Long on Class Time, Short on Answers

If Jennifer Cheatham, the Chief Instruction Officer for Chicago Public Schools, were an NBA team, she'd undoubtedly have a lousy road record.

Last Thursday night, Cheatham brought her PowerPoint-based offense to Morgan Park High School on the city's South Side, where, for two painful hours, she was outhustled and outgunned by a group of CPS parents.

The parents wanted straight answers to basic questions about Mayor Emanuel's plan to house their kids in school for 7.5 hours a day next year, but Cheatham (whose "expertise lies in developing instructional alignment and coherence at every level of a school system aimed at achieving breakthrough results in student learning") had no answers for them.

I was at that South Side meeting, and Thursday wasn't a good night for Cheatham or for CPS, whose usually deep bench of pastors and paid protesters didn't bother suiting up for the mid-week 19th Ward contest.

To be fair, Vegas listed Cheatham as the underdog just moments after it was announced that the "longer day" forum wasn't going to be held on Cheatham's home court at 125 South Clark Street.

Oddsmakers understood the importance of a South Side venue. It meant that 19th Ward parents weren't going to be hamstrung by CPS's home-court rules, which (for all practical purposes) require parents who want to be heard to: (1) take a day off work; (2) line up at CPS headquarters at 6:00 a.m.; and (3) wait five or six hours before speaking to CPS officials for 120 seconds.

Freed from those procedural chains, two engaging moms, Kate Brandt and Becky Malone, decided to respond to Cheatham's PowerPoint presentation with their own slide shows, which amounted to point-by-point refutations of the "research" fueling CPS's push for the 7.5-hour day.

Cheatham looked uncomfortable on stage during those presentations.

But it wasn't until she began fielding questions from the audience that Cheatham's wheels fell off completely. For the rest of the night, she launched brick after brick, failing to score a single point.

Any decent coach would have pulled her off the floor after she told an audience member who'd called her "Ms. Cheatham" that her name was, in fact, "Dr. Cheatham."

I was really hoping Cheatham had some game. I'd read the press clippings. I knew that Dr. C had recently renegotiated a $175,000/year deal with CPS, so I figured that she'd bring a balanced attack to the Morgan Park contest.

And, in a twisted way, there was some balance to her Thursday night performance. A lot of parents found her defensive non-answers to their questions to be wholly offensive.

Brandt described Cheatham's presentation and non-responses as "the same drivel we've heard in every [longer day] forum."

Malone said Cheatham offered only "empty rhetoric and ever-changing answers," none of which went over well with her 19th Ward colleagues. Malone said "it was probably the angriest I've seen parents leave any of the 'longer day' meetings we've held or attended."

Parents across the city have a right to be angry. At this point, we're either five or six months away from the start of the 2012-13 school year (CPS has not yet bothered to announce whether school will start in mid-August or early September), and neither Cheatham nor Emanuel can explain how their extended day will be funded. Cheatham told the crowd at Morgan Park that "CPS has an idea about how to do funding," but she offered no details.

Equally important, no one at CPS can explain why we should trust the district to fund a high-quality "longer day" when far too many classrooms and schools across the city are already overcrowded and under-resourced.

Maybe we'll find out what CPS has planned for our kids after the district announces the winners of its recent $3 million contest to come up with good ideas for the "longer day" schedule.

Remember -- this is the same district that was so hell-bent on starting the 7.5-hour school day last September that CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard offered to pay each of the city's 482 elementary schools $150,000 for getting on board. Of course, had all the schools signed on, Brizard's so-called "incentive" payments would have added up to about $72 million.

Nothing that speeding tickets from a few thousand newly-installed cameras won't cover.