The Tribune is to be congratulated for its stellar series of editorials on "A New Plan of Chicago" and for soliciting and publishing many of its readers' ideas — both large and small — on this vital topic. Here's my two cents' worth.
Based on the notions that people are willing to pay taxes if they can see that their money is being usefully spent and that different places in the city have different, pressing needs, I propose that a special two-year, sunset surcharge of 20 percent be levied on all real property in the city to be exclusively devoted to local infrastructure improvement.
There's an important condition. Fully 75 percent of all the additional tax collected must be spent in the ward from which the tax was collected. None of this 75 percent could be diverted to social or public safety services, public employees' pensions, debt repayment or citywide projects — that's what the remaining 25 percent is for.
Nor could the existence of this additional pool of money be used to reduce the amounts generally available in the city budget to fund local infrastructure improvements.
How the money would be spent would vary from ward to ward and driven by community input. Some wards might assign a priority to accelerated street resurfacing, or to creating physically separate bicycle lanes.
In others, tearing down abandoned buildings and creating small parks on the vacated land might be a more appropriate use of resources.
In still others, it might be improved lighting, or noise abatement, or construction of flyovers at congested intersections.
The point is that the money must be spent largely where it is raised on highly visible projects determined by the local community.
Some suitable punishment should be developed for the mayor or any alderman who doesn't follow the rules of the game or indulges in the usual Chicago-style cronyism in determining the local projects and letting the contracts.
— Bob Foys, Chicago
In response to your request for creative approaches to school reform for the city of Chicago, please consider the lessons learned by the educators of San Miguel School Chicago who are revolutionizing the educational and social landscape of the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.
San Miguel School, 1954 W. 48th St., is a private middle school founded by the Christian Brothers in 1995. The requirements to attend San Miguel Middle School include academic underperformance, financial need and close proximity to the school. This non-tuition-driven school serves the Latino population, with 97 percent of its students classified as low-income. These underperforming students improve an average of six grade levels during their three years at San Miguel, advancing two grade levels in just the first six months. Tuition is raised each year through grants, major donors and special events.
Eighteen years ago, a small group of experienced teachers recognized the need for significant change in the Chicago Public Schools. They understood the experience of students in struggling neighborhoods — kids fearful of harassment in school, kids exposed to crime and shootings, and kids failing in school at incredibly high rates. The public schools were not well-equipped to help these kids.
This small group of idealistic educators decided to open a middle school in one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods to see if they could do something to make school a whole different experience for these underprivileged and underperforming students who are almost certain to fail. They chose the middle school level because, research suggested, students off track in early adolescence were those most likely to drop out before they earned a high school diploma.
The ways that San Miguel get kids on back on track for academic and social success include:
• An eight-and-a-half-hour school day.
• 185 instruction days per year.
• A 9-to-1 student-to-staff ratio (teachers, coaches, counselors and graduate support staff).
• Students read an average of 50 books per year.
• 90 minutes per day are devoted each to reading, math and language arts.
• Parents are required to meet with their children's teachers and counselors every three weeks.
The results of San Miguel School are extraordinary, including: 89 percent of the class of 2013 were accepted into selective-enrollment high schools or other Catholic or charter schools in Chicago; 92 percent of San Miguel alumni will graduate from high school; 84 percent of the San Miguel class of 2009 are either working or pursuing post-secondary education.
— Tad Smith, principal, and John Conerty, board chair, San Miguel School, Chicago
The problems our city, state, country and world have are frequently on every concerned person's mind, but I believe the solutions start locally. The idea of City Hall unloading excess properties, especially to community groups (non-profits with proven track records) that pledge to use them wisely seems simply brilliant in addressing many of our current challenges.
There is one suggestion, however, that I think would add another layer: Groups should pledge to hire individuals receiving unemployment compensation or public aid of any kind whenever possible for new jobs created.
— Joan Smrha, La Grange Park
Tired of being scared
On Dec. 27, 2011, seven people were wounded and two were killed in a Church's Chicken restaurant on the South Side of Chicago. That was the day I lost my best friend and brother Dantril Brown, 17. I didn't notice all of the violence in Chicago until it took him from me.
There are shootings every day and lives are taken. I feel for those families that have to go through losing a loved one.
Something has to be done.
A step that could be taken is to start teaching teenagers a lesson by enforcing the curfew more often. I know you may feel that is a job for the parents, but you might have to open their eyes as well. When you catch their children outside past curfew and they get fined for it, I'm sure that they will begin to keep their children in the house at a decent time.
When you pick up the children some may run or some may say that they are just playing and not doing anything wrong, but the streets of Chicago are no longer safe to even walk on.
I live in the Garfield Park community and the crime is very high over here. Sometimes when I walk around my neighborhood and see violence, the police will drive through and blow the siren just to clear everyone out. Clearing everyone from the scene is just giving them an opportunity to move the violence to a different location.
We have to emphasize prevention as way to make Chicago safer for everyone. There are more steps that can be taken to help prevent the rise in crime. Create hotlines for people to call when things go wrong. Build more partnerships with schools and recreational facilities to show teens and adults how to be safer. Encourage people to clean up the neighborhood; criminals might think that if we don't care about our neighborhood, why should they. The government needs to work with us to create drug-free zones and gun-free areas.
Police should enforce! I am tired of being scared of my community and scared to walk in it. I am tired of having to watch the news and see reports of another death. I am tired of being scared of losing someone. Please enforce the laws and make Chicago a better place.
— Diamond Trusty, student, Columbia Links Academy, Columbia College Chicago and Prosser Career Academy
I've lived in the neighborhood of Avondale my whole life. I was only about 5 years old when I moved into my new home, but I remember the frightening nights when I'd hear fighting and screaming outside, and I remember being intimidated by the group of young men who lingered on the streets all day and night. My parents would always remind me to not go beyond the front part of my house if I was playing outside.
Much of the violence that occurs in Chicago involves teens. Why do these people do bad things? Do they really not see anything good to do? I strongly believe that being involved with your community is a great way to take control of what you want your community to be like. With programs for children, teens and adults, I believe communities would learn to get along and be involved with projects that will make a change for the better.
For Avondale, I think the change came when a closed private school was remodeled to be a day-care center in 2006 called Concordia Place. Besides offering day-care programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, it also has an after-school program and a summer camp for children ages 6-12 years old, a leadership program for teens, English-as-a-second-language classes for adults and a senior program. My brothers and I were a part of its after-school program. The counselors would pick us up after school and we'd walk together to Concordia Place (which was only about five blocks away). There they would help us with our homework, give us snacks and play with us.
When I turned 13, I joined Concordia's teen program, Emerging Leaders Program. Being a very shy girl, I learned a lot of leadership skills such as responsibility, initiative, respect and communication. I go there whenever I can during the school year; I've been there every summer since 2008.
Concordia Place has transformed Avondale by all of its opportunities and programs. But specifically, it has transformed teens into having knowledge of nutrition, being responsible and respectful and knowing the importance of the environment. Today, there are 50 teens in the program and they're all working to benefit the community. I love what we do in the program.
If the city were to have more programs like these, in which teens learn skills and are kept active in their community, there would be more people involved with beneficial activities, rather than violence.
— Belany Contreras, student, Columbia Links Academy, Columbia College Chicago and Lincoln Park High School