PSAT for 6-12-12: Tend your garden

Students in Shamrock school garden - photo by Pamela Grundy

As we sit back and reflect on the powerful message the Chicago Teachers’ Union sent to Mayor Rahm yesterday, it seems like a good time to muse about where we go from here.

The CTU has some great ideas in their “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” report.

Today I’d like to add to that approach by passing on a beautiful article by our Charlotte, NC, Parents Across America member, Pamela Grundy, who writes about the last day at a school she was warned against sending her son to — “one of the many high-poverty, high-minority schools created as Charlotte dismantled its once-celebrated program of busing for desegregation.”

Pamela writes:

Six years ago, the (newspaper) coverage struck an ominous note. “If it were your child, would you risk it?” the headline asked, invoking the phrases that strike terror into ambitious parents’ hearts: “low scores,” “high poverty” and “struggling school.” The reporter followed several middle-class families who were thinking about sending kids to Shamrock, their neighborhood elementary. By the end of the article, we were the only family left.
Now, the pendulum has swung the other way.  “An elementary once so bad the state took it over has some miracle growth,” the Observer informed its readers. The article went on to detail the progress we have made: new programs, more strong teachers, higher test scores, an abundance of gardens and a growing number of the neighborhood families who once avoided the school….

Our successes were rooted in time-tested ideas – small classes, a stable, experienced staff, racial and economic integration – tempered with the understanding that good work takes time and patience. To use a garden metaphor, Miracle Gro may help you for a season, but if you want lasting success you have to build your soil.

This reminds me so much of another garden at school I knew pretty well a few years ago. Last week, I ran into a teacher at Ruiz Elementary school who told me about the wonderful programs happening there. In fact, Ruiz was about to celebrate the opening of their new Learning Garden.

14 or so years ago things weren’t so rosy at Ruiz. PURE was called in by a teacher member of the Local School Council to train the LSC in monitoring and revising their school improvement plan. The parents were unhappy with the school. It seemed to be in perpetual lockdown, parents didn’t feel welcome, and there wasn’t much happening for students. Then things got pretty exciting – the assistant principal displayed a gun (which he claimed was a toy) at an LSC meeting, and later the principal tried to get rid of a much-loved teacher.

With lots of training and support from PURE, the LSC selected a new principal and a new era began with the first Ruiz garden and a parent patrol, a PTA, and a bilingual committee. PURE named the Ruiz LSC our first “Good News LSC” – a recognition became a regular feature of our LSC newsletter.

Oh, and the teacher whom the original principal tried to force out eventually became the school principal.

Many communities across Chicago have been persistently asking to have the same chance as Pamela and her family and the Ruiz LSC – to work with a school over time, grow the programs in ways that engage children, and help build a stronger learning community.

Sadly, most communities are being denied this opportunity by the city’s greedy school closure and take-over frenzy. The lack of strong support for LSCs – either from CPS or independent groups like PURE, which no longer have the funding to provide those services – makes it more and more difficult for those elected bodies to do their important work planning for and supporting stronger schools. The communities and LSCs that have done so (like those supporting Dyett and Piccolo) have had the door slammed in their faces by the Board of Education.

What can we do?

Well, first of all, we need to keep fighting the weeds and pests of corporate reform that are trying to destroy our democratic system of public education. But we need to spend just as much energy planting and enriching the garden, promoting what we know works — processes and programs such as those laid out in the CTU proposal or in this excellent community-based piece, “Sustainable School Transformation,” put together by Communities for Excellent Public Schools.

We can’t stop. And, as Pamela has shown us, with patience, the garden will grow and thrive.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.