CPS puts Hyde Park’s middle school experiment under the gun

Staff Writer

On Jan. 23, 2002, the Chicago Board of Education approved what was then called the Canter Middle School Global Village. Now the community will gather once again to try to save the school they formed at a series of Chicago Public School community meetings.

“It’s a real good example of collaboration and a tremendous amount of hard work done by parents, [local school council] members, principals, the alderman, central office staff and by board members,” said former Chicago Public Schools CEO and native Hyde Parker Arne Duncan, shortly after the board’s decision. (See “New Hyde Park middle school full steam ahead” Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002 article in the archives at hpherald.com.)

The idea was to take Louis Wirth Experimental School, which had become a school filled with students who were bussed in from different neighborhoods, and create a middle school for the children who lived in the Hyde Park-Kenwood community. The new middle school was named for Miriam G. Canter, who was a political activist and education advocate who fought to keep Wirth from being closed by CPS several times.

By offering 7th and 8th grade to surrounding neighborhood schools such as Bret Harte, 1556 E. 56th St.; Murray, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave.; Ray, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave. and Shoesmith, 1330 E. 50th St., the community saw Canter as a way to ease school overcrowding.

“Canter was created to relieve the other grade schools in the area that did not have space for lunchrooms, gyms or assemblies because they had too many students,” said Camille Hamilton Doyle, co-chairwoman of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference Schools Committee, which has recently passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on school closings.

The community also saw it as a way to keep neighborhood children in local schools by creating a pathway from elementary school into Canter Middle School, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., and then on to Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.

“I remember the community had a lot of passion about the middle school; they wanted the school to be a showcase,” said Debby Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, who at the time the school was being planned was the executive director for the Association of Illinois Middle Schools (AIMS) and helped with planning development for the school. “What they felt at the time was that the upper grades needed larger variety of programs and they also wanted programs with higher rigor.”

Changing tide

Just one year after former Murray Principal Virginia Vaske declared that CPS’s approval of Canter was her dream come true (See “New Hyde Park middle school full steam ahead” Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002 article in our archives at hpherald.com.), the Murray local school council approved a moratorium on sending its 6th graders to Canter. Parents whose children attended Murray, a magnet school, wanted out of the Global Village design because Canter was a non-magnet school with high teacher turnover, lack of resources and ineffective curriculum. (See “Murray to CPS: Let us out of Canter” Feb. 26, 2003). However, Ray’s local school council voted to support Canter and think of ways to make it a premiere school (See “Ray School parents remain committed to Canter,” Feb. 12, 2003).

In April 2003, in response to demands that Canter become a more competitive school, money was given to Canter for facility improvements the school received $400,000 and then an additional $1.5 million from CPS, but soon the money stopped flowing in (See “Canter school gets $1.5M for classroom renovations” April 23, 2003).

Despite the influx of cash, Canter continued to struggle in the area of academic performance and many neighborhood families began to divest from the Global Village plan. In 2009, CPS began to classify the school as a level 3 low performing school that was on the cusp of probation (See “CPS: Shoesmith, Reavis, Koz on Probation” Dec. 23, 2009). In 2010, Canter was put on probation.

The 53rd St. TIF gave Canter $150,000 for school improvements and current principal Colleen Conlan, who did not return calls from the Herald, used the improvements to lure parents into visiting Canter before forming opinions about the school. (“Canter thrives through help of TIF funds” Nov. 18, 2009).

In 2010, Conlan created a leadership academy, which gave students more autonomy to create their own schedules, chose their own electives and transition through the halls from one class to the next (October 6, 2010).

In March 2010, CPS approved Murray’s request to expand its school to add 7th and 8th grade (March 31, 2010) and some feared that other schools that were once part of the Canter Middle School Global Village would follow suit, but none did.

As of now, the school remains at level 3 probationary status. Despite all the effort to make changes, Canter ranks below average in student growth and student performance with only 37.6 percent of all students making gains in reading, 35 percent making gains in math, according to the CPS 2012 School Progress Report.

Chopping block

On March 21, 2013 CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that several schools across the city including Canter would be closed next school year due, in most part, to underutilization and balancing the CPS budget. According to CPS, Canter is at 58 percent capacity. The current enrollment at Canter is 228 – CPS’s ideal enrollment for the school is 390.

Despite the school’s obstacles, the Hyde Park-Kenwood community feels personal ownership for the school they developed and believe that there is still a place for the school in the community.
Hamilton Doyle said HP-K CC dedicated money and effort so that Canter could be a partner to other schools in the community and that effort should be supported — not ignored.

Many parents also valued Canter as a place for students who have outgrown the grade school process but may not be ready for high school or high school academies, which are 7th and 8th grade programs that are embedded in high schools such as Kenwood.

John Viano, executive director for AIMS, said that parents who want their children to have an authentic middle school experience have a very valid concern.

“Middle school is an important next step because there are teams of teachers working together to help kids academically and social and emotionally,” Viano said. “Everyone is talking about high dropout rates. The key component of middle school is to identify struggling kids and meet their needs before they go to high school.”

He said one of the strongest components of middle school is the social-emotional intervention.

“Teachers talk about kids academically and where one teacher is having a problem with a student another teacher may not and they are able to discuss how to help the student improve,” Viano said.

Viano said that it would be advisable to have middle schools in freestanding buildings but it’s not always practical. He said if funding is allowed to be used for the specific needs of a middle school and the 7th and 8th graders are sectioned off from the lower grades they can still have an effective middle school experience.

Students from Canter, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., will be moved to Ray and Bret Harte. Both are level 2 elementary schools in good standing. The receiving schools, which currently serve K through 6 grades, will have to make space for 7th and 8th grades next school year.

“This is a quick turnaround for us but [CPS] is offering support,” said Tatia Beckwith, principal at Ray.

Shenethe Parks, principal at Bret Harte School, said the school is in the very early process of planning for the transition.

“Once we are sure on the number of students that are coming we will determine what space will be used and plan the curriculum,” Parks said.

CPS has assigned both schools a coordinator to help with the transition and there have been weekly meetings for principals from all the receiving schools in the city to keep them updated on the transition process.

Canter teachers that rank in the Top 2 category of qualification will be able to follow Canter students to receiving schools. The current faculty and staff at Ray and Bret Harte will not be altered.

Beckwith said Ray students in grades 3 through 8 will receive iPads, air conditioning will be added to the entire school building and the district plans to do an assessment of the school’s library and computer lab to see if upgrades are needed. There will also be funding for capital improvements and for meetings and communications.

Beckwith and Parks both said once they know how many students their schools will receive they will decide how to make space for the incoming 7th and 8th graders.
The next CPS community meeting to discuss the proposed closing of Canter will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, April 12 at Kenwood High School. A final public hearing will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17 at CPS Central Office, 125 S. Clark St.