CPS: ‘We Want Answers’

By: Ashmar Mandou

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Education

A group of students from Social Justice High School protest just outside of the school’s property to demand answers from SoJo’s new principal.

Its unique history of how it came to be built in the Little Village community has proven to be a badge of honor for most of its residents. Born out of a hunger strike, Social Justice High School (SoJo) arouse with the purpose to provide stellar education while foster leadership skills to any student who entered its doors.

“For the past three years that I have been in SoJo, I can say from an academic and social standpoint it has gotten better and better,” said Rocio Meza, 17, a senior at SoJo, who has aspirations to attend either Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or Stanford University.

So it came as a surprise to her and her classmates on the first day of school August 13th when they noticed SoJo underwent a major overhaul to its 2012-2013 academic year, which included a new principal selected by CPS and the elimination of several Advanced Placement (AP) classes, along with veteran teachers.

“These changes happened without warning,” said Meza. “No one told us we were getting a new principal because it was already decided who that would be for this year. And then to take away three AP classes without a valid reason from our new principal, I knew at that moment we needed to do something.”

The action taken by CPS to remove Advisory Local School Council (ALSC) selection Principal Kathy Farr and replace her with interim principal Ms. Marissa Velazquez, who does not hold any prior experience in overseeing a school, is yet another contradiction to CPS Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard’s mission to improve the quality of education in low-income Latino and African-American neighborhoods, stated Patricia Buenrostro, an original hunger striker and past Local School Council (LSC) member. Buenrostro vehemently believes the decision to make drastic changes without the input of SoJo’s teachers, students, and parents are a direct affront to the very spirit of Social Justice High School.

“The foundation from which Social Justice High School was built on was from unity and the need to rectify an ongoing injustice,” said Buenrostro. “What set SoJo apart was its strong connection between teachers and parents, but now that’s changed.”

Immediately following the changes, students, including Meza, staged a sit-in to demand CPS officials reverse the damage they have caused and restore the original plan for the school year. Unfortunately, answers were not given which then resulted in a community forum August 23rd that was attended by Principal Velazquez, CPS Instructional Coordinator Maria Amador, and the Chief of High School Support Anthony Spivy. According to Meza and Buenrostro, the forum served as a disappointment that left many attendees frustrated as not one of the CPS officials was able to provide insight to why the changes had taken place.

“What was even more shocking was the fact that CPS officials denied entry to staff members,” said Buenrostro. “How were we supposed to discuss the academic schedule without teachers?”

Instead, Meza and Buenrostro said a power point presentation was given to explain the reasoning behind the elimination of several classes with the implementation of “strategic classes.” During the presentation, Velazquez was said to have used outdated test scores from 2010-2011 to demonstrate the need to remove advanced courses. However, on the CPS website, it showed students met or exceeded state standards in PSAE Reading by 23 percent and PSAE Math by 19 percent. In AP exam scores 35 percent of students, an increase from 33 percent, met the state standard.

“As a parent, I put full trust in the quality of education SoJo is giving my child,” said Meza’s mother Maricela, who attended the community forum last Thursday. “But now, with these changes, with the fact that CPS has let quality teachers go, with the fact that parents were not told of these changes; how we can we as parents let them get away with it?” Maricela went on to describe the forum as pointless and destructive and worries SoJo is on the chopping block to close its doors or be operated by private investors. “Our voices need to be taken into account,” said Maricela. “Our children’s education is at risk and they need to listen to us!”

Opened in 2005, Social Justice High School is one of four high schools that comprise Little Village High School Campus. The other high schools include, Multicultural Academy of Scholarship, Infinity Math, Science and Technology, and World Language. It was constructed after 14 parents went on a hunger strike to demand CPS build high schools in the Little Village community. The West Side Chief of Schools Theresa Plascencia was not in attendance to offer up any resolutions.

“We don’t only hold Ms. Velazquez and the network chief Ms. Plascencia responsible for what is happening to SoJo,” said Buenrostro. “We hold [CPS CEO] Jean-Claude Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel responsible for not stepping in and meeting with SoJo parents and teachers.”

Buenrostro suggests creating a LSC in all four high schools, which will allow parents, teachers, and outside members an opportunity to have a say as to what changes will made in their child’s school without facing repercussions from CPS officials. As for Meza, she hops CPS officials reinstate the original 2012-2013 academic school year before it’s too late. “Our education is in jeopardy,” said Meza. “We will continue to fight until we see a change.” Velazquez could not be reached for comment.

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