Canter spouse makes last-ditch plea for school

Editor’s note: The following letter was sent to Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale and the rest of the members of the board. It did not reach the Herald in time to publish in our print edition ahead of the Wednesday, May 22, vote which will determine whether Canter Middle School, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., is closed.

To Mr. Vitale and the Chicago Board of Education:

I live in Hyde Park and my husband teaches math at Canter Middle School (this is his first year of teaching). As you can imagine, I have a deep interest in the neighborhood schools since my son will be in preschool this fall, I am a teacher myself and my husband is a teacher. Thus, I am opposed to the closing of Canter for many reasons. Those reasons have all been detailed and documented through the public hearing process so far. The community support around Canter has been extremely impressive due to the interest in Canter and the implications that closing Canter has on the surrounding schools. I am lucky to be a part of such an engaged community in Hyde Park. Since I have been promised that the board will have access to the documents we have provided as a community, I trust that they will be reviewed in detail and will do my best in this document to focus on a few particular issues with closing Canter – Canter as an exception to the K to 8 push, Canter as a center for student growth and Canter as an efficient model to teach students effectively.

What has been put forth in defense of Canter is a litany of the excellent things that are happening at that school. As much as I want to argue for the middle school model and how it can effectively reach adolescents better than the more common K to 8 in CPS (I teach 7/8 in a K to 8 and often pine for a middle school setting), current research can be found to support both sides of this argument.

I appeal to you to view the case for Canter as an exception. CPS will put on paper that according to their formulas, Canter is underutilized. (I agree with the solution to add a 6th grade to Canter.) CPS will put on paper that Canter is on probation. But Canter is unique and needs to be looked at with a different lens than the other neighborhood schools and other CPS schools.
Canter accepts a brand new set of students every year, from at least three different schools. These cohorts are diverse and vary from year to year and are strongly dependent on the parental choices of that group of students. Every 7th grade group varies with regards to performance and attendance, the large parts of CPS’s value-added matrix (which labels Canter as being on probation). It is unfair and not good educational policy to take these 7th graders and compare them to the next group of 7th graders, and the next, and then judge the teachers and the school by the student body they inherit. What is fair is to compare those 7th graders each year to how they perform as 8th graders the next year. This is where you will see what Canter is doing. This is where you will see growth. Every year, Canter students grow. The staff and teachers at Canter are collaborative and successful. The teachers, each year, are handed 7th graders from all over the neighborhood and city. They should not be penalized and put on probation if they have a student body one year that enters with more challenges and struggles, with more IEPs and the test scores are lower than the previous 7th graders. As an educator, this makes sense.

To illustrate just how unjust and unfair it is to compare 7th grade students to the next year’s 7th grade students, I have used data from Byrne Elementary School below:

– 2009-2010 8th graders at Byrne- Reading—94.4 percent met/exceeded
– 2010-2011 8th graders at Byrne- Reading—82.5 percent met/exceeded – a drop of 12.1 percentage points over ONE year! — FALSE. Different group of students.

– 2009-2010 7th graders at Byrne- Reading— 75 percent met/exceeded
– 2010-2011 8th graders at Byrne- Reading—82.5 percent met/exceeded—an increase of 7.5 percentage points over ONE year! SAME group of students.

When comparing cohort to cohort, every year Canter students grew.

And seeing that NWEA is being used in all schools and ISAT is being phased out (no data yet for the Common Core assessments), 85 percent of my husband’s 7th graders MET OR EXCEEDED THEIR GROWTH TARGET on the NWEA MAP test for Spring 2013. Good things are happening at Canter.

The other factor that has to be taken into consideration is the efficiency of the departments at Canter as a middle school. The math team currently has three teachers for both 7th and 8th grade, making up the math department. They collaborate almost daily to align and readjust their lessons and curriculum to best reach the students. My husband has been instrumental on this team to prep the 7th graders for the rigorous Algebra curriculum that Mr. Windsor so famously has developed for the 8th grade year. Currently, 32 students out of 120 are enrolled in the Algebra program. Typically, Mr. Windsor has about a 75 percent pass rate on the exit exam. (This is above Byrne’s numbers.)

Now, flash forward to if Canter is closed – those students will be scattered between Ray, Harte and Shoesmith (Shoesmith has been left out of the discussion the whole time, but Shoesmith is K to 6 and majority of their 6h graders go to Canter for 7th grade; only Ray and Harte are being labeled as welcoming schools.) So if only 1/3 of the students will now be at each of these schools, there is no more math department. There is a one-man show at each school. I have worked as a one-man show for six years without a department. The efficiency and the honing of the teaching skills for that content area are gone. Teachers will have more preps or more content areas to cover. These neighborhood schools will likely have one or two homerooms for the middle grades. There will no longer be math experts teaching math to these middle grade students, preparing them for the new demands of high school math. As an educator, it makes more sense to keep Canter and keep the content area departments for better preparation for high school.

At the public hearings, Mrs. Little from CPS promised that any programs Canter has will transfer to the new school. This specifically included the fabulous algebra program at Canter. Will they fund an algebra program for 1/3 of the students at each school – at Ray and at Harte and at Shoesmith, for 10 students at each school? And if so, is this maximizing the resources for better schools for all, as has been the argument for these school closings?

The Canter staff is educating well. The overarching argument by CPS is that these closings will make better schools for all; yet, every bullet point provided for justification speaks to non-academic reasons for closing the school (money for repairs, under-utilization and declining population). The current Canter students will NOT be better served by closing Canter. Even though Canter is on paper as on probation, Canter is on paper as underutilized and Canter is on paper as having a declining population (CPS took 6th grade away, whereas adding a 6th grade would make the building utilized as required), as a true educator and bringing in the human factor to see Canter as an anomaly, Canter cannot be considered a failing school where students are trapped. More than one student has testified that they were given a new beginning specifically because Canter was a separate middle school – their reputation did not come with them and the staff gave them equal respect and investment. Students are thriving at Canter. It does not make educational sense to shut it down.

If this made sense as a solution to the problems in CPS, why would 107 university professors put their names on an open letter to the mayor against these closings?

I truly appreciate your attention and time.

Kristy Ulrich Papczun
teacher, spouse of a teacher, and parent of future CPS students