Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced the creation of a new Student Advisory Council last Friday. The initiative is meant to provide students the opportunity to discuss important issues with district officials.
Some Chicago student leaders called the new advisory council an important first step in opening the dialogue between students and CPS. But they also said the new advisory council is "just for show," because students wouldn't have a direct vote when it comes to deciding CPS policy.
"We do view this advisory committee as a good base step," said Ross Floyd, a junior at Jones College Prep and a Chicago Student Union (CSU) leader. "We think there's a lot of work to do, but it’s better than before. Before, there was no student voice. The more student voice in educational policy, the better that policy is going to be."
Floyd, however, went on to say that the new council seems like a "puppet show." CPS says a goal of the council is to empower students' voices in district policy decisions, but "in reality they're giving the students no power at all," he stressed.
The Student Advisory Council would include 20 high school juniors from across the city who attend various types of schools, including neighborhood, charter and selective-enrollment schools. According to CPS, the council "will engage in developing and implementing solutions for select initiatives in partnership with departments across the district."
Interested students have until December 2 to apply for a spot on the council. A committee made up of CPS leadership, retired principals, a faith leader and a community organization representative would be tasked with selecting the 20 students by December 16. CPS has not disclosed the specific names of those on the selection committee, and no one from the district returned Progress Illinois' requests for comment for this story by deadline.
The students on the new council would be announced December 19, and the group would have its first meeting in January, followed by sessions held every two months. Council members have to be a CPS student for a least two years and "articulate a strong rationale for wanting to join the council."
“We look forward to giving students a greater role and voice in shaping and informing district policies,” Byrd-Bennett said in a news release Friday. “The new Student Advisory Council will create an ongoing dialogue between students and CPS leadership that will help us reach our goal of CPS students being 100 percent college-ready and 100 percent college-bound.”
Jamie Adams, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School and leader with Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS), called the council a "great idea," but also expressed skepticism.
"If (CPS) really wanted to help students, help the schools, then they would push more for no school closings, and an elected school board and returning more money into our public schools," she noted. "Yes, this is a great step that they're trying to involve more students, but it is only an advisory [council] that doesn’t actually give us a direct vote or any direct power whatsoever ... We’re just there to advise."
Overall, Floyd said students shouldn't "expect too much" from the Student Advisory Council, because on larger issues, "CPS has silenced student voices."
For example, Chicago Student Union members, and other education activists, have been pushing for more city tax increment financing (TIF) surplus funds to be directed to the district, and for the money to be used to reverse some of the recent school budget cuts. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he plans to declare a TIF surplus of $49 million, with about $24 million being sent to the school district, as part of the 2014 budget. The students, however, argue that more TIF funds should be redirected to schools.
The student union also wants the school district to work with students on ways to monitor academic growth without overburdening them with too many standardized tests. Last week, for example, students with the CSU marched from CPS' headquarters to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office at city hall in protest of high-stakes, standardized testing.
Additionally, the CSU is against the use of CPS funding for charter schools and their expansion across the city.
The CSU's biggest demand is for an elected, representative school board and for current Chicago Board of Education members to resign, Floyd said. The current mayoral school board appointment system is "unjust and undemocratic," he said, adding that an elected board "would give the people of Chicago a real voice.”
Eric “Rico” Gutstein, faculty associate with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, said he believes the CEO's student advisory council announcement stems from CPS "responding to pressure from below."
Gutstein pointed to some recent examples that show Chicago residents don't want an appointed school board that "dictatorially make decisions."
He cited the overwhelming support during the November 2012 election on a non-binding ballot referendum in 327 city precincts that called for an elected Chicago school board. He also noted that tens of thousands of people attended community meetings and hearings to speak out against CPS' recent round of school closings. Back in May, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close a record-breaking 50 neighborhood public schools in one fell swoop.
"It's pretty clear that there is a broad consensus of a good sampling across the city of Chicago that people don’t just want an advisory council of some type of young people to sit and legitimate what CPS is doing, but in fact want an elected and representative board that represents the students who are in school," Gutstein stressed.
"We're talking about people being able to enact power in their lives, and what the young people are saying [is that] they don’t want to be just a voice at the table, they want to actually be part of a genuine decision-making process," he continued.
CSU is calling on CPS to allow its members to pick those who will sit on the new council. The union is also demanding that the advisory council represent one vote on the Chicago Board of Education.
"I don't see CPS administration as being a fair way to choose students, because at the end of the day, all [Chicago Board of Education President] David Vitale, all Barbara Byrd-Bennett, all Rahm Emanuel want is a yes man to agree to their policy," Floyd explained. "We think [the] Chicago Student Union [has] a strong enough backbone to say 'no' to unfair cuts to our public education and actually stand up for what’s right."
Adams also said she was puzzled as to why only high school juniors would be allowed to take part in the effort.
"I think it would be wiser to choose students of all high school ages ... and not only keeping it to a select group of students," she said.
Quijna Walton, a junior at Steinmetz College Prep, is at least one high school student who is contemplating whether she will apply for a council position. If she were to get a spot on the council, Walton said she'd make a push for more school resources, particularly new text books.
"[In] my psychology class, I can't take home my text book because they don’t have enough money to give text books to all the individuals taking that class," she explained. "It's really hard trying to learn when you don’t have books to learn from."
Adams argued that CPS probably wouldn't want CSOSOS members to sit on the advisory council due to the group's vocal opposition to charter expansion and other district policies. But regardless if any CSOSOS members are part of the new group or not, Adams stressed that the students would keep up their fight against new charter schools and for more neighborhood school investments.
"My first reaction [to news of the new Student Advisory Council] was, 'Oh, they're trying to just give us what we wanted, so maybe they’ll think we'll stop fighting,'" Adams explained. "But if that’s what they think, then they have another thing coming, because it's not true."