The lines extend from the auditorium out into the corridor of Stockton Elementary School, a microcosm of Chicago’s population. There are blacks, American Indians, Romanians, Poles, Southern whites, WASPs, Jews, Irishmen, Latins and Asians from a dozen different countries–all living together in a four-block square area. There are elderly, disorderly looking residents of the Wilson Club Hotel and svelte young home owners from the Dover Street Neighbors Association; there are welfare mothers and professional people, janitors and landlords, babes in arms and ancient ladies. There are people whose children have come along to translate for them and drunks who are “assisted” to vote by their mentors from a local political organization that has a full slate of candidates running.

This is Uptown, October, election day for members of the local school council. Stockton School is at Montrose and Beacon, in what is called the Sheridan Park section of Uptown, a historic district of lovely old homes, renovated apartment buildings and condos, working-class buildings in reasonable condition, and slums. The school has more than 900 students in a Child Parent Center for three- and four-year-olds (one of 24 in the city) and in grades kindergarten through five. It has about 100 employees, including 53 teachers, most of whom have been there for many years, and 26 teacher aides, about half of whom are recent additions as a direct result of the work of the local school council.

When I received a letter from Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts) in September asking me to supervise last month’s local school council (or LSC) election, I decided it would give me a good opportunity to see how my local school was faring under school reform. I live around the corner from Stockton. While I haven’t closely followed events there, I do see the kids going to and from school and I see the principal, Dr. Carl P. Lieberman, a short, slender, balding, mild-mannered man, standing every afternoon at my corner, a block away from the school, making sure that the kids go home and chatting with parents and children because, he explains, many parents are reluctant to come into his office to talk about their problems.

And I know, from my long residence in Uptown, that every neighborhood activity here is a political struggle between North Side Fair Share, the group that backs Alderman Helen Shiller, and what they continue to call “the machine,” referring to the group that lines up against Shiller in elections and on many neighborhood issues. The latter group, whose center of gravity is the Dover Street Neighbors Association, is too politically disparate to be a “machine” but is unified principally by the desire to bring development and gentrification to Uptown; the Dover Street regulars, as they are sometimes called, accuse Shiller and her people of opposing most development that benefits the middle class. While Shiller has a large proportion of the poor in the neighborhood lined up behind her, the Dover Street regulars have the developers, the banks, the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, and the Democratic Party forces (including Mayor Daley in the last election) on their side. Still, Shiller has taken the last two aldermanic elections, and in the 1989 LSC election, in which both sides ran slates of candidates, Shiller’s people won five of the eight seats.

Judging from the lines of people waiting to vote, the turnout seemed good this year, though it was clearly swelled by soldiers of the neighborhood’s political battles. One election judge, overcome by the alcohol fumes of a number of voters who arrived together, estimated that drunks were 30 percent of the vote. (It seemed to me that they were in fact a small minority, but they did make an impact.) The Dover Street regulars, whose children are either too young, too old, or too good for the local public school, voted as community residents, which is their right.

An old drawing of Stockton School hangs today in the principal’s office. It shows landscaped grounds that are now paved over and an elegant main entrance of wood and glass that long ago was replaced with ugly painted security doors. From the outside the 75-year-old yellow brick building looks like just another slum school, barren and barricaded against undesirable social elements. But there are no broken windows and very little graffiti, and though a few shabby buildings remain nearby, developers and individual urban pioneers have restored most of the neighborhood to its original middle- and upper-middle-class glory.

Inside, the building recalls that glory. It’s an elegant old structure with miles of wood trim and spaces that can only be described as grand: 16-foot ceilings, huge classrooms, wide corridors, a lovely old auditorium, and a huge gym. There are big windows everywhere, many of them curtained and decorated. Throughout the school the walls are covered with all manner of attractive educational materials, including a tribute to Dr. Seuss and a decorated bulletin board featuring student essays. The corridors and rooms, including the washrooms and the cafeteria, are clean, quiet, and attractive.

Inside the classrooms, with a couple highly notable exceptions, the atmosphere is one of orderly, quiet warmth. The teachers are smiling and energetic. Cupboards, bookcases, and worktables are overflowing with books, educational toys, and various learning aids. Many rooms have computers. The rooms were built to hold 48 students in six rows of screwed-down desks, but no class has more than 26 kids, and the kindergartens and first grades have only 20 (some city classrooms have as many as 40). Some teachers have their students’ desks arranged in old-fashioned rows while others have them in a circle or in groups of four facing each other. There is a feeling of light and space quite unlike the overcrowded classrooms in some other city schools.

In the huge gym, a dozen kids are playing ball with a teacher. In the auditorium, another dozen are working on the stage with a teacher aide. The library is filled with kids and books. On its door is a line quoted from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

So why do Stockton’s reading scores rank in the lowest quarter of the city’s 610 schools (as of last year)? Karen Zaccor, former president of the LSC, whose fifth-grade daughter has been at Stockton since she was three, blames the teachers. “The teachers don’t teach,” she says. “All they do is assign lessons and tell the kids to do them. They don’t discuss ideas with the kids. They don’t do anything to help them learn. You can’t learn that way. Furthermore, the teachers have low expectations of the kids because they come from this neighborhood. They don’t expect them to learn, so they don’t.”

These are criticisms heard all over the city–indeed the nation. They are among the main reasons school reform was instituted. The parents, reformers felt, would change the way teaching was done, would force teachers to adopt higher standards, higher expectations, better methods.

Dr. Lieberman points out that although Stockton’s reading scores are poor, “in overall test scores ours are above the city average.” Still, he knows the city average is nothing to boast about, and he admits that Zaccor’s criticism of the teachers has some merit. “There is something to that certainly,” he says. But much more important, in his opinion, are other factors that school reform can’t address. “You have to realize that we have a 60 percent turnover rate. That means that six out of ten kids who were here in September aren’t here in June. And those six kids are replaced with six others who may have been here for only a couple months before the tests were made. There is constant turnover in this community. Some come and go throughout the year. They go back and forth to Mexico, Puerto Rico, the border states, the Southern states. Transiency has always been a characteristic of this community, though that’s been changing lately as the poor get gentrified out. Still, the transient level here is much higher than the city and statewide averages. The state average for turnover is about 33 percent. The city is a little higher. And we’re at 60 percent. So, who are they testing?”

Furthermore, Lieberman says, “You can’t lay all the responsibilities on the teachers. There’s a lot of research that says there’s a high correlation between what happens at home and what happens in school, and our kids come from homes where there isn’t much attention given to learning.”

Even more important may be the fact that more than half the students at Stockton are not English speakers. Forty percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are Asian, and there are small percentages of various European immigrants. Twenty-three languages are spoken in the school. Lieberman explains, “These kids think in their own languages, but the tests are given in English. These kids, even the ones who are reasonably fluent in English, have a lot of problems with those tests. They think in their own language and they have to translate the English into that language in order to understand it. Then they have to translate the answer back into English. That takes time and puts them at a disadvantage. And there are nuances, interpretations that they miss. Words don’t always mean the same thing, something that is usually hard for a foreign speaker to handle.”

Lieberman throws up his hands. “When you look at high achievement in other countries, what do you have? One language, one culture! You can’t say that they’re doing such a wonderful job and we’re not, because we’re assimilating all kinds of cultures and we’re trying to turn round pegs into square ones.”

Our culture doesn’t help either, Lieberman adds. “We’re a country that has real literacy problems. Our people do very little real reading, but they expect us to teach their kids to read. We have the kids for five hours a day. The rest of the time they’re at home with parents who don’t really care about reading. What can we do?”

Stockton has a bilingual program in which the Hispanic kids receive instruction in both Spanish and English, and a special program for its 60 Cambodian students, who have a computer lab and a teacher all to themselves. “The Asian parents often prefer their kids to be in nonbilingual classes because they want them to learn English quickly,” Lieberman says. “The Hispanics are not so keen about that. Is bilingual instruction better than the “toss ’em in the water and let ’em swim” system used in American schools through previous surges of immigration? Lieberman says, “It’s important that the kids know how to think and read in their native language. Some of them come here with no education at all. If they’re not literate in their native language, they’re going to have big trouble in English.”

As the result of a cockamamy compromise arrived at by the legislature to save the School Reform Act after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, each LSC has two teacher members elected by the school staff subject to the approval of the Board of Education. Joyce Davidson is one of the teacher members of Stockton’s council. A primary-grade teacher who has been at the school for 17 years, she has for the last 10 years been coordinator of a special enhancement program for the primary grades that is tied to the Child Parent Center. She works closely with the primary teachers, she says, doing whatever is needed to keep the program going.

When the school reform bill was passed, Davidson says, “I was willing to give it a try.” She decided to run for a spot on the council “to learn more about school reform,” and it was a “good lesson,” she says. Though the stress of holding down her job, raising her young son, and attending the LSC’s endless meetings sometimes gave her pause, she decided to run again this year. “I’ve learned to manage it” she says. “I was innocent. Everyone had their own agenda. Once you learn what those agendas are and how to deal with it, you can manage it.”

There was a good deal of conflict between the teacher members and the rest of the council, Davidson says, and between the council and the school staff. The staff was impatient with the processes required of the council by law, particularly the evaluation of the principal, whom the teachers strongly support. There was also a major dispute over the issue of paying parents to work in the classroom. It is almost commonplace now for community organizers, which the Fair Share people on the council were, to advocate offering small financial incentives to low-income people for participation in community affairs. A few dollars can make a difference to the very poor, goes the theory. Davidson and her fellow teachers didn’t agree. She says, “They wanted to bring the parents into the classroom for an hour a day or so and pay them. It was a large sum of money they wanted to use for that. We went around about that for almost a year. The parents won’t come to meetings or anything. Why should we pay them to come into their kids’ classrooms?” The teachers finally won with a proposal to “take the money and hire a health aide, which this school really needs,” Davidson says.

“They’re always saying the teachers aren’t doing their jobs,” Davidson complains, “but we’re not getting any help from home. That’s what we want from this process. That’s what we want from school reform. Get the parents involved. We’re tired of hearing excuses for parents. I’m a parent myself. I have to go to my kid’s school. I know they’re having a hard time, but there is a point where you have to take some responsibility for your own kids.”

Davidson and the other teacher on the council, Laura Cruz, considered themselves representatives of the Stockton staff; they made no decisions on their own, Davidson says, but went back to the teachers on every question. This exercise in democracy did not intrigue any other teachers enough to convince them to run for seats in 1991. Davidson and Cruz ran again unopposed this year.

After the ’89 LSC election, Shiller supporters held five seats on the council and the Dover Street regulars had three. As a consequence, there were disagreements in the council in its first two years. But Lieberman says the members were “always civil” and worked together very harmoniously to make several dramatic changes in the school. Most members attended every meeting, Lieberman says. “They worked in committees and reported back to monthly meetings, the way things should be done.” Jeri Miglietta, the member most closely identified in Uptown with Shiller (she directs the Uptown Learning Center, a Fair Share project), was the acknowledged leader of the council last term. She says her political opponents balked at some of her proposals “just to oppose me,” but eventually gave in because Lieberman supported the ideas.

The council had about $250,000 at its disposal–federal “Title I” money that by law is directed individually to schools in poor areas (before school reform it was improperly channeled into the school system’s general funds). With that money, the council directed the principal to hire several new teachers to reduce class size; 12 new teacher aides to assist in the classrooms; the above-mentioned health aide, who assisted the school nurse and screened children for lead poisoning; and a “student advocate,” a community resident hired to work with kids having trouble in the classroom. The council also initiated a fifth-grade tutoring program, hiring a coordinator and five tutors for about 40 children. Miglietta says her opponents on the council at first resisted this program, which uses as tutors community people who are not themselves very literate. “We have a very simple system of training tutors that we have used successfully even for youth who are themselves only at the sixth-grade reading level. Tutoring doesn’t have to be done by educated people. Even kids in the same grade can tutor their classmates.” Miglietta says that the 40 children tutored under the Fair Share system at Stockton rose one to two grades in reading level. Lieberman affirms Miglietta’s claim. “The tutoring program is a big success,” he says.

Another major change at Stockton was the elimination of “dumb” classes in the third grade, a first step in abolishing the school’s tracking system. As has long been the case in most Chicago schools, classes at Stockton are divided according to students’ presumed ability, even though research indicates that the practice adversely affects those kids placed in the slower classes. They are likely to suffer emotionally and therefore intellectually from the inferior classification–sociologists call it “labeling”–and additionally from the low expectations of their teachers, who cannot help but feel to at least some extent that the children will fail no matter how much effort is invested in them.

Lieberman says that the Stockton staff has been discussing this issue for some time. They knew the research findings, but they also knew from experience that teaching homogeneous groups is easier. It took pressure from the LSC to finally make the change. The third grade was detracked in the 1990-91 school year, Lieberman says, and the rest of the school will probably follow soon. Teachers at Stockton henceforth will have to figure out how to teach a heterogeneous group in a way that continues to challenge the brightest without neglecting those not so able. “I encourage them to pitch their expectations at the highest, not the lowest,” Lieberman says.

According to several observers, most of the ideas and activities undertaken by the council were proposed by Jeri Miglietta and Karen Zaccor, who is a typesetter/designer at Justice Graphics, a print shop owned and operated by the Shiller forces. “They were the sparkplugs,” says Joanne Ruvolo Gannett, a Dover Street regular who attended all the council’s meetings and ran for a place on the council this year. She expressed admiration for the two women. “The rest of the council was obviously a rubber stamp for them,” she adds.

This past summer, Gannett and a few friends from the Dover Street Neighbors Association reorganized the school library. It was “a mess,” Gannett says; there were plenty of books, “but they were completely disorganized. There was no order, no system. It couldn’t function as a real library. And the furniture was old and broken. Shelves were unsightly and so on.” Gannett and her friends repainted, reorganized, and convinced Lieberman to buy new furniture from money already targeted for this purpose but never spent. They also filled a vacant job, recruiting a new librarian who began working with them a month before school opened.

Though the 1989 election was hotly contested–signs were angrily ripped down, the police were called, the Fair Share candidates were denounced as communists and accused of “busing in drunks”: just a typical election day in Chicago–this year the anti-Shiller “machine” conceded the election. Gannett, a former teacher whose only school-age child attends a magnet school, is the only Dover Street regular who ran. The Fair Share people, on the other hand, ran a “Unity Slate” of eight candidates, including Miglietta and Zaccor, and campaigned with at least rudimentary versions of the standard electoral tools. Before the election they distributed a two-sided black-and-white flier showing the candidates’ pictures; it was printed in English on one side and Spanish on the other. When I asked Miglietta where the money had come from to produce this campaign literature, she laughed. “We only put out this one piece. I put in a little money. Karen did the design and typesetting and we had it printed at an insty printer.”

But on election day, two more pieces of literature appeared. These, also printed in English and Spanish, were sample ballots designed to target the vote. While there were eight slots to be filled–two community representatives and six parents–a voter could only vote for five candidates, according to the compromise made by the legislature after the ’88 law was decreed unconstitutional. This makes it difficult for an organization to get a full slate of eight candidates elected. Miglietta and Zaccor addressed this problem by dividing their candidates into two groups of five each and printing two sample ballots. A green one said, “If you live NORTH OF WILSON, the Unity Candidates ask you to vote for these 5.” A peach-colored ballot asked voters who lived south of Wilson to vote for another group of five. Each slate was arrayed around the best known of the candidates. North of Wilson it was Zaccor, south of Wilson Miglietta.

Against the Unity Slate were five independent candidates including Gannett, who campaigned hard. She was the only candidate who stood outside the polling place for 13 straight hours, handing out her rose-colored fliers and talking to people. Her friends worked to get out the vote for her, and two of them alternated as watchers through the long day at the polls. But they were no match for the Unity Slate. Jeri Miglietta started at 5 AM, working the polls and the neighborhood, supervising a crew of workers. Only when the count was over at 11:30 PM (the election was by paper ballot) did she go home, happy. Zaccor almost matched Miglietta’s energy. She would have stayed for the count, too, she said, but she had to go to work.

In the end, Gannett failed by four votes to win a seat on the council. One independent candidate was elected, and the Unity Slate took seven seats out of eight. They won, Zaccor said, because “We campaign every day of the year on every issue–health, welfare, education, drugs. We go out into the community talking about these issues all the time.”

The turnout at Stockton was one of the highest in the city: 488 voters. Only 232 of them were parents, however, in a school of more than 900 children.

Despite a general lack of support from parents and communities–and a concomitant potential for abuse by political groups less benign than Fair Share has been thus far–school reform is working in many schools. Changes like those at Stockton are taking place all across the city. Designs for Change, the research and advocacy group that largely wrote the school- reform bill, has kept close watch on the schools, and executive director Don Moore reports that “there are major improvements in many schools.” About half the LSCs have fired do-nothing principals and hired live wires who have brought progressive changes to their schools, Moore says. In a survey of teachers conducted by Designs for Change, 60 percent said their schools had benefited from reform. “Discipline and safety have improved in many schools,” Moore says, “and there has been major success in relieving overcrowding. Several councils have forced principals to rent space in the community to relieve overcrowding.” Perhaps most important, there are now 3,000 additional staff–teachers and aides–working in the schools, reducing class size and providing more individual attention.

Some councils have more conflict than others, of course, and in some schools the councils are simply rubber stamps for dominant principals. A few councils may simply fade away from lack of support. But some will also gain strength from the examples of others. According to Miglietta, there is a lot of networking going on between councils.

One thing is certain and should be remembered now that the school-reform honeymoon is over. Parents and community people can run the schools. In a lot of schools, including the one around the corner from me, they’re doing a better job than the bureaucracy that preceded them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.