The Anti-Renaissance Man: One Chicago teacher fights to save the city’s public schools

photo by Emilie Shumway

photo by Emilie Shumway


Education administrators in business suits are gathered, miniature complimentary bottles of San Pellegrino in hand. This is the “CPS Senior Staff Retreat,” and at the front of the Gleacher Center meeting room sits Ron Huberman, the newly-ordained CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, recently transferred by Mayor Daley from his position as the head of the Chicago Transit Authority. The meeting is nearly at an end, but first Huberman approaches the podium and declares his delight in introducing two final speakers, who turn out to be administrators from the CTA. As the woman at the podium begins to describe in-depth the methods of reducing gap times between city buses, I turn to look at the faces around me, searching for signs of incredulity or disbelief to match my own.

A few seats away sits a public school teacher in a sequined necktie. He seems out of place, but he’s actually a guest of honor, a recipient of a DRIVE (Delivering Results through Innovative and Visionary Education) Award. His name is Xian Barrett; he’s the man who invited me to the event.

In just his third year as a public high school teacher, Barrett seems to have a presence in every organization available that combines education and social justice; he is a member of Teachers for Social Justice, an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) site team member, a student coordinator for Student Development and Service Learning, and the faculty advisor for two organizations–the Social Justice Club and the Japanese Club–at Percy L. Julian High School, where he teaches. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2000 with a degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures, he spent two years in Japan teaching English and Human Rights Education. The experience solidified his twin passions of teaching and social justice.

Following the meeting, I overhear Barrett talking to a friendly administrator who has approached him: “At first I was a little worried when they started talking about the CTA, but then I started to draw an interesting comparison…When something goes wrong with the Red Line, they get out and figure out how to fix it. They don’t get rid of the Red Line.”

Xian Barrett; photo by Emilie Shumway

Xian Barrett; photo by Emilie Shumway

The sting in Barrett’s comment is a reference to Renaissance 2010, an initiative drawn up by the Commercial Club of Chicago and presented by Mayor Daley back in 2004. The program calls for the creation of 100 new charter schools, funded privately by businesses, and the closing of 100 underachieving public schools in the Chicago area by 2010. The charter schools would still technically be public schools, but with a number of notable differences, including the use of an application process and no requirement for teacher’s unions.

Created by businessmen with a mind for efficiency, the plan is based on data that, according to Daley and former CPS CEO Arne Duncan, shows improvement in students’ test scores and higher retention rates in the charter schools. It also reflects a capitalistic way of viewing public education, one that Barrett calls a “corporate hijacking of our education system.” Why is it, he wonders, that the broken-down Red Line gets repaired but failing public schools get dismantled?

Percy L. Julian is overcrowded and significantly lacking in resources. Over 90 percent of the students are low-income and 99.1 percent are African-American. There are twenty-nine classes without teachers and several classes with over sixty students in them. “A surprising number of kids just stay in the room and talk,” Barrett explains of the teacherless classrooms, but emphasizes that the “down time” can also lead to boredom and discontent that gets channeled into gang fights, and peddling and using hard drugs. Barrett teaches Japanese, and students often drift into his room during lunch and free periods during the day to hang out in a safe space.

Protest at the Chicago Public Schools building; photo by Emilie Shumway

Protest at the Chicago Public Schools building; photo by Emilie Shumway

The Social Justice Club started during one of these free periods. “The students would sit there and complain about things–how school should be, police treatment of students,” says Barrett, “And I would say, ‘You know, you’re right, but just complaining about it isn’t going to do anything.'” Many students agreed, and began looking for ways to effect change, finding help from similar organizations at the Englewood and Kenwood high schools and the Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy. In the process, the Julian students first learned of Renaissance 2010. Englewood High School–which graduated its last class of students in June 2008–has since closed down, but at the time, a number of students were battling against the decision. As the inevitable became apparent, students from Englewood who had worked on the issue began training Julian’s Social Justice Club in the art of talking to media and speaking at the school board meetings, where they would be torn apart without a list of data and statistics to support their arguments. “The Englewood kids also made it clear that we needed to get on the issue right away. They started too late to stop their school from closing,” Barrett explains.

Although some data points toward the success of charter schools (and many, Barrett included, stress that these findings are weak or inconclusive), some worry that there are subtle forms of discrimination involved in the process of selecting and moving students to charter schools. While the charter schools are “not selective” in terms of test scores, there can be other ways to weed out candidates. For kids whose parents are not involved in their academic lives, getting their hands on applications and then filling them out without parental help or information is all but impossible. The students would be eighth graders or younger during the application process, without means to transport themselves and as unlikely as any other preteen to be seriously considering their education options. As a result, many miss out on charter school opportunities, and may end up in overcrowded public schools with even fewer resources. “Every school closing is estimated to set a student back six months,” Barrett points out.

photo by Emilie Shumway

photo by Emilie Shumway

It isn’t only Barrett and the Social Justice Club who see Renaissance 2010 as unfair. On January 28, the section of Clark Street bordered by West Marble Place and West Monroe–the location of the Chicago Public Schools headquarters–was overwhelmed by a mass demonstration against the program, complete with picketing signs, megaphones, and a march to City Hall. The crowd was notably mixed and represented every demographic of those affected by the initiative: teachers, for whom the charter schools do not allow unions; African-American community leaders, worried about the effects on their lower-income communities; even a surprising number of disabled kids, for whom the charter schools are not required to provide a special needs program. Those with megaphones took their chance to emphasize the need for better teacher training and smaller class sizes. From the warm interior of the CPS building, administrators grouped and peeked out. As the chanting, marching mass made its way toward City Hall, people could be seen gathered at their windows, looking down in curiosity.

“They called the school and told us we shouldn’t have bussed students to the protest,” Barrett laughs, when asked whether there was a response to the protest. Apart from that, no organized response or statement was put out by the administration.

Things might look dismal for the anti-Renaissance 2010 crowd, especially with the recent sting of President Obama’s decision to nominate Arne Duncan–one of the original proponents of Renaissance 2010–as his Secretary of Education. But Barrett remains hopeful for the movement against the policy, and holds off criticism on new CEO Ron Huberman until he has a chance to see him at work.

“He did mention wanting real results and not fake data,” Barrett says. But until he sees reason to believe otherwise, his skepticism remains.

5 comments for “The Anti-Renaissance Man: One Chicago teacher fights to save the city’s public schools

  1. Deborah
    April 10, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Does anyone know of any research that critically analyzes Charter Schools? The one I had experience with basically had 5 years to promote itself without having to prove what it boasted–so for those five years, presumably my kid was just a guinea pig. Everytime I hear Obama say we need Charter Schools, my blood runs cold.

  2. April 28, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Here’s a study from a former charter school teacher and a UIC professor of Education:
    http://www.uic.edu/educ/ceje/articles/CharterDifference.pdf

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