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Independent reporting on urban education since 1990 2015-07-31T16:30:58Z
Updated: 1 hour 40 min ago

The history of hidden dropouts

June 12, 2015 - 3:53pm
New efforts to ensure CPS high schools report dropouts accurately are fighting a long history of misclassified students.

Take 5: Graduation rate scrutiny, questions on an UNO firing, union rally turnout

June 11, 2015 - 8:48am
Some high schools inflated their graduation rates by misclassifying dropouts, and CPS promises an audit; Dyett High graduates its last class and proposals are on the table to reopen it; UNO fires a charter school activist.

Opening a window to diverse viewpoints

June 8, 2015 - 11:23am
By reading Catalyst, I get to hear the diverse viewpoints of parents, teachers, principals and other Chicagoans who are engaged in and care about our public schools. This helps me understand multiple views, even those on opposing sides of controversial topics such as our new Common Core tests. Catalyst has given me a wide lens […]

Take 5: No Noble in Rogers Park, UNO eyes preschools, more on bankruptcy

June 8, 2015 - 10:55am
The Noble Network of Charter Schools has decided not to try to open a new campus in the Rogers Park area, a decision that was already being celebrated on social media this weekend by activists opposed to having a new charter in the neighborhood. Rogers Park was just one of many neighborhoods across the city […]

Latinos criticize lack of representation on school board

June 6, 2015 - 10:10am
The mayor should have made more of an effort to recruit another Latino member of the school board, say several prominent Latinos. The district is now 46 percent Latino. The lack of diversity is a problem statewide, however.

The rise and fall of student retention

June 5, 2015 - 4:29pm
Then - 1997: Chicago made national news when the School Board adopted a strict promotion policy requiring summer school and then possibly repeating a grade for 3rd-, 6th- and 8th-graders who fall short of chosen cut scores on standardized tests. The first year, 8,741 students were retained in those grades. The policy was approved despite strong evidence that ratcheting up student retention would […]

Take 5: Phoenix Pact for college, Urban Prep union vote, dirty schools

June 4, 2015 - 8:20am
An ambitious new endowment at North Lawndale College Prep will pay all out-of-pocket college expenses for its graduates.

Who’s in, who’s out on Board of Ed

June 2, 2015 - 2:39pm
Mayor Rahm Emanuel may have swept in new faces when his office announced four hand-picked replacement board members, but few expect much in the way of regime change in a system still controlled by City Hall.

Take 5: Byrd-Bennett resigns, no budget deal, Koch lands a job

June 1, 2015 - 6:48am
CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett handed in her resignation letter, leaving the district without a permanent chief in the middle of budget season and during contract negotiations.

Chicago struggles to redesign neighborhood high schools

May 31, 2015 - 2:59pm
In 1992, Hyde Park High School housed 2120 students. Current enrollment is 783. Then - 1992: For decades, Chicago has wrestled with urban education's toughest problem--how to improve climate and achievement in nonselective, neighborhood high schools. As early as the 1980s, Hyde Park High School was using schools-within-a-school to give students more personal attention. In 1992, […]

15 years of leadership and proud of our role

May 28, 2015 - 11:10am

Heather Anichini

In her recent column in Catalyst In Depth, Sarah Karp opined: “The public has the right to know the costs and the results of initiatives taking place in our schools, with our children, teachers and principals.”

We agree!

Over 15 years, The Chicago Public Education Fund has committed more than $50 million to support the programs and organizations that measurably improve teaching and learning in Chicago’s public schools. The Fund’s website includes the grants we’ve made dating back to 2000, along with each grant’s duration and purpose. Both our website and our publicly-available tax filings were discussed with Ms. Karp as she prepared her column.

Ms. Karp’s column also cited three grants The Fund made in our third funding cycle, which launched in 2008 with the ambitious goal of “creating a city-wide system of great public schools” to serve all students in Chicago.

By midway through that funding cycle, Chicago Public Schools had already seen three CEO departures in quick succession (Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman and Terry Mazany), and other key leadership positions at CPS were vacant or only recently filled. In 2011 and 2012, The Fund made grants to a variety of consultants to ensure that a relatively new CPS administration had the management and data support required to make informed decisions about issues such as capital planning and the expansion of strong neighborhood school models.

By 2013, having seen more change atop CPS, The Fund made a strategic decision to move away from this kind of grant-making. Instead, our fourth funding cycle returned our focus to improving support for principals in schools and educators in classrooms. This school year alone, we committed more than $2.5 million to support 80 school teams in implementing educator-led innovation and to fulfill our commitment to quality leadership in each and every Chicago public school.

And we are sharing what we learn. We released case studies on our Summer Design Program and our recent School Leadership in Chicago baseline report. We will publish similar reports in the future, including case studies focused on local school councils and Common Core implementation at CPS. For the past three years, we have also relied upon the feedback and guidance of our Educator Advisory Committee, which consists of some of Chicago’s best educators.

Approving and supporting this work is The Fund’s Board of Directors, which Ms. Karp noted is made up of many of Chicago’s “most powerful people.” In addition to the directors she mentions by name, our board includes academic and thought leaders in education, former and current educators, and former leaders in city, state and federal agencies. Their combined expertise helps put The Fund on the leading edge of philanthropy, often providing early grants for new initiatives that meet educators’ most urgent and pressing needs.

Ms. Karp certainly did get this right: “The Fund’s current focus is on principals and educational innovation.”

Photo: Public schools concept/

Heather Y. Anichini is CEO of The Chicago Public Education Fund, a nonprofit organization working to grow the number of great public schools in Chicago by seeking out and supporting innovative leaders working to reinvent classroom learning.

Take 5: Union vote at Urban Prep, Noble decision delayed, charter renewal revamp

May 28, 2015 - 9:02am

Just over 100 educators at Urban Prep Academies’ three campuses will vote next Wednesday on whether to unionize and join the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. The secret-ballot election -- which takes place under National Labor Relations rules -- comes more than three months after teachers announced a union drive at both Urban Prep and North Lawndale College Prep, two of the city’s longest-running and most respected charter school networks.

David Woo, an outspoken teacher at Urban Prep’s Englewood campus, says he was disappointed administrators did not agree to recognize the union through a “card check” -- which would count how many employees signed union cards -- or to remain neutral during a formal election process. “I genuinely thought they would take a bold step and do something progressive to support unions in charter schools,” said Woo.

Urban Prep Chief Operating Officer Evan Lewis declined to comment before next week’s vote. But administrators at the campuses have been talking about unionization to staff during mandatory meetings that, according to some teachers, have painted unions in a negative light and helped create a culture of fear. Noel Perez-White, a teacher at the Bronzeville campus, says some educators are especially nervous because they have not yet been told whether they’ll be invited to return to Urban Prep next fall.

Educators at North Lawndale College Prep remain in conversations with administrators about unionization and have not set a date for a vote.

2. Deferred vote on Noble ... In response to an outpouring of criticism from principals, elected officials and community activists, the CPS Board of Education decided not to vote Wednesday on a proposal to relocate the Noble Academy to the Uptown neighborhood.

Board President David Vitale said the decision to pull Noble’s proposal – along with two others related to contract and charter schools – was in direct response to the public outcry.

“We do listen here at the board to the community input, whether it’s from students, families, union members, educators, elected officials who provide feedback on the location and other issues related to the charter schools,” he said. “We’ve taken [these three items] off the agenda so we can actually learn more and understand better the reasons that people are not supporting these actions.”

Board members did, however, vote to approve another controversial proposal from Rowe Charter Elementary to expand and relocate part of its operations into the annex of the closed Peabody Elementary School in the West Town neighborhood. The move was approved despite promises made by Barbara Byrd-Bennett -- who is now on leave pending a federal investigation -- to keep charters out of closed schools.

Just four voting board members were present at Wednesday’s meeting: Vitale, Mahalia Hines, Deborah Quazzo and Carlos Azcoitia. Board member and Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz did not vote on the items.

3. New charter renewal process … Andrew Broy, executive director of the Illinois Charter School Network, says he’s troubled by the fact Noble Academy is still in limbo about where it might open next fall. Setting an earlier timeline is one issue he’d like to tackle as part of a project to codify the process for charter renewals by October, when the Board will consider new charter proposals.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Broy and CPS Innovation and Incubation chief Jack Elsey said they’ll spend the summer crafting a new set of standards based on the district’s School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) to determine whether charter schools are on track for renewal.

Elsey said the current policy doesn’t provide enough guidance to charter school leaders about whether they’re on the right track or what they need to do to assure a renewal. The district currently keeps a “watch list” of charter schools that could be shut down if they earn the lowest possible rating under the SQRP two years in a row.

Under a new policy, high-performing charter schools might have their renewals fast tracked, says Broy. “Having a one-size-fits-all approach is too far too burdensome for schools that are, by every measure, great,” he says.

Apart from INCS, the district is also working with private donors -- including New Schools for Chicago -- on developing the new standards. You may remember that New Schools -- a big donor for Noble, KIPP and LEARN charter schools, according to its 2013 tax records -- was formerly known as the Renaissance Schools Fund and came out of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to open 100 new schools in Chicago.

4. Other deferred items … Also on Wednesday, CPS also pulled a recommendation for a one-year renewal of the Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter School, an alternative school in the Englewood neighborhood.

Principal Pa Joof, who had complained to Catalyst last week about the metrics used to rate the school, said he is optimistic the district will return with a recommendation for a longer renewal. “I don’t see any reason they’d have to be very punitive,” he said. “We know what we’re doing, but they come to us with these difficult and impossible measurements.”

The third deferred proposal was a three-year extension of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL)’s contract to “turn around” Dulles Elementary in the South Side. It’s one of the worst-performing schools in AUSL’s portfolio, earning the lowest-possible rating under the SQRP last fall.

CPS had originally given AUSL a five-year contract in 2009 to “turn around” the school, and last year extended the contract for a single year.

5. Ed czar's salary ... The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s education czar, Beth Purvis, is getting paid out of the agency that funds autism and epilepsy services. Purvis’ already controversial $250,000 annual salary is drawing new criticism now that it’s known the beleaguered Department of Human Services is footing the bill.

Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Appropriations-Human Services Committee, called it “financial trickery [ …] This is a huge salary, especially when on Good Friday you’re cutting autism and epilepsy, and you’re paying someone at the same time a quarter of a million bucks?”

The governor’s office had initially “sliced $26 million in services including for autism, epilepsy and burials for the indigent” and caused some shut-downs until the monies were later restored in April.

One last point … about Wednesday’s board meeting. Many of us in the audience were stunned when Ruiz asked CPS staff to publicly outline a variety of measures and contracts that board members would be voting on. That’s an unusual move -- but one that helps bring much-needed transparency to the board. Hopefully Ruiz and the next CEO keep this up.


A laundry list of problems with new edTPA teacher assessment

May 26, 2015 - 11:35am

Larry Vigon

Beginning on September 1, students in teacher preparation programs in Illinois will be required to pass an assessment known as edTPA in order to obtain a license. The test was added on to a list that already includes the Test of Academic Proficiency (also known as the basic skills test) or an acceptable score on the ACT or SAT; a content test before student teaching; and the Assessment of Professional Teaching.

Surprisingly, there has been little debate about edTPA, and coverage in the mainstream press has been scant. However, many in the educational community have some major concerns with this new assessment.

The edTPA was developed by Stanford University as a multiple-measure uniform assessment, and will be scored in Illinois by Pearson Education, a private, for-profit corporation that provides products and services for educators and school districts. (Pearson has also amassed the largest amount of student data in the country, which should be alarming for those worried about the privacy of student information.)

What is most worrisome about the edTPA is that student teachers will need a passing score for licensure and this score will gradually rise, making it more difficult to pass in the years ahead. What the final score will ultimately be has yet to be decided. Hopefully, the required score for licensure will not be determined by a failure/pass ratio, guaranteeing that some students would have to fail in order for the edTPA to be considered valid.

Impersonal, costly and subjective

Aside from the scoring system, a number of other issues are troubling to the educators who are mentoring these students: The evaluators hired by Pearson have absolutely no contact with the students. It is completely impersonal, yet these evaluations will determine the destiny of students who might very well be exemplary candidates as judged by their instructors and supervisors at their college. No matter how many A’s these students have on their transcripts, and no matter how praiseworthy their letters of recommendation, it will be these Pearson evaluators who, in the end, determine their professional fate.

Instructors see their students during seminars, confer with them after scheduled observations, and exchange emails with them offering guidance and suggestions. This constant contact exemplifies the close, professional relationship that develops between instructors and their students, and in most cases ends in a successful student teaching experience. As any veteran teacher will tell you, relationships matter, but this is totally lacking in the edTPA/Pearson experience.

What is particularly painful from a financial viewpoint is that Illinois is not even picking up the $300 tab that goes to Pearson. The full cost is borne by the students who must pay an additional $300 if the entire test has to be retaken due to a poor score. (The basic skills test and content-area tests each cost $135.)

What makes the edTPA totally offensive is that instructors are severely limited by illogical guidelines. For example, certain types of support for their students are deemed unacceptable such as leading comments about their observations in order to help their students pass edTPA.  This represents such a fine line that I totally excused myself from the edTPA classes, and focused instead on the non-edTPA classes, knowing I had full reign to say whatever I needed to say to help my students improve.

Having gone through the edTPA pilot program this semester, I have found Pearson evaluators to be highly subjective, despite rubrics that are in place. One score was so outlandish that it is hard to believe that such an individual is currently employed and in a position to cause some real harm to highly qualified students. Each edTPA portfolio can receive a total of 75 possible points and in this case there was an 18-point differential between what the Pearson evaluator gave one of my students and what I determined the final score should be. The other scores were within 1 and 5 points, indicating a real problem with the score.

It should be noted that Pearson evaluators are paid for each portfolio they grade so it makes economic sense for them to grade as many portfolios as they can, as fast as they can. Obviously, monetary rewards may come into conflict with their professional responsibility to give each portfolio the time it needs to properly evaluate it.

Drain on time, doesn’t predict good teaching

Another problem is the video component of the edTPA. Permission slips have to be distributed and collected, and due to deadlines, the videos of classroom instruction have to be completed early in the student teaching experience. Since student teachers invariably improve over time, it is basically impossible for edTPA evaluators to see how much the candidate has grown by the end of the semester. Then there is the fear, at least on my part, that some evaluators might even be biased against candidates because of their skin color, accents, or the fact that they wear turbans or hijabs.

One of the most frustrating aspects of edTPA was the time it took to deal with the minutiae. A required “language function” was so vague that none of my students even understood it. Neither did I. Also, much emphasis deals with formative and summative assessments. This sounds good in practice, but is impractical given that the final high-stakes summative assessment could take place weeks beyond the three to five lessons that the edTPA entails.

The handbooks contain a lot of information and much of it had to be explained to my students. All of this took up crucial class time that was needed to discuss appropriate methods and strategies that I had developed over the course of a 36-year teaching career at elementary and secondary schools in the private and public sector. Furthermore, my students constantly complained how burdensome this was and how they needed more time to prepare for their non-edTPA classes. Anyone who has gone through student teaching can tell you how challenging it is. The edTPA is an unnecessary drain on their time, and becomes extremely troublesome if their school asks them to help coach or advise an extracurricular activity as part of their student teaching experience. For instance, one of my students was deeply involved with the history fair at her assigned school.

What amounts to an educational entry level “bar exam” is also impractical since it is not a predictor of performance. After being hired, some exceptional teachers burn out and quit within five years, while others with fewer skills continue to grow and even become master teachers. In addition, evaluating a student teacher in one school does not mean that they will be hired in the same educational setting. In my case I did my student teaching at a public high school in Chicago, but was first hired by a Catholic elementary school where I taught junior high students.

While the Illinois State Board of Education will determine the score that is needed to pass the edTPA, the colleges of education throughout Illinois and their instructors need to have the final say. These instructors know their students best and are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the schools where they have been placed. They will witness their progress over many weeks, while the evaluators at Pearson will be limited by viewing two relatively short 10-minute videos and reading commentaries and lesson plans submitted by the students.

It will be the instructors of student teachers who will recognize the many nuances that eventually result in successful teaching, and it will be these new and successful teachers that will motivate and inspire our children.

Photo: University concept/

Larry Vigon is an adjunct instructor at the College of Education, Northeastern Illinois University and a former veteran classroom teacher.



Noble takes up rugby

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

It is 6 a.m. and still dark on a March morning, at a small park near the corner of Chicago and Kedzie, a busy intersection of strip malls. A group of boys from Noble Street Charter’s Rowe-Clark campus, about a half-mile away, are gathered here.

“You have 10 seconds to find a partner,” says Ryan McBride in his clipped Irish accent. Some 30 boys rearrange themselves, with one lying on top of the other. They wait for McBride to blow the whistle for the drill, which looks like something that would take place during a wrestling match.

“The ground is freezing,” they holler into the wind.

In an odd twist, rugby, the national sport of Ireland, has become one of the most popular sports among Noble Street campuses. All of the 16 campuses have boys’ teams and most have girls’ teams as well.

When he opened the first Noble Street campus with his wife in 1999, former teacher Michael Milkie admits he wasn’t thinking too much about sports. But through the years, students would often ask about playing on teams. “We realized it was important to them,” he says.

Milkie supported the idea when one of his principals brought in rugby, and now makes sure each school spends about $65,000 on sports. That pays for coach stipends, transportation, uniforms and other equipment. The teams also sometimes fundraise.

Noble Street is the exception among charters in its commitment to a sport. Many charter schools are housed in buildings that don’t have space for teams to practice and play. In fact, Noble Street-Johnson College Prep in Englewood is located in an old elementary school building. One day this spring, the girls’ soccer, track and field and softball teams shared the small lawn behind the school with the boys’ baseball team. Meanwhile, the boys’ track team ran sprints around the block.

“Facilities is one of our biggest limitations, but we make do,” says Jon Watson, the athletic director at Johnson College Prep.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

All Noble Street campuses have a rugby team. The unusual sport came to the network via a principal and has taken off because it is inexpensive and the students love the chance to learn something new.

An analysis of sports teams that play in Chicago’s Public League shows that on average, charter high schools have fewer than five teams. Because the initial focus is usually on academics or school climate, sports programs typically are not developed until the charter is more established.

A sport like rugby, however, is not played as part of the Public League. Instead, the Noble Street teams compete against each other and some suburban teams. What Noble Street’s experience shows is how students will latch onto a sport, even one that is foreign to them.

Though many colleges don’t yet have rugby as a varsity sport, it is growing and scholarships are out there. Rugby is also inexpensive, as there are no pads or other equipment as in football.

McBride notes that rugby also fills a gap for the boys and girls during seasons when they don’t have any other major sport going on. When students are playing sports, their grades improve and they behave better, he says.

“It is a great way for social control,” McBride says.

It also provides an outlet for students who might need it. Shabree Evans, now a senior, is the manager of the boys’ team and is at the field on this March morning. She has played for the girls’ team since she was a sophomore.

“At first, I was scared,” she says. Her mother was also, when Shabree explained that rugby is like football, but played without a helmet and pads.

But after the first practice, Shabree says she was hooked. “You get a lot of support from your teammates, so that can relieve a lot of stress. And tackling, that can relieve a lot of stress too,” she says, giggling. “It is a fun sport.”

Shabree also was impressed and surprised that her team won every game. The girls’ Rowe-Clark rugby team is somewhat legend and almost every season wins all their games. “I did not know that our team was that good,” she says.

Shabree’s older brother dropped out of Orr High School. But she says one thing that might have kept him interested is more sports programs or other activities.

For her, it made a big difference. As Shabree gets ready to leave high school, she says the two things she will miss most are rugby and drumline. The two adults she is most attached to are McBride and her drumline teacher.

“They are different from a regular teacher, because they know us outside of the classroom,” she says. “They know how to handle us if we are feeling a certain way. A regular teacher only sees us academic-wise, and how we act in the classroom.”

Beyond basketball, a tough road for sports

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

The small group of teenaged boys, dressed in royal blue sweatshirts and matching baseball caps, walk past a barbed wire-lined intermodal on 47th Street that is crammed with loud trucks belching clouds of diesel exhaust. They head under a crumbling viaduct, where crevices are stuffed with glass from broken bottles, empty chip bags and other trash.

The boys turn down a side street and finally reach Fuller Park, about six blocks from Tilden High. Today’s game, Tilden vs. DuSable, will be played here.

Tom Maher Jr., a husky boy with a blond buzz cut, quickly presses his teammates to warm up. Nine boys take their places along a spray-painted white line and respond in unison as Tom counts down stretches: first the calves, then quads and ending with arms.

Today’s game is an intimate affair. Combined, the teams don’t add up to more than 20 players, barely enough to field the two teams. Each of the two coaches has an assistant coach. The spectators can be counted on one hand: Two Tilden girls follow a freshman named Adrian to the field and sit on the bench for the first few minutes, while Tom’s dad is the lone parent.

Baseball and football are everything to Tom Jr., and that is why Tom Maher Sr. rearranges his schedule as an air conditioner/heating repairman to come to the games.

Maher Sr. initially enrolled his son at Leo High School, a Catholic school with a strong, well-funded sports program. But when the financial weight became too heavy for his budget, he transferred his son to Tilden. “I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” Maher Sr. says.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Tom Maher Sr. tries his best to show up at most of his son's baseball games. He is one of the few parents involved in sports at Tilden. His son, Tom Jr., was at Leo High, a Catholic school with a strong sports program, until tuition became too much for his budget.

In general, the move has been good. Tilden, a struggling school in Back of the Yards, was awarded a big federal school improvement grant and has money to incorporate cutting-edge technology into the curriculum. Tom Jr., now a junior, is personable and has plenty of friends. What’s more, the school is only about a block away from his house, so he doesn’t have to travel the rough South Side streets as he did when he was at Leo, at 79th Street and Sangamon Street.

Yet some of Tilden’s sports programs have been a disappointment. This fall, the football team was forced to disband midway through the season. The long-time coach left at the end of last school year, and Principal Maurice Swinney says that he got his budget so late that he barely had time to figure out what to do about the football coaching position. Some schools begin practicing and bonding as a team in August. But Tilden’s new coach was not able to pull together practices until almost the start of school, and had virtually no time to connect with the players.

Tilden has fewer than 400 students, so there weren’t many young men available to recruit. The players who did show up for the football team had trouble playing both offense and defense. The team did poorly, losing every game. Eventually, the adults made the call to quit for the year.

“He took that really hard,” Maher Sr. says of his son.

Maher Sr. says he and Juan Ruiz, the only other involved dad and the team’s third-base coach, are trying to make sure the baseball team is strong. The young coach, Alberto Simental, is committed and convinced Swinney to spend $1,000 on an indoor batting cage.

Simental, who played baseball for Juarez High, says the baseball field was the one place he could “breathe” while growing up. Young and idealistic, Simental wants to provide that for his gaggle of Tilden boys.

But the team is lacking so many of the basics. “Balls, bats,” Maher Sr. says, ticking off a list. “I brought in two old pairs of cleats for students who needed them.”

A few years ago, Ruiz had a job installing state-of-the-art baseball cages and working on athletic fields in the suburbs. His heart aches when he remembers how the shiny new facilities compared to the meager resources for the students at Tilden.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Tilden Blue Devils (from left) Lenord Davis, Christian Ruiz and Shanon Quantez walk from Tilden to their home field, Fuller Park, about six blocks away. Only a third of CPS baseball teams have a diamond on campus.

Tilden’s building, which stretches an entire city block, is surrounded by concrete dotted with small patches of grass. The only practice field option for all the outdoor sports teams is Fuller Park, a 100-year-old facility with an aging gray field house. In front is a lawn with the baseball diamond. “This is just a dirt field,” says Ruiz.

Maher Sr. and Ruiz have gotten the message that it is up to them to raise money if they want something better. They are considering candy sales, car washes and even just sending their boys to stand on the street with tin cans, asking for coins. “It is sad,” Maher Sr. says.

Like so much else in CPS high schools, sports programs are like a tale of two cities: Schools with larger enrollment — which means more funding — and more well-to-do parents or donors offer more opportunities, while other schools just limp along. To some degree, basketball is the exception: CPS has a long tradition of having competitive basketball teams even in low-income neighborhoods, and the sport is inexpensive — all participants really need is a ball, some shoes and a hoop.

Yet sports can play a vital role in engaging students in school and helping them to succeed.

Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor of education, says that sports, like art and other extracurricular programs, have come to be seen as “extras” rather than integral to a healthy, vibrant school. Yet he notes studies have unequivocally shown that these things are critical.

“These are not just frills,” said Noguera during a recent visit to Chicago to give a speech for Generation All, an initiative aimed at revitalizing neighborhood high schools. “Sports and arts lead to better learning. It is not the kids in the suburbs and the private schools [who pay the price] — it is poor kids that are being shortchanged.”

The impact of sports programs also reverberates beyond the students, helping to build a relationship with the surrounding community and solidifying its support of the school. “Look at ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ” Noguera says, referring to the movie and TV series on high school football in small-town Texas. “The whole community comes out.”

A Catalyst Chicago analysis shows that in general, lower-income students have far less access to a variety of sports programs at their schools. High schools with fewer than 85 percent low-income students have an average of 24 sports programs, while schools with more than 85 percent poor students have half as many.

Take Curie High School. It is the third-largest high school in the city, with more than 3,000 students. More than 95 percent of its students are considered low-income. Yet Curie offers only 25 sports programs. Seventeen smaller high schools have more.

Nellie Cotton, whose daughter attends Curie, notes the financial obstacles. Students have to pay for their own uniforms, as well as fees to participate, so many don’t join teams because of the cost, she explains.

Curie parents planned a $20 fundraiser to pay for improvements to an athletic field on campus, so that football and soccer practice and games could be held there and students wouldn’t have to take a bus to another field.

But so few people RSVP’d for the breakfast that it had to be cancelled. The group recently had a $2 fundraiser but even then had to give away tickets and hoped it could make money through food sales.

“We didn’t want our kids to have to travel,” Cotton says. “We wanted fans to be able to show up so the kids could have pride in their school.”

CPS data show that only about a third of high schools have baseball diamonds on campus; while half of high schools have football/soccer fields, some of them are not big enough to host games. The district has seven stadiums that are used by all schools.

Barely any high schools have sports programs that can compete with those in suburban school districts that not only have bigger budgets, but also booster clubs with a tradition of raising additional money for extras.

Maurice Swinney was shocked when he took over as Tilden’s principal three years ago. He came from a school in Louisiana that had a robust athletic program, complete with fields, gyms and all the equipment that students needed or could want. The schools in that district also had booster clubs that purchased extras.

“It was just so huge,” Swinney says. “When I came to Tilden I thought, ‘Oh my God...’ I already had a [picture] of what an athletic program can and should look like. And then to not have it... I had to take that in for a moment and then figure out, ‘How do we build it up as best we can?’ ”

In CPS, the central office pays for only two things: Coaches’ stipends and referees. Up until five years ago, the district also paid all assistant coaches’ stipends; now it pays stipends for assistants for only seven sports, including football, basketball and track and field. The district also quit providing a sports stipend of $750 per school — a pittance, but still something.

Principals point out that the stipends still leave them at a disadvantage. Coach stipends are negotiated in the teachers’ union contract, and football coaches, who are the highest paid, make about $6,000. Coaches for golf, tennis and cross-country only earn about $1,000.

Yet in many suburban high schools, coaches can earn double what they make in Chicago.

Ron McGraw, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, which promotes interscholastic sports, says that there is such a wide variety in how schools deal with sports funding, it is impossible to get a full picture of what is going on. “It is a local decision,” he says.

But beyond coach stipends, what really hinders schools is that CPS does not provide any other sports funding — not for buses to games, not for uniforms, not for equipment, not for tournaments.

Principals then have one of three choices. They can limit the number of sports offered, which schools often do.

They can use discretionary money, forcing sports to compete with extra teachers, supplies, office clerks, attendance officers and counselors for funding. An analysis of discretionary spending shows that in 2014, schools spent anywhere from 0 to 13 percent on “other after-school activities,” which include sports and clubs.

Or, as another option, principals can look to parent groups or students to raise money. But student fundraisers were dealt a blow when the district imposed new rules limiting the number and location of candy and chip sales. In 2012, CPS passed a policy that banned the sale of unhealthy snacks during the school day. Candy and chips can still be sold during games, but except for some basketball games, few people show up, so it often isn’t worth the effort.

At Hyde Park High School, Principal Antonio Ross says he instructed each team’s coach to come up with a fundraising idea. But now that they can’t sell snacks, none of the coaches have been able to come up with solid options.

Tony Howard, CPS’ executive director of education and sports policy, says the administration does not help schools figure out how to offer robust sports programs. “We don’t get into it,” he says.

However, this year, sports administration put out a Request for Proposals for corporate sponsorships. While some teams get donations of shoes and other apparel from Nike, no team is currently sponsored outright. The RFP asked for proposals to sponsor individual teams as well as sports throughout the district; the administration decided to pursue sponsorships through the central office to make sure they are doled out equitably.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman says the district got eight proposals, but has not decided which ones to pursue.

Sports programs have never been adequately funded, says famed Marshall High School girls’ basketball coach Dorothy Gaters, who is also the school’s athletic director. But in recent years, sports programs have been hit harder, becoming collateral damage from the district’s pursuit of school choice as well as the overall loss of students.

Tilden Blue Devil Fernando Sandoval runs home and scores. This year, Tilden won all but two games, but the boys lack basic equipment. One parent brought in two pairs of old cleats for students who needed them.

As more new schools open, neighborhood high schools decline; half now enroll fewer than 600 students. Once known and celebrated for their athletic talents, schools like Tilden and Marshall have dwindled into shells of what they once were. In decades past, Tilden won state championships in wrestling and track and field, and had strong baseball and basketball teams. A decade ago, Tilden had more than 1,300 students; at last count, it had 318 students.

Marshall is also now a third of the size it was years ago. When Gaters was a student in the 1980s, Marshall had just won city or state titles in boys’ basketball and football. It had competitive track and swim teams. The band also was strong.

“We had a lot of kids. We offered a lot,” Gaters says. “It had a great impact on the community. Everyone in the community was so proud of the achievements.”

“The charter schools have siphoned off not just our students but our athletes,” Gaters adds. “When you were once looking at 1,000 kids or 1,500 kids, and now you are down to 400, it is going to impact your sports program.”

Today, only 11 percent of the students in Marshall’s attendance area go to the school, according to CPS data. Marshall’s girls’ and boys’ basketball teams are still competitive, but few of the other sports teams are.

When sports teams could sell candy and chips during the school day and at games, it might take them a month to raise the $1,200 or so they would need to go to a tournament in a nearby state like Wisconsin or Iowa, Gaters says. By contrast, it took the girls’ basketball team five months to raise enough cash to go to Las Vegas for a tournament last year and much of the money came from a former student who made a donation.

Howard says he sympathizes with the principals and coaches, but that the district is also worried about the growing epidemic of childhood and teenage obesity.

Gaters stresses that going to out-of-state tournaments is a good idea not only because it gets the girls seen by college coaches in other places, but because it is an experience they might not otherwise have. “The kids just had a great time. It was an opportunity for them to experience something entirely new and different. So we are not able to do those types of things on a regular basis,” she says.

Despite Gaters’ substantial success with her teams, she knows she is still at a disadvantage.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Tilden Blue Devils (from left) Lenord Davis, Christian Ruiz and Shanon Quantez walk from Tilden to their home field, Fuller Park, about six blocks away. Only a third of CPS baseball teams have a diamond on campus.

The selective high schools on the North Side and in the central part of the city not only shine academically: They are among the only schools with a variety of financially viable sports programs. Simeon Academy, where basketball superstar Derrick Rose and budding star Jabari Parker played, is the lone traditional high school on the South Side with a booster club.

Whitney Young, North Side College Prep, Walter Payton and Jones all have 30-plus sports teams, even though North Side and Payton are relatively small schools.

Part of these schools’ advantage is strong parent involvement, including active fundraising, and families with money. The schools also charge hefty activity fees. One example of the result: The football team at Whitney Young had a budget of $12,000 in the 2013-2014 school year (not including the coaches’ stipend paid by CPS), while Marshall’s team had less than $2,000.

Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner has perhaps the most developed sports program in the city, including tennis, lacrosse and water polo. No other school offers any sport that isn’t also offered at Whitney Young, with the exception of perhaps rugby. Whitney Young also has two competition-size gyms, a regulation-size athletic field and tennis courts.

It is one of only two schools that have booster clubs that raise significant money. According to tax documents, the boys’ basketball booster club regularly brings in more than $100,000. In 2013, it had an unusually successful year, raising more than a quarter of a million dollars. Lane Tech’s Baseball Boosters brought in $52,000.

When Kenner took over as principal at Whitney Young in the mid-1990s, the school had sports programs, but Kenner felt they weren’t connecting with students. Kenner had been a physical education teacher, and her entire family was deeply involved in sports.

Kenner considers it “stupid” for principals to put sports and other extracurricular programs on the back burner. She makes it a point to go to as many games and other events, from math competitions to lacrosse matches, as she can manage when her students are participating. It shows students that she and the school care about them, she says.

If teams need something, Kenner is usually able to provide it. The key: Parents who are financially able and willing to step in.

Kenner points to a time when her son played baseball and basketball for Whitney Young. Both the teams traveled, and the parents who could afford it not only paid the way for their sons, but also chipped in to cover the cost for those whose families could not pay.

On top of that, if a coach comes to Kenner and says they need a bus to get a team somewhere or fans to a game, she finds money for it. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending out an e-mail or letter to parents with the ‘ask.’

“I can’t remember a time that I really said no to anybody,” she says.

Kenner notes that Whitney Young has been able to attract the children of wealthy Chicagoans, including basketball icon Michael Jordan’s youngest son, Marcus.

Kenner notes that for top-flight athletes, selling the school is easy. “Why wouldn’t you want to come to a school that is focused on academics and has successful athletic programs? I mean the answer to that to me is very simple.”

The price of fundraising

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

A new fundraising craze is pumping money into some North Side Schools: Theme parties at parents’ homes. Think of a party focused on the ‘70s or wine-and-dessert, sold to the highest bidder.

Parties like these are not just fun, but also lucrative, says Tracy Portnoy, president of Friends of Coonley, a fundraising group for Coonley Elementary. The parties are offered on an auction table at a recent gala, with other items such as a stay at a vacation home and airline tickets to get there, gift baskets and jewelry. At the end of the night, the auction raised a whopping $205,000 for Coonley, in North Center. In 2014, their total was more than $400,000.

“I care about making sure that the school is effective through the highs and lows of the budget,” Portnoy says. “It truly takes a village.”

For a select but growing group of schools in Chicago’s wealthier communities, parent fundraising has risen to new heights. Most parent groups can only dream of bringing in significant money. And most schools don’t have “Friends of” groups, for which the main focus is fundraising, though PTAs and similar groups sometimes raise small pots of money.

In just a decade, the number of parent groups at district-run schools that raise more than $50,000 a year doubled to 41, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of tax information and annual reports filed with the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Of those 41, 30 brought in more than $100,000 and eight raised more than $200,000.

Altogether, these 41 schools raised roughly $7.6 million in one year, or an average of about $300 extra per student. By far, the biggest fundraiser was Alcott, which took in $600,000, according to its tax information. This money is on top of the $4,390 per student that the district provides all schools, plus extra for specialty programs and students who are in special education, low-income or English learners.

All of these schools are in upper-middle class communities, with an average of 41 percent white enrollment, compared with 9 percent district-wide.

Only five high schools, all of them selective — Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Jones, Payton and Northside Prep — fundraise to a significant extent. A few high schools, such as Amundsen and Senn, have newly launched Friends of groups.

Most people don’t begrudge parents the chance to make their child’s school better with more money. But the fact that some schools are able to raise so much contributes to the already-glaring disparities among schools, and at least partly explains why two schools in the same district can look so different.

Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, says that if Illinois schools were funded adequately to cover the basics, the extra cash wouldn’t be problematic. But as it is, Chicago schools are “dramatically underfunded,” he notes. “Everybody is getting too little, so it heightens the inequities.”
Rebell’s organization uses constitutional law as it attempts to convince the courts to force states to provide equitable funding. Yet Rebell points out that, while Illinois’ state constitution has strong language around parity, the courts don’t seem inclined to enforce it. Illinois ranks dead last among the 50 states in funding equity between low income and wealthier school districts, according to a recent Education Trust report.

When issues around school fundraising and equity emerged in New York 15 or 20 years ago, the state banned outside groups from paying for core teachers — such as regular classroom teachers or those for basic subjects — but allowed them to chip in for supplemental teachers, Rebell says.

Neither Illinois law nor CPS policy prevents schools from using fundraised money for teachers or other staff. According to a district manual on the subject, schools must not use fundraised money to buy things that only benefit individual employees, should be able to document purchases and must make sure the expenditures benefit students.

CPS could not provide Catalyst a full accounting of how the money is spent, but officials said that in this school year, 18 full-time and five part-time teachers were hired in schools using money from private fundraising. In addition, 15 teachers’ salaries were partly paid with private fundraising money.

As schools have experienced deep budget cuts, parents say they are increasingly called upon to pay for basics. Some parents say their main purpose is helping their schools survive cuts.

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Principal Chad Wieden of Edgebrook School on the Northwest Side explains how The Commons, a new flexible media space in the school that was paid for with fundraising, will be configured after completion.

But schools also fundraise for expensive extras such as computers, sound systems and impressive playgrounds.

Take Edgebrook Elementary. This year, the PTA and the school’s foundation paid to renovate a room into The Commons, outfitted with new computers and projectors so students would have a place to work on projects.

Edgebrook Principal Chad Weiden says he is grateful for the parents’ effort, but emphasizes that the school would still be good without the extras. “Good teaching is good teaching,” says Weiden, who spent five years as principal at Social Justice High School in North Lawndale.

To some degree, Nellie Cotton agrees with Weiden. She is a local school council member at Grimes/Fleming Elementary, a highly rated school in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Clearing. Parents at the school have book fairs and bake sales, but only manage to raise about $8,000 a year.

Nearly 90 percent of students at Grimes/Fleming are low-income and most of the fundraised money is used to help students who can’t pay for their own transportation or for student fees.

“It is stretched thinly to where it needs to go,” says Cotton.

Two years ago, after big budget cuts, Cotton says the school replaced two retiring teachers with less experienced ones. This year, Cotton says she is hearing that the budget will shrink again, and her school is out of options.

“We are really scrambling,” she says. “We don’t know what will happen.”

When Weiden was principal at Social Justice High School, the school received a significant amount of poverty grant funds — extra state and federal money given to schools based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “Here we get almost nothing,” he says of Edgebrook. It’s a point echoed repeatedly by others who defend private fundraising.

At Edgebrook, only about 15 percent of the 512 students are considered low-income, so the school receives just $46,000 in poverty grants. By comparison, similarly sized schools with all low- income students got an average of $370,000 in poverty funds.

“The way they do things is an imbalance,” says Debbie Kobak-Nielson, president of the Edgebrook School Foundation. “The foundation helps us to stay on top of things.” The foundation raised about $50,000 last year. In addition, the Edgebrook Parent Teacher Organization raised about $160,000.

But the argument that parent fundraising replaces poverty grants isn’t necessarily valid. For one, some schools don’t get a lot of poverty money, nor are they able to raise a lot of money. Fourteen of the 45 elementary schools in the district that have fewer than than 50 percent low-income students fit this category. Many of these schools are on the Southwest Side or Northwest Side in solid middle- to working-class neighborhoods, like Mt. Greenwood, where families are making ends meet but don’t have a lot of extra cash.

Second, schools that do get a lot of poverty grants are the schools where children are likely to have the greatest needs — the rationale for providing schools with extra funds. Studies show that it takes double the amount of funding to educate a low-income student compared to a student from a middle-class or wealthy family, Rebell says. Schools with lower-income students, like Grimes/Fleming, often use their poverty grants to hire extra staff to support children, such as counselors, social workers or attendance officers. The money rarely stretches far enough for fancier extras like new computers.

Third, as Bobby Otter from the Center for Tax and Budget Policy points out, schools in wealthy areas often have specialties, such as magnet programs, for which the district provides extra money.

Lolita Sereleas, president of Friends of Audubon for two years, has serious reservations about the heavy reliance on fundraising at schools like Audubon.

“CPS and the administration seem like they cut the budget and leave it to parents to figure it out,” she says. “But for those schools that can’t fundraise as much, it creates a lot of disparity.”

Sereleas helped Audubon raise $312,000 last year. “The amount we are expected to raise keeps getting higher,” she says. “How much can you do, and how much can you be expected to raise? I think there is a fair amount of fundraising fatigue.”

Friends of Audubon keeps a small amount in reserve and hands over the bulk of the money to the local school council. The money is mostly used to help pay for teaching positions or supplemental staff, such as reading specialists.

Sereleas thinks it’s unrealistic to expect Friends of Audubon to continue to raise a quarter of a million a year. The group is bracing for the coming year, when deep cuts could materialize.

“We have heard a lot of doom and gloom,” says Sereleas. “The climate is not positive.”

Despite the reservations, Friends Of groups are beginning to be seen as essential tools to improve schools.

Paul Schearf revived the Friends of Agassiz group eight years ago, when his son was only 2 years old and hadn’t even started preschool.

Agassiz is in the gentrified Lake View area, but many families did not send their children there at the time. Instead, the children attended private schools or magnet schools, like nearby Hawthorne.

While Schearf says they did not want to completely change the school, he jokingly says they kind of wanted to “gentrify” it. “We were aspiring to be like the schools that did mega-fundraising like Blaine, Alcott and Nettelhorst. They raise more than $100,000 a year. We wanted to have that support,” he says.

The first year he ran the group, it raised $25,000; the second year, $50,000. Schearf wanted to keep doubling it, but fundraising held steady after it reached about $80,000.
Schearf believes that to really be successful, Friends Of groups need to have a parent who can work on fundraising virtually as a part-time job.

Chris Hewitt is part of a group of families in Logan Square who want to turn Brentano into a viable neighborhood school. About two years ago, they started Friends of Brentano and just filled out the paperwork in February to become an official non-profit. He says the first thing the group wanted to do was to let parents know about the school and get them enthusiastic about it. For example, one member runs a weekly playgroup at the school.

“Fundraising, while important, wasn’t our first goal. However, once we realized that most of the schools that offer extra programs in CPS have to do so with community and parent fundraising, it became more important to us,” Hewitt says.

Yet it has been a difficult road. Though the neighborhood is changing and wealthier residents are moving in, about 86 percent of Brentano’s students are low-income. So far, the organization has brought in less than $10,000 in two years.

Hewitt says CPS could help schools with the daunting process of registering as a non-profit to help them get organized.

The question, however, is whether these groups can really be successful in keeping parents in the city, especially the groups that don’t raise as much money.

After running Friends Of Agassiz for three years and then serving on the local school council, Schearf and his wife moved the family to Naperville.

“The story of the middle class in Chicago,” he says. Still, the desire for a good school was only one reason they moved. In Chicago, they lived in a small condo, and they wanted a house with a backyard and a community that was “kid-centric.”

Public Ed fund, private role

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

The federal investigation into SUPES Academy is shining a light on a quiet though influential player in the city’s education arena: The Chicago Public Education Fund.

SUPES, of course, is the for-profit leadership training firm at the center of an FBI probe that has targeted CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett (who is now on leave). Before SUPES got its now-infamous $20.5 million no-bid contract from CPS, The Public Education Fund had given SUPES a $380,000 contract to train area network chiefs and their deputies. The Fund isn’t a target of the investigation and is apparently only a tangential player.

The Fund decided not to keep funding SUPES after its initial project, despite a request from CPS to do so. But that didn’t emerge until April 2015, nearly two years after CPS gave SUPES a contract for $20 million.

The larger question, though, isn’t about SUPES. It’s about the role of a privately financed foundation that is deeply entwined with a public school system.

If the larger school community had known about The Fund’s decision not to keep funding SUPES, taxpayers might have saved the $12 million SUPES was paid before its contract was cancelled.

For the most part, The Fund supports projects meant to be scaled up as part of the school system. In recent years, it has also paid consultants to conduct searches for top district staff and to help develop plans for the district.

Yet no one outside The Fund’s staff and board of directors know how it decides which programs to support, what the results have been and how or whether the results are communicated to CPS.

As the Fund’s CEO and President, Heather Anichini, explains it, her staff meet and talk with numerous people — from teachers to principals to other foundations to players in the field — and then decide what initiatives to support. To keep their funding, initiatives have to meet benchmarks set by The Fund.

“So we actually don’t do a ton of formal reporting in the way that many other organizations might,” Anichini says. “But we do have these checks along the way.”

Information on outcomes is communicated to CPS through “conversations with administrators,” Anichini adds.

The process might seem innocuous enough. But it also sounds ripe for manipulation. And it is certainly not public.

It is worth noting that The Fund’s board is made up of some of the richest, most powerful people in Chicago—people with strong and definite opinions about the direction of CPS and including some of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staunch supporters and campaign donors. “It would be difficult to assemble a board that screams 1 percent louder than (The Fund)—from the schools its members attended to jobs held to marriages made,” as Chicago Magazine’s Carol Felsenthal wrote in a column.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is a former board president. Current board members are billionaire Kenneth Griffin, Penny Pritzker and Susan Crown of the Crown family.

The only way to make sure that the voices of the well-connected don’t drown out the voices of parents and the general public is to have complete transparency in decision-making about public schools. The public has the right to know the costs and the results of initiatives taking place in our schools, with our children, teachers and principals.

When The Fund was started 15 years ago, the Annenberg Challenge, which pumped $50 million into a variety of initiatives, was ending. Then- CEO Paul Vallas says he, former Mayor Richard Daley and other school leaders wanted to keep the momentum going.

The Fund’s current focus is on principals and educational innovation. In recent years, though, it has paid for consultant work affecting major district leadership and strategies.

In 2011, The Fund paid a consultant $100,000 to search for a chief financial officer; the man hired, Peter Rogers, only stayed for about two years. In 2012, The Fund paid three consulting companies — McKinsey & Company, Parthenon Group and Global Strategy Group — to do planning and marketing work for CPS.

The $1.5 million paid to Parthenon and McKinsey is particularly interesting. Parthenon helped CPS write the 2013 Request for Proposals for new schools.

McKinsey got the largest cut and was paid to provide data analytics and management support for the district’s 10-year master facilities plan—which was criticized for lacking detail—and to design the structure and duties for a new Office of Strategic Management, which analyzes trends, establishes school attendance areas and does long-term capital planning.

The Fund points that the consultants were needed because CPS leadership was new and state law called for the master facilities plan to be done on a “short time line,” and stresses that McKinsey did not “write” the plan.

CPS hired Todd Babbitz from McKinsey to run the new office, where he spearheaded the mass school closings in 2013.

During this time, thousands of parents and community members were attending numerous public hearings clamoring for to be heard on the closings as well as the facilities plan. It’s unclear how much of what parents said was taken into account by the consultants.

But neither the school closings plan nor the master facilities plan changed.

CPS recommends controversial charter relocations, shorter renewals for low performers

May 22, 2015 - 5:19pm

Despite a push this week by North Side principals, elected officials and others against a proposal to relocate the Noble Street Academy to Uptown, CPS is recommending that the Board of Education approve the move anyway.

And much to the dismay of activists, the district also wants the board to OK a proposal from Rowe Elementary charter school to expand to the site once occupied by Peabody Elementary. In the wake of the historic 2013 school closings in Chicago, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had repeatedly promised to keep charter schools out of closed schools.

“This opens a potential Pandora’s Box,” says Valencia Rias-Winstead, who was part of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force. “If you go back on your word for one school, then you’ve got to give it to all the others.”

CPS officials did not comment Friday afternoon on the recommendations.

The Noble and Rowe petitions are among more than two dozen proposed modifications or renewals for charter and contract schools that the district is recommending for approval at next Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Principals and others protesting the Noble proposal fear a charter school would siphon off students from neighborhood high schools and say that the area doesn’t need another high school.

"I realize this charter thing is going to happen, but are you really choosing the neighborhoods where the schools are needed?" asked Chad Adams, principal of Sullivan High in Rogers Park. "I feel like the reason they're doing it is more of a long-term strategic, budget move that none of quite understand what's actually behind it."

Noble Street officials have told Catalyst they don’t think a new school in the area would impact enrollment at any one specific high school significantly.

Shorter renewals for some

CPS is also recommending renewals for all 14 charter and contract schools whose agreements are up this June. However, only half of the schools are being recommended for five-year renewals, the length most schools have typically received in years past. The district is using shorter renewals as a way to hold privately-run schools accountable for academic performance and financial stability.

The district wants to give three-year renewals to six of the remaining schools -- and is asking for additional terms such as improved academics or finances.

And one school -- the Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter -- is being recommended for just a single-year extension. The district wants the alternative high school in the Englewood neighborhood to improve by at least one notch on the district’s accountability system, in addition to stabilizing its finances.

Pa Joof, the school’s principal, says the School Quality Rating Policy doesn’t fully capture the successes he’s seen at Johnston. The metrics included in the SQRP for alternative schools are snapshots in time, he says, and ignore the fact that many students float in and out of the school.

“During the five years we have been in existence, we have graduated 176 kids who otherwise would be in jail,” Joof says. “That’s a success. The kids that come to us are on the streets, are homeless. Why are they giving other schools three years and not us?”

Conditions on charter renewals

Meanwhile, two of the three Urban Prep campuses -- West and Englewood -- are slated for three-year renewals. Only the Bronzeville campus, which last year earned the second-highest rating under the five-tiered SQRP, is being recommended for a full five-year renewal.

The renewals for all three Urban Prep campuses are contingent on improvement on two metrics on its financial scorecard. These include its audits on legal compliance and its liquidity ratio, which measures the ability to pay off debt.

Evan Lewis, Urban Prep’s chief operating officer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.

Chicago Tech Academy High, Galapagos and Epic schools are also being recommended for three-year renewals. All three schools received the second-lowest rating possible under the SQRP last fall.

As part of the recommended renewal for ChiTech, CPS says the school’s “Academic Excellence Committee must continue to provide oversight and support for the term of the agreement.” In addition, ChiTech has to provide the district minutes of the committee’s meetings as proof that it’s working toward improvement.

Galapagos, meanwhile, is being given two years to make substantial renovations to its buildings. These include repairing or replacing boilers, water lines, the ventilation system, and installing sufficient exterior lights for safety precautions.

No additional conditions are being applied to Epic, a charter high school that had been placed on a warning list in 2013 but made sufficient improvements to come off the list last fall.

The district is recommending a five-year renewal of the Youth Connection Charter Schools network -- in addition to 301 new seats at its alternative schools. Last year YCCS executive director Sheila Venson spoke to Catalyst about the years-long struggle to increase enrollment at the schools and her disappointment in the district’s expansion of for-profit alternative schools. Venson could not be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.

Renaissance 2010 launched to create 100 new schools

May 22, 2015 - 10:37am
Then - 2004:

With great fanfare, Mayor Daley announced the creation of 100 new schools, mostly charters,  to replace existing failing schools. Backed by the business and philanthropic communities, the Renaissance 2010 project pledged to open only high performing schools.  The effort ran into immediate trouble from parents, community groups and the CTU upset by school closings. Funding took time to materialize, as did teachers and principals capable of starting up new schools. CPS persisted with the Renaissance 2010 project, claiming that the new schools would drive improvement throughout the school district.  CPS was supported by the Renaissance Schools Fund, a private fundraising and strategic partner formed by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and which helped raise $70 million for the project.

See Rocky start for renaissance, Catalyst October 2004


By 2010, CPS had created 92 Renaissance schools, yet just 16 of the schools were performing at or above state averages on the ISAT. Depressingly, 3 out of 4 CPS students still attended low performing schools. CPS acknowledged that new schools were not the main catalyst for systemwide improvement. Yet the closure of 50 schools in 2013 did not stop CPS from continuing to approve new charter school applications.

See, Searching for equity, Catalyst In-Depth, Summer 2010


Superintendent Barbara Byrd Bennett placed a moratorium on closing more schools and on charters moving into closed CPS buildings. Now that she is on leave, CPS is making noises about permitting charters to move into closed buildings -- if a community requests the move. Northside high school principals are already organizing to protest the move to place more charters in their boundaries. Expect the issue to become part of teacher contract negotiations in some way.

See Take 5: charter opposition, Catalyst May 21, 2015; and Charter might move into closed CPS schools, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio

Catalyst Critical Conversation focuses on improving high schools

May 22, 2015 - 10:31am

More than a 100 educators, advocates, parents and students gathered on Thursday for the premier of the sixth and final episode of a local schools documentary series -- and a lively discussion about how to improve Chicago high schools.

The forum was hosted by Catalyst Chicago and The School Project, whose final fim, "Teaching," explores the use of intensified algebra -- back-to-back periods of algebra -- at Roosevelt High School.

Catalyst founder and publisher Linda Lenz moderated the forum.

Speakers included: Camille Farrington, a researcher at the Consortium on Chicago School Research who's written a book about reforming high schools; Beatriz Ponce de León, executive director of Generation All; Laura LeMone, principal at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center; Cynthia Nambo, principal at Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy Charter High School; Regeta Slaughter from University of Illinois at Chicago; and Warren Currie, math teacher at Michele Clark High School.

CAN TV Chicago broadcast the event live, and it will be rebroadcast at a later date.

The event is one of three town hall forums organized this year by Catalyst, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.  Join us for our future events, including our third Story Slam, and please consider making a donation so that Catalyst can continue reporting on education for another 25 years.

Below is a Storified version of the tweets from Thursday's film showing and discussion. And see more photos of the event here.

[<a href="//" target="_blank">View the story "The High School Challenge" on Storify</a>]


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