Catalyst Chicago

Subscribe to Catalyst Chicago feed
Stories and items from the Catalyst Chicago Front Page
Updated: 32 min 24 sec ago

Comings and Goings: Husbands

September 11, 2014 - 10:01am

Jennifer Husbands was recently named founding executive director of Schools that Can (STC) Chicago. STC unites leaders to expand quality urban education, and connects leaders from urban schools with leaders from outside organizations and industry to share innovative practices that advance school improvement. In her new role, Husbands will build and strengthen the Chicago network and lead specific cross-city initiatives. Previously, she was the inaugural director of the Academy for Urban School Leadership Institute (AUSL).

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

Take 5: Academic rigor, Rauner education plan, New York charter face-off

September 11, 2014 - 8:39am

For a long time now, rigor has been a buzzword in education and it's one reason Common Core standards were developed and pushed. But a key finding in a new brief released Thursday is that making classes harder won’t work unless teachers get more support around student engagement and classroom control. “Without concurrent efforts around helping teachers maintain classroom order and student engagement in the more difficult work, Common Core could ultimately lead to worse outcomes for students, particularly in already low-achieving schools,” says report lead author Elaine Allensworth in a press release. The Sun Times wrote a story on the brief.

Among those potential negative outcomes: students can disengage or act out when asked to do more challenging assignments, leading to lower grades and more failures.

CCSR found that high school students made the biggest gains on the EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT assessments in orderly and challenging classrooms; at the same time, order becomes harder to maintain as the work gets more challenging, particularly with low-achieving students. The researchers conclude that teachers need more support to develop strategies around classroom management and engaging students --and not just  professional development in curriculum content.

2. Sleeping in… At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Ald. Margaret Laurino submitted a resolution that calls for hearings on whether city high schools and middle schools should shift their start times back, according to DNAinfo. New research from the American Association of Pediatrics shows that it is unnatural for teenagers to go to sleep early and wake up early. Teens forced to get to school early could have physical and mental health problems and also are more prone to get into auto accidents and have poor academic performance.

Early start times are likely even worse for Chicago high school students. With more two-thirds not attending their neighborhood high school, many are traveling for an hour or more to get to school. However, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the studies findings inconclusive and too preliminary.

Also, at the City Council meeting, Emanuel introduced legislation that would make students under 18 subject to the city’s curfew laws. This would mean that 17 year olds, like their younger counterparts, would have to be inside by 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday and by 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

3. In the details… Gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner outlined his education plan on Monday, though as the Tribune article points out it does not get specific. He says he would put more money into schools, but he criticizes the way the state funds schools,calling the current method “a disaster.” However, he doesn’t say how his administration would change it. He’d figure that out once he discusses with lawmakers.

The other parts of the plan--increasing the cap on charter schools, getting rid of tenure and merit pay for teachers--are not really surprising or new. Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, is quoted as calling Rauner’s plan “a Greatest Hits of failed education experiments.”

4. Top of what… In addition to its annual ranking of high schools, Newsweek put out a second list of this year called the “Beating the Odds” list. This attempts to rank schools on how well they do with low-income students on a number of factors from attrition to AP and ACT/SAT scores. Northside College Prep is the top CPS school, coming in at No. 7, with Jones at No. 44 and Lane at No. 67.

These rankings always seem a bit disingenuous because it compares schools regardless of whether they are schools that get students of all different levels or schools that students must apply and test into, such as the ones in Chicago. As you know, it is extremely hard to get into Northside Prep and the other selective enrollments. Also, keep in mind that these schools have extraordinarily low numbers of poor students compared to the rest of the city. Northside, for example, does not reflect the population of the city schools at all. In a city whose public schools are 85 percent low-income, 40 percent black and 45 percent Latino, only 37 percent of Northside’s students get free and reduced lunch, 9 percent are black and a quarter are Latino.

5. New York’s face off… As Chicago gears up for what could be an epic battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CTU President Karen Lewis, it is interesting to think that another such confrontation could be brewing in New York. The New York Times Magazine features a profile of charter school maven Eva Moskowitz, who Bill de Blasio has taken aim at since he took over New York City. Not to ruin the ending, but Moskowitz says she is considering taking on de Blasio in the next election.

The article lays out why there is so much conflict between de Blasio, union teachers and Moskowitz. Moskowitz runs the city’s largest charter school network. According to the article, her Success Charter School Network are “performing phenomenally.” In 2014, standardized tests put her schools in the top 1 percent of all state schools. However, de Blasio sees her schools as taking resources from all city schools to only education a few. “He talks about how all children must be saved.”

Success Schools are big on discipline and uniforms, like many of the charter school networks in Chicago. But Moskowitz also wants teachers to talk less during student discussions and wants teachers to work with students read deeply and dissect literature. The criticism with the most staying power, according to the article, is the “overly heated” preparation for exams.



Grassroots and union activists urge universal preschool in Chicago

September 9, 2014 - 3:47pm

As New York City rolls out an ambitious plan to offer free full-day prekindergarten for tens of thousands of 4-year-olds this fall, community activists and union members in Chicago say it’s time for universal early childhood education and child care in the Windy City.

Calling their campaign “Bright Future Chicago,” the groups say the city needs to find creative ways to finance the expansion of existing preschool and daycare programs – and extending the hours – so that parents can work full-time while their children under 5 years old are in a safe learning environment.

“The city needs to do something for us working parents,” said Hellen Juarez, a single mom and paralegal who is a parent leader with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “I pay $700 a month for my 2-year-old to be in day care. That’s a rent payment. How is that affordable?”

At a press conference this morning in City Hall, a handful of progressive aldermen who support the new campaign said they’ll present a resolution on Wednesday requesting a public hearing to discuss what it will take to offer full-day preschool and childcare in the city. Supporters have suggested financing the expansion with a new tax on financial transactions at Chicago’s stock exchanges.

“We want to have a hearing and talk about why it’s important to offer full-day pre-kindergarten and how we can pay for it,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer of the 6th Ward. “I’m not saying the LaSalle Street tax or interest rate swaps are the end-all, be-all of what we’re going to do, but it’s worth a conversation.”

The organizations involved in the campaign include the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Pilsen Alliance, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Action Now, Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare Illinois.

Their campaign comes barely a month after Emanuel announced a plan to provide an additional 1,500 preschool slots for low-income 4-year-olds by next year, a goal he has described as “universal pre-K for every child at poverty.”

“Mayor Emanuel agrees that every child should have access to high-quality pre-school, which is why he has already committed to ensuring every 4-year-old from a low-income family will be offered free pre-school within a year,” a spokesman for the mayor said in a statement on Tuesday. “Throughout his time in office, Mayor Emanuel has prioritized ensuring every child in every neighborhood has a quality education that allows them to succeed, through early learning programs, a full day of kindergarten, a full school day and a full school year.”

The Mayor’s Office and CPS reached the 1,500 figure by subtracting the total number of 4-year-olds served in one of the city’s school- or center-based programs from the total number of children of that age who are considered at poverty level according to U.S. Census estimates.

Preschool spending on decline in Illinois

The challenges of providing early education opportunities to children aren’t unique to Chicago. As a state, Illinois has cut back spending on preschool programs by more than 25 percent, according to a recent report by Voices for Illinois Children.

To offset some of the loss, Emanuel pledged $36 million in additional funding over three years, starting in 2012 for his Ready to Learn initiative.

As part of Ready to Learn, the city also centralized its application process for early childhood programs, which are administered by the Department of Family Support and Services and CPS. The goal was to prioritize the high-poverty areas of the city with the most need. But parents struggled to navigate the new process and complained that it was harder to access preschools in their neighborhoods, which ultimately led to an enrollment drop of about 1,000 4-year-olds.

Parents and organizers say that while they’re glad the mayor is trying to expand the number of available seats, that it’s still not enough. True universal preschool, they say, would apply to all children, not just the poorest. Juarez, for example, says she doesn’t qualify for state childcare subsidies. In addition, recent studies including one by the Latino Policy Forum have found that there simply aren’t enough available slots at existing preschool programs in some densely populated Latino neighborhoods, such as Brighton Park or Belmont-Cragin.

And a recent report by Voices for Illinois Children showed that just 53 percent of Chicago’s 3- and 4-year-olds attended some sort of preschool, with the lowest participation rates in the heavily Latino Northwest and Southwest sides.

Grassroots and union activists urge universal preschool in Chicago

September 9, 2014 - 3:47pm

As New York City rolls out an ambitious plan to offer free full-day prekindergarten for tens of thousands of 4-year-olds this fall, community activists and union members in Chicago say it’s time for universal early childhood education and child care in the Windy City.

Calling their campaign “Bright Future Chicago,” the groups say the city needs to find creative ways to finance the expansion of existing preschool and daycare programs – and extending the hours – so that parents can work full-time while their children under 5 years old are in a safe learning environment.

“The city needs to do something for us working parents,” said Hellen Juarez, a single mom and paralegal who is a parent leader with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “I pay $700 a month for my 2-year-old to be in day care. That’s a rent payment. How is that affordable?”

At a press conference this morning in City Hall, a handful of progressive aldermen who support the new campaign said they’ll present a resolution on Wednesday requesting a public hearing to discuss what it will take to offer full-day preschool and childcare in the city. Supporters have suggested financing the expansion with a new tax on financial transactions at Chicago’s stock exchanges.

“We want to have a hearing and talk about why it’s important to offer full-day pre-kindergarten and how we can pay for it,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer of the 6th Ward. “I’m not saying the LaSalle Street tax or interest rate swaps are the end-all, be-all of what we’re going to do, but it’s worth a conversation.”

The organizations involved in the campaign include the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Pilsen Alliance, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Action Now, Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare Illinois.

Their campaign comes barely a month after Emanuel announced a plan to provide an additional 1,500 preschool slots for low-income 4-year-olds by next year, a goal he has described as “universal pre-K for every child at poverty.”

“Mayor Emanuel agrees that every child should have access to high-quality pre-school, which is why he has already committed to ensuring every 4-year-old from a low-income family will be offered free pre-school within a year,” a spokesman for the mayor said in a statement on Tuesday. “Throughout his time in office, Mayor Emanuel has prioritized ensuring every child in every neighborhood has a quality education that allows them to succeed, through early learning programs, a full day of kindergarten, a full school day and a full school year.”

The Mayor’s Office and CPS reached the 1,500 figure by subtracting the total number of 4-year-olds served in one of the city’s school- or center-based programs from the total number of children of that age who are considered at poverty level according to U.S. Census estimates.

Preschool spending on decline in Illinois

The challenges of providing early education opportunities to children aren’t unique to Chicago. As a state, Illinois has cut back spending on preschool programs by more than 25 percent, according to a recent report by Voices for Illinois Children.

To offset some of the loss, Emanuel pledged $36 million in additional funding over three years, starting in 2012 for his Ready to Learn initiative.

As part of Ready to Learn, the city also centralized its application process for early childhood programs, which are administered by the Department of Family Support and Services and CPS. The goal was to prioritize the high-poverty areas of the city with the most need. But parents struggled to navigate the new process and complained that it was harder to access preschools in their neighborhoods, which ultimately led to an enrollment drop of about 1,000 4-year-olds.

Parents and organizers say that while they’re glad the mayor is trying to expand the number of available seats, that it’s still not enough. True universal preschool, they say, would apply to all children, not just the poorest. Juarez, for example, says she doesn’t qualify for state childcare subsidies. In addition, recent studies including one by the Latino Policy Forum have found that there simply aren’t enough available slots at existing preschool programs in some densely populated Latino neighborhoods, such as Brighton Park or Belmont-Cragin.

And a recent report by Voices for Illinois Children showed that just 53 percent of Chicago’s 3- and 4-year-olds attended some sort of preschool, with the lowest participation rates in the heavily Latino Northwest and Southwest sides.

Walking a financial tightrope through college

September 9, 2014 - 12:00am

In 2006, the Consortium for Chicago School Research issued a report that sent shock waves through the Chicago Public Schools system. The discovery that somewhere between only 6.5 and 8% of CPS students graduated from four-year colleges (and only 2% of African-American boys) was a call to action. 

Subsequent follow-up reports pinpointed some of the “potholes” on the road to college, despite the almost universal aspiration, across all racial and ethnic groups, to attend college. There was enough blame to go around, targeting schools, parents and communities, as well as the colleges themselves. And there was enough room for a variety of constructive approaches to improving the track record on each of these fronts, from the creation of freshman on-track indicators that would help raise high school graduation rates, to the establishment of mentoring programs to provide the personal support many students need to keep their eyes on the valuable prize of college graduation.

It is these mentoring programs that I want to focus on because they offer some strong prospects of success for students as they face obstacles that can only be overcome with support beyond their own capacities. The task for these programs is two-fold: getting students accepted into colleges that match their level of potential and from which the odds of graduating are in their favor; and keeping them in school despite the potholes that threaten to derail them. 

In recent years, these programs include:

The Network for College Success—working inside CPS schools to support leadership teams in each school that create a college readiness environment for students.

Umoja—a veteran in the work of leadership development among students, aimed at improving their chances of success as college students.

Bottom Line—a new arrival in town, with an impressive track record in New York and Boston on both college admission and college completion.

Schools like Noble Street and North Lawndale Charter Prep, which have developed strong databases for tracking their alums and brainstorming solutions to overcoming obstacles to graduation.

AIM HIGH—the program I am most closely involved with, built on a unique model of pairing students with teams of mentors from the corporate world who stay with them from their freshman year of high school all the way to college graduation.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather a sampling of the variety of work being done in this area. I am sure there is other valuable work under way of which I’m unaware, and the problem is so monumental that there is room for many more willing participants. 

Bottom line is economic inequity

Whatever the particular design strategy, all of these programs are wrestling with problems that reflect the fundamental inequities of our economic system. The low-income students who represent the vast majority of those in CPS are operating without the safety net that is invisible to most middle-class families—so invisible that they recognize it as little as fish recognize the medium of water that sustains them. 

Much of my work with AIM HIGH involves the almost inevitable financial shortfalls that our students encounter. These shortfalls block their ability to register for classes at the beginning of the term or, most unjust, prevent them from receiving their transcripts when they decide to transfer schools. These debts, often as small as three-figure sums, would be resolved in middle-class families with a call home providing access to a fatigued credit card—the kind that most low-income families don’t even possess. Any new strain on the finances of a student or a family already struggling to provide for basic needs—an unexpected medical bill, a costly car repair, an increase in dormitory costs, an unanticipated medical bill—is sufficient to lead students to drop out or take a leave from school, from which they are unlikely to return.

Colleges themselves must provide help

All mentoring programs have to face the question of how these inevitable shortfalls are going to be addressed. Part of the answer lies with the colleges themselves, many of which have demonstrated admirable social consciousness by seeking out low-income students of color in an effort to diversify their student bodies, but have not provided the resources to keep those students heading toward graduation. 

They have an obligation to set aside the modest sums that will help students who have made good-faith efforts to meet their debts, but have encountered insurmountable obstacles. The failure to do so places these students in jeopardy of leaving school with no degree and a burden of debt that puts them in a worse position than if they had never entered college at all.

In one recent situation faced by a student, the university sent this debt to a collection agency, with which she is now forced to deal, unprepared though she may be to deal with the often predatory practices of these agencies. Heartlessness should not be the trademark of an institution which pretends to play a high-minded role in our society.

These low-income students are a precious resource. They have the potential to bring new skills and commitments to their home communities and to the entire society. The existing mentoring programs can go a long way in accompanying them to their goal, but they need help with the deep-seated financial obstacles that stand in their way.

Marv Hoffman, now retired, was the associate director of the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago. Prior to that he was the Founding Director of the University of Chicago Charter School—North Kenwood Oakland Campus.

Walking a financial tightrope through college

September 9, 2014 - 12:00am

In 2006, the Consortium for Chicago School Research issued a report that sent shock waves through the Chicago Public Schools system. The discovery that somewhere between only 6.5 and 8% of CPS students graduated from four-year colleges (and only 2% of African-American boys) was a call to action. 

Subsequent follow-up reports pinpointed some of the “potholes” on the road to college, despite the almost universal aspiration, across all racial and ethnic groups, to attend college. There was enough blame to go around, targeting schools, parents and communities, as well as the colleges themselves. And there was enough room for a variety of constructive approaches to improving the track record on each of these fronts, from the creation of freshman on-track indicators that would help raise high school graduation rates, to the establishment of mentoring programs to provide the personal support many students need to keep their eyes on the valuable prize of college graduation.

It is these mentoring programs that I want to focus on because they offer some strong prospects of success for students as they face obstacles that can only be overcome with support beyond their own capacities. The task for these programs is two-fold: getting students accepted into colleges that match their level of potential and from which the odds of graduating are in their favor; and keeping them in school despite the potholes that threaten to derail them. 

In recent years, these programs include:

The Network for College Success—working inside CPS schools to support leadership teams in each school that create a college readiness environment for students.

Umoja—a veteran in the work of leadership development among students, aimed at improving their chances of success as college students.

Bottom Line—a new arrival in town, with an impressive track record in New York and Boston on both college admission and college completion.

Schools like Noble Street and North Lawndale Charter Prep, which have developed strong databases for tracking their alums and brainstorming solutions to overcoming obstacles to graduation.

AIM HIGH—the program I am most closely involved with, built on a unique model of pairing students with teams of mentors from the corporate world who stay with them from their freshman year of high school all the way to college graduation.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather a sampling of the variety of work being done in this area. I am sure there is other valuable work under way of which I’m unaware, and the problem is so monumental that there is room for many more willing participants. 

Bottom line is economic inequity

Whatever the particular design strategy, all of these programs are wrestling with problems that reflect the fundamental inequities of our economic system. The low-income students who represent the vast majority of those in CPS are operating without the safety net that is invisible to most middle-class families—so invisible that they recognize it as little as fish recognize the medium of water that sustains them. 

Much of my work with AIM HIGH involves the almost inevitable financial shortfalls that our students encounter. These shortfalls block their ability to register for classes at the beginning of the term or, most unjust, prevent them from receiving their transcripts when they decide to transfer schools. These debts, often as small as three-figure sums, would be resolved in middle-class families with a call home providing access to a fatigued credit card—the kind that most low-income families don’t even possess. Any new strain on the finances of a student or a family already struggling to provide for basic needs—an unexpected medical bill, a costly car repair, an increase in dormitory costs, an unanticipated medical bill—is sufficient to lead students to drop out or take a leave from school, from which they are unlikely to return.

Colleges themselves must provide help

All mentoring programs have to face the question of how these inevitable shortfalls are going to be addressed. Part of the answer lies with the colleges themselves, many of which have demonstrated admirable social consciousness by seeking out low-income students of color in an effort to diversify their student bodies, but have not provided the resources to keep those students heading toward graduation. 

They have an obligation to set aside the modest sums that will help students who have made good-faith efforts to meet their debts, but have encountered insurmountable obstacles. The failure to do so places these students in jeopardy of leaving school with no degree and a burden of debt that puts them in a worse position than if they had never entered college at all.

In one recent situation faced by a student, the university sent this debt to a collection agency, with which she is now forced to deal, unprepared though she may be to deal with the often predatory practices of these agencies. Heartlessness should not be the trademark of an institution which pretends to play a high-minded role in our society.

These low-income students are a precious resource. They have the potential to bring new skills and commitments to their home communities and to the entire society. The existing mentoring programs can go a long way in accompanying them to their goal, but they need help with the deep-seated financial obstacles that stand in their way.

Marv Hoffman, now retired, was the associate director of the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago. Prior to that he was the Founding Director of the University of Chicago Charter School—North Kenwood Oakland Campus.

Dirty schools the norm since privatizing custodians: principals

September 8, 2014 - 10:09pm

The $340 million privatization of the district’s custodial services has led to filthier buildings and fewer custodians, while forcing principals to take time away from instruction to make sure that their school is clean.

That is the finding from a survey done by AAPPLE, the new activist arm of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

The contract is the first issue the group is taking a hard stance on, hoping that their input will force the district to make some changes. About 230 principals responded to the survey, with most of them saying the number of custodial staff has been reduced and is now inadequate and the cleanliness of their buildings has been negatively affected.

A principal of a South Side school that is comprised of three buildings and more than 1,500 students says she now has just one day custodian, down from three. “The day custodian is running around here like a crazy lady,” says the principal, who did not want to be identified. “And it is filthy.”

In February, the Board of Education approved two three-year contracts—one for $260 million for Aramark and the other for $80 million to Sodexmagic. Aramark was to take over the training, supervision and management of custodians for all but 33 schools. Sodexmagic would handle the job for the other 33 schools.

When Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley presented the proposal to the board, he said the deal would save the district $40 million, lead to cleaner buildings and incorporate state-of-the-art cleaning technology, such as cleaning Zambonis.

Cawley did not say the contract would result in layoffs.

Email acknowledges problems

Though CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says most schools had a smooth transition to the private vendor, on Monday that vendor, Aramark, sent out an e-mail to principals acknowledging significant problems and asking to meet with them and their staff.  

In the e-mail, shared by a principal, the Aramark official wrote that company officials hear “loud and clear” that “we have not delivered on the promise of making life easier for principals.”

In a white paper, AAPPLE is proposing that the contracts be voided if the buildings are not brought up to Level 2 industry standards for cleanliness, as promised when the contracts were approved. The group also wants CPS to consult them on any contract of more than $500,000 that will impact schools.

McCaffrey says CPS officials are working with contractors to address complaints. “CPS recently contracted with two proven facility management companies to improve cleanliness in all schools while saving millions of dollars that can be redirected to classrooms,” he said in a statement.

Principals say the cleanliness of their buildings is integral to student learning, and note that they are naturally held accountable for it. However, under the new contract, principals do not supervise the custodians at all. Some principals say the custodial managers turn over on a regular basis.

“The person who supervises them comes once a week,” says one principal, who did not want to be identified. “That is just not going to work.”

Bad timing, no new tech

That principal of a Northwest Side school said that at the end of the school year, the custodians assigned to her school left urine in the toilets for weeks. Then, they moved furniture out of a classroom, but broke things when they brought it back in. Her building is more than 100 years old and she says that it is difficult to clean when it gets dirty.

A big complaint of the principals is that staff has been laid off or reassigned at bad times, leaving someone new to take over at crucial moments. One principal said his custodians told him they had been notified that they will be laid off two weeks after school started.

Another had all his custodians sent to new buildings for no apparent reason. “The [ones who were reassigned] were custodians who knew the building, knew the children, knew the community,” he says. “They did not want to leave.”

Two of them were reassigned the Friday before school started. “That is really bad timing,” says the principal, who, like the others, didn’t want to be identified. He says the new custodians are okay, but that he is still waiting on Aramark to let him know their schedules.

The principal also is bothered by the fact that he has seen none of the new technology that was supposed to make the cleaning more efficient.   

One principal from a South Side school that took in children displaced from last year’s closings says she had to get parents, teachers and students to volunteer, in the days leading up to the opening of school, to get her building ready. She says they spent much of the time throwing out an enormous amount of trash, sweeping and mopping.

During the summer, she sent e-mails on a daily basis to her network chief complaining of the problem, but never heard back. One of her biggest complaints concerned the bathrooms, which she says have a bad smell. The custodians tell her it is a drainage problem, but there are no plans to fix it. “Can we just get some air freshener?” she said. “I have kindergarteners going into these bathrooms and they are scary.”

“I feel like this community is already disenfranchised,” she said. “You go up north and you can eat off the floors of the schools. I feel like my community should have that kind of building.”

Dirty schools the norm since privatizing custodians: principals

September 8, 2014 - 10:09pm

CPS’ contracting out the management of the district’s custodians has led to filthier buildings and forced principals to take time away from instruction to try to make sure that their building is clean.

This is the results of a survey done by AAPPLE, the new activist arm of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The contract is the first issue the group is taking a hard stance on, hoping that their input will force the district to make some changes. About 230 principals responded to the survey with most of them saying the number of staff provided has been reduced and is now inadequate and that the cleanliness of their buildings has been affected.

A principal of a South Side school with three buildings and more than 1,500 students says her staff has been reduced from three day custodians to one. “The day custodian is running around here like a crazy lady,” says the principal who did not want to be identified. “And it is filthy.”

In February, the Board of Education approved two three-year contracts—one for $260 million for Aramark and the other for $80 million to Sodexmagic. Aramark was to take over the training, supervision and management of custodians for all but 33 schools.  Sodexmagic would handle the job for the other 33 schools.

When Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley presented the proposal to the board, he said the deal would save the district $40 million, as well as lead to cleaner buildings and the incorporation of state-of-the-art cleaning technology, such as cleaning Zambonis.

Cawley did not say the contract would result in layoffs.

Though CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says most schools had a smooth transition to the private vendor, on Monday that vendor, Aramark, sent out an e-mail to principals acknowledging significant problems and asking to meet with them and their staff.  

In the e-mail shared by a principal, the Aramark official wrote company officials hear “loud and clear” that “we have not delivered on the promise of making life easier for principals.”

In a white paper, AAPPLE is proposing that the contracts be voided if the buildings are not brought up to Level 2 industry standards for cleanliness, as promised when the contracts were approved. The principal group also wants CPS to consult them on any contract of more than $500,000 that will impact schools.

McCaffrey says CPS officials are working with our contractors to address complaints. "CPS recently contracted with two proven facility management companies to improve cleanliness in all schools while saving millions of dollars that can be redirected to classrooms,” he said in a statement.

Principals say the cleanliness of their buildings is integral to students learning and note that they are naturally held accountable for it. However, under the new contract, principals do not supervise the custodians at all. Some principals say the custodian managers turnover on a regular basis.

“The person who supervises them comes once a week,” says one principal, who did not want to be identified. “That is just not going to work.”

That principal of a Northwest Side school said that at the end of the school year the custodians assigned to her school left urine in the toilets for weeks. Then, they moved furniture out of a classroom, but broke things when they brought it back in. Her building is more than 100 years old and she says that when it gets dirty it is hard to get clean.

A big complaint of the principals is that staff has been laid off or reassigned at bad times, leaving someone new to take over at crucial moments. One principal said his custodians told him they had been notified that they will be laid off two weeks after school started.

Another had all his custodians sent to new buildings for no apparent reason. “The (ones who were reassigned) were custodians who knew the building, knew the children, knew the community,” he says. “They did not want to leave.”

Two of them were reassigned the Friday before school started. “That is really bad timing,” says the principal, who, like the others, didn’t want to be identified. He says the new custodians are okay, but that he is still waiting on Aramark to let him know their schedules.

The principal also is bothered by the fact that he has seen none of the new technology that was supposed to make the cleaning more efficient.   

One principal from a South Side welcoming school says she had to get parents, teachers and students to volunteer in the days leading up to the opening of school to get her building ready. She says they spent much of the time throwing out an enormous amount of trash, sweeping and moping.

During the summer, she said she sent e-mails on a daily basis to her network chief complaining, but never heard back. One of her biggest complaints are her bathrooms, which she says smell. The custodians tell her it is a drainage problem, but there are no plans to fix it. “Can we just get some air freshener?” she said. “I have kindergarteners going into these bathrooms and they are scary.”

“I feel like this community is already disenfranchised,” she said. “You go up North and you can eat off the floors of the schools. I feel like my community should have that kind of building.”

To better educate students, teachers need time for learning

September 8, 2014 - 2:31pm

The essay topic was “How to become a better man.”

B.H., my student at Consuella B. York High School, located in Cook County’s largest juvenile detention facility, wrote: “Finish school.”

My students live in Division Nine, home to the most serious juvenile offenders. Many of them are at great risk of causing harm – to themselves, their communities, and our city. I know they will be at greater risk if I fail to help them achieve the same goal B.H. set for himself.

My job—to educate these students, provide them with the information and tools they need to succeed, and help them get on a better life path—is a responsibility shared by my colleagues in classrooms across Chicago. Whether our classroom is in a jail, a district-run school or a charter school, we meet every student “where they are” on their first day of class and then create a personalized education to move them forward.

And yet, even though we fulfill this important role for students and society, I don’t often get to share ideas with others on how to improve our schools.  That is why I take every opportunity to ask people who care about public education to invest in meaningful growth opportunities for educators like me. We need access to each other and ongoing support from partners to grow as professionals.

This summer, I saw the impact of those kinds of investments when my colleagues and I participated in the Summer Design Program. This opportunity, facilitated by the Chicago Public Education Fund, brought together 120 teachers and principals from 40 schools across the city. I worked with educators from my school, other schools, and experts in areas like technology and innovation to identify a challenge, and design a solution.

At York, our challenge was simple. How do we use our new computers to help students learn more at a quicker pace?

Creating a teacher exchange program

Through the Summer Design Program process, I took my unit on memoirs and created opportunities to do just that. Students will narrate their memoirs in PowerPoint and add images to their story to create an interactive presentation. This new approach will help my students learn writing and presentation skills, and gain computer skills that they need in today’s world.  This use of technology will also allow me to spend more one-on-one time with each of them.

Chicago needs more opportunities like this for educators like me.

What if we created an exchange program? In Elizabeth Green’s new book: “Building a Better Teacher,” she writes that educators in Japan have subject matter experts and observe each other teach. I would love to learn from my colleagues in other schools.

What about a fellowship for teachers to open their own schools? Spend a year helping the best teachers in Chicago build the school of their dreams, and connecting them with the resources they need to make it great.

Technology is capable of helping all teachers personalize instruction at new levels. Is there a way for nonprofits to support district efforts to create a more technology-literate educator workforce? What if we partnered with the experts from across the country to build a certification program? It could start at a few schools, and expand based on demand.

These ideas range from big to small, but one thing is for sure—they would make a difference to teachers like me and to the students we serve.

This school year, I will find new ways to get B.H., and all of my students, to learn.  I hope Chicago will find new ways to help educators like me to grow as well.

John Boggs is a National Board Certified English Language Arts teacher at Consuella B. York Alternative High School. York is located in Cook County’s juvenile detention center.

To better educate students, teachers need time for learning

September 8, 2014 - 2:31pm

The essay topic was “How to become a better man.”

B.H., my student at Consuella B. York High School, located in Cook County’s largest juvenile detention facility, wrote: “Finish school.”

My students live in Division Nine, home to the most serious juvenile offenders. Many of them are at great risk of causing harm – to themselves, their communities, and our city. I know they will be at greater risk if I fail to help them achieve the same goal B.H. set for himself.

My job—to educate these students, provide them with the information and tools they need to succeed, and help them get on a better life path—is a responsibility shared by my colleagues in classrooms across Chicago. Whether our classroom is in a jail, a district-run school or a charter school, we meet every student “where they are” on their first day of class and then create a personalized education to move them forward.

And yet, even though we fulfill this important role for students and society, I don’t often get to share ideas with others on how to improve our schools.  That is why I take every opportunity to ask people who care about public education to invest in meaningful growth opportunities for educators like me. We need access to each other and ongoing support from partners to grow as professionals.

This summer, I saw the impact of those kinds of investments when my colleagues and I participated in the Summer Design Program. This opportunity, facilitated by the Chicago Public Education Fund, brought together 120 teachers and principals from 40 schools across the city. I worked with educators from my school, other schools, and experts in areas like technology and innovation to identify a challenge, and design a solution.

At York, our challenge was simple. How do we use our new computers to help students learn more at a quicker pace?

Creating a teacher exchange program

Through the Summer Design Program process, I took my unit on memoirs and created opportunities to do just that. Students will narrate their memoirs in PowerPoint and add images to their story to create an interactive presentation. This new approach will help my students learn writing and presentation skills, and gain computer skills that they need in today’s world.  This use of technology will also allow me to spend more one-on-one time with each of them.

Chicago needs more opportunities like this for educators like me.

What if we created an exchange program? In Elizabeth Green’s new book: “Building a Better Teacher,” she writes that educators in Japan have subject matter experts and observe each other teach. I would love to learn from my colleagues in other schools.

What about a fellowship for teachers to open their own schools? Spend a year helping the best teachers in Chicago build the school of their dreams, and connecting them with the resources they need to make it great.

Technology is capable of helping all teachers personalize instruction at new levels. Is there a way for nonprofits to support district efforts to create a more technology-literate educator workforce? What if we partnered with the experts from across the country to build a certification program? It could start at a few schools, and expand based on demand.

These ideas range from big to small, but one thing is for sure—they would make a difference to teachers like me and to the students we serve.

This school year, I will find new ways to get B.H., and all of my students, to learn.  I hope Chicago will find new ways to help educators like me to grow as well.

John Boggs is a National Board Certified English Language Arts teacher at Consuella B. York Alternative High School. York is located in Cook County’s juvenile detention center.

Take 5: Ames closure, school funding, high school quest

September 8, 2014 - 8:45am

 Did CPS close a school last year, despite promising a five-year moratorium on closings and failing to go through the process required by state law? It seems like this is the case from a Sun Times story this morning on what happened to Ames Middle School and Marine Math and Science Academy. As you will remember, last year two schools existed: Ames in Logan Square--a school that the Logan Square Neighborhood Association waged a mighty battle to keep as a neighborhood school; and Marine, a high school that shared a school on the West Side with Phoenix Military Academy.

When activists confronted Board President David Vitale in December of 2012 about rumors that Ames was going to be closed and taken over by Marine, he told them in a board meeting that he didn't know of any plans. Then, in October of 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Marine is relocating to Ames. But, when it was pointed out that this would result in a school closing,  CPS spokespeople insisted that while Ames was becoming a military academy, Marine would stay open.

LSNA got a referendum placed on the ballot and by a margin of more than two to one, residents voted against the conversion to a military academy. But the board didn't budge. Now, CPS officials are telling a convoluted story about why all the Marine Math and Science students wound up at Ames, as well as why the Marine principal is suddenly in charge of the Logan Square school. According to spokesman Bill McCaffrey, no students chose to attend. But the Sun-Times reports that students and parents say they were told that there was only one Marine campus: in the Ames building.

Bottom line: Only one school exists now, where there used to be two, and CPS did not follow the procedure for consolidattion. The only question now is whether there’s anything anyone can do about it.

2. Heath risk.... Of the 18,000 CPS students with asthma, only a quarter of them had health management plans and only half of the 4,000 with food allergies had them, according to a Chicago Tribune story about a study of 2012-2013 records by Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The plans are meant to help schools address chronic health conditions and prevent reactions. The study found that students on the North and Northwest Sides were the most likely to have a plan on file compared with the rest of the city. Also, poor black and Latino students were the least likely, though more of them were diagnosed with asthma and allergies.

 The Northwestern pediatrics professor who led the study said that he thinks that CPS is representative of the rest of the country.

However, one obstacle may be that CPS schools have far fewer nurses than recommended. The National Association of School Nurses recommends a minimum of 1 nurse for every 750 students for a general population. The association recommends much higher for students with special health needs. However, the latest CPS data shows that the district only has 322 nurses or nurse practitioners, with only six assigned to individual schools.

3. The yearly shuffle... Austin Weekly News has a story about layoffs in local schools. According to the article, some 54 CTU members and 11 paraprofessionals lost their jobs at schools in Austin, West Humboldt PArk and Garfield Park. CTU organizer Brandon Johnson, who lives in Austin, seizes the opportunity to make the layoffs an election issue. Brandon is serving as treasurer of CTU president Karen Lewis mayoral committee and said the layoffs show Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “distain for public education and disinterest in African American Chicagoans.”

But the main reason schools lost staff is that they were projected to have lower enrollment. Some could lose more. The article is a good reminder of what is going on at local schools right now. Coming up to the 20th day, schools are trying to shore up enrollment because if they do not get as many students as expected, they will lost money. CPS schools get about $4390 per student, plus extra stipends for students who are low-income and teachers for special education and bilingual students. Last year, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett chose not to take back money from schools that missed their enrollment targets, but she won't do that this year.

4. Funding overall still on table... Though he didn’t bring up the legislation in the spring, House Speaker Mike Madigan is quietly gathering together Democrats to get them to discuss a proposed change in the way the state funds schools, reports the Associated Press. The idea is to have the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, ready for hearings after the November election. The Senate passed the bill. The proposed legislation tries to even out disparities between districts with rich property tax bases and those that are property poor.

Manar’s plan would make almost all state funding dependent on need. It also would drastically alter the way Chicago gets money from the state. Currently, CPS get a block grant, but under the plan, the district would bill the state for services or get money per student receiving them, like the rest of the state. Chicago stands to lose about $28 million in state funding if this plan is passed. Property-rich suburbs also stand to lose a lot. Schaumburg, for example, would get $12.4 million less. One amendment to the bill is that it would cap the amount of per pupil loss to $1,000 per student.

5. High school quest... WTTW started airing the first of five documentaries at 7:30 on Friday that follow eighth-graders from Chicago and Chicago suburbs. The documentaries, which are already available on youtube, use the stories of these teenagers striving to get into good high school as a way to show the disparities in the situations confronted by the students.

One of the documentaries focuses on the administrations of the elementary schools being attended by the students. The segment at a Wilmette Junior High School features the principal cutting a ribbon for the new science wing, which was paid for through a $100,000 donation from the school’s education foundation. The principal there talks about how he sees the middle grades as a time for exploration and experience. This stands in sharp contrast to the scene in Calumet City. There, a principal stands in front of a projector talking about the school’s low test scores and how the state could come take over the school if it doesn’t improve. It also has the superintendent talking about how the school district spurned an attempt by Urban Prep to open the school in the South Suburb.

The three Chicago schools are also very different. At the UNO school, the principal shows off  a “student data notebook” which lists test scores, demerits, attendance and homework. At Disney Magnet School, students put on a musical and do a project utilizing technology.

The other episodes look at communities, the high schools they are striving to get into and eventually reveals whether they got into the high school of their choosing.

 

 





Take 5: Ames closure, school funding, high school quest

September 8, 2014 - 8:45am

 Did CPS close a school last year, despite promising a five-year moratorium on closings and failing to go through the process required by state law? It seems like this is the case from a Sun Times story this morning on what happened to Ames Middle School and Marine Math and Science Academy. As you will remember, last year two schools existed: Ames in Logan Square--a school that the Logan Square Neighborhood Association waged a mighty battle to keep as a neighborhood school; and Marine, a high school that shared a school on the West Side with Phoenix Military Academy.

When activists confronted Board President David Vitale in December of 2012 about rumors that Ames was going to be closed and taken over by Marine, he told them in a board meeting that he didn't know of any plans. Then, in October of 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Marine is relocating to Ames. But, when it was pointed out that this would result in a school closing,  CPS spokespeople insisted that while Ames was becoming a military academy, Marine would stay open.

LSNA got a referendum placed on the ballot and by a margin of more than two to one, residents voted against the conversion to a military academy. But the board didn't budge. Now, CPS officials are telling a convoluted story about why all the Marine Math and Science students wound up at Ames, as well as why the Marine principal is suddenly in charge of the Logan Square school. According to spokesman Bill McCaffrey, no students chose to attend. But the Sun-Times reports that students and parents say they were told that there was only one Marine campus: in the Ames building.

Bottom line: Only one school exists now, where there used to be two, and CPS did not follow the procedure for consolidattion. The only question now is whether there’s anything anyone can do about it.

2. Heath risk.... Of the 18,000 CPS students with asthma, only a quarter of them had health management plans and only half of the 4,000 with food allergies had them, according to a Chicago Tribune story about a study of 2012-2013 records by Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The plans are meant to help schools address chronic health conditions and prevent reactions. The study found that students on the North and Northwest Sides were the most likely to have a plan on file compared with the rest of the city. Also, poor black and Latino students were the least likely, though more of them were diagnosed with asthma and allergies.

 The Northwestern pediatrics professor who led the study said that he thinks that CPS is representative of the rest of the country.

However, one obstacle may be that CPS schools have far fewer nurses than recommended. The National Association of School Nurses recommends a minimum of 1 nurse for every 750 students for a general population. The association recommends much higher for students with special health needs. However, the latest CPS data shows that the district only has 322 nurses or nurse practitioners, with only six assigned to individual schools.

3. The yearly shuffle... Austin Weekly News has a story about layoffs in local schools. According to the article, some 54 CTU members and 11 paraprofessionals lost their jobs at schools in Austin, West Humboldt PArk and Garfield Park. CTU organizer Brandon Johnson, who lives in Austin, seizes the opportunity to make the layoffs an election issue. Brandon is serving as treasurer of CTU president Karen Lewis mayoral committee and said the layoffs show Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “distain for public education and disinterest in African American Chicagoans.”

But the main reason schools lost staff is that they were projected to have lower enrollment. Some could lose more. The article is a good reminder of what is going on at local schools right now. Coming up to the 20th day, schools are trying to shore up enrollment because if they do not get as many students as expected, they will lost money. CPS schools get about $4390 per student, plus extra stipends for students who are low-income and teachers for special education and bilingual students. Last year, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett chose not to take back money from schools that missed their enrollment targets, but she won't do that this year.

4. Funding overall still on table... Though he didn’t bring up the legislation in the spring, House Speaker Mike Madigan is quietly gathering together Democrats to get them to discuss a proposed change in the way the state funds schools, reports the Associated Press. The idea is to have the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, ready for hearings after the November election. The Senate passed the bill. The proposed legislation tries to even out disparities between districts with rich property tax bases and those that are property poor.

Manar’s plan would make almost all state funding dependent on need. It also would drastically alter the way Chicago gets money from the state. Currently, CPS get a block grant, but under the plan, the district would bill the state for services or get money per student receiving them, like the rest of the state. Chicago stands to lose about $28 million in state funding if this plan is passed. Property-rich suburbs also stand to lose a lot. Schaumburg, for example, would get $12.4 million less. One amendment to the bill is that it would cap the amount of per pupil loss to $1,000 per student.

5. High school quest... WTTW started airing the first of five documentaries at 7:30 on Friday that follow eighth-graders from Chicago and Chicago suburbs. The documentaries, which are already available on youtube, use the stories of these teenagers striving to get into good high school as a way to show the disparities in the situations confronted by the students.

One of the documentaries focuses on the administrations of the elementary schools being attended by the students. The segment at a Wilmette Junior High School features the principal cutting a ribbon for the new science wing, which was paid for through a $100,000 donation from the school’s education foundation. The principal there talks about how he sees the middle grades as a time for exploration and experience. This stands in sharp contrast to the scene in Calumet City. There, a principal stands in front of a projector talking about the school’s low test scores and how the state could come take over the school if it doesn’t improve. It also has the superintendent talking about how the school district spurned an attempt by Urban Prep to open the school in the South Suburb.

The three Chicago schools are also very different. At the UNO school, the principal shows off  a “student data notebook” which lists test scores, demerits, attendance and homework. At Disney Magnet School, students put on a musical and do a project utilizing technology.

The other episodes look at communities, the high schools they are striving to get into and eventually reveals whether they got into the high school of their choosing.

 

 





Conversations with teachers: Budgets

September 5, 2014 - 12:42pm

For teachers, the decisions the district makes about spending priorities are front and center in their day-to-day lives. When budgets are cut, when their colleagues are laid off, when a new initiative kicks off, it is teachers who end up navigating to make up for cuts, making do because a colleague is gone and implementing the latest “new thing.”

So last year, when CPS moved to a new per-pupil funding system and drastically slashed budgets, teachers felt the impact. The district restored some cuts this year, but teachers insist they will still have to cope with the aftershocks.

Each of the teachers who participated in Catalyst Chicago’s recent roundtable discussion had different perspectives on spending and the budget. Participants were Monty Adams, a science teacher at Latino Youth High School, an alternative charter school; Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street Charter College Prep; Kris Himebaugh, an English teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate at Orr High, a turnaround school managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership; Hen Kennedy, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary; and Amy Rosenwasser, a long-time special education teacher who now teaches fifth grade at Pritzker Elementary School.

Adams and Cordes work at charter schools; Adams’ charter is for dropouts, while Cordes’ school attracts middle-of-the-road to high-achieving students. A debate is still simmering on charter funding and whether charters receive more money than traditional schools; Cordes said his understanding is that charter schools receive less, while Adams is convinced there is parity.

Meanwhile, Himebaugh at Orr has experienced the worst of the budget cuts. Orr fell from an enrollment of more than 675 students and a budget of $8.8 million in the 2012-2013 school year to a projected 561 students and a budget of $5.8 million this year.  

The two elementary school teachers, Kennedy at Von Linne and Rosenwasser at Pritzker, are at relatively stable schools. Linne, a neighborhood school in Avondale, saw its budget rise by $100,000 compared to last year.

Pritzker, which has neighborhood-based and selective programs as well as a fine arts program, is projected to have about 40 more students this year and a budget of about $200,000 more.

Here’s what our roundtable had to say:

Kris Himebaugh, turning to Jamie Cordes from Noble Street: So you get money per-pupil like we do. Do you get the same amount?

Cordes: No. We get less.

Monty Adams: I was on the state task force for charter school funding this past year and that’s one of those very dubious things. We met from September to February for many, many hours and that was kind of the argument--whether charter schools get less or more or the same. Unfortunately, it was like comparing apples with oranges. My assessment is that charter schools get about the same. The difference is that charter schools, or my charter school and most of the ones I have seen, don’t have libraries, science labs, all the textbooks. Charter schools don’t look like schools. Some of them [are housed in and] look like they're in churches or something.

Cordes: We have science labs. English and reading teachers have classroom libraries that are updated. There isn’t space in our building for a separate library, but kids are reading independently.

Himebaugh: I feel Noble Street is the exception [among] charter schools. We had to hire another PE teacher (because of the new requirement that students take physical education daily). In the meantime, last year we lost our librarian because of the cuts. This year, partly because of the budget [cuts] and partly because of the new PE requirement, we lost art.

Amy Rosenwasser: But there’s a fine arts requirement. How do you meet that?

Himebaugh: Online. Yup.  Art and music. We lost both [teachers].

Rossenwasser: In order to have gym?

Himebaugh: I don’t know if it’s specifically in order to have gym. I know we also use extra money for extra security.

Catalyst: What does art online look like?

Himebaugh: I have no idea.  It’s what’s going to happen this year.

Adams: I used to teach music online and the sad thing is we’d try to have discussions about the music, and I would have some students who were really interested. But they had nobody to discuss it with.

Himebaugh: We will offer band and TV production as fine arts programs.

One positive thing that came out of the budget cuts is that they required our principal to release the reins a little bit. In the past, when AUSL took over, we were so micromanaged. Now teachers have had to step up and take more leadership roles. That’s one positive thing.

Cordes: There are still things I want in my classroom that we can’t afford, and there are still basics that aren’t in place. In terms of budget, there are some things teachers say, I ordered this, I got approved for it last year, but I didn’t get approved this year. In terms of major staffing positions, I am not really aware of how cuts are impacting things.

Rossenwasser: Because our school is in Wicker Park, in the past we have had a tremendous amount rental income. For movies, they rent out a parking lot. They rent out the gym. There are a couple of churches there.  The Pritzker Foundation does provide some funding for after-school programs. They fund a big subsidy for eighth-graders to go to Washington, D.C. We have more sources of income even than other school in that neighborhood.

Rosenwasser: The thing that bothers me the most about [student-based] budgets, if you listen to Rahm [Emanuel] or BBB talk, it’s that it is the principals’ choice--they have all this money and they choose how to use it.

Hen Kennedy: It is like choosing to use a pencil or a pen to write your essay. You're still going to have to write the essay.

Rosenwasser: If I only have $100 and I need to buy these things and pay my rent, maybe I am not buying all the food because I have to pay all my rent. That’s the most ridiculous thing they could possibly say and they say a lot of ridiculous things. But when I hear that, I think, “How can you legitimately say that and look at yourselves in the mirror each night?”

Rosenwasser: I think people who don't have kids in the school system believe that [it is the principal’s choice]. The schools only have x-amount of money, and they can have a classroom of 50 kids or get rid of the music and art teacher.

Adams: In several schools, I've experienced the situation where they had plenty of money to invest in new stuff in the buildings or put in a courtyard or something, but at the expense of firing a couple of teachers.

Himebaugh: I knew it was bad last year when I walked into my classroom and there were 40 desks. So I am hoping when I walk in this year there will only be 30. Class size was definitely an issue at our school, at Orr. In fact, I am the union rep also. We went through the union’s class size committee, but we never got more teachers.

Cordes: I have probably about 28 or 30 on average. We are pretty limited in space as well, so it’s been pretty consistent, I’d say. They definitely try to fill those desks. But I can’t fit 40 desks in my room.

Adams: Well, the more desks they fill the more money it is for charter schoola.

Kennedy: In regular CPS schools too.

Conversations with teachers: Discipline

September 4, 2014 - 4:10pm

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has talked more passionately about reducing suspensions and expulsions than almost any other subject. And for the first time ever this year, the district is publishing school-level statistics on discipline.

Activists hope that shedding light on what is happening with school discipline will help expose problem areas so they can be addressed. They also hope principals will consider implementing alternatives to discipline that puts students out of school, especially black boys, who are disproportionately targeted.

But even activists who heralded the district’s new transparency and apparent willingness to confront the issue remain worried because money for restorative practices, such as peace rooms, peer juries or counseling, remains scarce.  Teachers, as a result, have few outlets to help them deal with problem behavior.

 At Catalyst Chicago’s recent teacher roundtable, participants said they have gotten the message that schools should curb suspensions and expressed dissatisfaction with the practice. In order for students to improve academically, they need to be in class, they said.

However, the conversation quickly shifted from discipline to what emerged as the underlying concern: a lack of support for troubled students.

Participants in our latest roundtable were Monty Adams, a science teacher at Latino Youth High School, an alternative charter school; Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street Charter College Prep; Kris Himebaugh, an English teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate at Orr High, a turnaround school managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership; Hen Kennedy, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary; and Amy Rosenwasser, a long-time special education teacher who now teaches fifth grade at Pritzker Elementary School.

Here is what they had to say:

Monty Adams: Being at an alternative school, I always talk to the kids. Most of them you would never imagine had been kicked out of a public school. They are the nicest kids. I get to talk to them, find out why they were kicked out of school, for fighting or something. I can’t imagine doing that. I’ve even had kids kicked out of CPS because of numerous medical absences. These are the children we get. I want to keep teaching at the alternative school. I love it. But I don’t understand the rationale sometimes.

Hen Kennedy: We have definitely gotten that message to not expect [misbehavior] to end in a suspension. It is something I agree with. I don’t think suspension is particularly effective. I have heard grumblings. But I think [the grumblers] also don’t think it is the most useful solution. The catch is, I am not sure we’re being taught effective alternatives to suspension. I think it is important to not suspend kids whenever possible. But it is also important to have counseling or whatever to replace that.

Adams: This year we have a principal and a dean of discipline. It is so nice to be able to teach and, if there is a student you're having a problem with who won’t be cooperative, just to be able to pick up the phone. That doesn't come back and reflect poorly on me. In fact, I can tell a student it’s kind of out of my hands. “Just go and calm down and talk to somebody else.” A lot of times they do.

They come in with all kinds of emotional problems. They need counseling. They need somebody to cool down with. You can’t do that simultaneously with teaching.

Kris Himebaugh: That is another [effect] of the budget cut. Our social worker and psychologist both got cut down to part-time and you're talking about Orr High School. You're talking about kids who are in and out of jail, who see their friends, siblings, parents die on the streets. My students get shot and killed. And so we have a half-time social worker and psychologist?

Kennedy:  We’re lucky enough to have a phenomenal full-time counselor. I can’t even imagine how our school would function without it.

Amy Rosenwasser:  We don’t have a full-time social worker. There is a definite push being made [for a social-emotional program]. We had two days of training at the end of the school year and two more next week on The Responsive Classroom, which is supposed to be a way to deal with problems in the classroom. The paraprofessionals and security [workers] did not have to report to school on those days and so they did not have to receive the training. It requires everyone to be on the same page [yet] we only had training with the teachers.

There also has to be something in place for those kids that don’t respond to that. Maybe there is something that is going to be in place, but I think a lot of schools don’t have that.

Adams:  When I was in Waukegan, [administrators] would look at it almost in a punitive way, if you had trouble with one of your students in your classroom and had to call security or something like that. Having deans of discipline is a great solution. Being able to remove that responsibility (to discipline) from [the teacher] and let the dean deal with those issues--as a result, I had much better rapport with each student because I don’t have to get involved emotionally.

Jamie Cordes: In terms of suspensions, I feel very much like [Monty] was saying. We have a dean of discipline and a culture team, and if a kid is really disrupting the learning [environment], that’s who they go to. It won’t always lead to a suspension. We've got a social worker. We've got a culture team that is quasi-security, but building relationships with students as well. We are trying to pilot a peer mediation program for certain conflicts, like student conflicts, to get more student ownership in terms of the discipline policy. But there are some things that, according to our discipline code, trigger automatic suspensions, such as drug possession or fighting.  I want to keep my kids in school. If the kid can come back to my class and still learn, then great. If a kid is on the way out and is suspended, I want them to get work in their hands so they can come back prepared. We’ve got demerits and suspensions to use when necessary. Ultimately, we want kids in class learning.

Take 5: Karen Lewis questions, UNO and the IRS, Kennedy-King honor

September 4, 2014 - 7:57am

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis still hasn’t made up her mind -- at least not publicly -- about whether she’ll run for mayor against incumbent Rahm Emanuel. But she’s been hitting the pavement, talking with residents and asking followers to help circulate a petition to get her name on the ballot.

But all the quasi-campaigning has some teachers a little worried. During a teacher roundtable organized by Catalyst last month, some CTU members in the room expressed concern about what a campaign run would mean for leadership, especially with contract negotiations approaching. “If she runs, is she going to quit her job at the CTU? Who is going to take over?” one teacher asked. “And what will that mean for contract negotiations?” asked another.

Lewis told Catalyst she’s been asking herself the same questions but said that it’s important to remember that “union negotiations are done by a very large group of people. It’s not just me at the table.” At the moment, she says, she has no intention of resigning from her CTU gig. That’s a matter she first needs to discuss with both her executive board and the House of Delegates. “This issue is kind of like putting the horse before the cart,” she says.

2. First day turnaround… Gresham Elementary School students learned Tuesday what it means to sweat the small stuff, reported the Chicago Sun-Times. As a newly-minted school turnaround, it’s now run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. AUSL, which has been overhauling schools since 2004, has a detailed checklist for operating its schools. The list includes things like standing in line leaving a square floor tile between students and waiting to use the bathroom at Level Zero (perfectly quiet).

The staff and parents at Gresham waged a major battle against the turnaround. At one point, some of the parent activists thought they had won over CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. The latest NWEA test scores show that about two-thirds of the 24 elementary schools run by AUSL are among the lowest 25 percent in reading. However, 10 of the 24 are among the highest 25 percent in test-score growth.

3. More UNO trouble…  The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that UNO charter schools is now being audited by the IRS. UNO’s (United Neighborhood Organization) troubles first boiled up when the newspaper reported apparent conflicts of interest in spending a $95 million state construction grant. Because the charter network did not reveal these conflicts, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission accused them of defrauding investors. According to the Sun-Times, the IRS investigation has to do with the bonds issued through the Illinois Finance Authority, a state agency that provides non-profits with low interest loans. Over the years, the agency has provided bonds for Learn, Namaste and Noble charter school networks.

This year, CPS allocated $84.5 million for UNO to run 15 schools serving a projected 7,909 students. The board gave UNO permission to open two new schools this fall, but UNO decided to hold off. UNO is currently the third largest charter network in CPS.

4. Kennedy-King honored… The South Side community college is one of 10 finalists in the Aspen Prize for Community Colleges, which carries with it a $1 million award. The award judges how community colleges are doing in getting their students to graduate and get a job, especially focusing on equitable outcomes for poor black and Latino students. Staff from the Aspen Institute will spend the next three months visiting the 10 campuses. The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy organization based in Washington D.C.

Since 2011, the City Colleges have been undergoing a process leaders call “reinvention.” In a Catalyst interview with Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, she said the goal of the initiative was to increase the number of students earning college credentials, transferring to bachelor degree programs and to improve the outcomes for those students who need remediation. The fourth is to increase the number of adult education students who succeed at college-level courses.

This summer, PBS interviewed Hyman as part of their series Rethinking College and reported that the number of graduates has doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 since “reinvention” was put in place.

5. Massive pre-K expansion in NYC… One thing Chicago’s city and teacher union leaders seem to agree on is that expanded early learning opportunities would be a good thing. Chicago Teachers Union issued a call for universal preschool last week, not too long after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shared his own plan to expand pre-K enrollment to an additional 1,500 low-income 4-year-olds.

With all this extra attention on preschool, it might be worthwhile to see what happens when a major U.S. city actually attempts to unroll universal preschool. More than 50,000 4-year-olds in New York City have been enrolled in free full-day prekindergarten as part of one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most ambitious initiatives since he took office. The expansion has involved getting an additional $300 million in state funds, training thousands of teachers and hiring nearly 200 inspectors, teaching coaches and enrollment specialists.

But as Chalkbeat New York reports, “some skepticism of the pace of the plan has persisted, especially around basic concerns over child safety and more challenging concerns about curriculum standards and teacher quality.” Just last week the city’s comptroller complained that his office has received less than half of the center contracts he needs to review -- to ensure vendors have proper documentation such as insurance and background checks on staff.

Conversations with teachers: Evaluations

September 3, 2014 - 11:33am

For most CPS teachers, this is the year the district’s new evaluation system finally means something. And that’s a scary prospect.

When the Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago Students (known as REACH) system went into effect last year, it only applied to non-tenured teachers and those with lower ratings (satisfactory or unsatisfactory) ratings under the prior, decades -old checklist system.

But starting this school year, all teachers will be evaluated using the new system, which was launched in 2012 to comply with a state law requiring all teacher evaluations to be tied to growth in student scores on standardized tests. Under the new system, 30 percent of evaluation scores will be based on test score improvement; 70 percent will be based on principal observations using the Framework for Teaching tool.

Catalyst Chicago asked teachers about REACH, how their own informal evaluations went last year, and their thoughts on evaluations in general during our recent roundtable discussion. Today, for the second part in our series “Conversations with Teachers,we’re publishing a condensed and edited version of the discussion. (Read Part 1 here.)

Participants in the roundtable discussion included included two charter school teachers who are not evaluated using REACH: Monty Adams, a forensic science, health and chemistry teacher at Latino Youth High School, an alternative school; and Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street College Prep. The other teachers were Kris Himebaugh, a 10th-grade English teacher and union delegate at Orr High School, a turnaround school managed by Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL); Hen Kennedy, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary; and Amy Rosenwasser, a long-time special education teacher who now teaches fifth grade at Pritzker Elementary School.

Catalyst Chicago: Tell us how last year’s trial run with REACH went. The evaluations are finally going to mean something this year, right?

 Kris Himebaugh: We don’t know how we did last year, because we won’t get our evaluation scores until mid-September. I just went to a professional development on REACH, and they told us that.

Hen Kennedy: So how do they use that for staffing decisions?

Himebaugh: Good question.

Kennedy: Sounds disruptive.

Amy Rosenwasser: There are things that really concerned me about the evaluations. Part of our evaluation is based on the NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association assessments), and the growth shown between the spring of 2013 and spring 2014. But the NWEA itself was given in a different manner from one year to the next. In 2013, for example, the kids could use a real calculator for anything on the math section. This time, only if the NWEA [system] feels you need a calculator does one show up on the screen, and you have to click on it.

So you have students who may not be able to do the math calculations with a piece of paper or in their head, who a year ago could have gotten the question right by using a handheld calculator. Now they have to use something different and it didn’t always pop up. In that respect, those were not the same tests.

Kennedy: One thing I don’t understand is why they don’t disregard outliers. We had one kid who was having a rough day and [his growth] was minus 24 points. I know he grew last year. I know he was having a rough day. That happens. And once I taught a kid who allegedly grew five levels in math in six months. I think both of those scores – the highest and the lowest -- should be disregarded when evaluating teachers.

Catalyst: Does knowing that it is part of your evaluation affect how you talk about the test with your students?

Rosenwasser: Yeah. I don’t say, “Look, I could lose my job if you don’t do well.” But in my head I’m thinking that. And I say, “I really expect you to take this seriously. I really expect you do your best. Take your time.” I do everything other than say “Look, my job depends on this.”

Catalyst: What about principal observations, which account for the bulk of the ratings?

Kennedy: I think I’ve really benefitted as an untenured teacher, because I had four observations last year. And with each observation there’s a pre- and post-evaluation conference. So it became more like, “Here’s another one coming up.” That’s quite a bit of time spent with the principal, which I think helped me get to know her better and get more comfortable. And I have a principal who makes it a real supportive thing, as opposed to an adversarial thing.

Catalyst: For our AUSL teacher, how do you think that evaluations are being rolled out? (Teachers at AUSL schools are also evaluated with REACH, although they must follow an additional protocol.)

Himebaugh: I was on leave last year so I didn’t get to experience the Framework. But in previous years, I was in a constant state of fear during observations. I was constantly fearing what was going to happen, who was going to pop into my room, what they were going to see, what they were going to mark me down on.

Monty Adams: I think what Kris is saying applies to a lot of schools, not just AUSL.

Rosenwasser: For me, last year my principal moved me from special ed, where I’m a National Board Certified Teacher and I had always received superior ratings, to a fifth grade general education position, for no real reason other than I think she wants me to leave. I am not an exceptional fifth-grade teacher, or I wasn’t last year. The whole time I kept thinking, “Oh my God, she is going to walk in. She’s going to see something.” I think my kids were doing very well. They’re very engaged. But you just need that one time where you get a “basic” rating and then you're done.

Rosenwasser: My unofficial rating last year was done just before my class went to lunch. The principal noted that one kid wasn’t pay attention.

Himebaugh: They were probably starving,

Rosenwasser: That’s when you chose to come, right when we’re going to lunch? That’s not the same as coming in in the middle of a reading lesson.

Catalyst: What do evaluations look like at Noble?

Jamie Cordes: We don’t have a network-wide evaluation tool. We don’t have REACH. We have a campus-specific system. Our principals set up more holistic evaluations, where you’re scored around instruction and leadership. It’s not really tied to hiring or firing decisions. The way it’s messaged to me is, if you’re not a good fit that could be a problem. We’re not tenured. The message is and has been that the EPASS [test score] data is an important measurement but I don’t feel and I don’t think teachers in my building feel it’s the be-all, end-all of the year.

Catalyst: And observations?

Cordes: You have an instructional coach -- in most cases it’s a dean of instruction -- who’s coming to your room every other week. So it’s an observation one week and a meeting the next, and that sort of cycle continues. And that really does feel supportive and doesn’t feel tied to any sort of evaluation of salary or hiring or firing decisions. Bonus pay is tied to the historic best in the Noble Network growth on your section of EPASS. And I think there’s merit pay if you’re an Advanced Placement teacher.

Adams: People usually do their best work when they feel supported and appreciated. The thing that bothers me the most about these evaluations is it makes it an adversarial process rather than a process to support people. We’re coming to work every day because we like the job. We’re not coming for the paycheck. As [Cordes] said, in situations where a teacher is not a good fit in a school, that’s a different thing. But we’re all out there trying our darndest to help these children and that’s what should be appreciated.

Himebaugh: You know who should evaluate teachers? Other teachers. We want what’s best for our kids. If you’re a friend of mine, I’m sorry but if you’re not doing well then I would like to show you some strategies to help you improve.

Rosenwasser: And we do that in the lunchroom when we’re all sitting there. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do when school starts because I’m going to have an all-boys classroom. Am I going to talk about what’s happening in Ferguson [since the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown]? Where am I going to get information that’s appropriate for fifth-grade minority boys when I’m an older white Jewish woman? This is their life, not mine. So what am I going to do? And how will that affect me if the lesson I’m trying to do is not successful when the principal comes in to do an informal observation? Maybe instead I’ll do something that I know will be successful, just in case somebody walks in. It makes it much harder to take risks.

Kennedy: To me, any good tool can be misused. I mean, if you try to use a snow shovel to rake a yard, you’re going to kill the grass. To me, the Framework presents a lot of opportunities, but if you don't have the leadership in place it’s a lost opportunity and a negative experience. REACH is now in place and now the district should focus on principal quality, making sure principals have significant classroom experience and leadership skills so they know how build rapport.

Conversations with teachers: Testing

September 2, 2014 - 1:25pm

What’s on teachers’ minds as a new school year gets under way?

That question led Catalyst Chicago to invite a group of teachers to our office recently for a roundtable discussion on the issues they believe are important to improving education, but don’t always get the public attention they deserve.

We reached out to more than a half-dozen educators from traditional public schools, charters and alternative schools. Five showed up for the discussion and had a lot to say: For nearly two hours they shared their thoughts about a range of topics, from testing and evaluations to student discipline and money matters.

(Catalyst convened a similar roundtable discussion in May with principals that resulted in a four-part series.)

Participants in our latest roundtable were Monty Adams, a science teacher at Latino Youth High School, an alternative charter school; Jamie Cordes, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Noble Street Charter College Prep; Kris Himebaugh, an English teacher and Chicago Teachers Union delegate at Orr High, a turnaround school managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership; Hen Kennedy, a seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics teacher at Carl Von Linne Elementary; and Amy Rosenwasser, a long-time special education teacher who now teaches fifth grade at Pritzker Elementary School.

Catalyst transcribed and divided the discussion into a four-part series, which has been edited for clarity. Today, on the first day most CPS students return to school, we begin the series with a conversation about what seemed to be the biggest source of frustration — and confusion — among the group: testing.

It’s worth highlighting that some teachers were still unclear on whether all schools will be required to give the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (known as the PARCC) this year — and whether it will count toward evaluations. CPS officials confirmed last week that the PARCC is definitely on the district’s calendar for next spring, but it won’t be used for evaluations of teachers, schools or principals.

Illinois is requiring all districts to give the PARCC next spring to comply with federal mandates related to using curricula that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett — as well as CTU President Karen Lewis — have both expressed concerns about what the PARCC’s roll-out will look like, given the lack of discussion about the results of a pilot program last spring.

“We haven’t seen any of the information from the pilot,” Lewis said. “And the PARCC is supposed to be computer-based, but some of our schools don’t have the bandwidth to handle that.”

CPS officials said last week they have shared their concerns with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and indicated they may ask for some sort of waiver or delay on the assessment.

Here’s what teachers had to say about assessments:

Kris Himebaugh: I counted how many tests I would have to give this year that don’t even count for a grade and it would be at least eight. That doesn’t mean finals I would give, or quarter finals, or even a vocabulary l test.

Hen Kennedy: For us, some of those tests last for multiple days.

Amy Rosenwasser: I was just looking at the testing calendar Raise Your Hand Illinois posted on Twitter, and we’ll be giving the PARCC basically from the beginning of March until the end of the school year. My class may not be testing every day, but the school is testing and I can’t really plan anything because what if that’s my time to go in and test? What if something happens so that the computer system goes down?

Monty Adams: We have a small school, so it’d be nice if they just tested everybody on a single day. But because of the attendance problems, sometimes kids are taken out of their class — so you have half the class instead of the whole class. It’s incredibly disruptive to our teaching.

Kennedy: I feel like regardless of whether you advocate for more vocational opportunities or more college preparedness, the emphasis on standardized testing is doing a disservice to kids either way. You just don’t have to take standardized tests in life. It’s not preparing kids for life.

Adams: You can’t get inside of a kid’s head when everything is a multiple-guess answer. On any tests I make, I always make sure there are short answers or essays or you have to figure something out mathematically or show your work.

Rosenwasser: I don’t know how many of you have taken the sample PARCC test, but the biggest problem I’ve seen is just the navigation. Normally, when you’re taking something on a computer, and you finish, it automatically goes to the next page or there’s something that says “next” on the bottom right. But it’s not that way with the PARCC. There’s an arrow on the top left, and you’re just supposed to figure it out. I thought, “If I’m having trouble with this, how are 10-year-olds going to be able to figure this out, much less type and finish in 50 minutes or whatever?”

Kennedy: None of my kids can type. I really worry about kids who are already on the margins when they take tests like that. I’ve seen so many kids cry before tests, throw up before tests. The stress is very, very real to them. It’s kind of ironic, because for a lot of them it’s not actually a very meaningful test. But they absorb the stress around them. I don’t want my kids to feel like failures. I think the adaptive tests are better. The NWEA is better because you can focus on growth as opposed to just a static achievement level. But those [tests] still have their own issues in terms of high stress and high stakes.

Adams: The at-risk kids come in with so much baggage and such a feeling of failure. I spend probably about half the year trying to build their self-esteem when I first get them. These things don’t build self-esteem.

Jamie Cordes: I think the PARCC is really pushing thinking in the right way, and rigor in the right way. I agree that it’s going to be an awkward year while they iron out the kinks. And I’m not sure what it means to colleges yet, for example.

Himebaugh: What’s the right kind of thinking?

Cordes: I would say, a question that asks students to choose an answer that’s evidence-based, and also to provide a rationale, is going to be higher-order [thinking compared to] filling in a bubble. I can see on an English test someone saying, “You need a comma there.” But I don't know if you’re just guessing. I don't know what your rationale is.

Adams: But that’s what the Common Core is supposed to be based on. You’re supposed to be doing that in the classroom.

Cordes: I understand. I think that’s good. I totally understand, especially in the middle years, how testing for everyone might not be appropriate. Maybe the politics and measuring of it get complicated, but I also think that having some sort of yardstick is important, just so I know where I am headed.

Himebaugh: Should the rigor for your students be the same as for mine?

Cordes: I don’t know. Not knowing your students and not having been in your school, it’s hard for me to say. But I think that if you’re going to say, “This is the track for a kid to get into college, and these are the tests that are going to get them there,” then those tests are worthwhile and it’s an important message to students that this is what someone who is ready to be a college freshmen in a year or two is expected to do.

Kennedy: I just wanted to clarify something--I think the NWEA has been a useful yardstick. What concerns me is when it’s used as more than a yardstick. I like to have a lot of data points, and for the NWEA to be one on that broad spectrum of data points.

Catalyst: What is your experience with individualized, computer-based programs that help get students up to speed for these tests?

Kennedy: My experience with the Compass program was at the school where I taught previously. It’s very appealing because the program automatically matches kids up with what the test shows they need to work on. So there’s no work for the teacher involved in that, which is very appealing…

Himebaugh: Which eliminates your job eventually.

(laughter in room)

Kennedy: Which eliminates your job eventually, absolutely. But I think those programs can be useful to practice some very simple skills, like multiplication facts. I find their use beyond that to be problematic because it’s still ultimately pre-constructed, multiple-choice questions that students are responding to. But I’ve heard of these programs being used very widely in schools. At my school, there was a lot of pressure just to hit certain targets in terms of number of minutes per child per week, to make sure we were getting enough Compass and it would help their NWEA scores.

Catalyst: How many minutes?

Kennedy: I don’t recall, because I didn’t hit them. It was a school target, a grade-level target, so I never was called out individually for not hitting a target. It was never that type of environment. It was more like, “We haven’t spent enough time on Compass, make sure you’re getting to the lab.” It made me really uncomfortable.

Adams: That’s one thing that bothers me about the field of education. Everyone is still trying to come up with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ in education. And it doesn’t exist. Everyone is different, and they have unique things they want to pursue. I think we need to offer a wide spectrum of choices to students and sometimes force them to go into directions they’re uncomfortable with, because there’s no one-size-fits all.

Take 5: Safe Passage expands, test score analysis, a new blog

September 2, 2014 - 10:13am

It was a morning of anxiety and excitement for hundreds of thousands of CPS students who headed back to school today. And for their parents, too. “I’m happy for her but nervous, too. It’s her last year of elementary school,” said Jenny Santos, whose eyes welled up as she watched her eighth-grade daughter walk into Monroe Elementary School near Logan Square.

Many parents told Catalyst Chicago they were relieved to know more adults will be watching their children on their way to school this year, after a $10 million state investment in the CPS Safe Passage program. The program, which works to reduce incidents of crime and boost attendance, will now encompass 133 elementary and high schools.

“There needs to be more control, more security at these schools,” said Ernesto Ramirez, after ensuring his 14-year-old daughter walked through the doors at Kelvyn Park High School. The expansion was announced last week by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn, both Democrats running for reelection.

On the city politics front, one parent said she doesn’t care whether Emanuel is reelected -- or is beat by his potential challenger, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. “I just hope they’re both doing it because that’s what’s best for our kids,” said Lilia Mendez, as she waited for her a bus to pick up her children, students at Sabin Magnet Dual Language School. “What I do worry about is whether the mayor can take on a more conciliatory tone with the teachers this year, to avoid any future conflicts or strikes.”

2. Graduation next… Though they are serving ever fewer students, neighborhood high schools showed the biggest jump in five-year cohort graduation rates, shows a Catalyst analysis of school-level data. Mayor Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced last week that graduation rates jumped by 4 percent in one year. Neighborhood high schools rose from 64 percent to about 69 percent, though at 12 schools, half or less than half the students graduated. The worst rate was at Orr High School--a turnaround school run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership -- where only 42.5 percent got their diploma within five years. The best was Lake View High School, at nearly 86 percent.

Charter schools, with 76 percent of their students graduating within five years, continue to have a markedly higher graduation rate than neighborhood schools, though lower than selective and magnet schools.

What is not known is how of the many of the students counted as graduates actually got their diploma from an alternative school. The five-year cohort rate counts students as graduates of the school where they started as freshmen, regardless of where they actually earned thier diploma. Over the last five years, the number of alternative schools in CPS has doubled. The expansion continues this year with nine more slated to open.

3. Another test-score analysis… The Chicago Sun Times reported this weekend that charter elementary schools showed less growth on the NWEA than did district run schools. It is a solid analysis that is sure to reinvigorate the debate about why CPS is investing in charter schools. The article quotes activist Dwayne Truss, who says a lot of marketing paints neighborhood schools as “horrible places and that charter schools are better.” This analysis seems to say that this image is not true, he says. Blaine Principal Troy LaRaviere, who alerted the Sun-Times to the disparity, notes in a follow-up editorial that it is unfortunate that CPS is funneling poor black and Latino students to charter schools and turnaround schools, schools that are improving more slowly, while an increasing number of Caucasian and Asian students go to neighborhood schools that show the most growth.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy points out that some of the higher-performing charter schools, such as the LEARN network and Namaste, did not provide scores on the NWEA, a test that allows for national comparisons. CPS leaders have said that as part of contract renewals, they will require to charters to agree to provide NWEA scores, but currently, most of their contracts say the district will judge them based on the ISAT.

There are other reasons to be a bit cautious when drawing conclusions from the data. All the growth in CPS-run schools is a comparison between spring 2013 and spring 2014. But of the 58 charter schools that provided scores, 35 did not provide information for spring 2013. A number of the charter schools did not even exist or were adding grades at the time, so it's unclear what time period the growth is measuring.

4. Speaking of the charter school debate…. Some familiar names---former CPS communications head Peter Cunningham, along with former deputy Michael Vaughn, former Chicago Tribune education reporter Tracey Dell’Angela and a network of others--launched a website Monday called educationpost.com. The three issues they intend to tackle are: high standards for all children; taking responsibility, which is about accountability and testing; and high-quality charter schools. Cunningham and the others left CPS with Arnie Duncan and went to Washington. Now they are back in Chicago.

In his opening blog, Cunningham states upfront that the organization is being supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation--all strong backers of charter schools. Cunningham is being transparent by admitting this and surely he and the others involved know that these funders are political hot buttons, and their support will elicit assumptions about the blog’s point of view and true intent.  

Still, Cunningham’s blog insists the organization wants to engage in a conversation with diverse voices. The website will feature columns written by parents, teachers and students, he writes. “At Education Post, we want to foster a new education conversation--based on more hard facts and fewer unsupported opinions, more fair-mindedness and less name-calling, more concrete solutions and fewer impassioned excuses for why nothing can be done.”

The webpage also features an impassioned argument in support of the Common Core by Dell’Angela and a nifty little first day of school video at Montessori School of Englewood.

5. Later start time? Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics urged schools to push back the starting times for middle- and high-school students to 8:30 a.m. or later, noting that the average teenager is sleep-deprived.

Judith Owens, lead author of the academy's policy statement and director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, called teen insomnia "a national public health crisis” and told the Chicago Tribune that "delaying school start times is one of the most effective interventions to reduce the negative consequences of chronic sleep loss.”

But don’t expect any changes any time soon at CPS. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he’s not about to use “preliminary research” to reconsider start times in Chicago.

 

 

 





Take 5: Graduation rate up, Urban Prep's first class, end of PURE?

August 28, 2014 - 9:17am

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett are basking in the latest graduation and on-track rate numbers, saying the five-year cohort graduation rate is now nearly 70 percent. Instead of holding a press conference and taking questions, though, Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett announced it in an editorial in the Sun-Times.  They credit full-day kindergarten, the longer school day and better programs in neighborhood high schools, such as International Baccalaureate and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

Of course, these initiatives probably had little effect on the graduation rate, as they are too recent to have had any impact on the cohort of students in question, who entered high school in 2009-2010. The Consortium on Chicago School Research has another theory: In 2005, the consortium put out a study stating that freshmen who earn at least five credits and no more than one “F” in a semester in a core course are 3-1/12 times more likely to graduate in four years. The findings prompted CPS to hire on-track coordinators to stay on top of freshmen, though many of those support positions have vanished due to budget cuts.

Even without the supports, though, the on-track rate is 84.1 percent, according to Byrd-Bennett’s announcement at Wednesday’s board meeting. Board member Henry Bienen said it was a fresh change of pace to hear positive news about CPS. “We hear so much criticism of staff and the board, on school closings, on investments, on our priorities,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the metrics are the metrics. This tells us not that we’re perfect, but that success is happening […]. We can put almost everything else on the side when we see this kind of data.”

Chief of Accountability John Barker said school-level graduation and freshman on-track data should be available sometime Thursday.

2. After graduation… The Chicago Tribune revisits the first class of graduates from Urban Prep Charter School, the city’s only all-boys charter school. Earlier this year, the Associated Press did a similar story. The school made news in 2010 when all its graduates were accepted into college. National Student Clearinghouse data later showed that 76 percent of the graduates actually enrolled. The question since then has been: How many of those students will persist and earn their college degree? The backdrop for this question: In 2006, a Consortium on Chicago School Research report found that only 3 percent of black male freshmen in CPS earned a bachelors’ degree by the time they were 25.

Urban Prep’s head, Tim King, declined to provide information for the Tribune on how many students from the first graduating class got their college diploma this fall. (Tribune columnist Eric Zorn says he should have talked about the problems students encounter as they transition.) But profiles of four of the students show that they struggled with figuring out how to find a support network and deal with the increased academic rigor. One impressive point: Urban Prep stepped up and helped support these students, paying for one student to have a writing coach and another to take summer classes.

The article doesn’t confront the fact that many of the students entered college with low ACT scores. In 2010, the average was 16; last year, 17.1. A 20 is generally considered the minimum for college readiness.

3. PURE activist moves on… Through the years, PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education) Executive Director Julie Woestehoff has sounded alarms about a myriad of issues in the school system, including the dangers of retaining students and of relying too much on standardized testing. She and PURE were perhaps the first to sound alarms about UNO Charter Schools when in January of 2013 they met with the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General to ask for an investigation into the charter school’s financial condition.

But Woestehoff, who has been trying to keep PURE going on a shoestring budget, announced in a blog post that she has moved to Wyoming. She says later this month the board will have a meeting to decide if PURE will continue without her. 

4. Some school-related politics… The Sun-Times reports that Edward Oppenheimer is CTU President Karen Lewis’ first campaign donor for her potential mayoral run. The Oppenheimer Family Foundation is well-known among teachers for giving small grants for classroom and school projects, such as mosaic and gardening projects. Records show that Oppenheimer contributes to many campaigns. In 2011, he gave $500 to Miguel Del Valle’s mayoral campaign.

Also, this week lieutenant governor candidate Paul Vallas said that Chicago schools would face “devastating cuts” if Bruce Rauner becomes governor. He said that under the budget Rauner presented, schools would lose $4 billion annually. It is worth noting, however, that the education budget, among other areas, has been cut under Vallas’ running mate Gov. Pat Quinn. Neither candidate is talking about addressing structural problems that lead to annual deficits.

5. A look at the numbers … Chicago schools have long had more students of color than white students – not surprising, given the city’s demographics. But national student enrollment in public schools is catching up: For the first time ever, the number of Latino, African-American and Asian students is expected to surpass the number of non-Hispanic white students, according to Education Week.

Projections by the National Center for Education Statistics show that 50.3 percent of schoolchildren will be minorities this fall, with these populations remaining in concentrated major urban areas like Chicago, where just over 90 percent of CPS students are students of color.

The story points out that the most dramatic changes in public schooling have been seen in the increased numbers of students whose first language isn’t English. And the numbers are expected to rise, both in traditional urban immigrant hubs as well as the suburbs and rural communities. In Chicago, about 16 percent of CPS students were considered to have limited English proficiency last year. We reported on the challenges of bilingual education and how the suburbs are responding to the increased numbers of English Language Learners in 2012. 



School rating system gets tweaked

August 27, 2014 - 6:14pm

Just one year after unveiling a new School Quality Rating Policy that’s based on a range of indicators from attendance to academic growth, the Board of Education voted on Wednesday to now allow schools to be ranked entirely on their test results.

The change to the rating policy comes because high-performing schools would show less academic growth, thus affecting their SQRP scores, explained John Barker, the district’s chief of accountability.

Ultimately, this would “make it more difficult for schools that are performing at those top levels to [have] much growth that’s higher,” Barker told reporters after the meeting.

Under the revised policy, schools will get two ratings: one based on the SQRP and one based solely on test scores. The higher of the two ratings would be their official rank in the district’s 5-tier system.

Elementary schools that rank in the top 90th percentile nationally in both reading and math on the NWEA will automatically land in Tier 1, regardless of their SQRP score. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of the data shows that 50 elementary schools would be automatically ranked in the highest tier based on test scores, including 21 selective enrollment or magnet schools.

For high schools, the rating will be based on the composite scores for EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT.

Cassie Creswell from the anti-testing group More Than a Score says she finds it "bizarre" that CPS is revising a performance policy before even issuing its first ratings based on it.

 "The performance policy seems to ignore social science, which shows that when you put pressure on one measure then people start to juke the stats. They will do whatever they can to get high test scores," she says.

The ratings, which will be released in about three weeks, are important because they determine whether a school may be targeted for actions – such as a turnaround or closure. And parents are more likely to try to send their children to a highly rated school, which impacts enrollment.

Delay of PARCC?

During the public comment portion of the meeting, parent activist Wendy Katten told the board she was concerned about the state’s implementation of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (known as the PARCC), which is supposed to take place this spring.

“The issue with the PARCC test is not that it’s rigorous or challenging,” said Katten, of Raise Your Hand Illinois. “But the instructions are confusing, and the answers are often vague.” Katten added that some parts of the computer-based version of the test are clunky.

Illinois is one of several states that are using the PARCC to comply with federal requirements related to aligning curricula to the Common Core State Standards. CPS will not consider it a high-stakes test, meaning that it will not be tied to evaluations for teachers, principals or schools.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she’s discussed the PARCC with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and both agree that there hasn’t been sufficient discussion around the piloting of it last spring. But her explanation of whether the district plans to ask the Illinois State Board of Education for some sort of waiver or delay was not totally clear.

“I’ve had additional conversations with the state superintendent and the president of the [state] board of education to say that we’d like further discussion around – and we presented why think that we should not – I’m not looking for a long-term waiver, but the opportunity for us to really to ensure that everything is in place so that our children will be the best they can be on that test,” Byrd-Bennett said.

After the meeting, Barker told reporters that school district officials from across the state have had “a number of conversations” regarding how the PARCC will be handled in the spring. Some school districts have expressed concern about the technology required to offer the assessment on computers, although there is also a paper version, while the Peru superintendent recently questioned whether states were putting too much emphasis on the test.

Barker said CPS is investigating its options but did not explain whether the district intends to seek a waiver or delay.

Meanwhile, ISBE spokesman Matthew Vanover said the state has no authority to provide a waiver or delay for the federally mandated tests.

“We did have an extensive field test this spring where about 500 districts, 1,200 schools and 110,888 students in Illinois took part in PARCC field testing,” he wrote in an e-mail to Catalyst. “The field test was a ‘practice run’ to gather input from teachers and students and to identify and correct problems with this assessment system before its first official administration in spring 2015. This field test did include the online and pen and paper versions.   These assessments are required under NCLB and we have no authority to waiver them.

NWEA analysis

Since CPS released school-level NWEA test scores a few weeks ago, it has been difficult to figure out how to analyze them. This is the first time CPS released the detailed scores and tied them to a performance policy. But the revised performance policy passed Wednesday reveals that the district is looking at the national attainment percentile—the average score of students, compared to the national average--as a measure.

Using that indicator, here are some findings:

  • Charter schools and neighborhood schools did about the same on average, while selective enrollment elementary schools and magnets did way better. Eight charter schools, including all the LEARN campuses and Alain Locke, did not provide NWEA scores.
  • The schools in Riverdale on the Far South East Side and Fuller Park on the South Side did the worst; while the schools in Edison Park and Forest Glen on the Far North Side did the best.
  • In reading, 87 schools or nearly one-fifth scored below the 10th percentile in national attainment. Ninety percent of them are mostly black and/or neighborhood schools.
  • Of the schools that scored above the 90th percentile in national attainment in reading and math and were therefore automatically given the highest rating: 28 are neighborhood schools, one is a charter school and 21 are either magnet or selective enrollment schools. Of the neighborhood schools, only one, Hefferan in West Garfield Park, is mostly black.

Pages

Subscribe to CRS Main Feed