Freedom Schools looking for help

Imagine an afterschool program that provides help with homework, nurtures a strong family-like safe environment, staffed by educators who are specialize in the reduction of risky behavior, engage in service projects with plenty of room for fun and recreation. Sounds great, right? There is even an official program out of the Illinois Department of Human Services that you can read about:

All that got erased on April 3rd. Freedom School administrators received a curt email saying that no more bills would be accepted through the Teen REACH program. The $109,000 yearly grant that drove a bulk of the program was abruptly and unexpectedly cut off in a moment.

At the April 13th regular board meeting, Unit 4 heard from many personal accounts of how Freedom Schools, Teen REACH and “Sankofa” had positively impacted their lives. They heard from a mother/grandmother, children, students, volunteers and staff. You can watch it all for yourself within the first 18 minutes of the board meeting video:

I was moved after I watched it, so I immediately contacted the Unit 4 board and administration to learn more. I learned that Gov. Rauner’s proposed 2016 budget totally slashed a large number of social programs, including Teen REACH. What totally puzzles me is why funding was so rudely halted even though the budget has not even been approved by the Senate and the House?!? Where is that money going now?

After a few exchanges with board members, I was put into contact with Ms. Sara Sanders (principal at Franklin) and Ms. Regina Parnell (from the Regional Office of Education); both gave witness at the board meeting, and both have been very invovled in Freedom Schools. Ms. Parnell graciously agreed to meet with me, and even show me around one of the “Freedom Schools”.

To put things in perspective, the program is limping by with a $24,000 grant from United Way (props to United Way!) and pulling some strings. Ms. Parnell point out one staff person who started off volunteering, then officially joined the program, and after learning that funding had vaporized, continued to come back purely as a volunteer. Why? Because the staff truly love the kids, and the kids love the staff. There is no other way to put it. In their own words, they are family. And that is what I really love about this program.

The kidos start out with homework time in a portion of the cafeteria, in a partition right next to Kids Plus. When I was there, I saw about 30 kids of all different elementary grades; I also learned that while most were from Stratton, some come from Dr. Howard as well. The staff have a high standard for behavior, from walking (not running), to how others are treated with respect (even between brothers – now that was a tall order! *grin*). After homework time, where peer tutoring is encouraged, the children are allowed to pursue another project. The day I was there, they filed off to the gym for some recreation.

The whole time I was able to ask questions and learn so much more about this effort (most of the answers are embedded above). Ms. Parnell strikes me as an amazing person who truly has a heart to see these families (not just the students) grow stronger. At one point one of the stories she shared so much reminded me of Lisa Delpit’s “Other People’s Children”, and the critical need to get to know the child and family – else how can you truly guide and help someone?

I also learned that “sankofa” is an Akan word from Ghana meaning (loosely) “to reach back”; the way it is used in Freedom Schools is that the program not only strives to positively impact the students, but to also reach back to the parents (and even grandparents) and positively impact them as well.

When we worked out the numbers, Ms. Parnell came up with $100/month per child. I can do $100/month for this awesome program. Can I find 90 other kind souls?

[[ comment about Tap-In being revised ]]

And lastly, I have not heard from any legislators or those in contact with the governor about reviving the Teen REACH grant. I am really pissed that the funds were cut off even though there is no good reason for it, yet.

I ask for 90 people to help Freedom Schools. Who is willing and able to help?

Exam Cram: 2015 school board candidates

I know many of you are suffering withdrawal because Early voting is closed today; have no fear, you can get your fix here and learn all about the school board candidates. Recently I added Nicole Lafond’s News-Gazette interviews of each school board candidate:

There are eight folks vying for four 4-year seats, and Jonathan Westfield is the sole runner for the 2-year seat. How to decide? Who are you going to vote for? With the two current board members in the middle of their own 4-year terms (Laurie Bonnett and Lynn Stuckey), plus Jonathan, there are 70 total unique combinations:

potential_school_board_combinations (excel spreadsheet)

Will you vote based on a single (big) issue like the $144 million referendum? Will you vote based on how well you know each candidate? How many yard signs you have seen?

I suggest you to think about what kind of board you want as a whole; what qualities and characteristics of a school board do you value the most? For myself, I am pushing for a board that adheres strongly and visibly to the Illinois Association of School Board’s “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance“.

After talking to many candidates and reflecting on the marathon of forums and other encounters with the public, I am very encouraged to hear that most candidates have already formed a strong rapport with each other; that even though they definitely do not agree on everything, they have already started to exercise respectful deliberation. One of the “Big Ideas” I am hoping shakes out of the new board are more informal “gatherings” where folks can simply hang out with board members and have agenda-less conversations, maybe even to the point of doing so with more than two board members. We shall see.

April 7th quickly approaches. While I encourage you to vote, I think it may be more important to be an informed voter. If you have questions, please ask.

Agenda for the Jan 5 Special Board meeting has been posted

We have known about it for a couple weeks, but the district finally posted the BOE meeting agenda for the Jan 5 Special Board meeting on boarddocs. If  you read today’s “Tom’s Mailbag“, you will have gotten an idea that REWIND will be making itself known at Monday’s meeting; I imagine a number of others will be making public statements as well.


Typically Special Board meetings are not televised on CGTV 5, so I hope the meeting is posted on the district’s Vimeo site in the days following the meeting for those who are not able to attend in person.


The agenda shows a few items; undoubtedly, the biggest of which will be a discussion surrounding the 20 year facility plan (5. Reports – New Business). There are three documents attached in that line item that you might want to go look at, although be warned that they are not new:


The other two agenda items are a short report on HR changes and a reclassification for Brian Easter (for which is he very excited!).


A couple things to keep your eyes open for; Nicole Lafond has a couple articles she is working on, one probably for Sunday and another possible for Monday or Tuesday. The Sunday article will probably be about the referendum issue, the latter article about board member candidates. Along that line, REWIND will most likely be putting out some more public information on board candidates in the form of candidate responses to a questionnaire. I believe this will be discussed at their Tuesday evening meeting.

Email threads concerning the future of Central

This evening an individual forwarded a couple email threads that involved the Unit 4 Board and various other members of the community and school district whom you might recognize. I feel that these email threads add to the ongoing broader discussion of how our local school district will plan, prepare and implement capital improvements in light of several facts including 1) our high schools are already over capacity, 2) it is projected that by 2022 we will be 120% over current capacity.


I have removed all email address, home/business addresses and phone numbers. I elected to keep names because I feel it is important to attach the thoughts shared by a person with a real identity. However, I do wish to point out that it is not my intent to go on any kind of witch hunt or cast judgement on individuals; rather, my perspective is that these are, more or less, a documentary of how people think and a small slice of persuasive factors that influence big decisions. This is the kind of community-wide discussion we should all be privy to, so that we can all participate (in my opinion). This is necessary for us, as a voting, tax-paying public, to take ownership of how our tax dollars are spent. It is also my understanding that emails sent to and from the board of education are automatically part of the public record and thus subject to the laws of FOIA.


(Note there are some personal jabs of one kind or another buried within – again, I was tempted to remove those, but I want to keep the emails intact as much as possible).





I wish to also state that I hear a lot of folks demonizing other individuals or other groups. I will state publicly that the people/groups I personally know and speak with are trying their best to do their job. This includes members of the Unit 4 Administration, the Unit 4 Board and the staff at the News-Gazette. I am quite certain I could not do their job any better. However, that does not mean I agree with all their decisions, either. My opinion is that it is perfectly healthy and natural for any group of people to have disagreements and different ways of looking at things. This is the essense of life-long learning; which is why this topic is totally appropriate for a blog focused on local, public education. 🙂


UPDATE: I should also mention that News-Gazette’s Julie Wurth has been writing a lot about Unit 4, and the Central site selection in particular. On Saturday she published an article that mentions some of the players related to this email thread, including a follow-up article from Dr. Wiegand to the Park District Board:

Planning for the future

On Monday, March 10th, the BOE will hold a regular board meeting. According to the Agenda that is posted on boarddocs, it looks like a very short meeting (depending on how long people talk *grin*).

One of the items that caught my attention is the Spotlight Video titled “Community Involved Planning*”. I have asked if this video is available prior to the meeting and at the time of this writing, I have not heard back. Community Involved Planning is crucial for the stakeholders to take ownership of their school district. However, I think the tricky part is 1) we do not have a good sense of what this actually entails, and 2) those that do have a good sense of the work involved might just disagree on how to implement it. My perspective is that community involved planning is tedious, inefficient and downright messy. I say this not to slam such planning, but rather to be realistic and say we need to embrace planning as a whole community despite the challenges before us. I firmly believe the “bang for the buck” is well worth the cost.

*NOTE: “Community Involved Planning” comes straight out of Goal #2 of the District’s Goals. In fact, a number of the recent Spotlight Videos have been highlighting various goals from this page.

Speaking of “bang for the buck”, the sole item under “New Business” is a Quality Learning Environment Outcomes (QLEO) analysis report done by BLDD and the Facilities Committee. Most of the report deals with measuring the “Cost Benefit Ratio” (aka, CBR or “bang for the buck”) of various future school scenarios. For instance, 3 middle schools versus 4 with some variation of one or more K-8 schools. Or how to repurpose the building that currently houses Central once Central moves. I give props for folks thinking a little outside the box to come up with “Live/Work” ideas for the building – it sounds like crazy stuff! 🙂 Essentially, the Facilities Committee has whittled down a list of about 20 scenario options down to their favorite three; two involving three middle schools and a K-8, one with four middle schools. The high school options all pretty much stay the same. The “Lifecycle costs” of these options are going to blow your mind.

Also, as of this moment, the BLDD presentation shows that the high schools will have a capacity for 1500 students, but we really need a total of 3207 by 2022, and DeJong-Richter originally called for 1600 students at each high school. Odd. Matt Foster says he is looking into it.

And now we circle back to “community involved planning”. Recently, the one big push for “community involvement” was via DeJong-Richter. Prior to that, Great Schools Together. Both efforts had various levels of success (which varies widely depending on whom you talk to). It makes me very curious what this video is going to say. What is hard for me to determine is what our community really needs. I have my own thoughts (ie, we need a TON more involvement), and I have talked with a number of folks, some who agree and some who disagree (saying the district has tried, and in fact will continue to try, to get community involvement). On that note, Pattsi sent me a link about the “informed city” (which took place on March 4th) as a build-up to United Nations Habitat World Urban Forum; fascinating ideas, but I am left with “so what are the action steps?” What comes out of all this awesome dialogue and interaction?

For those interested, the only two documents available at the Facility Committee website are two meeting minutes, which give a little bit of an idea how the Committee debated various options over the last few months in 2013:

Who is this John Bambenek guy?

I had a great chat with the new Board member, John Bambenek, on Friday. My interaction with Mr. Bambenek on Friday reinforced my previous interactions with him, and I had two take-aways; 1) he is very open to talking, just drop him a note and work out a good time, 2) he is passionate about bringing a deeper level of transparency and financial accountability to the school board.

As an alumni of the University’s Computer Science department, I was somewhat compelled to start our conversation on the topic of computers, a topic that came up frequently. John teaches a 400-level course at the University dealing with operating system and network security. If I recall correctly, their latest task is to reverse-engineer a computer virus. I asked about special projects, and he mentioned one I was fascinated with, a quadracopter carrying a raspberry pi to accomplish specific tasks. Computers bled into other aspects of our dialog as well.

For instance, Bambenek has a tie into Adam Andrzejewski’s Open the Books project (I believe he said he either sat on one of the boards or consulted for them). For those not familiar with Open the Books, I encourage you check out the website and/or go read Jim Dey’s Editorial on it (11/02/2013). The basic idea is to track where and how all the money flows, or as their motto says “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” For me personally, I find this to be a fundamental part of modern democracy, giving normal taxpayers the tools and authority to see what their tax dollars are accomplishing. I believe it has the potential to bring the voice back to the voter, so that we can ask intelligent questions, but more importantly, give critical feedback to our elected officials so that they have concrete guidance on how to perform their duties. “Transparency” is something that becomes a bit of a buzzword when folks are campaigning, but it makes me wonder how many people really “get it.” I believe Mr. Andrzejewski gets it – and if Bambenek is following in the same path, I am happy with that. To bring the conversation to Unit 4 in particular, there are several things going on. First, we recognize and acknowledge that Unit 4 has gotten better about transparency. For instance, they have been posting check registers online for quite a while now, and even better, Read the rest of this entry »

New Board member: John Bambenek

John Bambenek has been chosen to fill Scott MacAdam’s seat on the board.

I’ll be adding another post about my own thoughts in the near future. I have emailed John a few questions and hopefully will hear back soon. 🙂



The interview is now posted on Vimeo: