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Chicago Public Schools Fri Oct 02 2015

Keys to a Classroom

Kelvyn Park High SchoolBy Manny Ramos

On the morning of May 8, 2015, Jerry Skinner was teaching his English class to his 11th graders when he noticed a group of students wandering the hallways outside of his classroom. This is a common problem at Kelvyn Park High School, but it is not for the reason you might think. These students weren't lost, they weren't skipping class, and they weren't looking for trouble.

Sadly, it's quite the opposite. The students simply were missing two of the most essential things to any educational process.

A classroom.

More importantly, a teacher.

The drifting students had nowhere to go because their social studies classroom was vacant and locked. Although Skinner is certified to teach social studies, there is no way he could have taught two different topics at once.

"I took the first three periods into my class, along with my already scheduled classes," Skinner said. "I couldn't teach those kids, but its better they are with me than roaming the school," he said.

Skinner sat on a stiff mahogany wooden chair in a coffee shop, shouts from baristas punctuating the conversation as he discussed his love of Herman Melville, James Baldwin and Bertrand Russell. He is a seasoned professional who has been teaching at Kelvyn Park for the last 21 years. The former union delegate, who now serves his second term on the local school council, still wanted to stress the important issue.

Students in poor socioeconomic conditions are the ones feeling the brunt of the cuts.

The neglect of the nomadic students doesn't stop at finding somewhere to place them, but it also impacted the classes Skinner was forced to merge them with. "It's not optimal for having that many kids in a class," Skinner said, "It was difficult teaching my class considering there were 40 students now."

According to the Chicago Public School Policy Manual, a high school English course should at maximum have 28 students.

The lack of professionals in Kelvyn Park is an issue that has been increasing over the last several years. However, the burden of cuts has been felt even more throughout 2015. Kelvyn Park experienced the fourth largest-decrease in funding in all of Chicago, with $2.2 million stripped away.

This is a trend in all of CPS at the moment, since back in July, when 1,400 positions were eliminated. As a result of those cuts, Kelvyn Park lost a total of 19 staff members, including nine teachers, one counselor and one social worker. "We also lost two special education teacher aides who take some of our neediest kids, who can't function on their own, and travel with them from classroom to classroom," Skinner added.

Finding teachers to host classes in Kelvyn Park is a big issue as CPS doesn't always provide a sufficient amount of substitutes. When teachers aren't available, Kelvyn Park has been forced to plug in parent volunteers to sit in on classrooms and watch students. These volunteers aren't trained or certified in any way, and are essentially turning a high school classroom into a daycare.

"I wonder what kind of state law issues are there by having parent volunteers -- not necessarily if it's legal, but does that technically count as an absent for the student, considering nothing was learned?" Skinner said.

With the hurdles already placed in front of Kelvyn Park, the worst is still to come.

Kelvyn Park this week needs to find a way to cut $410,000 because of missing the projected enrollment of students. "Depending on how expensive the people are, Kelvyn will have to cut anywhere from four to 10 jobs," Skinner said.

If the looming budget issues weren't enough for Kelvyn Park, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has announced more cuts are to come by late November if Springfield does not provide some sort of aid. As many as 5,000 teachers could potentially lose their jobs.

If CPS follows through with their cuts in November, Skinner feels there is no other alternative, "I think we have to strike," he said.

While his love for teaching is the silver lining through the endless battle of cuts, he acknowledges the last six years have been the toughest. "When I took those 16 to 20 kids for three periods while I was teaching another class I assumed, 'Well, that's going to be every other day.' I have no idea how I could do that," Skinner said.

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