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Annals of school reform: parents take control at Oscar Mayer



On Thursday, March 21, parents at the Oscar Mayer Elementary School, 2250 N. Clifton, will lead prospective parents on a tour of the facilities. They'll show the usual sights: the art and music rooms, the computer lab, the two well-stocked libraries, and the newly renovated playground. They'll recite statistics: higher than average reading and math test scores (at least higher than the average for Chicago's public schools), low class sizes, and low rates of student truancy and disobedience.

Then they'll deliver their main message: we need you as much as your children. At Mayer the secret to success is indefatigable parental participation. Parents run the school's art department (indeed, without the parents, Mayer would have no art program), they raise about $35,000 a year to supplement various school activities and programs, and, when called on, they go into the classrooms to help teach reading and math.

"Our school is not perfect--certainly we have our share of problems--but we like to think that we have a system that others can emulate," says Mary Massery, president of the school's volunteer committee. "The key is parental participation. We encourage parents to be involved in every aspect of the school, especially the classroom. We were into local control long before the reform law. If you think you can just drop your children off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon, you're wrong. You have to get involved."

Oscar Mayer is not a magnet school, where enrollment is limited by lottery or test scores. It's a neighborhood public school, which means it must take all students within its boundaries (roughly Halsted to Ashland and Armitage to Wrightwood).

Yet only about half of the school's 650 students live in the area. The vacancies are filled by a voluntary busing program that brings children to Mayer from neighborhoods on the north and near south sides. The reason for the vacancies may have less to do with Mayer than with the status-conscious attitudes of the well-paid professionals who live in Lincoln Park.

"Oscar Mayer is not an ugly school. There aren't bars on the windows. It doesn't look like a factory, but it's not chic," says Lorry Sirkin, who has sent both of his children to Mayer. "Your typical Lincoln Park yuppie won't even consider Oscar Mayer. To them it looks like your typical dumpy old neighborhood school. It's not an upscale private school like Francis Parker. And it's not one of what I call your 'designer' magnet schools, like LaSalle." Lincoln Parkers who do send their kids to Mayer tend to transfer them to other schools after third or fourth grade.

As long as there are vacancies at Mayer, outsiders can apply. Enrollment is determined by a lottery that's weighted to maintain an even distribution of blacks, whites, and Hispanics.

"We're not one of those schools with a huge waiting list to get in, though that may change as our reputation spreads," says Massery. "Last year we had 86 applications for 35 kindergarten slots. But not all of the people who apply want Mayer as a first choice. . . . If you're persistent--if you really want to send your child here--you'll get in."

Applications for admittance might have slipped last year because of a nasty clash between parents and the school's former principal, Louella Preston, who had been appointed in 1987. As the Mayer parents tell the story, Preston was a strict authoritarian who didn't appreciate parents meddling with school affairs. (Preston could not be reached for comment.)

"For years we had a principal who really trusted us. If we wanted to do something, he'd say, 'Go do it,'" says Sirkin. "We were able to have an art program--even after the central office cut money for art--because we raised money for supplies and we had parents willing to teach the course."

During Preston's administration, parents expressed interest in controlling the busing program; she refused to let them, parents say. The parents and Preston clashed for almost two years until the school reform law put principal selection into the hands of local school councils. Within a few months of the local school council elections in October 1989, Mayer's LSC began looking for a new principal.

"We conducted an exhaustive search for a new principal," says Mark Massery, Mary Massery's husband and chairman of the LSC. "We advertised in national and local papers and got 107 applications. We interviewed 30 candidates, and narrowed it down to four finalists." They finally chose Bob Blitstein, who had spent 18 years in the system as a teacher and social worker. This is his first job as a principal.

"I don't view parental participation as a threat; I welcome it," he says. "I really believe it's what the schools need to prosper." Blitstein--who acknowledges that his job is made a bit easier by the fact that Mayer is not overcrowded--has set aside separate rooms for classes in music, art, and computer education. He has also set up a program in math and reading "enrichment," in which a specially designated teacher is available to kids who need extra help.

These days, says Mary Massery, parents are even helping out in the classroom. "That enables teachers to divide the class into smaller groups for more individualized instruction. So while one teacher is working with a group of five kids, a parent can be working with another group."

Teachers coordinate the volunteers, and for the most part they say they welcome the help. "I want parents to get involved," says Maggie Sullivan, a sixth-grade teacher. "I'm not threatened by it."

"You have to work at these things together," adds Pat Karrel, a fifth-grade science teacher. "We have so few resources; we need all we can get."

On the whole, students at Mayer score higher than other Chicago public school students but below state norms on national tests. Roughly 21 percent of third-graders score in the top 25 percent on reading tests; 25.4 percent of them score in the top 25 percent in math. But the percentages drop in the higher grades. The percentage of sixth-graders scoring in the top quarter is 13 and 7.2 in reading and math, respectively; those numbers are 21.3 and 19 for eighth-graders. The test results represent one of the biggest challenges confronting parents and teachers at Oscar Mayer.

"As kids get older, a lot of the wealthier or middle-class parents tend to pull them out of Mayer and send them to other schools," says Sirkin. "I've seen it happen for years. You can see the kids start to leave after third grade. Some of them can be kind of snooty about it, too. I don't know how many people have said to me, 'You mean, you're still sending your kid to Mayer?'--like I was punishing her. I don't like that attitude. It's such a status thing; I wish they didn't have magnet schools. My daughter graduated from Oscar Mayer and I think she did fine there."

But Mayer still hasn't figured out a way to meet the needs of high- and underachieving students. Many parents will pull their children if they think they're being held back. To change these attitudes, Mayer must offer more individualized training or even smaller class sizes, parents say.

"I'd like to see us really press forward and make curriculum changes," says Sirkin. "I'd like to see more writing and reading in the upper grades. We don't have to accept the curriculum that the central office forces on us. This is reform; we can be a little bolder."

"I want to see kids who start at Mayer graduate from Mayer," adds Mary Massery. "I've got a fifth-grader and I'm not leaving, that's for sure. I poured a lot of energy into this school during the worst of times. I plan to reap the benefits now that things are going good."

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

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