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Curtis Black
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Curtis Black is a Chicago writer and musician. He edited Haymarket, a progressive monthly newspaper, from 1981 to 1986, and reported on Chicago news and politics for the (U.S. weekly) Guardian from 1985 to 1992. His byline has appeared in the Chicago Daily Defender, Chicago Reader, In These Times, and Time Magazine. He has produced Newstips at the Community Media Workshop since 1998.

Blog Entries by Curtis Black

In Chicago, Neighborhood News Leads Online Innovation

(0) Comments | Posted September 18, 2012 | 11:15 AM

The greatest innovation in online news is happening at the neighborhood level, according to The NEW News 2012, the third report on Chicago's online news ecosystem from the Community Media Workshop.

In a review of hundreds of news sites, those operated by citywide news organizations -- and especially...

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Not NATO's Kind of Town

(0) Comments | Posted May 23, 2012 | 4:00 PM

Mayor Emanuel is congratulating himself for a successful NATO summit -- successful mainly because no disasters occurred, though the only real threats seem to have been those manufactured by police.

No doubt the black bloc is also congratulating itself that day-after front pages carried pictures of scuffles with...

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Dick Durbin: Sacrificing Social Security, Recovery?

(17) Comments | Posted August 9, 2011 | 11:57 AM

Now that the debt ceiling crisis is behind us -- and as its disastrous effects, possibly a new recession, unfold -- it's time to take a look at Senator Richard Durbin's role in shifting the debate away from the jobs crisis and legitimizing attacks on Social Security.

In...

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Brizard Can't Ignore Whittier Parents

(4) Comments | Posted June 29, 2011 | 6:39 PM

CPS chief Jean Claud Brizard may have thought he could carry out a preemptive strike against the Whittier Parents Committee. He couldn't.

Construction crews arrived at Whittier last Wednesday morning. (The Huffington Post reports they were set to start two days earlier but bad weather forced...

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Real Leadership for Chicago: The Reformer v. the Players

(1) Comments | Posted February 16, 2011 | 11:23 AM

Asked about the city budget, the first thing out of every mayoral candidate's mouth is a promise to streamline city government. Asked about the city's biggest problems, all of them promise to fix the schools.

Miguel del Valle is the only candidate with actual, hands-on experience making city government more...

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Rahm's Lie About Charters -- And Why It Matters

(28) Comments | Posted February 10, 2011 | 10:55 AM


Rahm Emanuel "didn't do his homework" when he touted the supposed superiority of charter schools in a televised debate, three Chicago high school students assert in a YouTube video that's attracted widespread attention.

Chicago news media didn't do its homework, either, when it allowed Emanuel's baseless assertion to pass unchallenged.

In the debate on WGN on January 27, Emanuel said: "If you take out Northside [College Prep], if you take out Walter Payton, the seven best performing high schools are all charters."

In fact, none of the best-performing high schools are charters, the students point out.

"Four hundred thousand students go to their neighborhood public schools [in Chicago]," they say on the video. "You want a real school turnaround? Invest in us!" The video supports Miguel del Valle's candidacy.

Sullivan junior Gerardo Aguilar, who's involved in a Mikva Challenge civic participation project at the school, attended a January 17 candidates forum sponsored by Mikva and WTTW. He says he liked Del Valle's repeated emphasis on neighborhood schools, and he came back to school and organized fellow members of the Latino Club to canvas for him.

On the last Saturday of January, they watched the WGN debate online, so they'd have a better grasp of the issues when they went door-to-door later that day.

'Did you hear what he said?'

They immediately realized Emanuel's error; they knew that nearby Lane Tech was a top-ranked school, Aguilar said.

"We were talking about it: 'Did you hear what he said?'" relates Alexandra Alvarez, also a junior at Sullivan. "If he doesn't care about neighborhood schools, what's he going to do to help them?"

All in the same day, they researched the issue, scripted, shot, and edited the video, and posted it on YouTube, with the help of a neighbor who'd been Aguilar's coach for the Young Leaders Conference of the National Hispanic Institute.

(Latino Club advisor Jacquelyn Rosa gives an account of the video's creation at Achy Obejas's Citylife blog.)

As far as Emanuel's inaccuracy, the students' charge is on the money, said Don Moore of Designs for Change, who analyzed school rankings at Newstips' request.

In fact, the top nine high schools - based on the percentage of students at or above state standards in combined reading, math, and science scores on the Prairie State Achievement Examination - are all public, non-charter schools, he said.

"Emanuel's claim has no factual basis," Moore said.

The Emanuel campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.

Not only are no charters among Chicago's top-ranked high schools; not one charter is among the twelve Chicago high schools with 50 percent or more of students meeting standards.

Unlike charters, eleven of the top-performing schools are governed by Local School Councils, which select their principals for four-year performance contracts. (The twelfth, Rickover Military Academy, has an advisory LSC.) Also unlike charters, all twelve are staffed by unionized teachers.

In addition to favoring privately-operated, nonunion charters, Emanuel has called for removing the power of public school LSCs to appoint principals - a central accountability feature of Chicago school reform - and returning it to the central bureaucracy. (Several efforts by Mayor Daley to accomplish this over recent years failed to gain traction in Springfield.) And Emanuel has backed legislative efforts to severely constrain teachers' seniority and collective bargaining rights.

'Fix existing schools'

For the students, the concern seems to be continued disinvestment in neighborhood schools to benefit new schools that soak up resources but serve much smaller numbers of students, without better results.

"There are schools that already exist that need fixing, that need resources," said Alvarez.

"Going to a neighborhood school, we don't have a lot of resources," she said. But although "the attention the school gets is for violence, gangs and drugs," there are "programs that help students do better."

Aguilar mentions the school's medical careers academy, as well as the Paideia program, which was withdrawn last year when funding ran out.

Beyond that is a concern that school policy will be based on prejudice rather than fact. Emanuel's misstatement "shows that the people that people think know everything aren't really looking into the problems they say they want to fix," said Christina Henriquez.

Moore backs this up too. "The public needs to know the truth about the charter school myths," said Moore. "A lot of their supporters speak of them as the solution, but the evidence doesn't bear this out."

He cites a study (pdf) commissioned by the Renaissance Schools Fund, a business-backed group that raises money for charter schools in Chicago, that found no difference in achievement when matched pairs of charter and public school students were compared over two years. It's one of several studies with similar results.

Indeed, Moore's analysis indicates that more than two-thirds of the charters currently serving grades 9 through 12 have less than 27 percent of students meeting standards.

Finding Emanuel's error "got us to ask, how much does he really know about schools?" said Henriquez. And it led them to fear that "he doesn't care about us."

"He doesn't know the history of Chicago," she said. "He hasn't lived here. He's just jumping in."

Del Valle "has been here a long time," said Aguilar. "He went to CPS and his kids went to CPS. He knows the problems."

"He's not a millionaire that goes around at the top," said Alvarez. "He knows what's going on in the community."

The campaign's silence in the face of the facts could be taken as a reckless disregard for the truth. It could also reflect an assumption that the major media will continue to let the issue slide. That assumption could be correct.

Beyond all that, the students' achievement - catching a significant falsehood by a major candidate which completely slipped past the city's news media (this reporter included) - is a testament to the unsung accomplishments of students and teachers at Sullivan and in neighborhood schools across the city.


An earlier version of this post appeared at Community Media Workshop's

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Durbin Defaults

(8) Comments | Posted December 3, 2010 | 3:30 PM

Senator Richard Durbin reverses longstanding positions in his support for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan spelled out in his op-ed in the Tribune. If a politician's promises can be seen as a contract with the voters who support him, Durbin has defaulted.

(Lacking 14 required 'yes' votes, the...

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What Now for Lathrop Homes?

(25) Comments | Posted November 16, 2010 | 2:48 PM

With the CHA's Plan For Transformation stalled indefinitely, what does the CHA board's recent approval of a development team for Lathrop Homes mean for residents' vision of historic preservation of the low-rise development as affordable and public housing?

The development team, which includes for-profit luxury and nonprofit affordable...

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Which Way for O'Hare Express?

(13) Comments | Posted October 8, 2010 | 11:34 AM

Mayor Daley's vision for a high-speed train from O'Hare to a "superstation" under Block 37 at State and Randolph faces major hurdles, as Jon Hilkevitch points out in the Chicago Tribune; a proposal by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association may offer some solutions.

Along with...

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The FBI's 'War on Dissent'

(14) Comments | Posted October 1, 2010 | 1:27 PM

FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley points out that last week's raids on anti-war and solidarity activists in Chicago and Minneapolis came just days after a "scathing review" by the Justice Department's inspector general, which slammed the agency's post 9/11 "terrorism investigations" of peace and social justice groups.

The...

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The New York Times in Chicago: Under the Influence?

(2) Comments | Posted June 8, 2010 | 11:25 AM

New York Times digital editor Jim Schachter has gone into full denial mode in response to Jamie Kalven's Columbia Journalism Review article raising concerns about foundation funding for nonprofit news ventures.

It doesn't seem necessary. Kalven's thesis seems fairly obvious - that funding for new journalism by civic...

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The Carpenter Case: School Reprieves Raise More Questions

(1) Comments | Posted February 24, 2009 | 11:55 AM

The announcement by CPS chief Ron Huberman that six schools are being removed from the CPS hit list was welcome news to those communities, but it raises more questions than it answers.

Leave aside the question of whether targeting neighborhood schools, moving children around and firing teachers wholesale...

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Beyond School Closings

(0) Comments | Posted February 12, 2009 | 12:40 PM

The Chicago Public Schools' latest round of school closings (phaseouts, consolidations) and "turnarounds" -- coming on top of broken promises over past legislative initiatives -- has provoked a backlash in Springfield. A bill introduced by Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) would put a moratorium on school closings and develop guidelines for...

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Rick Warren and Respect

(123) Comments | Posted December 29, 2008 | 11:11 AM

Selecting Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation -- effectively giving a presidential endorsement to Warren's self-anointment as "America's Pastor" -- is a Sister Souljah moment for Barack Obama, a demonstration that he's willing to disregard the concerns of a key constituency. It's not his first, but I think it's the...

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What the Republic Victory Means

(2) Comments | Posted December 15, 2008 | 5:09 PM

On December 5, the day Republic Windows workers occupied their factory, the Department of Labor announced 533,000 jobs lost in November, the largest loss in over 30 years.

The news on unemployment gave national resonance to the window makers' plight. It also meant that for Republic workers, "it was riskier...

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Ideas for Obama

(6) Comments | Posted November 7, 2008 | 3:02 PM

President-elect Barack Obama now faces tremendous challenges, and local advocates and organizers -- many of whom have worked with Obama over the years -- offer a range of ideas on how to make the bailout work, address the foreclosure crisis, target economic stimulus to jobs and better transportation, and move...

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Studs' Last Stand

(0) Comments | Posted November 4, 2008 | 5:04 PM

In what may have been his last public act, Studs Terkel joined a call on Attorney General Lisa Madigan to resolve the cases of Burge torture victims who've been incarcerated for decades based on coerced confessions.

Studs was one of scores of human rights advocates who signed a new report...

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Happy Days

(0) Comments | Posted October 31, 2008 | 3:37 PM

Why all the gloom? asks Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. "Aside from the transitory effects of the current turmoil," things are getting better every day!

His evidence?

"In the second quarter [of 2008], the economy grew at a brisk 3.3 percent rate." Of course, that's...

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