Wendell Smith Elementary School was born out of an uprising of community demand, and nearly 40 years later that community is demanding that it change - or close.
The grassroots movement to "do something" about Wendell Smith represents a new model for city school transformation. In past cases, CPS deems a school beyond repair and shuts it down. This is always accompanied by anger and impassioned arguments from parents to "save our school."
No matter what the educational outcomes have been, neighborhood schools are part of the community and people are attached to them. Often, several generations of families have attended the school and residents who haven't been to the school in decades show up to defend it. In this case though, the action is not coming from the top down.
This group of parents and residents is determined to lead the charge and therefore control the outcome. If they decide they want a charter school, they want to negotiate with operators to get a program tailored to their needs and desires. For instance, the major drawback of charter operations is that they want to "grow" their academic culture from Kindergarten on up. This means the older students at the school being replaced are usually displaced.
The parents working through the Pullman Community Development Corporation want a charter operator who will agree to accept the current Wendell Smith students in the new school. It will be very interesting to see if they are successful in that bid though, because successful charter schools boast drastically superior student performance partly because they imprint their lessons from a very young age. Note that world famous inner city educator Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Childrens Zone takes students in infancy!
The group might decide to try and improve Wendell Smith, working with the school and CPS on staff development, after school programs, more parent engagement. Either way, the difference is that the solutions are not being imposed by the district, but in partnership with the people who live with the results. And there is no question, that something needs to happen here - and not a minor 'something'.
Wendell Smith is, like so many public schools in poor African American neighborhoods (the student population is 100 percent African American and 100 percent qualify for reduced or free lunch), failing to produce enough graduates who can succeed in high school and beyond.
The school's poor performance has been on the CPS radar for a decade. Deemed to be in "educational crisis" by Paul Vallas back in 2001, it is and has been on Academic Probation at Level 3 (the worst on the CPS ranking). The districts' Performance Policy, which considers more than just test scores, was met at only a 26 percent level.
Opened in 1973, it was the answer to the prayers and protests of parents and neighbors: a state of the art building on a sprawling campus with space for 800 pupils and a rich academic menu including advanced courses and specialized classes. At one point, the school served 1100 students.
At this moment (we spoke with the Local School Council Chairperson on July 14), there are 295 children enrolled. That's even down from the 361 on the roster as of last Spring. People are fleeing for their childrens' lives.
No doubt, the principal and teachers at Wendell Smith feel they are being blamed for all the woes at this school.
But the truth is, it has come this far by the active and negligent forces from a wide range of stakeholders: the district, the parents, the taxpayers, the voters - and only a coalition of those same forces can correct the trend of not just this school, but the hundreds of schools in the exact same place, or worse.
Since it is so daunting to talk about reforming the system, perhaps the lesson from these activist parents in Pullman is for each neighborhood to take it one school at a time. Of course, that depends on the end result of their journey. Stay tuned.