Education Questionnaire: Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins

Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins' education platform

Do you want control of the Chicago Public Schools? If so, how should Board of Education members be selected? Should some of them be elected?

The Mayor should be held accountable to the people of the city for improving our public schools by working with the Board of Education not on the Board of Education. 

As Mayor, I would support changing the membership rules of the Board of Education to allow for a combination of appointed and elected members.  This critical balance would allow for the Mayor’s Office to maintain a high standard of qualification for the board without infringing on the board’s autonomy. 

Do you believe the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools should be an educator? Why or why not? What are the main qualities you would look for?

Yes, I believe that the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools should have extensive experience as a teacher or a school administrator, in addition to skills related to running a large system.  In order to properly face the challenges of our schools, the CEO would need to have tremendous leadership and interpersonal skills and strong values. They must be a strong collaborator and problem-solver.  Their vitae must represent a history of integrity, excellence in collaboration and measurable successes. 

Should the School Board conduct a national search for a new schools chief?

Yes, I believe that we should recruit from around the country, or even around the world, to hire a new CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.  Chicago is a world-class city, and we should find candidates that will bring fresh ideas, innovations and expertise to improve our schools.

Chicago has the shortest school day among large, urban districts. What would you do about that?

I believe that we need more learning time for students -- whether it is inside or outside the school day.  While it would be ideal to extend the length of the school day, the cost may be too prohibitive in the current economic climate.  However, I would move to implement effective alternatives, such as expanding community schools and increasing after school programs that provide an extension of learning by offering tutoring, art appreciation, cultural enrichment experiences and family learning opportunities. 

CPS is looking at another enormous deficit for the 2011-2012 school year – under the teachers union contract, salaries are scheduled to rise another 4 percent, and federal stimulus money will be gone. How do you get out of that mess?

If we need to raise revenue to keep great teachers, I think the public supports that concept because they know education is the key to our future. However, the city and state are in a budget crisis, and the first priority of our school system should be to protect the quality of education for our children. As we face these challenges, we must work with the Chicago Teachers Union to develop new and innovative funding strategies that will provide support for teachers and improve the contracting process. 

Would you support the closing of low-performing and under-enrolled schools? Why or why not?

Generally, I am opposed to closing our schools.  The Consortium on Chicago School Research has shown that, all too often, the only result of a school closure is that children are shuffled around – with little benefit to their education or to the community.  I think the answer to addressing low-performing schools is empowering true community collaboration and implementing research-based programs that improve the quality of our children’s education.  If a school is under-enrolled, the additional space should be transformed to house community support programs that would benefit the neighborhood and the students.   Empowering the community to make the local school a haven of activity and safety will foster community spirit and participation.  Safety will become a key factor in raising the pride of the students and the teachers, involving the parents and other volunteers in their own neighborhood school and a healthy configuration will have begun to make the environment a center of all around learning, not just during school hours. 

Would you support the continued expansion of charter schools in Chicago? Why or why not?

As mayor, I will focus on improving all of our public schools so that all children--not just a select few--in Chicago have the opportunity to reach their full human potential.  I believe in creating as many opportunities as possible for our students to have access to a quality public education.  While I believe that charter schools can be part of the solution, we must improve our entire public school system.  Both types of schools should be managed as a part of the same Chicago Public School system, and they should both be held equally accountable for improving student performance. Our accountability system for all our schools is broken and all schools would benefit from improving this process.

Do think it is it too hard to fire bad teachers who have tenure? If so, what do you think should be done about that?

Yes. We all know that there are both low-performing and high-performing teachers throughout the Chicago Public School System. If we fail to address this issue, it will have a detrimental impact on all of our children – and on our future.

I believe that our school system should include more mentoring, strong support systems and improved training for our teachers to ensure that they are effective.  With the right types of performance reviews and support, I believe that we can improve the quality of teaching in all of our schools – and ideally prevent the need for more dismissals.

Should a dismissal be necessary, I believe that the process must be overhauled to ensure a fair and balanced dismissal process that is based on meaningful evaluations, and that includes the proper checks and balances.  

Should seniority govern teacher layoffs? If not, how would you recommend that future layoffs be handled?

I believe that teacher layoffs should not be based on seniority only, but on the needs of students.  The current layoff process in Chicago Public Schools allows for situations where a school may be left with no reading or math teachers because those teachers had the lowest tenure.  That is simply wrong, and undermines our children’s education.

Furthermore, I believe that these processes should ensure that we protect high performing teachers.  Los Angeles recently laid off several teachers, and they learned that 20% of those laid off were in the top 20% of all teachers. By using seniority for layoffs, we might as well be flipping a coin. In addition, we know that laying off the most inexperienced teachers first hurts our low-income and minority schools the most.

In New York and Los Angeles, controversy has erupted over whether teacher evaluations should be made public or shared with parents. Is that a good idea? Would you push to share evaluations with parents in Chicago?

I believe one of our most valuable partners in improving the Chicago Public School system are the teachers. I would only support evaluations that provide school-level summaries of teacher evaluations that include student achievement, peer evaluation, principal observation and classroom management capacity.

Do schools have a role in stopping youth violence?  If so, what should schools do, and how would you support their efforts?

I believe that the schools have a very important role in stopping youth violence. 

I know all too well the tragic impact that generations of crime, violence and gunfire has had on Chicago, its communities and its children.  As a young girl, I dropped out of Fenger High School and got my GED because of fears for my safety in school.  And, as a mother, I recall the terror I felt the day my son came home from Lincoln Park High School with blood on his shirt and told me that there was a shooting at school and that he had been standing dangerously close to one of the victims.

The spread of violence throughout Chicago’s communities among young people has not only tragically taken the lives of too many young people and make murder the leading cause of death among Chicagoans under 35, but it also is destroying the futures of young people by undermining school performance and contribute to dropout rates. 

It has been reported that witnessing violence (60% to 80% of children in high crime neighborhoods) can result in a 10 point reading score drop, a 10 point IQ drop, acute stress disorder, difficulty concentrating, fear of going to school, low student and teacher attendance and higher dropout rates. 

In order to encourage more children to feel safe going to school, I support expansion of programs, such as the “Walking School Buses” program, which brings community members together to provide youth with safe access to and from high schools.  This program not only makes kids feel safe to go to school, but sends the message that residents are taking their communities back from crime and violence and allows stronger communication with law enforcement.

In addition, I believe that using the schools to identify at-risk kids as early as possible and to direct them to supportive services is essential.   I believe that the schools should expand their role in the identification of youth with mental health, drug addiction and other risk factors, and to help direct them to supportive services. In addition, I believe that more positive and productive activities that give young people higher goals and build self esteem should be developed within our schools.   There should be more after school opportunities offering these types of programs and keeping kids on the right track to a better future. 

What would success with your education agenda look like at the end of your first term?

First, I would ensure that Chicago Public School District has implemented a full community engagement process that gives parents and community members an equal voice in the school reform process. 

Secondly, I would overhaul the way information is shared with parents about their child’s performance in school to ensure that the information is useful to help improve educational outcomes.

Thirdly, I would work to overhaul the Reduction in Force process for teacher layoffs to ensure that it was redesigned in such a way that it was not focused on tenure only, but on student needs.

Fourth, I would develop a plan to provide all schools with the necessary technology to provide up-to-the-minute tracking of each child’s performance for teachers, and allow them to tailor instruction to those needs.

Finally, I would develop a plan to ensure that all schools work to expand individual learning plans for each student. This would include information on what they currently know, and what will they learn this year. In addition, the plan should be shared with every parent.

Further more, I believe that every teacher and school should also have goals and targets.  This should not include esoteric targets set by the Federal government or the state – but targets set by the school and community. When we look at some of our schools, the targets and goals will mean that certain students will not be on trajectory to get to college ready. Schools should be supported to hit meaningful targets.