From the archives: South Loop and NTA

12/18/2009 11:47 AM

By Micah Maidenberg

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With the upper grades of South Loop School seemingly headed to empty classrooms in the National Teachers Academy, 55 W. Cermak, I thought I'd post a few stories from the Chicago Journal archives for context.

Dig in.

March 2001
Officials break ground on new South Loop school
Set to open 2002, teaching academy will train students and teachers alike
In a groundbreaking ceremony that included Mayor Richard Daley, 2nd Ward Alderman Madeline Haithcock, Chicago Public Schools Education Chief
Cozette Buckney, and the Chicago Housing Authority's Terry Peterson, construction for a $42 million teaching academy and elementary school in the South Loop officially kicked-off yesterday morning. And if everything goes according to schedule, local preschoolers through eighth graders could be stalking its halls starting fall 2002.
"Construction should take a little over a year," said Terry Levin, spokesman for the Public Building Commission, which is building the school. "It should be
finished by June of next year, which gives the School Board until fall to get everything else moved in for school."
Located at the corner of Cermak Road and Federal Street, the National Teaching Academy of Chicago will be one of the first of its kind. Through one-way mirrors in its classrooms, student teachers will watch master teachers instructing kids. Those classrooms will also be wired and lessons telecast to public school teachers citywide
"From what I hear, it's going to be great," said Barbara Lynne, executive director of the Near South Planning Board. Lynne said she wants to make sure that children from nearby Ickes and Hilliard Homes will have the chance to attend.
According to CPS officials, the teaching academy, built on a five-acre site, will indeed serve Ickes and Hilliard Homes, in addition to more monied townhouses and condos going up in Central Station and the South Loop.
It'll also relieve some of the overcrowding at the South Loop School on Plymouth Court. With 32 classrooms, the school will enroll roughly 750 students and train 100 student teachers. Levin said the Public Building Commission chose the site because it offers the teaching academy the ability to grow, and because the school will help improve the neighborhood.
"This is land that needed to be reclaimed," Levin said. "In the 1950s, there was an auto body shop here and the soil was soaked with decades-old oil. All that had to be cleaned. Plus, there are vacant lots all around that can be assembled into the school if it needs an expansion."
The Public Building Commission will also construct a $5 million community center across the street to house a gymnasium, a pool and a day care center for students and nearby residents. As part of the mayor's intention to make neighborhood schools into neighborhood centers, the community center will be open to the public after school.
"In the evening, the walkway between the school and the community center will be locked, and everybody can go in the gym and play," Levin said.

April 2002
School Board hands South Loop School new academic programs
Coinciding with changing boundaries and a teachers academy 10 blocks south, regional gifted center, neighborhood magnet program would boost offerings at ailing elementary
Staff Writer
Even before the National Teachers Academy of Chicago, at Cermak and Federal, started looking more like a reality and less like a muddy expanse of steel planks and backhoes, the rumor mill at South Loop School began churning. Parents worried their children would be forced out of the 17-year-old elementary school nestled among Dearborn Park's grassy yards, or, worse, that the building would be boarded up and bulldozed and its students scattered to the winds. Others heard scuttlebutt about a magnet school or a junior high supplanting South Loop School, or that the $40 million teachers academy down the road represented an elaborate smoke-and-mirrors scheme meant to lure poorer children south. Schools CEO Arne Duncan's announcement last month that South Loop School's attendance borders would shrink next year--leaving the majority of the school's current students outside its new territory--only fueled
parents' anxiety and growing anger.
So two weeks ago, a troupe of six School Board heavy hitters descended on South Loop School's Local School Council meeting to dispel the gossip and bestow a benediction. Not only would South Loop not be razed to the ground, said Mary Ellen Caron, a special assistant to Duncan, but the School Board
was poised to offer the students there three new programs as early as this September: a regional gifted center, a neighborhood magnet program, and both tuition-based and Head Start preschools. Plus, Caron said, a long-requested school building face-lift was in the works.
"It depends on if the monies come through," Caron told meeting-goers. "South Loop School is on a list ... Some children will have moved to the teachers academy, and there will be room for new programs at South Loop."
Outlining those new programs, Chicago Public Schools Academic Enhancement officer Jack Harnedy told LSC and audience members that the School Board hoped to install a neighborhood magnet program at South Loop School and perhaps center it around a fine arts curriculum.
(Dropped in recent years, fine arts served as an original programmatic focus for the school.) In addition, according to Harnedy, South Loop could house a regional gifted center open to kids testing in the 90th percentile or higher. Launching the program first in kindergarten and first grade, schools officials would expand it by one grade each year, Harnedy said, and give priority to students living within South Loop and Williams schools' boundaries.
"Testing would take place as soon as we get the go-ahead," he said.
But standing before a distrustful audience, School Board officials found themselves doing as much persuading as explaining. Some in the audience questioned the timing of academic reforms at South Loop School, on the cusp of an exodus of southward students. Frustrated that schools officials had come only lately--and as a surprise--LSC Chairman George Blackwell said he wished LSC members had been given a little more notice and share of control over the new programs.
"We've gotten very little interaction from the Board on anything," Blackwell said. "Every time I try to interact with the Board and say, 'Hey, we're interested, we want to know what programs are available, what can you do?' it's hushed. Now, at the end of our term, everybody's here, and everybody's saying, 'We can do this and this and this for you,' as if those programs didn't exist two weeks ago, six months ago, a year ago."
"You may say, 'We don't want a regional gifted center,'" said Marietta Beverly, regional education officer for Region 3, noting that hers is the only region without a gifted center. "But by the same token, if you don't want it, I've got 25 schools that do ... You control what happens as the program develops, according to the rules of the programs, and those are set by the Board. But the idea was, let's get some programs in Region 3, and what better program to start with than a regional gifted center?"
According to Caron, the gifted center ball got rolling because of School Board worries that the gleaming teachers academy might overshadow existing neighborhood schools and engender hurt feelings among parents who felt their children were being left out. But some at the meeting seemed unconvinced, especially since the teachers academy won't bear the magnet school moniker South Loop is set to wear.
"We feel like the new school is so fantastic that we're really working to upgrade the other schools around it so it doesn't look like, 'How come I can't go there?'" Caron said.
In an interview Sunday morning, Caron owned up to a need for stepping up public relations at the teachers academy, which the city spent more to build that it has spent on any other school's construction.
"We have to do some things," Caron said. "We have to have some open houses."
Also anticipating the teachers academy's grand opening this summer, the School Board voted last week to shorten South Loop School's southern boundary by four blocks. Starting in the fall, kids living south of 18th Street will be part of the teachers academy territory--although current South Loop students can be grandfathered in at the neighborhood school, and older kids will remain at South Loop until the teachers academy grows into grades six through eight. Many parents have said they'd rather send their children back to South Loop School, but School Board officials expect many others to depart for the teachers academy.
CPS Capital Planning Director Giacomo Mancuso told South Loop's LSC audience that if every South Loop student living outside the new boundaries were to leave, the school's population would shrink from nearly 300 to just 42. Within South Loop's new stomping grounds, there are 184 public school students and an unknown number of private school enrollees hopping buses or catching rides elsewhere.
"The staff will be reduced significantly," Mancuso said. "But, again, you've got to know how many kids are going to be showing up to register at the school before any staffing decision is made."
Some view the School Board's program offerings and shifting borders as a boon. Commending Duncan for "sending out the A-team" to this month's meeting, LSC member Larry Young said in a Monday afternoon interview that he'd long been a supporter of opening a preschool at South Loop School. Along with the
regional gifted center and the neighborhood magnet program, the prospect of a preschool might rekindle interest in the elementary school among its closest neighbors, who've shied away from the troubled school and sent their children elsewhere.
"The recipe for success in schools is diversity," Young said, noting that the student body at Andrew Jackson School, where his children are enrolled, is one-third white, one-third African-American, and one-third Latino. "The Board is handing a fabulous potential to South Loop School," Young said. "This is happening for the first time, and it's not just because of demographic changes. Every student currently enrolled at South Loop, even if they're outside the new boundaries, is entitled to stay a South Loop."
"With the new school opening, the Board had to do something about changing the boundaries," said parent Michele Carney by E-mail Tuesday. "It only makes sense ... I think the [teachers] academy is going to be the school to go to in the future. Both schools need to e of mixed races and mixed economics."
"Hopefully we can build a multi-socioeconomic mix in this school, which is what people have wanted for a long time," Caron said Monday.
Journal Editor Brett McNeil contributed to this story.

May 2002
So just what is a Teachers Academy, anyway?
School Board officials plan to answer whole host of South Loop education queries in May 14 forum
Karen Muller has a couple of questions she wants to ask Chicago Public Schools officials. A Dearborn Village resident, Muller until recently lived within the boundaries of South Loop Elementary School and last month she showed up at a community meeting to meet the Local School Council candidates backed by the South Loop Education Alliance. But since about a dozen School Board honchos were also at the meeting, and made themselves available for questions, Muller figured she'd ask about local schooling.
For one, she wondered, what were her daughter's options, now that the southern attendance boundary for South Loop Elementary has been changed?
Well, said the schools officials, all those questions would be answered--the April forum was organized as a candidate event, after all, and CPS staffers weren't looking to hog the limelight--at another, different, separate community meeting. If Muller could only bring her queries to that confab, then they'd have all the time in the world to explain, in excruciating detail, just what it was she wanted to know. And next Tuesday night, beginning at 6 p.m., Muller will get her chance to pepper schools higher-ups with all those unasked and unanswered questions of two weeks ago.
"Basically, my frustration is the parents have had to do all the work and make decisions and now the rules have changed," said Muller in a follow-up interview Monday night. "It's very difficult to make a decision [given] the inaccessibility of information."
What Muller and parents like her are wondering is just how and when a new neighborhood magnet and gifted program announced last month will work at South Loop School. And having just been drawn out of South Loop's attendance boundaries, Muller in particular has some questions about the new neighborhood school her daughter would enroll in if she were to go to her local grammar school. For one, just what is a National Teachers Academy, other than a first-of-its kind education laboratory now under construction at 55 W. Cermak?
With her daughter headed into kindergarten next year, Muller months ago started making calls to CPS staffers to ask about schooling options. By February she'd completed 27 applications, and acceptance letters started arriving in April. By the end of May, she's got to make a decision about where to send her child to kindergarten. And hosting a tell-all public meeting only two weeks before most schools want a commitment, Muller said, is just bad planning on the part of the School Board.
"It really is working to their disadvantage not to do some informational cross-training," she said. "When your first question can't be answered ... . And I'm not talking about detail, I'm talking about basic information, and I'm not alone on this. I've been going to five-year-old birthday parties and this is what I'm hearing."
"My irritation is that here it is, by the time they finalize things it's the middle of May. ... Effectively you need to make all of your decisions and they're saying, 'Now you're in a new school.'"
While School Board officials could not be reached for comment on this story, Mary Ellen Caron, special assistant to Arne Duncan, said in an interview for an earlier story that she and her colleagues needed to do more to get the word out about the Teachers Academy. And speaking at the April SLEA candidate forum, Caron said she would be on hand at the May 14 meeting to do just that.
Next Tuesday's meeting about South Loop School programming changes--including a fee-based day care program that CPS officials want to bring to the elementary school--and the National Teachers Academy will be held in the South Loop School Branch, 1915 S. Federal. Doors open at 6 p.m. and School Board staffers are presumably ready to burn a little midnight oil.

June 2002
Sparks fly at Teachers Academy unveiling
Heated words over boundaries at initial public meeting for unique new South Loop elementary school
Looking forward to unveiling the new National Teachers Academy in the fall, School Board officials and teachers academy staffers last week went out beating the South Loop bushes. But while they brought with them a message of unique educational offerings and a state-of-the-art facility, they found themselves kicking up embers and fanning flames of frustration among a group of curious-if-testy parents at meeting last Thursday night inside the community room at the 1st District police station. First there was the matter of attendance boundaries, and then there was the matter of the teachers academy's planned lack of a Local School Council. And in the end there was a state rep-elect pledging to make it all good.
But before the brouhaha, Linda Ford, NTA's principal and director, told meeting-goers that she and her staff were, frankly, a little nervous. Holed up in the basement at Williams School for the last year, hashing out the teachers academy curriculum and recruiting its staff, they hadn't yet pitched their plans to the public.
"The reason you didn't know a lot about us is that this was a planning year for us," Ford said. "We feel like now we have something concrete to talk about."
The teachers academy, Ford said, "is the first professional development school for CPS. As far as we know, it's the first ... in the nation that's tied to an urban school system."
Normally affiliated directly with universities, professional development schools like the teachers academy serve essentially as working laboratories for educators. Staffed by master teachers, classes are observed by teachers-in-training as well as by those furthering their own educations as educators. Working with the master teachers, visiting educators also join in on classroom doings.
In addition to providing an actual, physical lab for teaching teachers how to do their jobs in urban schools, the school is also supposed to improve the educational offerings for kids who otherwise would have gone to South Loop School or the soon-to-be-shuttered Williams School. In all, there will be room for 850 students.
However, newly set attendance boundaries--these run from the railroad tracks west of Clark at 18th Street east to the lake, south to Cermak and back over to Michigan Avenue, then south again to the Stevenson Expressway before heading west to the tracks and back north to the starting point--have drawn some Williams students out of the teachers academy. And because the school is a neighborhood school and not a magnet, there are no special provisions for kids outside the official boundaries--or at least so said School Board officials Giacomo Mancuso, whose office established the attendance boundaries, and Mary Ellen Caron, who serves as CEO Arne Duncan's special assistant.
That wasn't what parents wanted to hear--one woman was so frustrated by the boundaries that she began crying after yelling at CPS staffers and had to leave the room--and Ickes Advisory Council President Gloria Williams promised to fight the School Board on the decision to split up Williams students while their school is reconstituted next year.
"Don't freeze my kids out now that the [teachers academy]'s built. Now ya'll are changing the story. If anybody plans to exclude my children from that school, all hell's gonna break loose," Williams said.
Ford repeatedly said attendance boundaries weren't her bailiwick, and Mancuso and Caron stood by the lines of a CPS map sitting on an easel at the front of the room. Caron told audience members the teachers academy boundaries had been set before Duncan announced the closure of Williams earlier this year.
"The unfortunate thing that happened with Williams ... it closed after the NTA boundaries were set," Caron said. "That doesn't help you, I know."
Ken Dunkin, state representative-elect in the new 5th District, stood up to say that the fight to keep Williams open had been lost but that he would seek concessions for Williams parents with the School Board.
"I'm not going to let any community become neglected as it relates to education," he said. Still, at least one parent wanted to know why there would be no LSC at the teachers academy. Ford said the school's "dual mission" of teaching kids and teachers alike made it more than a little different than your everyday neighborhood school. So rather than a standard Local School Council, the teachers academy will have an advisory board made up of representatives from Arne Duncan's office and the Chicago Teachers' Union, from universities and charitable foundations, and from Ford's office. After some confusion over the point at the meeting, Caron last week clarified that there will be two parent representatives on the board, as well.
A subsequent informational meeting Monday night was strictly sedate, and another is planned for next Wednesday between 6 and 7 p.m. at 1718 S. State.

June 2002
Not a typical school
While the National Teachers Academy promises innovation and change for South Loop students, one thing it won't have is a Local School Council
Contributing Writer
As the National Teachers Academy scrambles to get ready for its first class of students in September, some parents wonder how well their interests will be represented at the new school that will not have a traditional Local School Council.
But school staff said they will make efforts to get to know many parents and students this summer through a series of tours starting in July, an open house in August and one-to-one interviews with parents.
The NTA, as the new school is acronymically known, will be governed by an 11-member oversight board that will include two parents. The other members will be Schools Chief Arne Duncan, Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, Chicago Teacher Union President Deborah Lynch or a designee, two representatives from foundations, a university representative, the NTA's principal, and its director of professional development.
So far, none of the board members have yet been chosen, said NTA Principal Linda Ford during a Monday interview. In the meantime, the teachers academy staff has been working to reach out to parents and students ahead of time to "define a culture and climate before the doors open," she said.
Ford's administrative team has been meeting with parents to find out, among other things, their expectations for the new school, past experiences with Chicago's public schools, and their children's interests and needs. Though she would like this information for every child before September, Ford said not everyone will be reached before then. The interviews will continue through the fall.
Parents will also be able to meet with staff during an Aug. 14 open house and orientation, to be held at three times--noon, 3, and 6 p.m.
For parents and all community members, staff will lead daily tours starting at 2 p.m. from July 22 to Aug. 16, Ford said. No advance notice is required for those who'd like to drop by and check things out.
Complicating the preparations of teachers academy and School Board staffers has been the unexpected announcement that the NTA would welcome 6th-,7th- and 8th-graders displaced from Williams Elementary School, which the Board of Education decided in May to close for one year.
About 400 Williams students will attend the teachers academy, boosting the total enrollment to 850. Ford said brand-new schools don't usually open with a full house. More commonly they open in phases, adding grades and building up toward full enrollment.
Queen Fields, chair of the Williams Local School Council, said last week that it may be premature of some parents to wonder if a Local School Council will form at the NTA. Fields said parents on LSCs have the legal authority to approve budgetary and curriculum plans. The NTA, however, has such a different purpose that new parents may not be sufficiently prepared to grasp their responsibilities as local school council members, according to Fields.
"It's a problematic situation because [the academy] is not student-focused," she said. Ford said while many of the NTA's goals are aimed at teachers, "Everything that we do goes to support the kids."
The main mission of the $47 million facility 55 W. Cermak is to pair experienced, master teachers with young teachers so that the newcomers can learn first-hand the essentials of teaching in an urban environment. The school features classrooms constructed with one-way glass so visiting teachers can observe classroom techniques without distracting students, and teachers can be graded on their performance by their mentors.
And because of that somewhat unusual set-up--school as in-service teaching laboratory--Fields believes the teachers academy should have some time to work out its unique program and get past its "growing pains."
"I think the question of a Local School Council should be addressed later," she said. Local School Council advocate Julie Woestehoff disagrees, however.
Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, an LSC advocacy and training group, said she sees a trend by CPS administrators to find ways to circumvent the laws that establish the creation of Local School Councils.
"I see there's an attempt to provide multiple opportunities for writing Local School Councils out of the picture," she said. Despite praising Duncan for making efforts to mend relations between the School Board and Local School Council advocates, Woestehoff said the board's plans to roll out small schools and other specialty programs have veered away from including parents as council members. She points to the small schools policy adopted by the Board of Education in April. In it, the board announced that schools that convert part of their student body to a small school can retain their councils for five years, or until a different form of governance is chosen for the small school.
Brand-new small schools--those not carved out of an existing school--can forego having a local school council altogether under the policy, according to Woestehoff. Another way to avoid establishing LSCs. Woestehoff said, is to create contract schools, specialty facilities that operate under guidelines negotiated with the School Board. One such school is the Chicago Academy, 3400 N. Austin. Like the NTA, it has a teacher-training mission and is led by a governing board, not a Local School Council.
Woestehoff said the Williams school closing was already a blow to the authority of parents under the School Reform Act that created local school councils.
"What is that saying about the rights of parents?" she asked.
Woestehoff also worries that elitism may creep into schools governed by boards made up of outsiders. Schools work best when parents can speak directly
through their peers on an LSC, she said.
"We're not a typical school," Ford said.
Theoriginal plan for the NTA was to open it as a kindergarten through 12th-grade school, with two parent representatives, one from high school and another from the elementary grades. When the high school plans were shelved, the two parents remained. Ford said she doesn't know how the parents will be chosen.

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