Raise Your Hand founder steps down from CPS work to move to burbs

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Wendy Katten speaks during the press conference to express parent outrage over allegations and federal investigations surrounding conflicts of interest among CPS board members. Monday, April 20, 2015 (Brian Jackson/For The Sun-Times)

Wendy Katten banded some Chicago Public Schools moms together to protest budget cuts in 2010, an effort that grew into the statewide public education advocacy organization Raise Your Hand.

Seven years and dozens of Board of Ed meetings later, Katten announced Wednesday on Facebook that she is stepping down from CPS work because her family is moving to Evanston in time for her son to start high school in the fall.

“My family was really turned off by the high school choice process and chose to not really engage with it,” said Katten, a self-described introvert who seemed incredulous at the attention her decision attracted. “The high school choice thing didn’t feel like the right thing. It didn’t feel right to my family, it just didn’t.”

She said the stability of the Evanston district was “a draw for us,” referencing a school funding referendum voters just passed. “It’s a place that really values public education.”

But it wasn’t just high school that led to the decision to move, she said during an interview Wednesday. Six of her family’s closest neighborhood friends have moved away — partly for schoolreasons — and other friends already live in Evanston.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis wished Katten well on Facebook. “As long as you still advocate for Illinois’ children, I think you will be much happier and less stressed. Mazel Tov for being so courageous over the years.”

Seven years in, Katten said she was ready for a break from CPS, which still is threatening to end school three weeks early to backfill a budget gap.

“I really believe my son got as good of an education in his school that he could have gotten anywhere,” she said. “This isn’t a reflection of the teaching and learning happening. It’s not that at all. We need a life change.”

She said the family decided in the fall and felt reassured when the last round of mid-year budget cuts, that CPS calls “freezes,” came down.

Raise Your Hand was among the loudest voices during the massive 2013 school closings, harnessing members’ expertise to counter CPS’ motives and calculations about why it sought to shut down neighborhood schools. One of its earliest victories was persuading the city to declare its first TIF surplus in 2010. Raise Your Hand also lobbied for extra staffing after Mayor Rahm Emanuel won a longer school day for CPS, and led an opt-out testing movement.

The group started as a volunteer effort, and threw fundraisers to pay for printing and internet costs. According to tax forms, its budget grew to about $96,000 in 2015, thanks in part to an “unsolicited grant” from the Chicago Teachers Union. Katten collected a $31,000 salary as director.

Board members Jennie Biggs and Joy Clendenning will take over as leaders in September pending a search for a permanent director. Katten will continue advocating for statewide changes through Raise Your Hand Action, the group’s political spinoff organization.

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