furniture, and in the distance, people careened back and forth across the wake of motorboats.  This is one of the things that is the most difficult about going into the jail – things that are completely familiar to me, like the Uno game, in a context that is completely different to my everyday reality.  Actually going into the jail has made me realize the boundary between solidarity and being in the same boat.  I think everything that I’ve encountered about jails and prisons firmly establish where you stand.  You are a guard, you are incarcerated, you are incarcerated and in the “therepeutic” block, you are in solitary, you are in the general population, you are a family member or friend here for visiting hours, you are a volunteer.  The roles, the mobility associated with each, and the expectations of each group by the others seem hard and rigid, ruts torn deeper and deeper with all the inertia of the prison industrial complex.  I want to just think that I’m just down, but even going in with the interest of supporting incarcerated folks is mediated by the fact, told bluntly by the corrections officer who did the volunteer training, that my ability to go in is largely based on the realization that programming in the jail tends to placate the incarcerated population there.

The reading group happens in the block and has a variable number of participants.  This is affected by what people have going on at the moment and the fact that people are constantly coming in and out of the jail, coming from a DOC facility for court or returning to a DOC facility after court.  This week, only 4 folks sat down at the table, with only 1 of them having read the book to be discussed.  The book might have been part of the problem.  A few weeks ago we had decided to read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a travel account of two middle-aged men who decide to hike part of the Appalachian Trail.  It was funny enough, and met the criteria that was established by those initially interested in the group, of having a subject that seemed to be far, far from the reality of incarceration and didn’t have the self-help twelve-steppy overtones that mark some of the other programming they participate in.  Still, a few folks expressed that they couldn’t get into the book.  My favorite response to the book that I heard was one word – “quitters”, as the protagonists seemed to spend as many nights sleeping in hotels and eating at diners as they did in the woods.  As I read through the book myself, I was a little worried that the book centered on this activity that represented an idleness and mobility; to spend weeks just hiking without worrying about jobs, families, or the things that a lot of the things that people in the jail talk to me about as concerns; that it would seem just insensitive.  Still, it’s unfair and just not true to make assumptions about people’s situations or their reactions in the context of their lives.

So what is my place here in the jail?  Reading, for all the reasons that anyone loves it, with the additional weight of it being an activity that can happen, relatively unhindered, even within the constraints of incarceration, seems to be an important part of people’s lives at the jail.  People talk about the books that they read, and pass them around.  I remember a conversation starting with “Remember that Marilyn Manson biography …”, the book having apparenly made its rounds through the block.  There’s no question that books are important to people in jail.  Having someone come in to facilitate a discussion group about books seems of more questionable value. For the men in the cell block where the programming happens, their days are filled with different groups, many of them focussed around rehabilitation, I think that one more structured activity that involves a group and a discussion just doesn’t seem that appealing.  Volunteering in the jail, there seems to be such an impasse between what corrections officials and non-profits think people who are incacerated need and what people who are incarcerated say they need.  I think that more than anything, people need to not be incarcerated, because dealing with all the other things in life become frustratingly cumbersome to impossible.  Beyond that I think the concerns of incarcerated people are the same as a lot of people that I know, obviously with varying degrees of severity: economic security, a safe, comfortable place to live, help sorting out relationships and family.  Those are such large, ambiguous things, but it’s the way I can most accurately express it.

I like going into the jail because it has made me have to reevaluate how I think about other people and about prison issues as “issues”.  But, even though I feel like I’m getting something out of my volunteer work, the exchange doesn’t exactly seem equal.  One of the men interested in the reading group said he would talk to others in the block to guage the actual interest and to get some input about what format would be best.  We talked about two things that would be an improvement – meeting once a month instead of biweekly and reading shorter works of fiction.  One thing that seems like something that I can really offer is just giving people access to books.  The Monroe County Public Library has a sweet jail library program, but the men I work with said that while they used to get to go to the library once every two weeks, they now can only go once every 4 or 5 weeks.

I’ve also sporadically tutoring math in the jail, and had been working with someone who just passed his GED exams.  Working in this capacity seems like I can offer people something of myself that seems more useful, but it’s still hard.  The person who just passed his GED said that one of the reasons he wanted to get his GED was so he could go into the armed forces when he was released.  I don’t want to see anyone join the armed forces, but I’m afraid that, facing the realities of the current economy, and the additional challenges that someone with a criminal record faces getting a job, the options are limited.  It’s so frustrating that I, and the things I believe in, can’t offer an alternative.  This makes me feel like I’m not in a position to do what people really need.  I can give people books, or some tricks to solving math problems, but I can’t give people jobs or build houses.  It makes me feel like I’m not doing the right thing. Everyone, and I mean everyone everyone and not just incarceration people, need inspiration and tools, to be sure, but it seems really narrow sighted to think that they’re enough.

Non-College Kids Outsiders to Rising ‘Youth Vote’

From a story on All Things Considered:

Since the 2000 elections, the number of young Americans going to the polls has increased steadily. This year is no different: In some states, double and triple the number of voters younger than 30 have turned out for primaries, compared with 2006. But another trend is also emerging: the widening voting gap between youth enrolled in college and their non-student peers.