An Open Letter to Chris Hayes, MSNBC

Feb 14, 2017 by

An Open Letter to Chris Hayes, MSNBC

Kathleen Loftus, Ed.D. –

Mr. Hayes – Your “Chicago in the Crosshairs” special was great, but when watching it I was struck by a key aspect that was missing in your expose’ of the causes of Chicago’s issues of inequality and depravity. A number of years ago (early 2000’s), I worked for the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) as a monitor of Chicago Public Schools’ Special Ed practices. In this role I discovered an incredible disparity being imposed on the poorer families of Chicago, completely without their knowledge.

This first came to my attention when I would visit a school on Chicago’s north side and see clean well-run classrooms with only a reasonable number of students, a wealth of materials, and shelves full of brand new textbooks and other resources. I would then visit schools in the same CPS school district on the south and west sides where the inequality I viewed firsthand was striking. I encountered crowded classrooms with peeling paint, broken desks, horrible acoustics, and bathrooms dripping from the ceilings above. Further, in these schools the teachers would grab my arm saying, “You’re from the State? Please help us! All we have to teach our students are torn textbooks from 1971!” (I’m not kidding!) It was also recently found that a large number of CPS schools’ drinking fountains contained lead-laced water – for how many years?

And that’s not all. When monitoring some CPS high schools in these regions of the city, I discovered a particularly deceptive practice. To preface, let me explain that unlike the schools throughout the rest of Illinois, the 500+ CPS schools are governed, not by an elected school board, but by the city’s Mayor’s Office. Back in the 1990’s, the NCAA was legally-mandated to begin awarding athletic scholarships only to students completing a “college prep curriculum.” In response to this new directive, Chicago’s mayor at the time, Richard M. Daley, mandated that all CPS high schools require that each of their graduates complete Algebra, Geometry, Advanced Algebra/Trigonometry, two years of the same foreign language, and two years of Science, including a course in Biochemistry.

Now, while these might have been well-meaning goals, the reality was that a number of CPS students, including those with and without identified learning difficulties, were never going to be able to meet these stringent graduation standards, which exceeded those of ISBE, and were required simply so that no student missed the one in a million chance to be the next Michael Jordan. Nevertheless, Mayor Emmanuel has continued these CPS graduation requirements to this day.

What I discovered, however, was that a large percentage of students at several CPS schools, particularly the “catch-all” high schools housing the students who did not manage to be selected for one of CPS’s “magnet” high schools, were being placed in alternative “fake” courses under the table. I learned that each high school had a “Scheduler” who would place under-performing students into random “General Math” courses, in place of Advanced Algebra/Trigonometry, for example, as well as making similar substitutions for these students’ other required subjects.

Nevertheless, these students’ transcripts would ultimately read that they had completed the more stringent courses that they had never actually seen, without their receiving colleges, or most of their parents, having any idea. In many cases, these students who would subsequently attempt to enter the local City College or other post-secondary institutions, would find that they were incapable of passing even the GED-level entrance exams. This is patently fraud, yet when I attempted to bring this practice to the attention of my State Education supervisors, I was told this was outside of the purview of what I had been designated to monitor. (The relationship between CPS and ISBE is not one that is easily challenged.)

Still, another factor contributing to this crisis is that virtually all students attending CPS’ K-8 schools are passed along to the next grade, regardless of their lack of acquired grade-level skills. As such, it is no wonder that many arrive at high school lacking the skills needed to pass even the minimal course requirements. After failing most or all classes their freshman year, many become frustrated and disillusioned, being drawn, instead, to the seemingly more glamorous and lucrative life of the area gangs. What’s worse, as was shared with me by several south and west side teachers, those 8th graders who were deemed too poor-performing to succeed in high school without needed supports, were encouraged by school staff to drop out prior to entering high school, which is likely one key way that CPS was able to show a reduction in their high school drop-out rate not that long ago.

The reality is, just as minority populations were barred from obtaining FHA mortgages, bank loans and home purchases in the “better” areas of Chicago in the 1960’s, these individuals have continued to be denied equal access to a free appropriate public education in Chicago Public Schools. For the past few years I’ve been teaching future teachers, many who are doing their student teaching in CPS, where I’ve learned that little has changed in this regard.

ISBE publishes “School Report Cards” for every school in Illinois. On these annual documents are recorded each individual school’s enrollment, ethnicity breakdown, low-income percentages, student mobility rates, reading and math scores, and number of teachers with master’s degrees, all of the data being expressed by school. Then, under the heading of “Per Pupil Expenditure” is listed a dollar amount that is qualified as “school district average.” This is a public school district, encompassing an entire city. What right do they have to arbitrarily provide greater resources to some neighborhood schools than to others?

As a result of these disparate conditions, most of the better teachers and administrators, who may have begun their careers in these underfunded schools, have fled to the safer and far more lucrative suburban school districts. This is significantly contributing to the pattern of violence and despair that is seemingly blighting the areas that are continually cited as “most dangerous.” However, what needs to be revealed is that this is not occurring by accident. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to starve the residents of these neighborhoods of needed academic resources until they all either die or leave.

There’s one other thing that dawned on me about this issue. Situated literally in the middle of much of this crime and blight is the University of Chicago Hospital, which I found myself visiting frequently in 2012-14 for cancer surgery and treatment. They are the best of the best, with incomparable facilities and clinically-skilled practitioners. What struck me each time I was there, as I rode the elevator with other patients and their families, many who were discussing living nearby, is that in this facility these area residents and their children were being treated with the level of dignity and superior care that they likely never experienced elsewhere in their community.

Because so many of the schools in Chicago’s south and west sides are so decrepit, dangerous, and chronically under-performing, what would it mean, I wondered, if they could all be replaced with one full-scale, state-of-the art, comprehensive K-12 teaching and teacher-preparation facility on the grounds of the University of Chicago? Rather than languishing in the worst of the worst schools in the nation, children of Obama’s old community-organizing stomping grounds could finally experience the high-quality education and supports they so desperately need. (The Obama children actually attended a University of Chicago-run elementary school, but it was a far smaller and selective facility.) Surely, it would make all the difference in the world to Chicago students’ futures, and to the future of the city as a whole.

I once wrote an article entitled, “Steve Harvey’s Right: It’s Not Fair!” (EdNews, 12/14/05), that recognized his very pro-active approach to the problem of CPS schools by donating a large sum of money to Bogan High School in Chicago, while stating, “The schools on Chicago’s south side are not the same as the schools on Chicago’s north side! The schools on Chicago’s west side are not the same as the schools on Chicago’s north side!” But, while this remains a very generous effort, he’s not the only financially-comfortable celebrity who calls Chicago home, and it will take far more than one to make this dream of better schools for a Chicago students a reality. It would take benefactors who actually want to see all of Chicago change for the better, not those who merely assign blame, wring their hands, and profess helplessness. But still, I have to believe, it IS possible.

Kathleen Loftus is a member of the Special Education Faculty at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, author of “Set Up to Fail: 100 Things Wrong with America’s Schools,” and President-elect of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois.

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