Blog Archive

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An Open Letter to Arne Duncan

Dear Arne:

Now that the Tribune is reporting your office will decide the fate of Big Picture High School within the month, I feel the need to speak out about the school as a neighbor and a friend of its students and their families. Yes, Big Picture is expensive. Yes, it's an open question how good a job the school is doing getting kids to score high on the almighty PSAE. More importantly, whether students are learning the math they need for college is a very open question. But it is doing something our other neighborhood high school is not doing—getting kids to go to school and keeping those kids in school. The school's annual dropout rate was 6 percent in year one and 5 percent in year two. The annual dropout of its nearest neighbor, Richards High School, was about twice as high in the same period. In 2005 Big Picture had a 93 percent attendance rate, a very strong showing among city high schools. Richards' attendance was 87 percent, one point above the city average but substantially lower than its neighbor.

When Big Picture opened, elementary school counselors here rushed to send them students they feared would not make it in regular high school. As a result, I would bet you dollars to donuts that well over half of the 75 or so students in that school right now would be dropouts today had they started at Richards or any other neighborhood high school. How do you weigh that in a decision to close a school? And while Don Pittman is crying about the expense, the district is happy to run Second Chance alternative high school here in the neighborhood, which serves even fewer kids. Having been an alternative high school teacher I know we need schools like Second Chance, but wouldn't you rather spend that kind of money before the students drop out?

There are plenty more kids growing up here who will need a high school like Big Picture. They will need a place where they know and trust their teachers and classmates, a place where their interests are valued and shape their schoolwork. Despite the best efforts of some people in CPS to destroy what Big Picture schools do to bring student choice into the classroom and build strong relationships between teachers and students, Big Picture at Back of the Yards has done both of those things for most of its students. I know this because I see them on my block and I talk to them, because I work with them on their college essays, because they come over to my house to prepare and rehearse their quarterly exhibitions. With all the weaknesses this school has, it is still a wonderful opportunity for young people who don't get many opportunities handed to them. I hope you will find a way to keep the school open and to give it a real chance to operate as it was designed.


Anonymous said...

I can only hope Duncan reads your statement, Maritza. The recent public discourse fails to include the contexts you are articulating so eloquently. How a system as far-reaching and all-encompassing as CPS can consistently overlook the impact of these things is galling to me, and I hope an embarrassment to all involved.

Let's hope the conversation is only beginning - and not winding down as the tone seems to infer.

Anonymous said...

I really think that schools like this thrive with no support from CPS until they are noticed and crushed (ie Best Practices or Washington Irving featured on This American Life.) Innovative schools like these could save public education from the specter of privatization, but their own administration won't fight. Instead we will end up with cookie cutter charter schools teaching kids to become obedient, high scoring drones.

Anonymous said...


Just some more info on BP...55% of their seniors are enrolled in a college course, 28% of juniors, & 17% of seniors...with most passing with a C or better at National Louis University. Many with B's and A's. Freshman improved 1.9 years- one being the expecation.

In addition, I have these two stories...Story #1

I was in the school and happen to start talking to a student. I knew he had spent his summer in New Orleans and asked him how it went. I didn't have to prompt him further. He went into a detailed description of what they did that reflected what learning and real life is about. He explained the code that was on each house as they tore down the walls to build new ones. Sorry I don't remember in detail. I will try my best. From understanding this code he knew whether there were people who died in the house, whether it was searched by the National Gaurd, whether they found "bad" bacteria-of course Anthony knew the technical term- and other things. Then he went on to explain why New Orleans was hit so bad. He described the concept of above sea level and below sea level and even drew a picture-which I still have for evidence of learning. He further described the operational definition of what a levy is and how by t hat operational definition what was set up to protect against disasters were not levys. Thus the fatal effect on New Orleans. What really made me say "aha" this is an approximation of the BP model of learning is the follwoing. On his way out of the class (he was standing in the threshold of the doorway) I finally said something...why don't you do this as part of your senior project and I'm sure you can raise money to get students to go? He responded...Hmm we were able to get a lot of money down 26th street (Little Village main strip in a Mexican neighborhood). But when we went to North Lawndale (predominantly African American) we didn't get much. All I did was say "Interesting" you know
what that boy responded?

Instead of going into explanations that support stereotypes he said,
"No. That's Social Reasoning" (A Big Picture Learning Goal)and left out the door!

Social Reasoning asks these questions to guide research -qualitative or quantitative- How do diverse communities view this? How does this issue effect different communities? Who cares about this? To whom is it important? What is the history of this? How has this issue changed over time? Who benefits and who is harmed through this issue? What do people believe about this? What are the ethical questions behind this? What are the ethical questions behind this? WHat do I think should be done abou this? What can I do?

After hearing this I felt like I took a trip through a depth of understanding (the Matrix) I hadn't experienced. I have to say that my superficial belief ...that before this experience I called "authentic" belief in the model changed to a whole other level. I was amazed at how that final comment could tell me the depth of his learning. Afterward through more reflection I realized what a rich intellectual discussion I was able to have with an 17 year old. Okay so maybe I've known this student for four years and he trusts me..

BUT let me tell you this story...

Story #2

I just experienced this story, Friday, at a parent teacher student potluck at BP and it went something like this...

I sat down in the first available space to feed my 10 month old. She's very sociable, intelligent, strong and cute! I regress-back to the story. So I'm feeding her and I look up to see a student come sit across from me. This student is reserved and can tell right away he's NOT an extrovert. He's eating and I ask him if that's all he's going to eat...he's a skinny kid. I guess that's how the conversation started 'cause I'm not sure how we got to these details...he started talking about how he really likes his LTI. He's at Chicago Commons and its a tutoring program for 6, 7, 8th grade students. He started to describe what he has learned in the "Empirical Reasoning Rotation" (aka Environmental Science) and how he set up a presentation for the students in Chicago Commons of how global warm ing happens and how to prevent it. He discussed and described how the gas around the earth...the ozone layer is and how it it is changing its compostition that doesn't allow for heat to escape the earth...he goes on more about the many, many science details I can't remember. I asked how did he know the students liked the presentation and he answered that they were so into it that they kept asking questions and wanted to know more but he had to finish to help them study for school. I felt like I took a matrix trip again. 2 realizations: a student I never met before sat down with me and engaged me in an intellectual conversation about real world science without me having to prompt the whole time. #2 It was a natural conversation from a student who is reseved and he is a sophomore.

Amazing huh?

Anonymous said...

Whoops...mistake. 17% of the sophomores are taking college courses at National Louis.

Maritza said...

Yes, totally amazing, but not surprising when people find something they want to learn about for themselves. Thank you for sharing.

I just have to add that yesterday afternoon one of the sophomores was over here. She asked me to look over her report on diabetes that is due Monday. Since I'm an writer and a former English teacher, I'm trying to get her to understand the idea of parallel structure in writing. She's starting to get it, but she forgets sometimes.

In terms of the content, she wrote a section about genetics and the role of heredity in diabetes that she didn't fully understand.

"Do you know what a gene is?" I asked her.

She didn't. So I tried to give her a quick Genetics 101 and we took a hunt on the Internet to see if they had any good explanations. I didn't find what I was looking for, but we did find a press release about a new study at the University of Colorado at Denver that has located a gene or gene cluster that has a very high correlation with type 1 diabetes. Earlier research had not established anywhere near such a strong genetic link in type 1 diabetes. I emailed her the link and hope she will talk with a teacher about it on Monday to get a deeper understanding. She does have a better grip on genes, chromosomes and the difference between identical and fraternal twins than she did before our conversation. It was fun.

Windy Citizen Share