By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
A group of parents who said they are concerned about the direction in which Ray Elementary School is going have formed a group called “Stand Up for Ray.” The group said its goal is to advocate for less testing, restore playtime and maintain a diverse student population in hopes that more parents in the neighborhood will bring their children back to the school.
For a year and half about 40 Ray parents have been gathering at the home of Daan and Zilke Van Rossum to discuss ways they can help restore Ray’s reputation as a high-performing school model. Several parents from the group ran for spots on the local school council (LSC) and won all six parent seats. During the campaign their platform criticized both the current and former administrations – as well as Chicago Public School (CPS) – for policies that moved the school away from what made it a stellar institution.
For example, in 2009, Ray, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., received national attention for being the only CPS school that continued to offer outdoor recess. This led to a CPS mandate in 2011 that all public schools have outdoor playtime for the students.
“In recent years changes have been made to the school recess and other activities,” said Daan Van Rossum. “Play time is seen as ‘extras’ and not a regular part of the school’s curriculum. We think they are necessary.”
Van Rossum said the previous principal, Tatia Beckwith, required students have morning fitness time outside every day. When the interim principal Antonia “Toni” Hill came, the school’s second recess was canceled. Educational toys were also taken out of the classrooms in the lower grades.
He said the reduction in playtime and greater focus on testing has prompted many parents to remove their children from Ray.
“Out of the 37 parents in the group they each personally know other parents who have removed their children from the school,” said Van Rossum.
The Van Rossums, who have children in Pre-K, 3rd and 4th grade at Ray, removed their daughter from the school’s kindergarten class and are now homeschooling her.
“We tried to keep her in the kindergarten classes at Ray for a while but the way kindergarten is now shaped, it is not suitable for her,” said Van Rossum.
Van Rossum said the “Stand Up For Ray” members decided to try to step in to do something instead of leaving the school, but the group is concerned that the school is losing its diversity.
“Ray always had a long waiting list for those who lived outside of the boundary area,” Van Rossum said. “This year was the first time that everyone on the list got into the school. Ray loses its authenticity if it no longer has a rich mixed balance of people at the school.”
“Stand Up For Ray” is not campaigning against the current administration.
“The decisions of the interim principal have not all been negative,” said Van Rossum. “There are a number of good things that have happened, and the good things would be great if they didn’t come at a price.”
Van Rossum said Hill has been doing an excellent job helping the school run effectively while paying off a debt that occurred when Beckwith spent money on programs for students that was not approved by the LSC.
He said Hill also has personal contact with students in the hallways and before and after school.
“She’s very friendly and smiles and that is very important,” Van Rossum said.
At a “State of the School” meeting in November, Hill told the Ray community that the school was not making the year-to-year gains that CPS required them to make to maintain the school’s level two status and was a hundredth of a point away from becoming a level 3 school.
The school’s 95 percent attendance rate is also a few notches below the CPS attendance requirements of 97 percent.
Level 3, or low-performing, schools are often placed on probation and are subject to structural takeover by central office.
After that news testing became a hot topic at the school, Van Rossum said.
“Ray has over the years tested well but CPS currently measures by rate of change,” Van Rossum said. “As soon as Ray gets problematic CPS will realize their measure for rating schools is not always successful.”