Canter deserves another look

By STATE SEN. KWAME RAOUL (D-13)

As a lifelong Hyde Park resident and parent, I am keenly concerned by the decision to close Canter Middle School, the product of a community vision for our neighborhood’s middle school students.

It is not my place as a state legislator to micromanage the affairs of any school district, even our state’s largest. I understand the challenges the Chicago Public Schools face today. Demographic shifts have left some school buildings half-empty, while diminished state funding and hard economic times continue to take a toll on the district’s budget.

Meanwhile, the stakes couldn’t be higher for our city’s students, who will soon be forced to compete in an increasingly demanding job market. I appreciate the need to make tough decisions in order to maximize the dollars available to educate each student.

But it is my role as a community member and leader to advocate for the local institutions that serve our young people. I believe CPS should look at Canter’s trajectory and potential, not just a snapshot of its utilization. Throughout the process of making Canter a school focused on the unique educational needs of seventh and eighth grade students, the Hyde Park community pulled together with a bold vision. The program has been growing steadily, and CPS should give the Canter experiment time to bear fruit. At a time when CPS increasingly looks to options such as magnet and charter schools, closing innovative community schools with strong local backing can only take the district in the wrong direction.

In 2009, the General Assembly created the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force to recommend best practices for gathering public input and applying clear, consistent criteria to closure and turnaround decisions. Albeit with continual pressure from state and local sources, opportunities for public comment have increased and improved, though there is still much work to be done. Yet the rationale driving the final closure list released in March is still unclear. With my fellow lawmakers, I will continue pushing CPS to undertake school actions fairly, openly and in a way that minimizes disruptions to students, families and neighborhoods.

The law creating the task force states that the General Assembly’s intent is to “make the individual school in the City of Chicago the essential unit for educational governance and improvement and to place the primary responsibility … in the hands of parents, teachers and community residents at each school.”

It is this school-level and neighborhood-level perspective that was missing from the decision to close Canter. I’m encouraged that our Hyde Park community is pulling together, once again, for Canter Middle School. Civic engagement will always be a necessary ingredient in quality education. May our children learn citizenship and leadership from our fight for their future.