Council Votes Spur New Round of Questions in Chicago

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CHICAGO--On a street corner just outside Hefferan Elementary School here, Alex Lyons squinted against the morning sunshine as he passed out campaign literature and asked parents walking their children to school for support.

Mr. Lyons said his background made him well qualified to serve on Hefferan's local school council: He is a graduate student who lives around the corner from the school, works for a Chicago alderman, and is active in local business organizations.

"This is a black, impoverished area,'' the candidate explained of the Austin neighborhood. "People do not understand that the resources are here and that business people can contribute.''

If that argument failed to persuade passing parents and community residents to vote, Mr. Lyons had another line. When an elderly woman ignored his overtures, he told her: "I'm a young black man out here trying to do the right thing--not selling drugs.''

Slowly, she turned and headed for the school door.

Hefferan is one of the success stories of Chicago school reform. The 1988 state law that created local school councils to govern each of the city's 540 schools ushered in a new era at the school, which serves 670 children, all of whom are African-American and 95 percent of whom are from low-income families.

The first thing the Hefferan council did was hire Patricia A. Harvey as principal.

Together, council members and the principal have breathed new life into a school that, Ms. Harvey noted, had "30-year-old paint, furniture, equipment, and teaching strategies'' and was "frozen in time.''

Inside the brightly painted library, clusters of star-shaped red, white, and blue helium balloons floated over cardboard voting booths. A steady stream of parents cast ballots for the six parents and two community representatives who are elected to serve on the councils for two years.

The councils, which also include the school principal, two teachers, and, in the case of high schools, a student, hire principals and approve their school's improvement plan and budget.

'Attitude of Despair'

Despite the progress at Hefferan and other schools throughout the city, an undercurrent of gloom ran through the Sept. 21 elections. The Chicago school system's unresolved financial crisis was blamed for low voter turnout: Roughly 63,000 parents and community members, 27,000 teachers, and 47,000 students cast ballots. The number of parents and community members who voted was down 23 percent from the 1991 election and far below the 193,000 who cast ballots in 1989.

The elections were pushed back a week, after the opening of school was delayed for budget reasons, but they still were overshadowed by continuing worries over whether schools would stay open.

Rita Hester, the grandparent of a Hefferan student who had urged her to vote, said she hoped her votes would make a difference.

"There is enough money for other things,'' she said. "There should be enough to keep the schools open.''

"If it were a more [racially] mixed system, it would be a different story,'' she added. "I don't think they're getting a fair shake.''

The same day, members of the Chicago Teachers Union voted by a margin of 63.6 percent to 36.4 percent to accept a contract settlement with some $60 million in concessions.

The sting of those "givebacks'' was on Barry Little's mind later in the morning as he worked as a poll-watcher for a fellow teacher at Marshall Metropolitan High School, not far from Hefferan. Teachers are appointed to the councils by the central school board, after a nonbinding advisory poll of the school's staff.

"There is a general attitude among the teachers of despair,'' Mr. Little said. "The contract has broken the union, because it has taken away things that were previously earned.''

The polls opened two hours behind schedule at Marshall because the election judges were late, Mr. Little complained. As he and a visitor discussed the election, they were told to leave the polling place by an election judge, even though no one was voting at the time.

Being 'Part of It'

By 11:30 A.M., 84 people had voted at Washington Irving Elementary School, a shining new brick building on the city's west side that advertised the elections on an electronic message board near the front door.

Josephine Cozzi, who had just cast her ballot, said she had come out to support a good friend from the senior-citizens' center who was running for the council. Ms. Cozzi, a neighborhood resident for 54 years, said Irving was "a very nice school.''

"But we think it should have adult classes in computer work,'' added her friend, Pauline Passarelli.

Carol Stoll, a candidate for community representative, had just come across the street from her new townhouse to vote. Ms. Stoll, an airline flight attendant, said she was running because she wanted to work with children.

"There are no specific issues, that I know of,'' she said. "I've heard nothing but good things about this school. I just wanted to be part of it.''

'Taking Back Control'

Members of the local school council at Thomas Kelly High School in Brighton Park believe that the school owes its life to reform.

They described the school before reform as a "dumping ground'' that was in danger of being closed because of low enrollment.

"Three years ago, you would not have been able to walk down the halls,'' said Kathy Kuranda, a parent representative on the council running for another term. "The kids ran the school.''

With a new principal, the school has developed a strict discipline code. Signs in the hallways say, "No radios, hats, or earrings allowed.''

The number of students graduating has increased from 82 four years ago to an expected 300 this year, said John Kuranda, a community representative for the school.

In addition, student and teacher attendance has improved, and enrollment is continuing to grow, they said.

The Kelly council has formed a cluster group with the eight surrounding elementary schools to discuss common issues and work toward making Kelly a desirable neighborhood school. The school also offers a wealth of after-school activities and holiday festivities.

The cluster schools meet in the newly renovated community room, which is decorated with pictures, salvaged from the school basement, of former Kelly principals.

"This year of school reform, we want to start making curriculum changes,'' Ms. Kuranda said. "It takes a long time to take back control of the school.''

One candidate who hoped to be part of the continued improvements was Alan Mercado, a 1977 graduate of Kelly who is a Chicago police officer, carpenter, and employee of a local state representative.

Mr. Mercado, who was a candidate for a seat as a community representative, said he wanted to serve as a role model for Kelly students, 80 percent of whom are Hispanic. The rest of the student body is a diverse mix of African-Americans, Asians, and Polish and Ukranian immigrants.

"If I come here, I can show that if you work hard, you can achieve what you want,'' Mr. Mercado said. "In this community, there aren't too many role models other than gangbangers hanging out on the street.''

'Nasty' Campaign

By the time the sun had begun to fade, the 286 votes that had been cast at Haugan Elementary School in the Albany Park area on the city's north side had already outstripped the school's 1991 voting totals.

With 11 parents on the ballot and three community representatives running, the school had a well-contested election that had drained most of Rochelle Rainey's energy.

Ms. Rainey, an incumbent parent member running for re-election, sat down wearily on the school stairs and said that the campaign had turned "incredibly nasty.''

The main issue in the contest was whether the overcrowded school should switch to a year-round calendar to permit more neighborhood children to attend.

Ms. Rainey said she opposed having 400 of the school's 1,600 students out of school every day in an area that provides few recreational opportunities.

Some of the members of a slate of candidates running against Ms. Rainey's slate, however, were backing year-round schooling. And while voters and candidates were debating the educational value of the agrarian calendar, they were also fighting over whether one candidate would benefit financially from a new schedule.

Bob Borgersen, the owner of Bob's Grocery across the street from the school, favors year-round schooling. Critics say he wants to have children at Haugan year-round so that his store--which sells candy, milk, and bread and has a bank of video games--would make more money.

As he chewed a chili dog behind his store counter at the end of a long day of campaigning, Mr. Borgersen called the acrimonious race "sad.''

The candidate, who has owned the store for 22 years and served on the local school council since its inception, said he had spent a great deal of time researching the benefits of year round schooling. He rattled off a list of states and districts that have changed their calendars and said he had spoken to the principal of every Chicago school with such a schedule.

"My priority is not vacation,'' he said, "it's education.''

Terrence Murray, the principal of Haugan, declined to comment on the race. He said he had more immediate concerns on his mind, such as making sure that anything valuable in the school is locked up at night. If the board of education is forced to shut the schools again, he said, he wants to make sure that expensive materials will be safe.

Mr. Murray also is coping with a slow computer system that forced him to drive to the board's offices to find out how to make his first payroll.

Six people on his staff took early retirement and two moved on to other jobs. Of those who left, five people were in nonteaching positions helping Mr. Murray run the school, and they have had to be replaced with people who do not yet know the ropes.

"We're making errors--things are getting by,'' the principal said. "It's very stressful for everybody.''

Hot Lunches, Playground

The morning after the election, the results of the voting at Ana Roque de Duprey School in the East Humboldt Park neighborhood were on display in the principal's office.

Of 411 potential parents, 55, or 13 percent, voted. Nineteen community members and 26 of the 36 teachers cast ballots.

Not bad, said Gloria Roman, the principal, considering that all of the school's 444 students are bused in from overcrowded schools in the area. That means that their parents have to travel long distances to reach the school and vote.

"We had one very pregnant parent,'' she said, "who rode two buses to come out and vote.''

At Duprey, where the curriculum is organized into four themes, the local school elections were a topic of study for students. They took their own polls, graphed the results in mathematics class, and held their own candidates' forum.

The questions they asked reflect Duprey's plight: The school is housed in rented space in a former Catholic school. Its ground floor, in fact, contains a church.

The students have no playground. They play basketball in an empty classroom because there is no gymnasium. And there is no kitchen, so school meals have to be trucked in every day.

Despite the conditions, the school has won acclaim for its academic programs. Its mascot is the dolphin, an animal the students admire for its gentle intelligence.

Nearly all the students are Hispanic, mostly Mexican and Puerto Rican. In a discussion with a visitor, they spoke in Spanish, translated by their principal, about their hopes for the school.

Esmiralda Alanis, whose father won a seat on the local school council, said her father had hesitated to make pledges until he could see the school budget and find out how much the council could spend.

"Everyone here supports each other, and, if there is a problem, teachers and students try to help each other,'' she said. "Nothing is impossible in this school.''

Still, said Miguel Barrera, better lunches and a playground would be nice.

"It's real difficult to say,'' he acknowledged, "whether the people who won will do what they promised.''

Vol. 13, Issue 09

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