Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Meanwhile, down in the bayou...

Widely acclaimed School Reformer Paul Vallas is kicking butt and taking names in New Orleans. Remember him? He's the guy that received nation-wide acclaim for turning troubled school districts around. Last year, Mayor Jim Ardis struck up a friendship with Mr. Vallas, who then turned around and offered Peoria District 150 his expert (and I mean expert) advice for nothing! Well Mr. Hinton et al. would have NONE of that. His nose got so disjointed that he had everyone around him scurrying for cover. Mr. Vallas high tailed it out of Peoria and I'm sure didn't look back once. There is plenty of demand around the nation for the likes of him. Why waste effort on a District where he is not welcome?

Here is a link to How Mr. Vallas is doing in New Orleans. His students are demonstrating remarkable improvements in student achievement despite the fact that they are recovering from a pesky little natural disaster.

I found this excerpt particularly notable under the circumstances:

Mr. Vallas was known as a hard-driving reformer in Chicago and Philadelphia. After a year as the Recovery School District superintendent in New Orleans, the tireless worker has lengthened class days, decreased class sizes, and increased classroom technology. He is also helping create schools that revolve around themes like the arts and technology.

Contrast this to the policies of D150 who just shortened our school day as well as approved cuts to our arts and technologies before they came to their senses. It would be humourous if the consequences weren't so danged serious.

So as Peoria D150 continues to search for their hiney with both hands and citizens continue to debate a topic that doesn't make a hill of beans difference as far as the children of Peoria are concerned, Peorians are looking at at least 2 more years of virtually the same output.

After the dramatics of the last several board meetings, and listening to Spangler argue that they are on the crest of something so spectacular that they should cut time out of the middle school day too... I can't help but walk away with a feeling of profound sadness. Where are our community leaders in all of this? Behind closed doors, they snicker and roll their eyes. Has everyone just given up? Is poverty and disinterest so extreme that it is beyond hope? Well, I don't think it is, and I doubt Mr. Vallas does either.

Conditions are ripe for the city of Peoria and our once grand old neighborhoods to make a comeback. There is a renewed interest in walkable "urban-ism", crime stats appear to moving in the right direction, and I sense a renewed pride in our city. With gas well over $4.00 per gallon and no end in sight, there is a compelling argument to be made for urban dwelling. It seems the only thing stopping us is the perceived quality of our city schools. Unfortunately, the attitude of D150 is if you don't like it leave - and they are serious! They view it largely as their own, for the district, by the district - community be damned.

We need a knight in shining armour. Will it be the mayor? Will it be a united Council? Might it be a coalition of area employers, or better yet, all of the above? Who is going to be a hero to our children? Who is going to step up to the plate and demand better administration, leadership and accountability from our schools? Everyone says they "love kids". The "kids come first". If I ever hear someone say that in the same paragraph as a shortened school day again I am going to throw up on their leather shoes or their Reeboks or maybe both at the same time.

If you "love kids", then lets walk the walk and talk the talk. Put your ego and your pride on a back burner and either welcome Vallas back to Peoria or get out of the way.


Christopher said...

" Live with THAT! "

Anonymous said...

Peoria remains a run-down, grimy factory town. What is downtown: banks, law offices, ugly (as opposed to attractive), above ground parking garages, and sidewalks that are hostile to pedestrian and bikers. I have been to the Civic Center a few times, which is nice: Quickly drive in and drive out, without spending any time or money elsewhere in the city.

Why visit that ugly, cramped, narrow strip of land called the "riverfront?" I have considered becoming a member of the Riverplex, but why bother. (Ideally, the park district would build health clubs such as the Riverplex and locate them in the poorer neighborhoods of the city). The housing projects next door do not make it a safe area at night. And since the Park district allows those people to attend the Riverplex for free, it is often not the safest nor cleanest facility at any time of the day. Or do you think it is ideal to hear gunshots from outside while running on the treadmill?

Ever since the Grand Prairie mall was built, the city has decided to abandon the riverfront. Why doesn't Peoria entice businesses along the riverfront to relocate along the South Side of the river (South of downtown)? The park district could then acquire all of the land north of Caterpillar headquarters, East of Adams from downtown to IL 6, and make it as nice as Chicago's Grant Park. It would also be ideal to divert some of the river into a canal, as the city of Pueblo, CO has done. Peoria has been blessed with a river, but it does not take advantage of this precious resource.

Where are the tree-lined bike paths that should wind on almost every street? Where are the eclectic restaurants. (Sorry, Applebees and TJI Fridays are not eclectic). Where are the safe, clean, outdoor waterparks? Where are the neighborhood parks within walking distance of any residence? Where is the ballroom (similar to the Willowbrook ballroom in the Chicago area)? Not everyone has a desire to play golf at one of several park district golf courses (which are expensive to maintain). Why would anyone not native to the Peoria area fly to Peoria except for Caterpillar business travel. I would like to see the city of Peoria work to become a desirable destination to shop and play. What incentive is there for anyone (including area residents) to visit Peoria?

Peoria needs to look at other cities to see what improvements that they are making. Locally, the cities of Normal and Bloomington are striving to make their towns more attractive. "Uptown Normal," near ISU, is a nice success story. The Normal Theater, the Garlic Press, and Medicci's (an affordable Chicago restaurant) are just a few gems. What is Peoria doing? Why is Bradley University content with the run-down neighborhoods surrounding it. Why send your kid to an expensive college that is nestled in a dirty, dangerous, run-down, neighborhood?

Hey Peoria, why are you allowing district 150 to encourage middle-class families with children to flee the city? No, we do not need another lame marketing campaign. Why not fix your problems before there is no one left in the public schools but the gangs? School vouchers for district 150 residents would also be nice. And what is wrong with vouchers? Vouchers (with no strings attached) would be the ideal way to force the public schools to be accountable. Why should grade schools and high schools be exempt from the free market?

Someone from the Peoria business community needs to apply pressure on the city of Peoria to become more like eclectic Champaign/Urbana and/or like Madison, Wisconsin: a vibrant downtown, safe, clean, wonderful culture, lots of nice, mid-level restaurants (not the low-end, crappy chain restaurants), and always something to do there. What is Peoria doing to entice any of the quality local restaurant chains in the Chicago area to open down here? Nothing? Why is that?

Other than lame marketing efforts, what has the city done to encourage tourism????? Does Peoria even have an uban planner? What does he do? The 20-something year old sons and daughters of CAT employees are going to continue to abandon the Peoria area for jobs and for fun in more progressive cities. Those people that are stuck in the Peoria area because of CAT will continue to flee Peoria to live in Washington or Dunlap (or even much closer to the Bloomington/Normal area) and spend all of their money there.

Peoria desperately needs tourist attractions to bring non-natives to it and to entice young people to stay and have families here. How is Peoria "kid friendly." A zoo at least half the size of Brookfield Zoo (Chicago area) would be a start. Why is the park district focus so many resources on golf at the expense of other venues. (Golf is NOT a tourist attraction). Does Peoria even have a cultural arts district? Why does the Peoria International Film Group have to struggle for a place to show their films? Why do they have to struggle for money to rent the films? Why neglect and ignore the Peoria German Society (the sponsors of Oktoberfest) in their efforts to find a larger property within city limits? Why does the Rhodell microbrewery have to struggle for survival?

Why do the local media neglect to address these issues? O, once great Peoria, you are the "sick man of Illinois." No one is talking about it.