Thursday, October 12, 2006


First of all, it SNOWED today. Honest to God. And according to the radio, this is only "one of the earliest Chicago snowfalls on record."

Why do I feel like the family in "The Amityville Horror," with a loud voice telling me, "Get out! Get out of the Midwest!"?

But far from getting out, I took another step toward Chicago entrenchment this week, touring two local public elementary schools. The result? I'm impressed. I was prepared for so much worse, what with horror stories, statistics and test scores. At first glance, I actually feel like I could send Nutmeg to either of these schools.

This early school research isn't for the best possible Chicago school for the Nut. The city has tons of magnet schools that kids can apply for no matter where they live, and I'll get down to exploring those in a year or so. Right now I'm looking to rule out neighborhood schools, as in, I will not move into School X's district because if Nutmeg doesn't get into any magnet program, and she's forced to go to School X, she will end up being one of those women you see picking used cigarette butts out of the grass in the park, and everyone will think she's about 60, when she's really 31.

The area we live in is -- like a lot of North Side neighborhoods -- in the midst of a gentrification wave that has changed the population from mostly Hispanic and European to part yuppie. This really shows in the schools I toured, both of which have a majority of Hispanic students, mediocre test scores that have improved steeply in the last few years, and enthusiastic parent groups that are determined to "flip" the schools.

School A seems farther along in the "flipping" process. The principal conducted the tour, and she told us about a number of grants the school had applied for and received, which allow the school to have full-time art and music teachers, who the kids see once a week. This is apparently unusual in CPS. Both schools were also proud to tell us that they "still" have recess -- one a day, right after lunch. School A currently has a project going on with a local theater that has actors incorporating drama into various classes. Both schools are in old buildings, but School A's building and grounds appeared to be in better shape. Nutmeg and I have also been going to a weekly program at School A which includes a stint in a very interesting art room -- jam packed with all kinds of supplies and books -- where I got to see the library, gym teacher and art teacher in action. I was particularly impressed with the art teacher. During the tour, she showed us some photos she had taken of first graders physically acting out what they were doing to paper -- curling themselves into balls, etc.

School B looks a little shabbier, but it has a very enthusiastic parent group that has been repainting and reflooring rooms one by one, and has "money in the bank" (the tour guide told us) for a lot more remodeling. It's on a large lot, part of which is asphalt, but money has already been raised to transform that area into landscaped grass. The school's enrollment is at about 1/2 capacity, which the parent/tour guide explained this way: With the gentrification of the neighborhood, many of the Hispanic families that made up the school's population have been forced out. The new residents have been sending their kids to private schools, or out of the neighborhood to magnet schools. The group's goal is to get residents to view this school as THE school to attend, and they have some evidence it's working: While every other grade has only one class, they have two kindergarten classes and are actually close to getting enough kindergarteners to start a third.

While School B didn't seem as polished and well-run as School A, there are some special things about it that really intrigued me. They have a big garden area where each class has its own bed, growing tomatoes and other food, conducting experiments like testing soil for contaminents, etc. It's an ecology program run by an old hippie who started at the school as a volunteer but is now paid by a grant. This teacher has also introduced the kids to concepts like the problem of e-waste, which I thought was pretty cool. School B also has a large contingent of native Spanish-speaking kids who take classes in Spanish, and the school has worked this out to the English-speaking kids' advantage: Each day the classes switch for 1/2 and hour, so the English-speaking kids get 1/2 an hour of Spanish and vice versa. Also, they mix up the English and Spanish speakers for music, art, gym and lunch to encourage them to socialize together. I'd prefer a full immersion program, which one magnet school does offer, but for a neighborhood school, this is better than School A's one Spanish class per week.

At the end of the day, I think I'd live in either of these districts and possibly try the school for pre-k or kindergarten. The gifted program nearest to us doesn't start until first grade anyway. Speaking of which, the tour guide has a son in one of the other gifted schools, and she said he gets an hour of homework a night -- in FIRST GRADE. That's not cool with me. Even if Nutmeg tests into gifted, she might not end up going to one of those programs. Even at the neighborhood school, kindergarteners get homework -- about 10 minutes' worth, the tour guide said.


Bert said...

As a former teacher, I have to say that I'm dismayed at the direction in which the school systems have gone with homework. They give more homework to younger children and expect them to adhere to extremely high academic standards. This is their answer for low test scores and poor graduation rates. In my opinion, what they should really do is start paying teachers what their really worth. That would attract and keep great quality teachers, so that children would learn in the classroom instead of slogging through the material at home with a frustrated parent.

Kori said...

First and foremost, Go Bert! So, so true.

Thanks to fun programs like "no child left behind," learning is now performance-based, instead of learning-based. A learning-based approach encourages the learner not to focus on the grade or achievement, but rather, to focus on the act of learning, and to think about how they could learn differently. I think it would be a far greater service to teach children how to think of their learning from this meta perspective, as it would lead to greater critical thinking and probably more open-mindedness as an adult.

And of course, if you are looking at learning from the cognitive perspective, if you provide the learner with an extrinsic reward (gold star for completing homework, A on a project, teacher praise, etc.) where previously, they worked for intrinsic reasons, their intrinsic motivation will diminish. The result? A focus on performance, and we're back to the top of my comment.

But enough of my grad school learning---I think one hour of homework is completely absurd! Yikes!

Carrie said...

Kori -- It's no coincidence that cheating in school is at an all-time high. If only the results matter, who cares how you got them?

Anonymous said...

the whole homework thing is crazy. I haven't done the tours yet, but it sort of sounds like we're in similar areas. It's all so overwhelming.

Notta Wallflower said...

Your tours sound interesting. The nice thing about some schools is that they foster teachers' interests and let them bring those interests to the children, as appropriate. As far as the homework, I agree with the above posts - we are supposed to make sure students are "at or above" standard in certain content areas. Not only do teachers worry about it, but some of my "spectrum" parents have jumped on the bandwagon. I have extremely high frustration when sitting in a meeting where the conversation goes something like this:

Me: "Johnny is working on making predictions and inferences when given information." (to explain one of his IEP goals)
Parent: "Yes, he needs that to meet X standard".
Me: "He needs that so he can function in life."
Parent: "Well yeah, that too."
(insert me wishing I had a wall to bang my head against).

I'm glad you're weighing everything as far as which program is right for Nut, instead of holding on to the small details. No matter which program she's in, gifted or not, doesn't take anything away from her strengths and talents. I think Bert said it best several posts back - Nut will do well because of your and Epu's involvement in her learning, regardless of her educational placement.

Unknown said...

dude! you promised that you weren't going to tell anyone about the whole picking used cigarette butts out of the grass in the park incident...

oh wait...