Through the Looking Glass With Mayor Daley

10/30/2009 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear Mayor Daley,

I trust you saw the morning papers today. The Chicago Sun-Times just published its 2009 rankings of 656 public high schools across Illinois. You've had absolute control over Chicago's public schools since 1995, so you undoubtedly know that the Sun-Times ranks high schools each year based upon average scores on certain state achievement tests. I'm also willing to bet my Arne Duncan-autographed basketball that you weren't surprised to see Fenger High School sitting, once again, near the bottom of the newspaper's list. To be fair, the school did move up a notch in this year's rankings, checking in at number 654 out of 656 schools.

I'm not an educator, sir, so I'm hoping you can explain something to me.

How did you manage to keep a straight face yesterday, when you told members of the Chicago media that Fenger High School is "a very good school"?

Let me come at it this way. If you were raising teenagers in the city, would you enroll them at Fenger today? Are you actively encouraging any of your teenage nieces and nephews to consider Fenger for their high school years? Mr. Mayor, could you, in your wildest dreams, imagine putting any kid that you and your wife know and love on a CTA bus each day to attend Fenger during the 2009-10 school year?

I didn't think so. And we both know why that's the case.

It's because Fenger is not what you or I -- or just about anyone else in Chicago -- would consider "a very good school." Maybe it will become one someday, but it certainly isn't one right now. You obviously didn't think it was a very good school earlier this year when your hand-picked Board of Education voted to "reconstitute" Fenger by firing all teachers and staff and making them reapply for their jobs. I'm sure you also knew about the February 2009 public hearing before that vote, during which one of your high-ranking CPS officials stated that Fenger had been on probation for the past thirteen years. That's right -- thirteen years. In other words, as of February 2009, Fenger had been on probation for nearly the entire period of time that you had been in charge of Chicago's school system.

So at what point between February 2009 and October 2009 did Fenger become "a very good school"? Are you planning to invite Secretary Duncan, Attorney General Holder and Derrion Albert's mother to Fenger to watch you hang the "Mission Accomplished" banner in the school gymnasium?

Let's get real. It's no secret that kids who attend Fenger fight an uphill battle every step of the way. For many of these students, it's a dicey proposition just trying to get to and from school safely. Moreover, nearly all of the Fenger kids -- 98.8% of them as of 2008 -- come from low-income families. That fact alone puts most of these young people behind the eight-ball before they ever step foot in a kindergarten classroom.

Need more? In 2008, the average Fenger student was absent for 56 days (or nearly one-third) of the school year. With that level of absenteeism, it should be no surprise that so few of the kids who start at Fenger ever graduate. And based on Fenger's average ACT scores (the average score was 14 in 2008), it doesn't appear that many of those who make it through senior year leave Fenger with the tools needed to succeed in college.

The sad reality is that there are still too many under-performing schools like Fenger in our deeply segregated city, and there are no easy solutions to urban poverty. But I am also confident that there are parents, students, teachers and staff at Fenger today who are doing all they can on a daily basis to help Fenger become "a very good school."

So, Mr. Mayor, don't insult their efforts or the collective intelligence of Chicago's taxpayers by telling us that Fenger High School is, at present, anything other than a work in progress.

Matt Farmer