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Take 5: Lifting charter cap, Dyett plans, youth programs cut

February 5, 2015 - 8:35am

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the only concrete education proposal Gov. Bruce Rauner announced in his first State of the State address was to lift the cap on charter schools. Rauner singled out a Roseland parent who sends her children to charters because they “offer longer school days, enhanced learning opportunities and variety for her kids.” The current statewide cap stands at 120 schools, including 75 in Chicago, some of which are replicating charters. The cap has been raised multiple times since 2003.

Without going into detail, Rauner repeated his commitment to increase K-12 funding with an eye toward improving “our most disadvantaged school districts” and promised to beef up funding for technical and vocational training programs in high schools and community colleges.

Rauner also gave a shoutout to anti-testing advocates. He said that students and teachers are “overwhelmed by too many tests” and called on policymakers to “ensure that the amount of time we test our students doesn’t get in the way of high-quality instruction.” He stopped short of mentioning the controversial PARCC exam, though, a topic on which he’s been silent since becoming a candidate.

2. Speaking of the PARCC… As promised, newly elected State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, introduced a bill last week to allow parents to opt their children out of taking state assessments -- such as the PARCC -- while protecting students, their teachers, schools and districts from any negative consequences in terms of grades or evaluations. So far, the bill has only attracted one co-sponsor: a fellow Democrat, Jaime Andrade, Jr., from Chicago.

Guzzardi told Catalyst he was meeting with Illinois State Board of Education officials this week to discuss the language in the bill and “to make sure they’re not concerned about risking federal dollars [...]. We shouldn’t be concerned about jeopardizing school funding because seven states already done it and have seen no loss of federal funds as results,” he added, referring to California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, Oregon, Nebraska and Utah.

But ISBE opposes the bill for just that reason. States are required to assess 95 percent of all students, and “we are concerned that if we allow an opt out we may fall below the federal requirement which could lead to some real consequences in terms of federal money and our ESEA/NCLB waiver,” says ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus. “This is not a risk we are willing to take.”

Similar legislation is being drafted elsewhere. Last week New Jersey assemblyman introduced a bill to require schools to develop opt-out procedures beginning next school year and provide students with an alternative learning opportunity if they refuse the test, while Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order allowing parents to opt-out of the PARCC, while urging that state’s education department to protect districts from consequences.

3. Taking over Dyett… The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett once again sounded the alarm outside of Ald. Will Burns (4th Ward) office to bring attention to the fact that the door has been opened for a private contractor to move into the school. In a statement, Coalition members were joined on a webinar about the pending request for proposals for Dyett by representatives of Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy High School. Little Black Pearl currently runs a contract school for dropouts and those at risk of dropping out. The district has said that whatever school goes into Dyett must be an open enrollment high school.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer for KOCO, and other coalition members are insistent that Dyett High School, which is being phased out, be reopened as a district-run high school. “We do not want to compete for this school,” said Brown. “We want a CPS school just like they have Lakeview or Lincoln Park.”

In a statement, Burns accused the action of being politically timed to undermine his reelection. Burns said he feels as though the RFP process being pursued by CPS insures that all proposals are “fairly and impartially evaluated.”

Though acquiescing to the community by committing to reopen Dyett, CPS officials refused to go along with the coalition’s plan to run it as a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” Representatives from five groups attended the required webinar, according to CPS. Among the participants was someone from Brinshore Development, which is building mixed income housing on the land once occupied by Robert Taylor Homes, and someone from the Digital Youth Network. These representatives could not be reached to find out if they are interested in starting a school or listened in for some other reason. Last week, letters of intent were due, but CPS Spokesman Bill McCaffrey said those are not public.

4. Austerity in IllinoisChicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown reports that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration sent word to organizations to halt job training, after school and other “youth development” programs. According to the e-mail reportedly received by organizations, Rauner blamed former Gov. Pat Quinn for signing an unbalanced budget.

But a group of African American and Latino state lawmakers called Rauner out on these cuts. “You tell us you want Illinois to become the most competitive and compassionate state in the nation,” said Jacqueline Y. Collins (D-Chicago) in a press release. She invited Rauner to her Southwest Side neighborhood to discuss the decision. “We are asking you – where is the compassion? And without mentoring, job training and a chance to work, how can the next generation of low-income minority youth hope to compete?”

Cutting the $8 million program may just be a sign of what is to come. Brown says that voters can’t be too upset because they voted for Rauner who promised to cut his way to a balanced budget.

Just last year a University of Chicago study found that a summer jobs program lowered violent crime arrests by 43 percent over a 16 month period. Also, youth in poor neighborhoods are the least likely to have jobs, according to a study released last week.

5. Learning to like math … A new individualized math tutoring service has brought unexpected benefits to students at low-income CPS high schools, according to a report released by Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. Doubling down on a pilot study conducted in 2013, researchers followed about 600 ninth and 10th graders enrolled in Chicago Match, a two-on-one math tutoring program folded into the curricula of many low-income schools across the city. Not only did the program significantly boost math scores, the report found, but it had a ripple effect on students’ confidence and academic well-being. A survey at the end of the study found that participants in Match were much more likely to say they enjoy math and think they’re good at it, and that they don’t think their friends study enough. Students in Match also registered a spike in non-math test scores.

“We think this pushes back on the prevailing belief that it’s too late to intervene with adolescents who have fallen behind, that we should focus more on early childhood education instead,” said Jonathan Guryan, a professor with Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy who contributed to the study. “What we’re seeing is that when you use individualized programs like [Chicago Match], it can be an effective--and cost-effective--investment in adolescents.”

It’s no secret that individualized attention leads to better outcomes for kids, but Guryan says the key distinction here is Match’s affordability to the district. At $3,800 per student, the report found that the program’s per-dollar effectiveness for raising math scores is more than quadruple that of Head Start. Chicago Match pays tutors part-time to teach specific subjects, and it can be offered as a substitution for an elective during the school day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a big fan of the program, announced last year that he’d work to expand it.

By the way, the Sun Times followed on Catalyst's story about CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett's claim that only seven students were accounted for after the school closings, when it was really several hundred.

Growing your own teachers worth the wait

February 4, 2015 - 4:08pm

Grow Your Own Teachers helps low-income people of color who have the desire to become teachers earn a bachelor’s degree in Education—a goal that would otherwise be almost impossible for them to achieve. Yet a recent news article falls short by viewing the program as a conveyor belt, and failing to capture what I and many other graduates felt by becoming the first person in our family to graduate from a university and get a job as a CPS teacher.

It also fails to capture how important it is for children in my classroom to have a teacher who looks like them and who shares their life experience. (“Illinois falls short in $20 million effort to develop 1,000 teachers,” Jan. 16, Chicago Tribune.)

I am a Hispanic female, born to Mexican immigrant, working parents.  I was born and raised in Chicago, one of five siblings.  I attended four different CPS elementary schools and, given the bad timing of my parents’ divorce, graduated with a very low GPA from a low-performing, low-income high school on the Northwest Side.  I can count on one hand how many of my fellow high school graduates went on to complete a bachelor’s degree.  With a lot of struggle, I earned an associate’s degree from a community college, and at the age of 19, seven months before receiving that degree, I gave birth to my first child. 

While growing up, my parents constantly reminded me of the hardships and poverty they endured in their small village in Guerrero, Mexico.  My mom is the oldest of eight siblings and completed school through 6th grade. My father had to help my grandfather work the land and attended school only up to 3rd grade.  My parents would always tell me and my siblings how important it was for us to take advantage of the opportunities of this great country.  Unfortunately, I was missing two of the most important factors that impact college attendance:  financial support and, most importantly, informed guidance.  I knew I was going to graduate from a university one day but I had no idea how to make that a reality.

Crucial support to overcome hurdles

That’s where Grow Your Own Teachers comes into play.  By the age of 31, I had gone back to school at Northeastern Illinois University.  I was a part-time student and a stay-at-home mother of two, studying for a degree in elementary education. But it was a constant struggle, especially when it came to math. Pre-algebra, for instance, was one of three math courses that I had to pass before I was eligible to take college math--but it would not earn me any credits toward graduation. I also struggled to pay for books since my loan did not cover them and my husband’s income was barely enough to cover the family expenses. 

That same year, I was a parent volunteer at my son’s CPS preschool. An assistant preschool teacher there told me about a program called Grow Your Own Teachers that could help me. The program was for parent volunteers and school paraprofessionals who wanted to get a degree in elementary education at Northeastern Illinois, where I was already enrolled.  I applied and got in.

I became a full-time student, attending year-round.  During the summer, I took four classes—the maximum number of classes allowed.  That was difficult because my husband worked and my children were out of school.  On some occasions, my children would wait for me outside of my classroom in the study area.  The professor knew I was a mom and did not object to my frequent breaks to check on my children. Other times, Grow Your Own Teachers provided child care and I was able to focus in the classroom.

Another hurdle was passing the Basic Skills Test.  Now known as TAP or the Test of Academic Proficiency, it is one of three state tests that teachers have to pass before they can earn a teaching license.  Grow Your Own Teachers provided me with a math tutor and test workshops.  I finally passed the five-hour test on the second try. 

Those were just a few of the many hurdles that Grow Your Own Teachers helped me to overcome.

After three and a half years, I graduated with honors from Northeastern Illinois University. One of the best moments in my life was having my mom watch me walk across the stage to receive my degree. 

Understanding heritage, inspiring students

Today, I am proud to say that I am a kindergarten teacher at a low-income CPS school.  Every day I go to my classroom ready to inspire my students.  Most of them are amazed that my background is similar to theirs. For example, no one in our families has a college degree, our parents do not speak English and they were born in another country. The children get a kick out of the fact that I also secretly ate hot Cheetos for breakfast when I was young because my parents left early for work and they didn’t have time to make breakfast.   

During the 12 years that I attended CPS, I encountered very few minority teachers and no teachers with a Mexican background like me.  I always wished for one. I felt that a teacher who shared my background would understand my heritage and would inspire me.  Now, I can be that teacher who has a positive influence on the children I teach. Our common background provides me with tools and references that facilitate making connections. The other day, I read Gary Soto’s “Too Many Tamales” to my students and they were excited to learn that my family also makes tamales for Christmas.

The hurdles that I had to overcome to earn my degree were few compared to my fellow Grow Your Own members.  Some of them are working full-time or part-time and have been in the program and attending classes part-time for more than five years.  One woman told me how she had to leave school temporarily to take care of a sick, elderly parent.  Some have to cut back on their own studies so they can earn extra money to pay tuition for children who are starting college.  I admire their resilience. Most participants stick with the program, working and studying hard and knowing that they will achieve their goal one day.  To them I say, “Keep trying, because earning a college degree is worth it.”

So many people around me now see me as a role model—my children, my family, my fellow Grow Your Own members, my students, my students’ parents, my para-professional colleagues.  I am only one of the many graduates who can inspire others like me.

It reminds me of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”

Idalia Vasquez is a 2013 graduate of the Grow Your Own program and a CPS teacher.

For the Record: Tracking 434 missing students after closings

February 3, 2015 - 2:02pm

Last summer, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett penned an open letter in which she boasted that the district had determined where all but seven children affected by 2013’s mass closings had landed in school. More than 11,000 had been displaced, so it seemed a major accomplishment. 

The information had been verified through the Illinois State Board of Education, according to the letter, which also repeated “Seven” to underscore the point.

Byrd-Bennett’s letter also criticized outsiders who had speculated that children would fall through the cracks after the closings, with no one knowing where they landed in school—something that had happened in the past. “The horror stories about hundreds of children “lost” to the streets during this transition were simply misguided efforts to distract us from our mission to give every child in every neighborhood the great education they deserve,” she wrote in the letter that was published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

But Byrd-Bennett’s letter was not accurate. After five-and-a-half months of wrangling, Catalyst Chicago finally received information from CPS that shows officials were not certain about the whereabouts of at least 434 students at the time the letter was published. (Catalyst received the documents only after a lawyer threatened legal action if the district did not comply with a Freedom of Information Act request.)

These 434 students were not located in a search done by Illinois State Board of Education officials.

Officials now admit that 154 children of those children were either coded as “unable to locate” or “did not arrive,” or had absolutely no code attached to their record. After being out of school for a year or enrolled elsewhere, 39 of the 154 students showed up this school year, according to CPS.

Another 279 children were coded as transfers--to home school, a private school or an out-of-state school--though CPS could not verify whether these students were in fact enrolled in a new school. One student died.

While it might be unrealistic to expect CPS to track 11,000-plus students, critics note that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leaders devoted an unprecedented amount of resources to the task. They hired a former Marine colonel to oversee the process with a staff of 40 and hired retired principals to go to each closing school in part to make sure that students did not vanish in the transition.

After first standing by the claims in the letter, CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey acknowledged that the statement asserting that only seven students were unaccounted for was a mistake.  McCaffrey says that an internal data analysis this summer found only seven students with blank records and did not take into account other codes that indicated officials did not know where the students were.

“Chicago Public Schools takes the accuracy of its statements and the integrity of its data very seriously,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Paperwork problems and missteps?

Two former CPS data strategists told Catalyst that the district would not have any way to systemically track these students. One of them notes that the loss of these students probably is the result of a combination of poor data entry, lax bookkeeping and little accountability when a student transfers.

“All this is to say, I'm afraid we can only speculate about these missing students and likely will never know where they ended up,” said one of the employees.

King Elementary in East Garfield Park and Goodlow Elementary in West Englewood had the largest percentage of missing students. Parents at these schools fought vehemently against the closings and were very negative about the designated welcoming schools.

“The parents who were active in the fight placed their children in decent schools,” says community activist Carol Johnson. “A lot of the other children got lost in the shuffle.”

Melanie Goldman, whose granddaughter went to Goodlow, agrees that many parents found other options for their children. But some parents didn’t get their children into the schools they applied to, and didn’t feel safe sending their children to the designated welcoming school, which was Earle.

Initially, CPS called some parents to find out where the children were, especially because so few showed up at Earle, Goldman says.

“They [parents] know where they are, but they are not saying. They are still angry,” Goldman says. “I guess they are being low-key.” 

Looking for missing children

West Side activist Dwayne Truss says a member of the district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement came to Austin’s Community Action Council meetings and explained to the group that he had been charged with finding students from closed schools whose parents hadn’t requested transcripts for a new school.  

“This is how some kids fall through the cracks,” Truss says. “Students being lost are one of the unintended consequences.”

Lettrice Jamison’s children might be among the missing. After Emmet in Austin closed, she moved to Gary, Indiana for a host of reasons, including the fact that she was upset at the closing. Jamison says she didn’t tell anyone in CPS that she and her children were leaving the district.

With no records in hand, Jamison says she just walked into the Gary, Indiana school down the block from her house and told them she wanted to enroll her children. She gave them information about where her children went to school previously, but has no idea if they reached out to CPS for her children’s transcripts.

“Gary schools are messed up like Chicago schools,” she says. Jamison says she thinks her children’s new school is worse than Emmet.

Members of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force say the situation is proof that the district was not prepared to close so many schools at once. The state legislative task force includes a number of activists who have wrangled with CPS through the years. At the group’s meeting in September, CPS officials failed to show up and the district has since refused to provide any other documentation, says Jacqueline Leavy, former executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group who helped the task force in its work.

CPS was supposed to come up with individual transition plans for each school, but the first drafts were boiler-plate and made without community input, says task force member Valencia Rias-Winstead. Once the schools closed, more detailed plans were developed. Only by then, few parents at the schools knew about them.

No mass exodus

McCaffrey points out that, according to a recently released Consortium on Chicago School Research report, the number of students who left CPS after the 2013 closings is similar to the number who left those same schools in previous years. In other words, the closings did not precipitate a mass exodus.

The Consortium report also notes that twice as many students in closed schools were too old for their grade, making them far more likely to drop out. CPS recently acknowledged that some 900 6th, 7th and 8th graders are not in school, and the district is seeking operators to launch alternative schools for middle-grades students.

The issue of missing children came to the forefront when CPS released a detailed report on enrollment last year, prompting Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to publicly scold the board in March. At the time, Lewis said the numbers showed some 800 children were unaccounted for.

A CPS spokesman promised the district would release the results of its work with the Illinois State Board of Education to locate the students. Catalyst began regularly requesting the information but did not receive it. In July, the Sun-Times published the letter from Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Catalyst submitted a FOIA request on Aug. 8, with no results. On the heels of a Better Government Association FOIA lawsuit against the district, Catalyst reached out to BGA attorney Matt Topic of Loevy & Loevy.

Topic threatened legal action if Catalyst did not receive a response by Jan. 17. At 5:47 p.m. on Jan. 17, a heavily redacted report arrived via e-mail.

Latino parents vie for input on PARCC exam

February 3, 2015 - 10:55am


Moments after the morning bell rings at Irma Ruiz Elementary in Pilsen, Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro asks the parents scattered across the cafeteria to draw closer and form a circle. Now that the students have lined up and made their way to class, the 20-or-so moms and dads are ready to be drilled on a topic they’ve been dreading for months.

“How many people here have heard of something called ‘Common Core?’ ” Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro asks in Spanish. A handful of parents raise their hands.

“OK. And how many have heard of a big change that’s going to make your kids’ classes a lot harder?” Every hand in the room shoots toward the low ceiling.

Across the country and in Chicago, parents have rallied against the new PARCC exam, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core Standards, citing ambiguous questions and saying it represents an unreasonable jump in academic expectations.

But for those whose kids are not native English speakers, the cloud of doubt surrounding the new test is doubly worrying. And national advocates say until the test has been proven effective, parents are right to be concerned.

“Because there’s been this politically-mandated rush to get Common Core on the books, it really hasn’t been sampled across diverse communities. They’re just being asked to take it at face value,” says Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a group that is critical of annual standardized testing. “A lot of parents, especially in non-English communities, are wondering whether this is ready for prime-time.”

Concerns reached all the way to city leaders, too. Recently, CPS officials announced they’ll only require 10 percent of schools in the district to give the PARCC, in what they are calling an “expanded pilot.” State education officials, however, are threatening to withhold federal funds under that scenario, and state law calls for all Illinois students to take the PARCC or some Common Core-aligned standardized test. English-learners are exempt from the English portion of standardized tests, but only in their first year after arriving in the U.S.

Vonderlack-Navarro says she is not convinced the state did all it could to include English-learners and special education students in preparations for the PARCC. For example, the PARCC--like the ISAT before it--will offer a Spanish version of its math exam, but that version was never piloted in Illinois, an oversight she calls “unconscionable.”

“Hungry for information”

Vonderlack-Navarro’s presentation in Pilsen is her latest stop on a wide-scale information campaign launched by the Latino Policy Network, a Chicago organization whose mission is to involve the city’s Hispanic population more directly in local government. Vonderlack-Navarro, a research assistant for the Latino Policy Forum, has been bringing her presentation to groups of Latino parents all over the city who she says are “hungry for information” on their kids’ changing curricula. The presentations began in September and have already reached more than a thousand Latino parents.

The hour-and-a-half PowerPoint session provides reams of numbers and information on the history of Common Core. In the middle, Vonderlack-Navarro passes out two sheets of paper. On one are the familiar multiple-choice questions given on the state’s now-retired ISAT exam. On the other is a quintessential PARCC problem--a fractions quiz in three parts that asks students to drag numerical icons into boxes to complete an operation.

“I think the new test makes more sense--it makes you think more, not just [pick by] eenie- meenie-minie-moe,” said Luz Melesio, a mother of three CPS students, as she looked down at the two sheets after the presentation. Melesio said Vonderlack-Navarro’s walk-through made her feel, for the first time, as though she could be involved in the shift to the new test, which still makes her uneasy.

“I’m just not sure if teachers will have good strategies for helping kids with it, especially with taking the test on a computer,” she said.

Advocates of the PARCC say these parents shouldn’t worry that their children will be unfairly penalized or “left behind”--the new standards are a leap for sure, but it’s a leap the whole state will take at once. Take the 2014 ISAT scores: The test was more closely aligned to the new standards and the drop in scores was more-or-less even across the board, regardless of demographic or learning ability.

Not soon enough

For Barbara Radner, giving her own presentation to educators across town, the PARCC exam can’t come to Chicago soon enough.

Radner, a professor of education at DePaul University, spoke at a “PARCC Preview” workshop at the Chicago History Museum and praised the test for going beyond facts and numbers to test kids on their critical thinking skills. If children don’t develop these skills, Radner said, “they’ll be counting on their fingers their whole lives.”

 Radner is confident the test will pass muster for a diverse group of students.

“This test has gone to greater lengths to be fair to kids--and to accommodate kids who need extra help--than any test I’ve ever seen,” Radner said. She pointed to a manual published by PARCC administrators cataloguing special measures to be taken for students with special needs and extra resources that should be ready for English learners: extra time, extra proctors available to explain questions, test prompts adapted into Spanish and other languages, and more. Since the exam is computer-based, the description of extra help to be provided is more detailed.

Whether CPS can provide all these resources, however, is another question. After her stop in Pilsen, Vonderlack-Navarro hopes she’s convinced more parents to approach teachers and administrators with questions about CPS’s ability to put these accommodations into practice.

Many of them are from countries that set federal assessment standards, so the idea of Common Core isn’t beyond them.

 “In a lot of ways, immigrant communities could have been natural allies to the Common Core movement, but I don’t think advocates did a good job tapping into that,” Vonderlack-Navarro said. “Instead, a lot of these parents feel like no one is talking about them--they feel like they never had a seat at the table.”

Photo by William Camargo. It shows Margarita Avalos, a parent concerned about the new PARCC test, asking a question during a presentation by the Latino Policy Forum at Sandoval Elementary in Gage Park. So far, the group’s presentations have reached more than a thousand parents in heavily Latino areas.

Take 5: PARCC threat, Rauner on early ed money, elected boards and debt

February 2, 2015 - 7:42am

When it comes to the new PARCC exam, it’s hard to know whether both sides -- the state and CPS -- are truly digging in their heels, or if this is all some strange sort of political theater. On Friday, state School Supt. Christopher Koch and newly appointed board chair James Meeks sent a letter to all district superintendents threatening that ISBE will definitely withhold funding from any district that does not administer the PARCC to all students. The letter was clearly directed toward CPS -- the only district that has publicly announced it won’t administer the new exam to every student.The district stands to lose $1.4 billion in combined state and federal funding if ISBE yanks the money, CPS officials told Crain’s.

Chicago has said it will defy ISBE by only giving the PARCC to 10 percent of schools. The move was hailed by parent groups who have been pushing for a delay and revision of the PARCC. Just last week, ISBE officials said they were confident they’d “get it all worked out” with CPS.  

So why the threat now? One theory is that ISBE officials suddenly got scared that suburban school districts would follow CPS. The Washington Post picked up on a letter about the PARCC concerns written by Winnetka’s superintendent. The other theory is that CPS plans to capitulate and will use ISBE’s threat as a cover because giving up the money is obviously not viable.

2. Testing Rauner on early ed ... State payments to child care providers across Illinois will be late this month, as the Department of Human Services says it’s short nearly $300 million to continue the subsidy program through June. The shortfall is one of many facing state departments since the January roll back of the income tax, the Chicago Tribune reports.

So far, Governor Bruce Rauner has blamed his predecessor for the problem and said he’s working on it, without providing any details. But some Republican legislators have suggested higher co-pay rates for parents or new income limits on eligibility for the Child Care Assistance Program, and last week a Rauner spokesman said that program costs have increased above the rate of inflation and that some “cost-saving measure may have to be implemented.”

While this wouldn’t be the first time the state delays payments to providers, any sort of cuts will be sure to anger those who provide day care to the 100,000 low-income families who rely on the subsidies. That’s especially the case as Rauner has promised to be a supporter of early education programs -- perhaps a given considering the fact that his wife runs the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early education group. SEIU members, who held a protest on Friday, called it “the  first real test of [Rauner’s] leadership and commitment to supporting working families and at-risk children.”

3. Appointed vs. elected boards ... As a non-binding referendum (in most wards) for an elected school board in Chicago approaches, Crain’s Paul Merrion decided to take a look at whether this type of governance could lead to improved finances for the cash-strapped district. His conclusion? Probably not.

Merrion compared the debt-to-revenue ratios of the 20 largest school districts in the nation and found that those with elected school boards tend to have bigger debt burdens than appointed ones. Using financial information compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for fiscal 2012 -- the most recent available -- Merrion ranked Chicago seventh in terms of biggest debt-to-revenue ratios. All but one of the districts with a bigger debt burden than Chicago’s had elected school boards; the only district with an elected school board and more debt was Philadelphia.

Kenneth Wong, an education professor at Brown University and an expert on school board governance, told Crain’s that “an elected board can feel like the sky is the limit” when it comes to borrowing to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s debt problem has gotten worse since 2012 as CPS continues to fill its deficit with one-time fixes. The Crain’s piece includes some interesting infographics -- both to compare districts’ debt burden and a separate graphic on the growing CPS budget deficit.

4. Board properties sold… The CPS Board of Education approved the sale last week of nine properties that have lingered on the books for years, according to a CPS press release. Altogether the sales, which still need to be approved by the City Council and the Public Building Commission, will bring in about $1.87 million, but most of that money comes from two pieces of vacant land, one in Printer’s Row for $635,000 and the other in gentrifying Humboldt Park for $900,000. The rest of the properties are spread across the South Side and were sold for about $100,000 to $30,000. Two pieces of vacant land are being sold to the Washington Park Development Corporation. Both are close to the site of where the University of Chicago is proposing to put the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

Three former schools were sold: Dumas Child-Parent Center (shuttered in 2010), Cuffee Elementary (shuttered in 2009) and Washington School (shuttered in 2008).

But none of the schools shuttered in the 2013 mass closing were among those sold. Of three schools closed in 2013 that reached the bid stage, only one has been sold. That was Peabody Elementary in West Town. CPS is still trying to find qualified bidders for the other two, Wadsworth in Woodlawn and Marconi in West Garfield Park.

5. Charter schools and special education… In New York City, like in Chicago, one of the arguments against charter schools is that they don’t provide enough services to students with special needs. The New York Times writes that a new report shows that when looking at all students receiving special education services, they stayed in charter schools for four years more often than they stayed in traditional schools. However, a previous report found that those students in special education full-time left charter schools more often than traditional schools.

Chicago’s discussion around charter schools and special education students has focused on how many students they serve and whether the schools are being compensated fairly for serving them. Just last year, the state legislature passed a bill that explicitly stated that charter schools must serve special education students. An article in a 2012 Catalyst In Depth revealed that charter schools tended to serve students with less severe disabilities than traditional schools. Parents of children with more significant disabilities and advocates told Catalyst that they were often told by charter schools that they could not offer the appropriate services for their children.



Teen unemployment continues to rise in Chicago

January 30, 2015 - 7:28am

The economic recovery has done nothing to curb joblessness among Chicago teenagers, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.

Instead, youth employment has plunged, especially among African American young men, and is now at its lowest level in years. And the poorest households are hardest hit: Only 11 percent of Chicago teens in households with an income below $20,000 annually were employed in 2013, compared to 30 percent of teens in households with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000.

The report, jointly prepared with the Alternative Schools Network, is being released today and will be the focus of a hearing on Friday at the Chicago Urban League. It’s the sixth report on the topic published in as many years.

Overall, teen employment has declined dramatically in the past 15 years, from 32 percent employment in 1998 to 13 percent in 2013, according to the report.

The study also links joblessness and lack of schooling, painting an even starker picture of the problem and its link to race: The percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds in Chicago who are both unemployed and out of work—what the report calls “disconnected”--is 28 percent for African Americans, 16 percent for Hispanics and just nine percent for whites.

“In the past year or two, the economy has been moving forward, pumping out more and more jobs, but somehow what we’re seeing is that these kids are moving backward,” says Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network. “What we’re seeing is that a lot of low-earning and part-time jobs that typically go to kids are now being taken by adults.”

Reversing the trend

In order for the trend to reverse, Wuest says, it’s critical that the government support efforts to expand job opportunities for adolescents at every level.

Yet government support could well be in jeopardy. In 2013 and 2014, Illinois spent $20 million each year on youth employment, with the money awarded to dozens of different organizations, including the Alternative Schools Network. But with new Gov. Bruce Rauner vowing to cut the state’s budget, it’s unclear whether such spending will continue.

Locally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is hoping to expand his signature One Summer jobs program, which last year created job opportunities for about 20,000 youth in low-income areas of the city.

And in recent years, Chicago Public Schools has sought to overhaul and improve its career education programs and tie them more directly to post-secondary schooling. (See our Catalyst In Depth on career education.) 

But the results have been mixed. The district has launched new programs in high-demand career areas. But overall, most students don’t finish a full sequence of career-related classes, only a small percentage of job credentials that students earn lead directly to a job and the district has a limited number of internships available to offer students.

Teen employment creates a ripple effect for the whole city, Wuest points out, and not just in the economic sector. A report by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab found that young people who participated in the One Summer program were 51 percent less likely to commit violent crimes, and slightly less likely to drop out of school. Beyond that, Wuest says, having a paying job teaches many of the skills necessary to live a successful life.

“Having a job teaches things like the importance of showing up on time, and how to work with other people, and builds self-confidence—these are the skills it takes to be a responsible adult,” Wuest said. “We’re just hoping the state and city continue the expansion, because in a lot of neighborhoods the jobs just aren’t there, and businesses aren’t hiring.”

Take 5: Quazzo defended, Urban Prep to DC, teacher pension woes

January 29, 2015 - 8:14am

Election season made for a relatively quiet, lightly attended CPS Board of Education meeting Wednesday, save for a touch of the lingering drama surrounding board member Deborah Quazzo’s business interests. A few speakers joined Chicago Teachers Union representatives to call for Quazzo’s resignation, following up on a rally held outside the board member’s office a day earlier. Last month the Sun-Times reported on central office and schools purchasing of software and other technology in which Quazzo’s company had invested.

Board members took turns defending their colleague and repudiating the accusations against her. Mahalia Hines may have gone the furthest of all of them, likening the calls for Quazzo’s resignation to a “character assassination” that activists are trying to “smear across the front pages.” Quazzo kept mum the entire time.

Another highlight was a cameo appearance by Cook County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy’ Garcia, who spoke out against CPS’s “self-defeating fight with the Department of Justice” over alleged discrimination against pregnant teachers at Scammon Elementary School.

2. Urban Prep to D.C. Chicago’s only all-male charter school network is expanding to the nation’s capital. The Washington Post reports on plans to open a new Urban Prep Academy campus as part of a $20 million investment in new support programs for black and Latino males.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson said the decision has “everything to do with ‘mathematics.’ Black and Latino boys make up 43 percent of the students enrolled in D.C. public schools. By almost any measure — reading and math scores, attendance and graduation rates — their performance is lagging.”

Urban Prep’s CEO and founder Tim King (a former classmate of Henderson from Georgetown University) had been weighing several possible cities to branch out to last year. In a statement, King said that “after an extensive national review process of school districts for Urban Prep to expand to, it's clear that DC is the right place.”

3. Growing pension woes … Debt amassed by teacher pension funds nationally has ballooned to nearly half a trillion dollars, according to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Illinois has amassed the second-largest debt, with nearly $56 billion liability owed. What’s more, only 41 percent of the Illinois’s pension system is funded, by far a lower rate than any other state in the union.

The report, titled “Doing the Math on Teacher Pensions: How to Protect Teachers and Taxpayers,” gave Illinois a C grade in its state-by-state pension report card. A big reason for the subpar rating was the fact that it takes 10 years on the job before Illinois teachers can start vesting for retirement. The report’s authors say teachers’ funds should begin to accrue after their third year on the job. Additionally, the report noted, a mind-boggling 76 percent of employers’ annual contribution to teacher pensions goes toward paying down the debt, instead of collecting in their retirement funds.

4. Not friendly to charters? A pro-charter school group ranks Illinois among in the bottom half of states when comparing which states have the most favorable laws for charter schools. It ranks 29th out of 43 states (including the District of Columbia) with charter school laws, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ sixth annual report. Eight states don’t have laws regarding charter schools so are not included in the rankings.

Todd Ziebarth, one of the report’s authors, says the Illinois rankings reflect a tumultuous year of charter legislation -- including failed proposals to eliminate the state’s independent charter school authorizer and to change the appeals process for charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards.

“In 2014 we saw an aggressive effort in the Illinois Legislature to go after charter schools and weaken charter laws, and they largely failed, but some improvements came out of the back-and-forth,” says Ziebarth. “We saw the state make some improvements to increase transparency around relationships between charter governing boards and charter providers, shining light on potential conflicts of interest.”

It’ll be interesting to see how charter school law changes under the leadership of Gov. Bruce Rauner, an ardent supporter of the publicly funded but privately run schools.

5. More money for STEM programming … Citizen Schools, a national not-for-profit organization that provides afterschool STEM programming to four middle schools in the South Side, announced a $1.5 million corporate donation that will help it boost its programs across the city and nationally. The 20-year-old organization operates programs in low-achieving public schools across the country, but this is only its third year running in Chicago. Bryce Bowman, executive director of Citizen Schools’ Illinois division, said he hopes to use the grant from the Biogen Idec Foundation to offer programs at an additional one or two schools in the city’s South or West Side.

The afterschool programs are mandatory for all enrolled students at schools hosting Citizen Schools, which invites technicians from corporations like Google and United Airlines to give hands-on lessons in STEM subjects. Bowen said the hosting schools boast NWEA growth scores that were twice the district average, and that 92 percent of participating families report a positive impact on their child’s academic performance. CPS, Bowman said, has given the program tremendous feedback and “would like [them] to expand even faster than [they] already are.”

Take 5: Elected board controversy, more on testing and learning time

January 26, 2015 - 10:10am

One of the most divisive issues that came up at Saturday’s mayoral forum was the elected school board proposal. Voters in 37 wards will get the chance to vote on a non-binding resolution asking whether they want an elected school board instead of a mayoral-appointed board. (Here’s a quick take on the history behind the current selection process.)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is against the measure, suggested that it’s a moot point given that new Gov. Bruce Rauner isn’t in favor of the idea, while a bill to change how  board members are chosen hasn’t gained much traction in the Legislature. “I don't think we should actually convince (or) trick people by having a political campaign issue as a way to fixing our schools,” Emanuel said, according to a Tribune story.

The mayor’s challengers all support an elected board. During the forum in the Loop, hosted by the Chicago Women Take Action Alliance, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said an elected school board would bring needed accountability, while Ald. Bob Fioretti said conflict-of-interest issues were “running amok” within the current board. "We all ought to be embarrassed by what we see at CPS at this point,” the alderman said.

2. Major caveats on closing success: Chief Operating Officer Tom Tyrrell resigned his $180,000 position, effective Friday, in order to become the state’s Central Management Services director, according to the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune. A former Marine colonel, Tyrrell was hired in spring of 2012 to oversee the closing of 50-some elementary schools--the largest mass closure of schools ever. His job was not only to move the children, but to also move massive amounts of furniture and to try to sell off the buildings.  

District officials have declared success. However, only one-third of students enrolled in the new schools designated for them, far less than the 80 percent Tyrell predicted. Also, the district wound up spending $30 million to move materials from the schools and secure the buildings, three times the $8.9 million initial contract. Only one shuttered school building has been sold.

3. Social media law: CPS won’t compel students to give officials their passwords to Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram and any other social media platform, according to an article in DNAinfo. A new state law gives school districts the right to design their own cyber-bullying policies, which could include allowing school administrators to force students to provide their passwords. CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said that CPS’ policy calls on staff to monitor public items on social media, but not to try to access private pages. The district’s policy, she said, takes bullying of any type seriously.

But a downstate Belleville school district already used the new law and forced some students to give up passwords, which has led to numerous inquiries to the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois chapter spokesman Edwin Yohnka told DNAinfo. Yohnka said the ACLU is troubled by the new law and believes compelling students to give up their passwords crosses the line. In fact, Yohnka said that the ACLU is against any policy that give schools power to punish students for activity outside of school and would rather see that left to parents.

4. Testing, testing: The use--or overuse, in critic’s eyes--of standardized tests has become arguably the biggest controversy in education these days. Testing is one thing that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refuses to budge on, despite a growing national backlash: Annual standardized tests should remain mandatory under any rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In an interview on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz breaks down why many teachers feel testing has distorted the learning process and what states and schools could do instead to assess learning. Kamenetz is the author of a recent book “The Test: Why our schools are obsessed with standardized testing--but you don’t have to be.”

5. More on learning time:  Children in high-poverty public schools don’t have access to the extra learning time that students in wealthier schools routinely take advantage of. The latest issue of Voices in Urban Education from The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tackles learning time from this perspective of equity.

A national cross-section of authors write about using learning time in new ways in schools in poor neighborhoods. Among the programs noted are the TIME Collaborative of the National Center on Time and Learning and the Ford Foundation, through which 39 schools are each adding 300 hours of time to the school year for all students (the equivalent of 50 days for a 6-hour school day).

The authors of one article make a critical point: Children in poor neighborhoods often experience considerable stress in their family life--unstable housing, lack of medical and dental care, community violence and so on--that impacts learning time by making it more likely they will miss class and more difficult for them to concentrate on academics.

In Illinois, education officials have asked for an additional $5 million in fiscal year 2016 for extended learning time activities. This year, the Illinois State Board of Education received 141 applications for learning time grants but only had money for 51 projects. The additional funds would allow ISBE to serve approximately 50 more sites--though sadly, given the state’s fiscal problems, the funds aren’t likely to materialize. Typically these programs are funded with federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers monies; last December programs in Chicago got about half of the state’s share of some $34 million in these federal funds.

The Center on Education Policy also came out with a report on expanded learning time last week.

Comings & Goings: Foley, Hilsabeck, DeClemente, Shah, Papineau

January 23, 2015 - 3:08pm

Karen G. Foley has been appointed president and CEO of Juvenile Protective Association. JPA, founded in 1901 by Jane Addams, works with and on behalf of children and families in some of Chicago’s most challenging neighborhoods. Prior to joining JPA, Karen served as president and CEO for The Hope Institute, president of Chicago Scholars, and executive vice president and head of global marketing at CNA.

Alison Hilsabeck has been named provost of National Louis University with responsibility for the National College of Education and the college of professional studies and advancement, as well as all departments that support students’ academic, professional and personal goals. She previously served at NLU’s college of education as associate dean, dean, and executive dean, and was vice provost for academic programs.

CPS has created four manager positions for the Office of Student Health and Wellness. Tarrah DeClemente is the new manager of student wellness, Sujata Shah will serve as manager of student health, and Kenneth Papineau will be the manager of vision and screening. The manager of PE and health education position is yet to be filled.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones: vjones@catalyst-chicago.org

After closings, 1 in 5 children land at top-rated schools: report

January 22, 2015 - 12:36pm

More than 90 percent of students displaced by the mass school closings in 2013 went to higher-rated schools, but less than one-fifth went to the top-rated schools, according to a Consortium on Chicago School Research report released today.

The distinction between the two categories--better performing and top performing--is important. The Consortium’s much-cited 2009 study on past school closings found that only those students who landed at top schools after a closing experienced substantial academic improvement. Students who went to schools that were only somewhat better didn't improve much academically.

The new study is the first major report on the historic closings of some 50 schools, an action that displaced more than 11,000 students. The authors call the fact that few students went to top-performing schools "problematic." However, Consortium researcher Marisa de la Torre said that nothing will really be known about how the closings affected the performance of individual students until future studies are done.

CPS officials promised that schools designated to take in displaced children would be better than those that were shuttered. However, as has been reported, some of the designated schools were only marginally better, and many of the children went to other schools: Only one-third of students actually enrolled in their welcoming school.

The researchers judged schools based on their ratings under a district system that uses multiple factors, including attendance and test score improvement. The year after the closings, some of the schools saw a significant drop in their district ratings and performance on standardized tests.

For the 2009 study, however, researchers judged schools based only on test scores. De la Torre said that researchers decided to use the district ratings for the new study because that is the system CPS uses.

The new report found that if all students had gone to their designated welcoming school, more children—27 percent compared to 20 percent--would have landed at top schools and fewer at the worst schools. Surprisingly, children assigned to low-rated welcoming schools were more likely to attend them, compared to children assigned to highly-rated schools.

To determine why, the Consortium interviewed parents from closed schools about their priorities when choosing a new school. “What we found is that all parents really want the same thing,” said researcher Molly Gordon.

The answer researchers got echoed what parents said repeatedly at the public hearings on the closings: The No. 1 factor in school choice was proximity.

West Side activist Dwayne Truss said that the decisions involve matters beyond just convenience. He noted that in North Lawndale, in particular, many of the welcoming schools didn’t make sense for parents because they were far away or in areas that parents considered different neighborhoods.

Safety was also found to be a consideration. Parents did consider the quality of the school, but researchers found that parents' definition differed from the district's. For example, the parents looked for small class sizes, good communication and things like after-school programs.

The study will be discussed at an event Thursday evening at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts.  The event will include a screening of a documentary on the closings.

Take 5: LEARN charter opposed, displaced students, NYC centralizing power

January 22, 2015 - 7:22am

More than a thousand people have signed a petition to keep a LEARN Charter School branch from opening in south suburban Chicago Heights, where the network has proposed to open a K-8 elementary school this September. It would be LEARN’s ninth campus, and its second suburban location. The Chicago-based network first expanded to North Chicago, a low-income suburb of Waukegan, in 2012.

“Until charter schools have a proven track record of being successful, I am not willing to support them,” commented one petitioner. LEARN’s website does boast higher ISAT scores than its peers. As you will remember, LEARN is the charter network that started in North Lawndale and, in 2010, won $1 million from Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network. The network is hoping for a victory after its bid to open a school in Waukegan was rejected earlier this month.

Opening in Chicago Heights would contribute to a national and statewide trend of charters expanding into suburban areas. Today Illinois is home to 148 charter schools, but the vast majority, 134, are in Chicago.

2. Speaking of charters.... An op-ed in Forbes magazine written by an economist for Moody Analytics argues that the prevalent narrative about charter schools is wrong. Adam Ozimek correctly says that most people summarize the studies on charter schools by saying that they are no better and no worse than nearby schools. Instead, he says the conventional wisdom should be that “some charter schools appear to do very well, and on average charters do better at educating poor students and black students.” Ozimek cites the 2013 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study that says: “Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their [traditional public school] counterparts. This shows the impact of charter schooling is especially beneficial for black students who in poverty.”

The debate isn't likely to die, however. Charter school critics question whether there are other factors that separate poor black students at charter schools from those in traditional schools, such as family involvement and ability to get them into the charter school. Further, they point out that many charter schools have highly disciplined environments that often push students out and perhaps leave those who are better performing.

3. More on displaced students… The Consortium on Chicago School Research’s big study on students displaced by last year's closings doesn’t say much that has not already been said about closings. Still, the study is a major deal because Mayor Emanuel is defending the closings as he runs to keep his job. Also, the decision is a defining part of his legacy and Chicago’s history. The Chicago Tribune dealt with it through an editorial. They note that as they interview aldermanic candidates for potential endorsements, many of them are still angry about the closings, something the editorial says is understandable. But according to their assessment, the study shows the results were mixed if not good. The best thing, according to the Tribune, is that one-fifth of students made it to top-rated schools--a "glass half-full" view. Yet they note one of the biggest problems pointed out by the study: Parents did not feel like they had enough time to do research and find the best school for their children.

Though the story is more nuanced, the Sun Times headline is a coup for Emanuel: “Most CPS students whose schools closed switched to better schools: report." In it, Todd Babbitz, one of the architects of the closings, said the findings were affirming “that we succeeded in sending the vast, vast majority of those students to schools that were more highly rated.”

Declaring success or failure based just on this study is premature, though. The Consortium has not had a chance to study how students fared once they got to their new schools. One early indication of problems is that six welcoming schools would have had their ratings plummet had CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett not used her authority to grant them higher ratings. One of them, Leland in Austin, would have gone from a top-rated schools to one of the lowest-rated in the district.

4. Retaking power in NYC… New York City Chancellor Carmen Farina is getting ready to re-establish the power of the central office, according to a New York Times story. By doing so, she will be reversing moves made by former chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sought to give principals more freedom and make the central office more of a service center for schools. According to the article, studies on Klein’s network system showed that it cut spending in central office by 22 percent, but also that some networks were less effective than others.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio and Farina say they believe this system left the struggling schools with too little supervision. Also, because all schools were doing their own thing, it was hard to get a quick answer to questions about schools.

Of course, under Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett, CPS’ power structure is fashioned more like Klein’s and Bloomberg’s. However, Chicago principals complain that they have little autonomy. As the New York Times article describes, New York, like other big urban school districts, has tried many structures as the pendulum of power swings from being centralized to being nested in the schools.

5. Student privacy concerns … Apart from remarking on improved high school graduation rates and test scores, President Barack Obama largely stayed away from issues related to K-12 education during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He did, however, reiterate an earlier call for legislation to protect students’ online information in order to ensure it’s not sold to schools or used for targeted ads. The issue has been gaining importance as school districts across the country -- including Chicago -- increasingly turn to online learning tools to supplement classroom learning.

In a story about how local parents and educators are dealing with student privacy concerns, the Chicago Tribune explains that because some of these tools require “teachers or students to enter all sorts of data — from names to grades to personality traits — thus raising questions that educators had not faced before: Will information a teacher or child shares stay available in cyberspace with the potential to be brought up years later by college admissions officers or employers?”

Education Week wrote about other educational issues touched on by the president, including  his proposals for free community college and tripling an existing $1,000 per child care tax credit for working families -- and the reaction from key lawmakers. Republican Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee, “noted the lack of attention to ‘fixing No Child Left Behind’ in the speech, and said that most of the education proposals had no chance of becoming law.”

 




State board wants $730 million more for education, tackles CPS testing

January 21, 2015 - 6:10pm

Illinois State Board of Education officials expressed annoyance on Wednesday with the Chicago Public Schools decision to administer the state’s controversial new standardized test at just a small group of schools -- but didn’t offer any solutions for getting the district to comply.

During their first meeting of the year, board members also voted to send legislators their fiscal year 2016 budget recommendations that include a $730 million increase in general fund appropriations.

The 20-minute discussion about last week’s news that CPS will only administer the PARCC exam--the new test aligned to the Common Core Standards and developed by a group of some 40 states -- to just 10 percent of schools, ended with no definitive conclusions. Instead, newly appointed chairman James Meeks said he and other ISBE leaders planned to “work vigorously with Chicago people to absolutely figure out what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen.”

If no agreement with CPS has been reached by Feb. 11, the date of the next ISBE meeting, “then we have to make a decision as it relates to how we will respond to their response,” Meek said. “For sure, we’re not going to wait until we find out what’s going to happen. We’ll be the aggressors. We’ll go to meetings. We’ll sit with them and try to get it all worked out.”

ISBE wants to reach some definitive conclusion about the matter before March, when districts are supposed to begin administering the first round of the exam. Parents and activists had been lobbying against the PARCC and echoing a growing backlash against the exam in other states.

State schools Supt. Christopher Koch said Illinois faces potentially huge consequences for Chicago’s actions  – “ranging from something as light as a stern letter to something as egregious as losing all of our funds.”

“It would immediately put us out of compliance as a state, given that we’re required to have 95 percent participation,” he said. “It’s the state the federal government would sanction in the event  thresholds are not met.” Without full participation by Chicago, Illinois has no way to meet the federal mandate.

But Koch also warned that Chicago could be penalized for defying the state mandates – and even lose its recognized status as a school district, although ISBE has only taken this action once in its history.

In addition to the potential loss of federal dollars, ISBE officials said the state can’t recoup the money it’s already spent to administer the assessment at all schools. “If they’re not used we still have to pay for,” Koch said. “The district not using them is costing us more money.”

It’s unclear how much that will cost the state, although Koch mentioned a $1 per test fee.

$7.5 billion budget a “smart investment”

Wednesday’s meeting was the first presided over by Meeks, a former state senator and pastor from Chicago who was recently appointed to the job by Gov. Bruce Rauner. He replaces Gery Chico.

Meeks and other board members voted to approve Koch’s recommended 2016 budget, which asks the Legislature to appropriate $7.5 billion in general fund dollars toward education. That would be a nearly 11-percent increase when compared to the current fiscal year.

Education promises to be a key but contentious issue in the coming months as Rauner and the Legislature wrangle over how to solve the state’s predicted multibillion deficit.

Rauner has said he wants to spend more money on public education, although he has not yet laid out plans for how to do so. Meanwhile, state legislators are updating a proposal from last year to overhaul how the state calculates education funding. That plan, sponsored by State Sen. Andy Manaar, a Democrat, passed in the state Senate but not in the House.

Manaar told The Associated Press this week that one major change in the new proposed funding formula would be to account for regional cost differences, such as higher teacher salaries in districts where the cost of living is higher.

ISBE officials said they recognized the financial challenges ahead for Rauner and legislators but called education the smartest investment the state could make for its economic future.

“Most of these districts have already made significant staff and programming cuts as local revenue sources shrink,” said the board’s finance committee chairman Jim Baumann in a statement. “Providing the financial support obligated by state law is the very least we can do to help ease the burden and prevent further reductions from hindering the important work taking place in classrooms to prepare our students for college and careers.”

Under their proposal, ISBE officials want the bulk of the extra money to go toward fully funding the so-called “foundation level,” the per-pupil funding that the state should provide for a basic education. The foundation level is now $6,119 per student. In recent years, Illinois has only funded 89 percent of the foundation level.

Other proposed increases include $50 million for early childhood education, which state officials already promised the federal government in order to get a four-year, $80 million grant to expand preschool; about $49 million to restore transportation funding for regular and vocational programs to previous levels; and $5 million to give high schools the option of administering two different versions of the PARCC.

Take 5: Aldermanic endorsements, extended learning time, GED pass rates

January 20, 2015 - 10:30am

The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted to endorse another batch of aldermanic candidates at last week’s meeting -- but not without a little bit of soul-searching first. Union officials have kept mum about what exactly happened -- as George Schmidt wrote last week in Substance News -- but a number of delegates gave Catalyst Chicago the rundown.

Delegates voted down one candidate who had been recommended by the union’s political action and legislative committee -- Patrick Daley-Thompson (11th Ward), a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, with many questioning why the union would want to be linked with a name synonymous with Chicago machine politics. Instead, delegates proposed and voted to endorse one of Daley’s opponents, Maureen Sullivan. Some frustrated delagates compared the process to the November endorsement of Jesus "Chuy" Garcia for mayor, a last-minute decision that came after CTU President Karen Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumor, effectively ending her own political aspirations.

The House did approve a number of other recommended candidates, including Matt O'Shea (19th); Michael Zalewski (23rd); Rafael Yañez (15th); Chuks Onyezia (18th); and Frank Bass (24th).

Finally, delegates proposed and voted on two additional candidates for endorsement: Ed Hershey (25th), a teacher at Lindblom, and Zerlina Smith (29th), a community activist who helped lead last year’s opt-out movement at Saucedo. (See our story on teachers running for office in our fall In Depth. There was apparently some debate about whether to endorse Hershey because of another progressive, education-focused candidate in that race -- Byron Sigcho. While not a CTU member himself, Sigcho has been a CTU ally with strong community support in Pilsen. Hershey, Sigcho and others -- including a socialist candidate, Jorge Mujica -- are vying to unseat incumbent Danny Solis.

Since November, the CTU has endorsed four other teachers running for aldermanic seats, including Sue Sadlowski-Garza (10th), Tim Meegan (37th), Tara Stamps (27th) and Dianne Daleiden (40th), in addition to others. The CTU’s political arm has contributed $10,000 to the campaigns of Garza, Meegan and Stamps, according to financial reports filed with the state this month.

Meanwhile, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) also endorsed another batch of aldermanic candidates. These include incumbents Patrick O’Conner (40th), Howard Brookins (21st) and Walter Burnett (27th), as well as candidates Elise Doody-Jones (32nd) and James Dukes (17th).

“Our children’s education future is at stake in this election in every ward and neighborhood of this city,” Rebeca Nieves-Huffman, DFER-IL state director, said in a statement. “We are committed to bringing parents, students and teachers together to rally around candidates who will fight to ensure that Chicago can deliver a world-class education to our kids.”

DFER-IL previously endorsed incumbent aldermen Will Burns (4th), Michelle Harris (8th), JoAnn Thompson (16th), and Emma Mitts (37th), in addition to Michael Diaz, a candidate in the 45th Ward. So far, the group has only reported a $500 contribution to Burns.

2. Fixing funding at last?....State School News Service’s Jim Broadway writes that Senate Bill 16, the overhaul of the school funding formula that was percolating last year, has re-emerged, but this time as Senate Bill 1. Senate Bill 1 is still just a title and the details of what state Sen. Andy Manar will propose has yet to be laid out. But last year’s bill sought to address the disparity in school funding by combining nearly all of the state education department’s grant money into the General State Aid formula, a move that ends up increasing state funding for property-poor school districts and cutting the amount for wealthy areas.  

Broadway notes that the only way to prevent well-heeled areas from losing substantial state funding would be to greatly increase the overall money in the GSA pot. “That shouldn't be so difficult in a state as wealthy as ours, especially since Gov. Bruce Rauner pledged as a candidate last year to "restore" the $1 billion he said the schools lost while Gov. Pat Quinn was in office,” writes Broadway. Though Broadway acknowledges the state budget problems will make it hard for Rauner to keep his promise.

Despite those problems, though, the Chicago Tribune tells Rauner to make good on his promise to deliver more money for education. The solution proposed, however, is a little different than Manar’s. In an editorial, the Tribune writes that a lot of money is already flowing into education, but that bureaucracy is bloated. They advocate consolidating school districts and regional offices.

3. Rise in low-income students … We already knew that, for the first time ever, just over half of Illinois students in public schools were considered low-income. It now looks like that’s also true across the country.

Researchers at the Southern Education Foundation found that 51 percent of public school children qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in 2013, a big jump from 38 percent in 2000.

This article in the New York Times -- which includes a telling map of poverty across the country -- clarifies that children who are eligible for these lunches don’t necessarily live in poverty. “Subsidized lunches are available to children from families that earn up to $43,568 for a family of four, which is about 185 percent of the federal poverty level,” Mokoto Rich writes. In addition, the numbers have likely increased because the federal government “now allows schools with a majority of low-income students to offer free lunches to all students, regardless of whether they qualify on an individual basis or not.”

This year, CPS signed onto the program and meals at all schools -- including “well-off” schools -- are free. “Entirely free meals reduce the labor of cash collection and tracking which students have to pay full and reduced prices for their food,” WBEZ reported last fall. “This tiered system (with incentives for schools reporting higher poverty levels) led to fraud among CPS employees in the past.”

4. Extended learning time provides boost… Increasing time spent in the classroom can have a serious effect on achievement for low-performing schools, according to a new report out from the Center for Education Policy. Looking at 17 schools in four states, the report compared different approaches to federal grants that provide incentives for longer school days. Results varied, but most suggested that extended learning time can boost schools in more ways than one. The principal of one school in Oregon, for example, said “everyone is benefiting” from a 30-minute extension to teachers’ workday. A handful of other schools, in Colorado, saw bumps in their graduation rates after extending school hours into the late afternoon.

Still, the report notes, extended learning time brings up some challenges. Most notably, rigid teacher contracts will often become a snag in district efforts to increase classroom time. This was the case in Chicago in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union dug its feet in opposition to the added work hours that came alongside Mayor Emanuel’s extended school day initiative. The union ended up agreeing to a deal in which hours were added to the school day but required time for staff meetings was cut, meaning that teachers would more or less work the same total number of hours.  

5. Higher bar to pass the GED… In 2014, the number of people who took and passed the GED plummeted as the test changed, reportedly to make it more in line with employers' expectations, according to a National Public Radio story. The new test is taken via computer, is more expensive and more difficult. Designers of the new test are hoping that it will carry more weight now that it is harder. But critics are worried that it will take away the second chance that many people desperately need to earn high school credentials

The early numbers show that less than 60,000 passed the GED (the numbers do not include those in prison who took the test). Typically hundreds of thousands take and pass the test, and in 2013, as people rushed to take it before the change, more than 500,000 got the equivalency degree. More than 20,000 people passed the test in Illinois in 2013. The GED Testing Service has yet to post the 2014 annual statistical report.

Defying state, CPS will test just 10 percent of schools

January 16, 2015 - 8:39pm

CPS officials say that the district will go against the state's testing plans and refuse to give all students the controversial new PARCC exam. Spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Friday evening that district leaders plan to have only 10 percent of schools take the PARCC, the new state-mandated test that is geared to the Common Core standards. McCaffrey called it an expanded pilot and said that the schools taking the PARCC will be representative of the entire district.

He said he was not immediately certain of the possible consequences for CPS. State officials, who have insisted that all school districts in Illinois administer the PARCC to all students, said they will continue to work with Chicago.

New Governor Bruce Rauner has not taken a stand on the PARCC or whether the state should go forward with full implementation. Several states that originally said they were going to administer the PARCC have pulled out and now only 11 states are still committed, according to PARCC's website.

“It is a big victory for right now,” said Raise Your Hand’s Wendy Katten. Katten’s group, More than A Score, and other active parents fought diligently against the PARCC. They gathered more than 4,000 signatures on a petition and met with more than 20 legislators.

The parent groups argued that the PARCC is not yet ready to be rolled out, asserting that the test questions are confusing and the test is too long. In general, the groups also are against high-stakes standardized testing.

While the delay is something to celebrate now, Katten said it could be short-lived if the PARCC isn’t improved and the state insists on keeping it for next school year. Katten said her group will continue to push for a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. As it is now, students must refuse the tests themselves. 

Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo Elementary who helped lead a testing boycott last year, said she thinks CPS made the decision because they were afraid that large numbers of parents would have their children opt out.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Teachers Union approved a resolution encouraging teachers to talk to parents about their option to opt their children out of taking the PARCC. Last year, CPS officials threatened teachers who participated in the boycott with disciplinary action, although according to Chambers, none was ever taken.

In October, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett publically announced that she wanted a delay of the PARCC. In the letter, she said that CPS’ pilot of the PARCC last year had “yielded generally positive results.”

The main reason why Byrd-Bennett wrote that she didn’t want to implement the PARCC is that the district planned to continue giving elementary school students the NWEA and high school students the ACT. As they have been for the past few years, the NWEA and the ACT were to be used for district accountability purposes, such as school ratings and promotion.

“The testing demands on students and the burdens on teachers and principals with the addition of the PARCC will be overwhelming,” she wrote in her letter to ISBE.

 However, she had already been told by the state that the district will not be granted a waiver.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch has insisted that the PARCC has been vetted enough. Further, he said the state could face sanctions or other consequences if it does not administer the PARCC. Federal law requires that states administer a test aligned with standards to students. State law requires that students take the PARCC by this school year.

In his weekly message from the first week of January, Koch included a letter from the federal government outlining the consequences that the state could face for not having every district give the same standardized test. The consequences ranged from a letter to financial sanctions.

Still, it is unclear what if anything the state or federal government will do to CPS, considering it is so large. Last year, the state of California took a “snow” year on standardized testing and it was not sanctioned.

Melissa Sanchez contributed to this story.

Take 5: Education assemblies, middle grades to college, Duncan's pro-testing stance

January 15, 2015 - 8:11am

A diverse group of parents, students, teachers and educational activists came together on Wednesday evening to plan what they are calling "education assemblies." Details are still being worked out, but the idea is to hold two assemblies a year and use a democratic process to develop a progressive education platform. Smaller groups would push the agenda between assemblies. They hope to have the first assembly in late spring.

Anton Miglietta, who is co-director of the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Task Force, told the group of about 75 people at Wells High School that other progressive movements, such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, used the same process to determine an agenda and advocate for it. Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia came to the planning meeting for a short time. Other familiar faces were Raise Your Hands’ Wendy Katten, More than a Score’s Cassie Caswell and Ross Floyd, a Jones College Prep student who helped launch the Chicago Students Union. Along with Miglietta, Morrill Principal Michael Beyer and University of Illinois Professor David Stovall are organizers.

Most of the ideas that they talked about were not new. For example, they discussed an elected school board with a voting student, eliminating high stakes testing and no new charter schools.

2. Texting to the rescue… Chicago will launch a 311 texting service this fall sending tips and information to the city’s parents, according to a recent press release from the mayor’s office. The service, called “Connect4Tots,” will give advice to parents on issues from immunization and nutrition to literacy and social services. The city will collaborate with child advocacy group EverThrive Illinois to roll out the service. Connect4Tots will “provide a central place for Chicago parents to receive maternal and child health as well as early childhood education information, in a quick, easy to use, and free manner,” said Janine Lewis, executive director of EverThrive. The messages will come from experts at public institutions  like the Chicago Department of Public Health as well as private groups like Ounce of Prevention and Everthrive.

The service will be modeled on Text4Baby, a nationwide texting network launched in 2010 that now reaches more than 500,000 pregnant women and new mothers with maternity tips.  Services like Text4Baby have been gaining popularity in recent years, and they’re backed by some pretty substantial research. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study last year that found a similar texting service gave a substantial boost to the literacy scores of the children whose families it reached. Also owing to the success of texting services is their extremely low cost: According to the New York Times, they typically cost less than $1 per child, where home visiting programs can run up to $10,000 per household.

3. Hard transitions… Following up on an earlier report, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research  published two briefs last week examining indicators of college readiness in middle school and high school. Among the findings: Middle school attendance is critical to determining whether students are on-track to graduate in high school. Small variations in eighth-grade attendance, the middle school report found, lead to drastic differences in high school on-track records. Students with 96 percent attendance had a 77 percent likelihood of being on track for college by ninth grade, for example, but when attendance drops to 90 percent, that likelihood falls to 44 percent.

Another major takeaway from the study is that the transition from middle school to high school takes a toll on nearly all students: Across the board, attendance drops significantly between those two years. What’s more, the majority of off-track high school students had shown few signs of struggling before they arrived in high school. According to the most recent numbers, 79 percent of high schoolers at-risk of being off-track boasted attendance rates of at least 95 percent in middle school.

4. Ogden anti-Semitic bullying … The bullying of a Jewish student at Ogden Elementary school is in the top 10 of the worst anti-Semitic incidents in the Midwest last year, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish watchdog group. The Chicago Tribune article on the situation said that a group of boys told the student that “he should wear striped pajamas” and that he could be put into an oven. The school talked to the boys and suspended them for a day.

However, the student’s mother told the Tribune that she didn’t think it was enough of a punishment for tormenting her son for an extended period of time. The school also held parent forums on anti-semitism. The Wiesenthal group notes that CPS did not take a strong stand against until the mother went to the media.

5. Duncan wants testing… U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants to replace No Child Left Behind, but keep its hallmark policy: yearly, mandatory high-stakes testing. In an unveiling of the White House’s 2015 education agenda, Duncan gave an urgent defense of standardized testing, saying “parents and teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year toward college and career readiness.” Instead, he harped on NCLB’s punitive treatment of underperforming schools, saying the 2002 law’s replacement should “recognize that schools need more support, more money, more resources than they have today.” The announcement rattled Republican lawmakers as well as teachers unions, who by and large warn that yearly high-stakes testing put too much pressure on students and stifle school curriculums.

Duncan also called for a $2.7 billion increase in federal spending on education, including a $1 billion boost in Title I funding, which is directed at the country’s poorest students. The federal government currently spends about $79 billion annually on education, including $14.4 billion for Title I programs. Duncan said he hopes to join a bipartisan effort to reform national education law, but it’s unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress, with an eye toward scaling back federal intervention, will approve the spending boost. At the same time, Republican efforts to gut yearly standardized testing--beginning with a familiar plan recently proposed by a former GOP education secretary--are likely to die at President Obama’s desk.  






Take 5: Meeks to head state board, college credit classes, principal autonomy

January 12, 2015 - 9:51am

In his first statements after being named chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, Rev. James Meeks said he is open to charters and vouchers, anything that successfully closes the achievement gap. Of course, as chairman of the board of education, he won’t have any real role in passing legislation to get more vouchers or charters.

But if the litmus test is whether they close the achievement gap, that will be hard to prove. Studies have generally shown that students who go to private schools using vouchers show no greater improvement than students who stay in public schools. Charter school results are equally inconclusive with about a third of schools doing better than traditional public schools, a third doing worse and a third doing about the same. As a state senator, Meeks tried, but failed, to get a voucher bill passed. Soon after, a private school run by his church closed its doors.

Of course, Gov. Bruce Rauner supports charter schools and vouchers so that might be a bigger factor than whether they actually close the achievement gap. With Meeks, it also will be interesting to see if he is as strident an advocate for more school funding as he has been in the past. Remember that in 2008 he kept more than 1,000 Chicago students out of school on the first day and took them on a bus to try to enroll them in New Trier High School. That school spends about $30,000 on each student, double what CPS has to spend. Meeks only sent the students back to school when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he wouldn’t meet on the subject until the students went back to school.

2. Lucrative connections? Speaking of Rauner, the Sun-Times digs deep into the business dealings of one member of the new governor’s transition team: former Chicago Public Schools CEO Rob Huberman. Reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes that a company started by Huberman has gotten $200,000 from charter operators he helped before leaving government four years ago.

Huberman launched the company, TeacherMatch LLC, which provides software to help schools screen job applicants, in 2011, and two years later got a boost of nearly $1.9 million from investors, including a private equity firm where he’s also a top executive.

The Noble Network of Charter Schools and United Neighborhood Organization Charter Schools -- both clients of TeacherMatch -- had previously benefitted from Huberman’s tenure as CEO, getting permission to enroll more students at three campuses and approval for new sites. A third charter group that has paid TeacherMatch is Distinctive Schools, which manages some of the Chicago International Charter schools, and whose chairman is involved in a separate business venture with Huberman.

3. Worth the money? The Chicago Tribune raises serious questions about the effectiveness of a state program aimed at developing minority teachers. Illinois has spent more than $20 million in the past decade for the Grow Your Own Teacher program -- which so far has produced only about 80 teachers of color. Another 140 are in the pipeline. When the program was originally funded, state legislatures projected it would graduate about 1,000 teachers by 2016.

Advocates say programs like Grow Your Own Teacher are important, considering that minorities make up more than half of students across Illinois but just 16 percent of teachers. But some critics, like state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, call it “an example of politics still trumping merit, in terms of whether a program warrants continued funding."

One important reason why many recruited candidates never became teachers is a failure to pass the assessment previously known as the Basic Skills Test that’s needed to get into colleges of education. Across all races, passing rates have dropped significantly since the test was revamped in 2010. (The test is blamed in part for the decrease in enrollment in colleges of education.) But white teacher candidates are still twice as likely to pass than their black and Latino counterparts, according to recent data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

4. Dual-enrollment vs AP…. A day after saying that in his second term he wanted to increase the number of high school students taking dual enrollment classes at City Colleges, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he has found private funding for it. GE Transportation, a Chicago-based division of General Electric Company, is offering up a $500,000 investment for the program. City leaders hope to enroll 6,100 CPS students in the program by the 2016-2017 school year, up from 2,481 students enrolled this year and nearly eight times more than when Emanuel took office.

“We have to rethink what senior year of high school is all about,” Emanuel said at a Friday press conference. “It’s got to be a period of preparing kids for their next step in education, whether that means summer internships, or enrolling in a two-year degree program, or applying for college.”

Of course, the big push over the past decade was for students to earn college credit by taking Advanced Placement classes. The number of students taking AP classes went from about 4,000 in 2000 to more than 16,000 in 2013--the last year CPS data is available. But the chronic problem with AP classes is that they are too hard for most students to pass. To earn credit from an AP class students must get a three or above on a test developed by the College Board. Only about a third of CPS students got college credit for their AP classes in 2013.

Dual enrollment classes are basically city college classes and students simply have to meet the requirements to pass that class. According to CPS, about 90 percent of students who take dual enrollment classes pass them. 

Through the years when reporters questioned CPS officials about having so many students take AP classes only to fail them, we were assured that students benefitted from the rigor of the courses, even if they didn’t earn college credit. No one is saying that dual enrollment classes will replace AP classes, but that would seem to be the natural consequence for some students. The question then becomes: Is an easier route to college credit better?

5. Autonomy reality check… As would be expected, the day after Emanuel touted his first-term education performance and laid out what he wants to do in the second term, rivals and critics attacked his rosy picture and questioned his plans. Interestingly, one of the plans taking the most heat is the one to give high-performing principals freedom from district mandates to run their schools.

First off, on a video posted to Mayoral Candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s website, principal activist Troy LaRaviere said that in a survey of principals, 85 percent feel as though they have less autonomy under Emanuel. He said that principals were especially disturbed with regular mandates being handed down by central and network offices. On the survey, one principal said that CPS administration should stop using the term “autonomy” because it is an “illusion.”

“In the end Emanuel’s public comments are a stark contrast to reality,” LaRaviere said on the video.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett insisted that this proposed program was different the previous initiative that ended in 2011 called AMPS or Autonomous Management and Performance Schools. However, she did not give details.

In its critique of Emanuel, the CTU noted that with per-pupil budgeting, principals were supposed to get more autonomy--though their budgets were cut at the same time. Further, they say it is a bad idea to use autonomy as a reward. They note black students made up 18 percent of students in AMPS schools and white students made up 40 percent, yet 40 percent of CPS’ student population is black and 9 percent are white.



 



 

 

 




Emanuel makes big promises for schools in second term

January 8, 2015 - 4:13pm

If elected to a second term, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promises that within three years the graduation rate will go up by 15 points to 85 percent, the number of preschool classrooms will triple to 300 and the senior year of high school will be redesigned to include internships and 6,000 students taking City College classes to earn college credit.

Emanuel also plans to bring back Freshman Connection, a program that was designed to help incoming ninth-graders acclimate to high school; and give principals at good schools freedom from some district mandates. Both these ideas were in place under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Emanuel, who spoke to an invitation-only group of educators, parents and others on Thursday, said he will be leaning on private funders to pay for Freshman Connection, the same approach he took to offer principals merit pay. When that $5 million runs out this year, the principal bonuses may end. 

After Emanuel’s speech, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that instead of merit pay, principals will get more independence. “This is what they want,” she said.

In Emanuel’s speech laying out his prospective second-term education agenda at the Chicago Cultural Center, he did not address any of the more controversial issues that have been part of his first-term agenda. Both of Emanuel’s chief rivals, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, have said they will continue the moratorium on closing schools and will put a halt on opening more charter schools.

Emanuel told the crowd, which included advocates from organizations such as Stand for Illinois, that closing schools was something he did not want to do, but that he needed to get students out of failing schools. Further, he said the debate should not be between charters and neighborhood schools, but rather between quality and lack of quality in any school. He did not say whether or how many charter schools he will open in the next term, nor did he say whether he will close more schools. He instead focused on his plans to continue investing in neighborhood high schools by making sure each student lives within three miles of a school with a specialty, such as International Baccalaureate curriculum; a science, technology, engineering and mathematics program; or career and technical education.

Fioretti noted that CPS recently put out a Request for Proposals for new schools. He said Emanuel does not understand that CPS already has enough choice.

"Everything is good"

As far as paying for his ambitious plan, Emanuel is expecting Springfield to come through with more money--though the state is in dire financial straits--and said he has a better argument for doing so than his predecessors, who had to convince lawmakers that a low-achieving school district needed more resources. Emanuel said he will be able to say that Chicago is going up on every measure, despite not being supported financially.

“We are not falling short anymore,” he said. In recent years, the graduation rate has increased to 69 percent, ACT scores rose and more than double the number of students came to kindergarten ready to learn, according to a random sample of kindergarteners given a readiness test.

When Emanuel was young his parents put his and his brothers’ report cards on the refrigerator, the mayor recalled. “We can post the city’s education report card on the civic refrigerator,” he said.

Not only does Emanuel think Springfield should provide schools more money given that Illinois has one of the worst track records for funding education, but he also rallied against the current pension funding system. Currently, Chicagoans pay for the Chicago teachers’ pension through the property tax and then pay for the pensions of all teachers in the state through the income tax. “The inequity must end,” he said.

Fioretti took issue with Emanuel’s numbers, saying the mayor was massaging the numbers and that they don’t ring true with people when he goes out to the community. Fioretti especially said that schools that took in students from closed schools remain in bad shape. Calls to Garcia’s campaign and Willie Wilson’s campaign were not immediately returned.

Take 5: Rahm's early childhood non-news and competing PARCC letters

January 8, 2015 - 7:58am

Seven weeks ahead of Chicago’s mayoral election -- and about a week after his campaign started airing commercials touting his record on early childhood education -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a press conference Tuesday to announce federal funding for the city’s Head Start programs. But it was hard to find the news: Yes, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did send the city a check for the preschool program, but it has done that every year and for more than a decade the funding has been pretty stable. Also, the city knew it was getting the funding for weeks.

The difference this time, the mayor’s office says, is that Chicago is promised $600 million over five years and will no longer have to compete every year for it. The mayor’s office even provided a glowing letter from HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell addressed to Emanuel. But again, HHS is shifting to five year cycles for every grantee, except for the most troubled of operators.

Either way, the mayor said the funding would be a crucial step forward in his goal to provide “universal” preschool for 4-year-olds citywide -- though it’s questionable how universal the goal really is. “The role model [for early childcare] will no longer be expensive babysitting--it’ll be a strong foundation of public education across the city,” he said during the press conference, after playing Bingo with a group of toddlers.

As an added political bonus, Ounce of Prevention Fund president and incoming Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner spoke at the presser, at Emanuel’s invitation. Rauner said the pursuit of expanded early childhood education would rely on “innovative public-private relationships” and strong collaboration between Springfield and City Hall.

Not to be left out, a group of community organizations and unions will hold their own press conference today to set the record straight on the federal dollars and Emanuel’s record on early childhood education. They’ll point out that enrollment in school-based preschool has actually fallen over the past two years following changes in the application process and new requirements regarding income reporting.

2. New community college operator… Loyola University Chicago will establish a special two-year college program for the city’s poorest students, Crain’s Chicago Business reports. An effort to buoy the city’s meager college graduation rates, Arrupe College will accommodate 400 students on the university’s Water Tower campus, Loyola's President Rev. Michael Garanzini said in his September State of the University address. The plan is for students to commute to campus and take classes on a work-study basis, leading them to a diploma within two years without incurring student debt. Supporters hope the project will be a step toward Chicago Public Schools’ goal of a 60 percent college graduation rate by 2025.

Time will tell if Loyola, a private Jesuit school that boasts a 70 percent graduation rate, can create an option preferable to the City Colleges of Chicago, whose graduation rates range from 6 to 22 percent. About 15 percent of CPS grads enrolled in a City College campus in 2013.

3. The battle of the PARCC letters… Right before Christmas, a group of seven lawmakers, including Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and State Senator Heather Steans, wrote to State Superintendent Christopher Koch to ask him to make a formal request to the U.S. Department of Education to delay the PARCC.

As you will remember, parent activists in Chicago and some superintendents have been waging a battle to get the state to put off the implementation of the PARCC, which is a new state assessment that is aligned with the Common Core standards. Some worry that the PARCC, which is shifting away from multiple choice and includes more complicated questions, is not ready to be rolled out and that too many school districts lack the technology to implement a computer-based test.

The lawmakers wrote they are concerned that the PARCC is too long, that it has not been sufficiently field tested and that it will interfere with AP and ACT exams in high schools.

But, in his weekly message dated January 6, Koch includes a letter from the Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle laying out the consequences if the state does not have every student take an assessment this year to comply with federal accountability laws. She says that the state could allow school districts to implement a variety of tests, but that they would each have to meet a high bar of showing that they meet the state’s standards and are comparable. Also, she warns that if the state fails to give an assessment to students it could face multiple consequences, including increased monitoring or a cease and desist order.

Note, Delisle does not mention the PARCC because federal law does not specify what test states must give to students. However, Illinois is committed to giving the PARCC because a state law requires that Illinois give a Common Core test by the 2014-2015 school year.

4. Testing the Congress… The hot debate over the PARCC in Illinois is similar to what is playing out in states across the country. Because of the push to lessen the number of standardized tests given to students, national education experts are expecting Congress to finally make some headway on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, according to Education Week. It is ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind, that requires states to test students every year from third grade on and also implements harsh punishments, like turnovers and closures, for schools not meeting benchmarks. However, it is unclear if Congress can create a bipartisan bill that will be acceptable to President Barack Obama.

Education Week also predicts that the next Congress, now controlled by Republicans, will try to pass a bill to increase access to charter schools and will try to rewrite the rewrite the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which governs the largest federal program for high schools.

On a related note, NPR says the biggest education story of 2015 will be continued scrutiny on testing and the implementation of the Common Core standards. Also, they predict the other big stories will be teacher evaluation and scrutiny on school police as part of the Ferguson fallout.

5. Superintendent pay-out…. The Chicago Tribune looks into how some suburban school districts have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to hire close to a half-dozen different superintendents since 2001. In one extreme case, the Bellwood School District 88 hired the same superintendent three times for the job, even after she’d successfully sued and gotten a $75,000 settlement.

Tribune reporter Angela Caputo, who makes her debut on the newspaper’s investigative team after leaving our sister publication, The Chicago Reporter, writes that the revolving door to the superintendent’s office “undermines a district's stability and pulls away resources from students. Or as one expert aptly sums up, "If the board is paying their salary and the new superintendent and maybe even a previous superintendent, that's a big hit. How many teachers could have been paid? How many school books could have been bought?"

For its part, Chicago is on its fifth chief executive officer since 2001, but now CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has been at the helm for more than two years.

 

 



Take 5: Catching up on the news

January 5, 2015 - 9:00am

CPS leaders are open to handing over the education of the district’s most troubled, vulnerable students to private entities, putting out a Request for Proposals last week that asked for vendors to apply to serve students considered at risk of dropping out who are as young as 6th grade.

“We have been struggling with this population and we are looking for experienced providers to help us,” said Jack Esley, chief of the Office of Incubation and Innovation, in a press call last week.

That the district is looking to open what are essentially alternative schools for middle-grades students is likely to raise some eyebrows. Esley says district leaders have no idea if there is a private company that has been successful with this age group. “That is what the RFP is for,” he said.

But as many as 9,000 middle grades students are in such academic trouble that CPS officials think they need early dropout prevention. About 900 of them—and this might be first time CPS has identified middle school dropouts--are labeled “transfer within district” or “unable to locate” and they never reenroll. The rest are basically failing with less than a 1.0 GPA and attendance of less than 80 percent.

The district also wants to explore creating some new third-party programs for the 2,000-some students forced to enter high school without graduating from eighth grade. Ever since the district established a strict promotion policy in the late 1990s, it has been confronted with the problem of students who didn’t meet the criteria to graduate eighth grade but are over 15 and therefore must leave elementary school.

At first, CPS had small schools for these students, then a special program within high schools. Both had mixed results. For the past few years, there has been no program and the students were just sent to high school.

Esley said district officials had a lot of discussion about lessons they can learn from failed attempts at serving these students.

2. Expanding private operators… CPS also is asking for proposals for new charter/contract schools, Dyett High School and for current providers to expand. This year, the general new school RFP is for schools to fill what CPS calls “under represented programmatic designs.” These are identified as dual language, arts integration, humanities focused and something called Next Generation models, which incorporate “personalized, blended learning.”

CPS also would like more schools to serve the 27,000 students who are either short of credits needed to graduate on time--what are called young and far or old and far--or have dropped out, but only need a few credits to get a diploma. Under CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, there has been a major expansion of these schools, but CPS still only has 11,584 seats for available. These schools could either be charter schools, contract schools or run as Alternative Opportunities Programs.

Existing charter and contract schools only have to submit business plans and not full proposals.As has happened in the past, Neighborhood Advisory Councils will be formed to recommend new schools, though board members have final say and have in the past ignored the direction of community councils.

Public hearings will be held in August and the board will vote on recommended proposals at their October 2015 meeting. Approved new schools will open in the Fall of 2016. CPS leaders had already announced that no new schools would be approved this year for Fall 2015.

3. Pricey school for rich kids?… Disputed cost overruns with a politically connected contractor could drive the final price tag for  Jones College Prep to $127 million -- that is, $13 million more than expected. The Sun-Times reports that the city is bracing for a court fight with Walsh Construction, which submitted the extra bills related to the steel structure and accelerated construction over the summer. The Public Building Commission of Chicago rejected the claims and set aside money for legal fees in preparation for a possible lawsuit.

Jones College Prep -- a selective enrollment school in the South Loop -- is already the most expensive public high school ever built in the city, the Sun-Times notes. Construction for the new school was financed with the always-controversial tax-increment financing.

Also, last week, cpsobsessed.org published data showing that 44 percent of the students admitted to Jones this year were from the highest income of the four tiers that make up the framework of the selective admissions process. Students from the highest income tier can claim more seats by claiming a large number of the 30 percent awarded solely through rank order of test scores (which remain strongly tied to income).

The selective enrollment high schools on the South and West sides of the city--Brooks, King, Westinghouse and Lindblom--tend to have a disproportionate number of students from the second to the highest income tier or tier 3.

4. Quazzo investigation… Right before Christmas, the Chicago Sun-Times published an investigation that showed that in the mere year and a half since Deborah Quazzo was appointed to the School Board, companies in which she is a major investor have tripled their business with CPS, raking in an additional $2.9 million. Some of the companies, the Sun-Times notes, are selling programs to schools for just $1 under the $25,000 threshold that would require board approval. Soon after the revelation, the Sun Times called for her resignation and the inspector general has opened an investigation.

Quazzo is big investor in what are called EdTech firms, which provide individual schools with ACT prep or online instruction in reading writing or math. The EdTech industry is reportedly exploding.

While it is not clear whether Quazzo has done anything wrong (and she insists she hasn’t), Morrill Principal Michael Beyer writes in an opinion piece in the Huffington Post that it is the type of company she promotes that is problematic. “I have yet to find independent scientific research proving any software is equal to or better than other non-digital teaching strategies,” writes Beyer. What’s more, many of these companies promise “personalized learning” with one even telling a group of educators that the software is “Montessori on steriods.” “I thought at the time, `Why not just do Montessori? Why do we need steroids?’” Beyer writes.

5. Recouping money… Not letting up on its earlier investigation into CPS’s risky bond deals, the Chicago Tribune reported on other bodies that have succeeded in “clawing back losses, with banks repaying millions of dollars to governments that issued the same kind of problematic auction-rate debt Chicago’s school system did.” The story notes that many governments’ claims are still in progress, including cities ranging from Houston and Reno, Nev., to a Florida school district. "If we had not pursued it, we would have never gotten anything," RoseMarie Reno, the outgoing treasurer of a California hospital district, told the Tribune. That hospital district secured a $4.5 million settlement to help cover its losses on auction-rate securities last year.

CPS told the Tribune it’s reviewing the litigation in other parts of the country “to determine if other options are available,” while noting that it had previously reviewed the transaction “and determined there is no avenue for arbitration.”

In another story, the Trib also wrote about a new federally mandated test for advisors who guide government borrowers -- and whether it’ll actually be enough to tests advisors’ ability to evaluate “the burdensome derivative deals that helped Congress to set the standards in the first place.”

 

 

 





Inspector Gen'l. report: Major financial fraud, abuse of selective admissions

January 5, 2015 - 5:00am

Over the past five years, a CPS employee who worked at two struggling high schools milked them of almost $900,000 in a large, multi-faceted purchasing and reimbursement scam, according to today’s release of the Inspector General’s annual report.

Also, the inspector general report details incidents in which parents falsified their addresses to make it easier for their children to get into selective high schools; and cases in which two high schools mis-categorized dropouts to improve their graduation rates.

The employee accused of the fraud scheme resigned from CPS under investigation and is designated as "Do Not Hire." The inspector general’s office has been working with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, but no arrests have been made yet.

The report does not name the schools involved, but sources have identified them to Catalyst as Gage Park and Michele Clark.

While this is one of the largest, if not the largest single scheme in the district's recent history, just two years ago, Lakeview High School’s technology coordinator was found dead after being accused carrying out a similiar scheme. In both cases, the employees worked with associates to funnel money to companies for goods and services that the schools never received, and the scheme was carried for years without being noticed.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says that CPS “continues to evaluate its procurement processes to increase safeguards and adopt best practices to prevent these occurrences.”

But for several years, the inspector general’s office has been encouraging CPS to provide more resources the internal audit and the inspector general’s office, noting that CPS contracts are lucrative and thousands of people in schools have the authority to request and approve payments to vendors.

This case was flagged during a financial audit, which led to the Inspector General’s report.

In the report, IG Nicholas Schuler notes that his office was able to investigate only 20 percent of the complaints received. The office is limited because it is often investigating big, complex issues and has a small staff of only 13 investigators, plus Schuler and his deputy, to scrutinize the $6 billion school district with 41,000-some employees.

By contrast, Houston Independent has 20 professionals to investigate a school district that is half the size of CPS. In 2011, the IG report noted that Chicago has one inspector for every 2,300 employees, while Cook County has one inspector for every 1,100 employees and the city's municipal government has an inspector for every 455 workers.

“The inability to investigate more complaints creates a substantial risk that instances of fraud and employee misconduct go undetected,” he writes.

In an interview, Schuler added: “We are undersized and understaffed compared to other IGs in the area.”

Fraud at two high schools

Employee records show that the administrator who orchestrated the fraud in question worked at Gage Park High from 2002 to 2012. In 2012, he made $104,000. In the 2013 employee roster, he shows up as a 0.5 (half-time) position at both Clark and Gage Park, with an annual salary of $109,168.

Gage Park High School has seen its enrollment drop by more than 70 percent in the past five years. This summer, when teachers got wind of the investigation, they were outraged.

“We are sinking and nobody cares,” Susan Steinmiller, a 23-year veteran teacher and a representative on the local school council, said this summer. “We have no newspaper, no library, no band, why would anyone want to be here?... I am just really upset because we really need the money.”

In September, however, Gage Park’s principal abruptly retired and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett hand-picked the principal’s replacement. Byrd- Bennett has said she is personally invested in the revitalization of the school.

According to the IG’s report, the principals of the two high schools did not seem aware of the scheme. But they did put a lot of trust in this one particular employee and one of them gave him their password to the district's IT system, which helped facilitate the fraud.
Still, questions remain about how so much money could be paid for such an extended period of time without coming to attention of school or district leadership.

The employee used a variety of methods to siphon money to himself. But the majority of the scheme was carried out by engineering payment to a number of companies for more than $700,000 in goods and services that were never delivered to the schools. The Inspector General’s report confirms that the CPS employee in question received at least $100,000 in kickbacks from one of the deals and indicates that the office suspects he received much more.

“In addition to the large cut that Business Owner 4 was keeping, the OIG could not eliminate the possibility that Business Owner 3 or Business Owner 4 kicked back portions of the $581,947 to Employee A, who made over $122,000 in cash deposits—usually round amounts—during this scheme,” according to the inspector general report.

The employee also steered false reimbursements to three of his CPS colleagues and, in at least one case, had the bulk of money given back to him in cash.

The employee also participated in "stringing," meaning that purchases were distributed to several companies in order to avoid the non-competitive purchasing limits of $10,000.

Beyond the Gage Park case, several incidents of stringing were identified in the Inspector General report and it has been a consistent problem noted in previous reports. At another high school, the school operations manager strung together purchases for office supplies among four businesses and got kickbacks from the companies. The employee was laid off and is designated as Do Not hire.

In two other situations, companies tried to promote "stringing" to schools by getting multiple vendor numbers and advertising the fact that they have them to schools.

Schuler says CPS needs to do a better job of informing operations managers and clerks about stringing and the fact that it is illegal. Also, he acknowledges that some stringing may be done to avoid paperwork or to speed up purchasing.

The report also points to several individual incidents of fraud or ethics violations. One of them, in which two teachers also work as police officers, is not a violation. The IG is recommending that CPS look into making it one.

Dropouts, selective admissions

The inspector also honed in on two high schools, linked by a common administrator, that wrongly labeled a few hundred students as transfers to GED programs or verified transfers, but without confirming them. The report concludes that these students should have been labeled as dropouts or “unable to locate.”

It is unclear whether correctly labeling these students, which as far as the IG knows never happened, would have lowered CPS’ graduation rate—which, at 69 percent, is regularly touted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a major accomplishment. Also, many more schools may be miscoding students, as the IG only focused on the two high schools where there were complaints.

None of the three school administrators in this case have been disciplined as recommended by the Inspector General, and one of them has been promoted.

Meanwhile, parents, including some who are CPS employees, got themselves into trouble this past year for falsifying their addresses in order to give their children an edge in getting into selective enrollment high schools--confirming suspicions  that parents would try to game the admissions system that now relies on neighborhood and family socioeconomic characteristics rather than primarily on race, as under the former desegregation decree.

According to CPS, last year, 16,000 students applied for 3,200 selective enrollment seats.

Schuler says his office has looked into individual cases of abuses in the past, but wanted to take a hard look at it this year.

“Everyone in the city is trying to get these seats,” he says. “They are highly sought after and we want to make sure the process is fair and honest.”

McCaffrey says that parents should be aware that district leaders are taking misrepresentation seriously and working to try to prevent it. “This may include future audits of students in selective enrollment schools,” he says.

Schuler's office found12 cases in which parents provided false addresses that would put them in a better position to land a seat; and, in half of those cases, the parents worked for CPS. Schuler says that this is by no means the full scope of the problem, but that his office looked for particular “red flags” and this was the result of that review. In addition, he says the fact that CPS employees tried to cheat the system is particularly egregious.

In two of the cases, the students would have gotten into the selective enrollment high school even if their parents had used their true address. Those students were allowed to continue attending the school and the parents weren’t subjected to any discipline.

However, eight students were dis-enrolled, one student withdrew on their own and another one was allowed to stay because she was going into her senior year. Four of the employees were either fired or resigned.

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