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CPS School Closings: Mom Uses 'Raise Your Hand' to Slap Back at District

By Patty Wetli | April 15, 2013 6:10am | Updated on April 15, 2013 11:53am
 Wendy Katten of Raise Your Hand is a live-tweeting machine — from School Board meetings, community hearings and school walk-throughs related to the CPS school-closing plan.
Wendy Katten of Raise Your Hand is a live-tweeting machine — from School Board meetings, community hearings and school walk-throughs related to the CPS school-closing plan.
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Facebook/Wendy Katten

LINCOLN SQUARE — It would have been easy for Wendy Katten to say that the decision by Chicago Public Schools to close more than 50 schools wasn't her fight.

She lives in Lincoln Square and her son attends Burley Elementary — neither targeted by the district's "right-sizing" plan.

And yet, as executive director of the education advocacy organization Raise Your Hand, there she was, live-tweeting from 20 of CPS' "underutilization" community meetings, visiting schools slated for closure and generally fact-checking every talking point released by CPS.

"She's a dynamo," said Matt Farmer, a fellow education activist. "She's a bulldog."

 Raise Your Hand Director Wendy Katten is "a bulldog" and "a dynamo," admirers say.
Raise Your Hand Director Wendy Katten is "a bulldog" and "a dynamo," admirers say.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Katten, 41, formed Raise Your Hand in 2010 to address inadequate education funding and a threat by CPS to increase class size to 37 students.

"It's almost a cliche, but there was a group of us sitting around someone's kitchen table," said Claire Wapole, a Raise Your Hand member.

Class size turned out to be the outer layer of an onion that, when peeled back, led to the issue of recess, which led to the issue of the longer school day, which led to school closings.

"If [Wendy] pulls up the floorboards and sees something, she tackles that, too," said Wapole. "The word I always think of with Wendy is she's just dauntless."

Katten, a graduate of Niles North High School in Skokie, didn't set out to be a thorn in CPS' side.

"What got me started was the issue of inequality, the lack of basic standards for all kids," Katten said in a recent interview.

"Our city's been so divided, but overcrowding affects Burley — there are 34 kids in first grade. All of these issues are things parents care about everywhere," she said. "A lot of people are fed up with the chaos, the lack of stability, the constant shakeups."

The school-closing issue hit home for Katten when she began looking at the thousands of special education or otherwise disabled students who will be shuttled to new "welcoming" schools.

Her son receives special services at a top-performing school "and that's challenging," she said. "I have a deep concern that children are going to get lost in the shuffle."

As she geared up for another round of public meetings — three community hearings are scheduled for each school affected by the closing plan — Katten bemoaned what she called a lack of democratic process surrounding the school closings. That "gets demoralizing," she said.

She said she's particularly galled that Chicago School Board members failed to attend a single community hearing before announcing the closing list.

A CPS spokeswoman said public schools' CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has been using transcripts of the community meetings "to inform the school consolidation proposal."

To Katten, it's no surprise that Byrd-Bennett hasn't faced parents and teachers in the neighborhoods.

"It's too heartbreaking," said Katten, who's also among those championing an elected School Board. (No, she doesn't want to run for a seat, she said.)

At a recent meeting of of the School Board, Katten challenged members to do as she's done — personally walk through the schools they've marked for closure.

She's been to 20 schools on the closing list and continues to schedule visits, challenging CPS' assertions of half-empty failing schools.

"Some of these are good schools," she said. "Staff are nurturing, the kids were engaged. There was art on the wall. No one felt trapped. The parents love the school.

"I feel that I'm one of the only people who's had access to a lot of these building," she continued. "I love going on the walk-throughs. As disappointing as this process is, it's important to continue to shed light. Now's not the time to quit."

If anything, Katten has ramped up her efforts in recent weeks, deploying Twitter as her weapon of choice. Though she holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and spent 10 years doing the whole administrative assistant-by-day, artist-by-night thing, she seems to have found her groove in 140-character bursts.

A recent sampling: "Went on another walkthru. Around 40pct util on paper. 3 empty rooms. Some rooms look too small to be considered homerooms. Lots of programs."

"Scl has science lab, VH1 donated music room w/ keyboards, drama room/teacher, lots of commun partners. want to bus kids out."

Colleagues marvel not only at her ability to churn out a steady deluge of information, but to retain it as well.

"She amazes me with how much facts, data and statistics she can keep in her head and call out at will," Wapole said. "Once she learns something about CPS, it's locked in."

"I don't know if I have a life," said Katten, who can't even escape CPS at home — husband Mike Cohen is a member of Amundsen High School's Local School Council. "I'm searching for balance."

Yet there's little doubt, according to Farmer, that her doggedness has made an impact.

"The fact there are now more reporters covering hearings, parents are turning out, students are mobilizing — the tide will turn," he said.

For her part, Katten is perhaps most cheered to see Chicagoans' "myths and silos" break down in the face of a common cause.

"More people are connected than ever before," she said.