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Updated: 1 hour 29 min ago

In the News: CPS furniture proposal draws protesters

March 27, 2014 - 6:25am

Parents, activists, teachers and administrators gathered outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters Wednesday morning to protest a proposal to spend nearly $10 million on new furniture as the district prepares to move to new offices. (Tribune)

BYRD-BENNETT'S ASSESSMENT ON CLOSINGS: Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett on Wednesday said that a district analysis of schools consolidated with the closed 47 elementary schools showed that incidents of misconduct were down in schools that took in children from closed schools in the second quarter of this year over last; grade point averages had risen; and the much-touted Safe Passage routes between the closed and new schools saw no major violent incidents while workers were at their posts. (Tribune)

SHOW OF SUPPORT: The Faculty Association of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools issued a statement to the Chicago Teachers Union in support of educators for families and teachers who opted out of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test in Chicago Public Schools. (Hyde Park Herald)

VICTORY FOR FOOTBALL PLAYERS: Northwestern University football players are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to a union election, Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, said in a ruling released Wednesday afternoon. (Tribune)

IN THE NATION
PRINCIPAL SUPPLY AND CAPACITY: Without a deeper bench of principals who specialize in overhauling chronically failing schools, the Obama administration's efforts to turn around low-performing schools will have a fleeting impact, city K-12 leaders told federal education officials Monday. Leaders in urban districts told those who wrote the rules for the school turnaround program that principal supply and capacity remain among the most pressing challenges for school districts. (Education Week)

UNFAIRNESS ALLEGED: The Bright Futures scholarship program in Florida is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights concerning allegations that its method of deciding who gets tuition assistance is unfair for minority groups. (Education Week)

CPS touts minute improvements for students from closed schools

March 26, 2014 - 6:29pm

Ever-so -slight improvements in attendance, graduation on-track rates and grade-point averages among students from closed schools proved enough to please CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and board members.

In her first update on what has happened to the roughly 12,000 students whose schools were closed at the end of last school year, Byrd-Bennett told board members on Wednesday that dire predictions of chaos did not come true.

 “We’re stronger today than we were before and better positioned than we were before,” she said. “Students impacted by the consolidations are making academic gains.”

But the CEO’s preliminary report does not show substantial gains.

In every area, students from closed schools lag way behind and have made less progress than other students throughout the city. The on-track rate for students who did not experience any school actions last year was nearly 60 percent in Quarter 2 of this school year, up 2 percentage points from last year. Those numbers were nearly parallel for students from the welcoming schools, whose graduation on-track rates grew from 57 percent to 59 percent.

But students from closed schools have seen an increase of only 0.3 percent, to 48 percent.

Board members, who didn’t ask any questions about the report, lauded the CEO.

 “Congrats to you and the team,” said Board President David Vitale. “Frankly, it’s an incredible success to date.”

CPS has spent more than $225 million on capital and academic programming at the 50 welcoming schools to smooth students’ transition from the closed schools.

Byrd-Bennett said that the placement of additional monitors along routes used by students from closing schools led to no “major” incidents, and that attendance was up. During the first two quarters of the 2012-2013 school year, the average attendance of students from closed schools was 92.7 percent. During the same period this year, the average attendance was 93 percent.

The CEO also noted that just over half of students from closed schools improved their attendance. It’s unclear whether the other half fared worse off, or if their attendance did not change. CPS officials did not provide more detailed data.

Context missing from report

The 9-page midyear report does not take into account some factors that could have impacted data on student performance during the first two quarters of last school year – when a parsed list of potential closures was first made public.

A 2009 Consortium on Chicago School Research study on school closings found that the most precarious time for students of closed schools are the months around the announcement. The research indicates that the drama caused by knowing a school may close can affect attendance and conduct.

Also, some of the students in closed schools did not actually change buildings. In those cases, the staff and students from welcoming schools moved into their space. The children who did not change buildings would not have had to travel longer distances, something that many worried would affect attendance.

During her comments to the board on Wednesday, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the CEO’s report doesn’t tell the entire story about the consequences of closing schools.

“There are still 800 students unaccounted for from the entire move last year,” Lewis said. “These are things that are never discussed publicly that need to be discussed publicly.”

The CEO said she would return to the board at the end of the school year with a more comprehensive analysis, and promised to provide annual updates during the next three years.

ISAT investigation “winding down”

Byrd-Bennett also briefly addressed the controversy surrounding an ongoing CPS investigation into teachers at Drummond Montessori School and Saucedo Scholastic Academy who refused to give the ISAT standardized test earlier this month.

CPS legal investigators interviewed Drummond students last week, infuriating their parents, who had not given their consent for the interviews. Investigators later talked with Saucedo teachers but said they did not interview students there.

“We are obliged to investigate the allegations of staff misconduct,” Byrd-Bennett said. “Our interviews are winding down and concluding, and after consultation with legal, I will bring back findings and recommendations for this board to consider.”

Many parents in the audience who spoke during the public comments section of the meeting criticized the district for the ISAT investigation. Parents said it was their decision – and not the teachers’ – to opt their children out of taking the ISAT.

“Who the heck thought it was a good idea to send an investigator in to question our kids?” asked Mary Zerkel, a Drummond parent. “Did our mayor approve this?”

School board silent on school turnarounds

Before the meeting, dozens of parents, teachers and community supporters rallied against a CPS proposal last Friday to “turn around” three elementary schools:  Dvorak in North Lawndale, McNair in Austin and Gresham in Auburn-Gresham. The board will vote on the proposal next month.

One Dvorak parent, Lisa Russell, asked the board to give the schools more resources to turn themselves around instead of turning over the management to an outside organization.

“I know we’re not moving as fast as you want us to, but we take every child from everywhere,” she said. “We take the children nobody wants.”

Russell also suggested that the board vote against a proposal to nearly double its budget for new furniture for CPS headquarters, which are changing locations later this year. Still, the board voted unanimously for the proposal, bringing the total furniture budget for the new office space to $9.5 million.

No more background checks for some volunteers

In other action, the board agreed unanimously to scale back CPS requirements on background checks for volunteers. The new tiered system makes it easier for parents and community members to get involved in schools, said Phil Hampton, who heads the district’s family and community engagement programs.

“We feel that the current policy and practice is somewhat restrictive and that’s why we’re here today,” he said. “We want to increase access to interested volunteers, in particular to parents and non-parents, while also providing the necessary safeguards for students and staff.”

Criminal background checks will now only be required for parent volunteers who spend more than 10 hours per week at the school their child attends, and non-parent volunteers who work five hours per week. Chaperones on overnight school-sponsored trips, coaches, one-on-one tutors and others with direct, regular contact with students will still have to undergo background checks.

In the News: CPS wants $5 million for new HQ furniture

March 26, 2014 - 6:55am

Chicago Public Schools is seeking to double its furniture budget to $9.5 million, chalking up $5 million of that to an upcoming move of its central headquarters. District officials want the Board of Education to approve the expense for the purchase and installation of new office furniture by Staples at Wednesday’s monthly meeting, a proposal the Chicago Teachers Union called “poor stewardship of money.” (Sun-Times)

TESTING PROBE RILES PARENTS: Some parents outraged over Chicago Public Schools interviewing children without parental consent in a probe into standardized testing at a Bucktown school said Monday they want the district to give them transcripts of the conversations and have expressed interest in talking to lawyers about potential legal issues of what happened. (DNAInfo)

AUSL GETS AUSTIN TURNAROUND: Less than a year after closing four elementary schools in Austin, CPS has announced it will overhaul a fifth Austin school. Chicago Public Schools said late last week it will designate Ronald E. McNair Elementary as a “turnaround” school; the privately run Academy for Urban School Leadership will operate the school starting with the 2014-2015 academic year. (Austin Talks)

IN THE NATION
NEW VISION FOR NYC SCHOOLS: In remarks Sunday before the congregants of the Riverside Church, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out his vision for New York City’s schools and pledged an approach that fosters fairness and progress across the entire school system. (NYC)

NEW STANDARDIZED TESTS: Schools across California began administering new standardized tests Tuesday that are designed to demand more of students and offer a clearer picture of how much they are learning. More than 3 million students will be tested in English and math through June 6, and for the first time, everyone will take the exams on a computer — either tablet, laptop or desktop.  The new tests are linked to state learning goals that have also been adopted by 44 other states and the District of Columbia. The tests and learning standards have raised philosophical and political questions across the country.

Q&A with Randi Weingarten

March 25, 2014 - 1:38pm

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten was in Chicago on March 24 to deliver the annual “Distinguished Labor Leader Lecture” at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Weingarten and the 1.5-million member AFT made national news recently when Weingarten announced the union would no longer accept money from the influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the AFT’s Innovation Fund. In this interview with Catalyst Chicago Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez, Weingarten talked about that decision, Chicago’s test boycott and charter union movement, teachers’ distrust of the Common Core and what can be done about it, and whether Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis should run for mayor.

(This interview has been condensed.)

Catalyst Chicago: So while it might seem like there’s never a dull moment in the Chicago education world, you’ve come at a particularly interesting time. What do you think of last week’s announcement that the district will “turn around” three more schools?

Randi Weingarten: CPS should be fixing, not closing public schools. This is not about charters vs. non charters. There’s room in this city for lots of different school designs, as long as they’re public schools. Parents want good neighborhood public schools. Schools that are safe. Schools that are welcoming. Schools that help engage kids in terms of arts, music and have the services they need like guidance services and nursing services. They don’t want schools to be shuttered.

CC: Also last week, the CPS legal department interviewed children without their parents’ consent as part of an investigation into some teachers’ decision to boycott the ISAT standardized test. Some parents say they feel their kids are being used as pawns in a political fight. How do you think this will end?

RW: First off, in the two schools where you had teachers actually boycott the test, they voted to join a parent-led boycott of the ISAT. This boycott started with parents, not with teachers. Those teachers were listening to the will of parents -- something that the school system should be listening to as well, not trying to interrogate parents’ children without parents’ knowledge. The issue here is: why do you even have an ISAT when everybody believes that test is unnecessary and irrelevant? This punitive action makes no sense. Frankly, people should be crediting the teachers for saying they want that time to actually work with kids.

CC: Earlier this month you announced that the AFT’s Innovation Fund will no longer accept money from the Gates Foundation because so many of your members don’t trust how the Common Core State Standards have been implemented. Are there other funders that members are asking you to reconsider accepting money from?

RW: I think this is a very unique issue. When the Broad Foundation seemed to be on the path of closing schools and stripping teachers of rights as opposed to working together and helping kids succeed, we also said we weren’t going to solicit funds from that foundation. The other major foundation here is the Walton Family Foundation, which doesn’t even pretend to respect workers. Look at what they’ve done in their own worksites throughout the country, stripping our kids’ parents – the people who work for them – of decent wages, of health security, of retirement security. So they don’t even pretend that teachers are an important part of this equation. And the third major foundation in this arena is the Gates Foundation.

I think that there are things that the Gates Foundation has done that are good, and I think there are things the Gates Foundation has done that need to be rethought. But regardless of what I think, the trust with your members is of paramount importance. So when they are so deeply distrustful of a foundation, one needs to listen to them. Even though we don’t believe that the foundation influenced our policymaking, the perception is more important than the reality. And so the line we drew is to say that prospectively, on something so important like the Innovation Project, where folks are trying new things and innovating and take different risks, we would look to replace that funding with members’ money.

CC: Do you think members will be willing to pay more in union dues to offset that loss?

RW: What we’ve said in the proposal that would be at our convention is that we’re asking for 5 cents per member per month to fully replace the funding we got from the Gates Foundation. It was a statement that said that the membership’s deep concern with what’s happening in schools today is more important than anyone’s grant money.

CC: What do you think it will take to reduce the overall distrust teachers have of the Common Core standards? Is it even possible?

RW: Look, in a place like California, there isn’t the deep distrust because California did two things: First, they decoupled it from testing. They didn’t do it permanently, but they also targeted resources for people to be comfortable with the transition. So there is much more openness to a transition to these standards that most people believe have real promise. If you think about schooling as fundamentally three things – how do you help people develop relations with each other and with adults; how you help kids apply knowledge, not just “know things”; and how do you help kids confront adversity and get up when they stumble -- then a transition to standards that are embedded in critical thinking and problem-solving is important. Common Core is not the only way of doing it. The problem [arises] when people think this is more about testing and measurement and reducing kids to an algorithm as opposed to the process of teaching and learning. Teachers get the difference.

CC: Teachers and staff at one of Chicago’s biggest networks of charter schools ratified their first labor contract last week. The local that negotiated the agreement is part of the AFT. How important are organizing efforts at charter schools for the AFT?

RW: They’re very important. In a city like this, where charter schools are a reality, teachers are teachers. They want a voice at work, whether they’re in a charter school or whether they’re in a traditional public school. They want to be part of helping kids succeed. They want to get the tools and conditions they need and decent pay for it. When you’re all rowing in the same direction, as the UNO contract suggested, then what happens is, we have a chance to help more kids. When you have huge polarization, you’re constantly in the conversation about who’s right.

Public education is how we help all kids succeed, not how do we try to eliminate each other. What you’re seeing in too many places is a ruse of austerity to justify starving schools. There’s just this constant drumbeat that public schools are bad. It creates this Catch-22 circle of starve the schools so they don’t have the funding that they need to help kids, particularly poor kids, so that it’s open to other alternatives, which then take the public dollars. And ironically, these other alternatives actually have been around for 20 years and they haven’t done any better than the public schools. And the public schools are the schools that have the accountability, the transparency, and also the public voice.

CC: CTU President Karen Lewis may be the most public adversary of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Many of her followers would love to see her run against him in next year’s mayoral race, although she’s suggested that won’t happen because she’s not a politician and her husband has said “no.” Do you think she should give it a shot?

RW: I am not … (laughs). Karen is a fantastic leader of our union. Most of us love doing the jobs we are doing, which is representing educators who want to make a difference in the lives of children and working with parents and communities to make a better life for those children.

In the News: Student group calls CPS discipline racially biased

March 25, 2014 - 6:35am

A student group joined religious and community leaders Monday in pushing for a "Campaign for Common Sense Discipline" in Chicago Public Schools. The groups presented data showing that African-American students were 30 times more likely to be expelled than white students in CPS last school year. (DNAInfo)

PRACTICE TEST TAKING: Students in Illinois schools will take a practice test this spring that will help them become familiar with next year’s line of new assessments in English Language Arts and mathematics and provide state policy makers and educators with valuable feedback before the tests are finalized. The new state tests are aligned to Illinois’ new learning standards and aim to deliver clear and timely information about what students know and can do and whether they can demonstrate the academic preparation necessary to succeed as citizens and in college and careers. (Press release)

IN THE NATION
TAXPAYERS FUND CREATIONISM IN CLASSROOM: Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies. Now a major push to expand these voucher programs is under way in 26 states from Alaska to New York — a development that seems certain to sharply increase the investment. (Politico)

FALLING SHORT ON EDUCATIONAL EQUITY: New federal civil rights data show persistent and widespread disparities among disadvantaged students from prekindergarten through high school on key indicators—calling into question whether the national push for educational equity and college and career readiness for all students is working. (Education Week)

In the News: Progress cited in Race to the Top

March 24, 2014 - 8:16am

States have made great progress in the final year of Race to the Top, but there have been bumps in the road, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington that many consider to be closely aligned with the Obama administration. (Education Week)

MAKING ATTENDANCE PAY OFF: Harper High School students with good attendance could get a job out of it. The Rev. Johnny Banks Sr., executive director of the nonprofit A Knock At Midnight, last week told a group of 15 William Harper High School students and their parents that if they go to school every day on time for the next two weeks he would hire them at $10 per hour. (DNAInfo)

CONSUMERIST MESSAGES: Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis wants schools to teach social justice, not “consumerism,” she said in a video. Lewis spoke about ways to avoid “consumerist” messages while teaching subjects typically seen as apolitical, like math, at the annual conference of the Network for Public Education, a progressive advocacy group that backs public schools. (Daily Caller)

MEETING IN CHINA: Students from Thomas and South middle schools in Arlington Heights who began a 10-day trip to China on Tuesday got a chance to meet first lady Michelle Obama at the Summer Palace in Beijing on Saturday. Obama is on a good-will tour to China with her daughters and mother. (Daily Herald)

IN THE NATION
RANKING CHARTER SCHOOL LAWS: Although charter schools have been a part of the nation's education landscape for more than 20 years, states still have a long way to go in paving the way for them to successfully educate students, finds a new report from a research and advocacy group that supports charter schools. (Education Week)

CLARIFIYING CHARTER POSITION: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday acknowledged he has fallen short in explaining his position on charter schools, after coming under criticism from both sides of the debate. (Capital New York)

CPS proposes three new school turnarounds

March 21, 2014 - 6:28pm

CPS officials announced late Friday afternoon that they are proposing turnarounds for three schools: Dvorak in North Lawndale, McNair in Austin and Gresham in Auburn-Gresham.

Since 2006, CPS has been turning around schools—a process that involves laying off an entire staff. Though they can reapply for their jobs, most principals and teachers don’t stay on. Like most turnarounds in CPS, these schools will be managed by the not-for-profit teacher training program, the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

After a round of public and community hearings in early April, the proposals will likely be voted on at the April board meeting.

Angela Gordon, LSC chairwoman at Dvorak, said at first she didn’t know how to react, but as the afternoon went on, she pledged to fight the turnaround. “The mood at the school is sad and somber,” she said.

Gordon said she thinks Dvorak is a good school. She said she brought her children to Dvorak when she was homeless four years ago and the staff has stepped up and helped her family.

Low test scores are not entirely the fault of the teachers, she said. “It takes a village,” she said. “We need more parent support and more CPS support.”

Performance not stellar

AUSL currently manages 20 elementary turnaround schools and two high schools. CPS operated its own turnarounds at nine additional schools before former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced in 2011 that the district would not undertake them any longer. Brizard said he would recruit other organizations to do so, but so far, no other groups have stepped forward.

CPS also has not turned around any high schools since the 2009-2010 school year. High school turnarounds, whether managed by CPS or AUSL, have had lackluster results.

Even elementary schools have not had stellar performance. Four of the AUSL turnarounds that are more than two years old score in the bottom 10 percent of all elementary schools. Ten of them are Level 3 schools, which is the lowest rating on the performance scale.

Interestingly, Chalmers, a new turnaround this year, moved up from Level 3 to Level 2 based on last year’s test scores and performance--when the pre-turnaround teachers were still in place.

CPS Network and Strategy Implementation Officer Adam Anderson said district officials think AUSL has had impressive results. Thirteen AUSL turnarounds improved at a faster rate than other district schools on the ISAT. AUSL students are also showing higher-than-average growth on the NWEA, the standardized test that CPS is using to determine student promotion and other decisions as it phases out the ISAT.

“These are the most challenging schools and the ones that need the most support,” Anderson said. “They are catching up to the district as a whole.”

Dvorak, McNair and Gresham are in the bottom 10 percent of elementary schools, but are not the lowest-performing.

When deciding which schools to turn around, CPS officials look at more than the ratings under the district's performance policy, Anderson said. They also look at the trajectory of achievement and whether the current staff can put the school on a better path.

Anderson said Dvorak, McNair and Gresham have low attendance compared to the district average and noted that it translates into many missed days of instruction.

Critics speak out

Soon after the announcement, the Chicago Teachers Union issued a press release criticizing the proposals. CPS’ Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley and Board President David Vitale were high-level AUSL officials, which CTU leaders see as a conflict of interest.

The CTU also is highly critical of the fact that turnarounds usually result in layoffs of veteran, mostly black teachers who are replaced with less-experienced, mostly white teachers.  

Of the 70 teachers at Dvorak, Gresham and McNair, 64 percent are African American, compared to 25 percent in CPS overall, according to the 2011-2012 teacher service records maintained by the Illinois State Board of Education. Also, teachers at the three schools have an average of 15 years of experience, compared to 12.75  years in CPS.

“This is the mayor’s continued war on our schools and older black educators. This is nothing more than school closings by another name,” said CTU President Karen Lewis in a press release.

Lewis said school turnarounds are akin to school closings.

The CTU and others also criticize AUSL turnarounds because schools end up being run by private entities. And with more charter schools opening every year, CPS is responsible for managing fewer and fewer schools.

North Lawndale has been hit especially hard. If these turnarounds are approved, almost half of North Lawndale’s 18 elementary schools will be under private management: Three will be AUSL turnarounds and five are charter schools.

After watching two schools close last year in North Lawndale, Gordon said she feels as though Dvorak is predestined to either close or become a charter school. “What will happen if the scores don’t move with the turnaround?” she said. “Then what?”

Austin also is home to two other AUSL turnarounds.

Last year, as CPS was in the midst of shuttering 50 elementary schools, officials proposed turning around Barton in Auburn-Gresham, but the school was pulled off the list at the last minute by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Harvard in Auburn Gresham has been a turnaround school since the 2007-2008 school year.

Click here for detailed information on the race and experience of teachers at the proposed turnaround schools.

In the News: DOE finds inequality in number of fronts

March 21, 2014 - 8:48am

Black students are more likely than white students to be suspended from school, to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience, according to comprehensive data released Friday by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. (The New York Times)

In the first analysis in nearly 15 years of information from all of the country’s 97,000 public schools, the Education Department found a pattern of inequality on a number of fronts, with race as the dividing factor.

CONDOM PILOT EXPANDS: Chicago Public Schools and the city’s public health department will be expanding a pilot program to make condoms available to high school students to 24 schools this fall as part of an ongoing effort to combat teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among young people. School officials said currently condoms are available at two district schools—Collins High School and Foreman High School. The district will be working with the Chicago Department of Public Health to identify which 24 schools will get the condoms, but CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said it is ultimately up to each principal to decide whether condoms will be available in their school building. (Tribune)

CATHOLIC SCHOOLS CHIEF CRIES FOUL: Changes in the standardized testing that Chicago Public Schools is requiring for entry to selective-enrollment high schools puts Catholic school students at a distinct disadvantage, the superintendent of the city's Catholic schools says in a letter sent to the district and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. (Tribune)

STUDENTS QUESTIONED: Fury is spreading among some parents of children at a Bucktown public school where investigators from the Chicago Public School's Law Department have been taking students out of classrooms and questioning them behind closed doors, sources confirmed Thursday. (DNAInfo)

CPS investigating alleged ‘teacher misconduct’ with test boycott

March 20, 2014 - 6:33pm

UPDATE: Following Thursday's interviews at Drummond, CPS officials visited Saucedo on Friday to continue their investigation into "teacher misconduct" related to the recent ISAT boycott. CPS officials said that, unlike Thursday, no students were questioned on Friday.

Saucedo teachers said that CPS investigators only interviewed teachers who didn't boycott the test.

Investigators from the Chicago Public Schools Law department interviewed students and staff today about possible “teacher misconduct” related to ISAT testing at Drummond Montessori, where some teachers refused to administer the standardized tests as part of a highly publicized teacher protest earlier this month.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood said in a statement that the district wants “to ensure students were comfortable during the time the test was administered,” although he could not confirm any specific allegations.

The district has not yet disciplined any teachers at Drummond or at Saucedo Scholastic Elementary, where the entire faculty also boycotted the test. But Hood said that teachers do face possible discipline, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Meanwhile, Drummond parents who “opted” their children out of taking the exams  – which CPS is phasing out and will not count this year toward students’ promotions or entry into selective schools – cried foul after learning that investigators had questioned some children without their consent.

“Don’t use these kids as pawns in this political game,” said Jonathan Goldman, a parent and chair of Drummond’s local school council. “Given that the allegations that has been made generally is that perhaps teachers were actively encouraging parents to opt their students out, then they should be talking with the parents. It’s the parents who made the decision.”

Goldman and other parents say they don’t understand why CPS did not notify parents or ask for permission before interviewing students. Some parents, including Mike Staudenmaier, called the school after learning of the ongoing investigation to ask that their children not be questioned.

Staudenmaier said he was “infuriated” that the school district would interrogate children at the school without attempting to notify their parents. 

“I’m not a lawyer but this seems completely unethical and reprehensible,” he said. “They know how to reach us and they chose not to attempt to reach me or any other parent, probably because they recognized they wouldn’t have any sympathy from us. So they harassed our kids instead.”

Hood did not respond to the parents’ criticism, but described the investigation as routine. He said that any time there are allegations of teacher misconduct, students and staff may be interviewed. He also clarified that CPS had sent investigators from its Law department, and not actual attorneys, to Drummond to conduct the interviews.

In an interview with Catalyst Chicago, Hood said that “CPS may conduct similar investigations at other schools around the district.” Although he declined to name the other schools, the comment is a likely reference to Saucedo.

The Chicago Teachers Union has vowed to fight any discipline.


Read CPS’s complete statement below. 

"Chicago Public Schools is meeting and talking with students, teachers and staff at Drummond Elementary School about ISAT testing to ensure students were comfortable during the time the test was administered. CPS officials only spoke with students who opted to talk with them and the investigation does not pertain to any student disciplinary issue. Students who chose not to take the state-required ISAT test last week do not face discipline from the District. CPS has decreased the number of standardized tests issued each year, but the District is required by Illinois law to administer the ISAT, and the test is tied to federal and state funding for schools."

At charters, variety the norm for teacher evaluations

March 20, 2014 - 11:38am

During the contract negotiation sessions that recently ended at the UNO Charter School Network, one of the biggest points of contention for teachers was the evaluation system and its link to year-end bonuses.

Teachers considered the evaluation metrics unfair and complained that formal observations weren’t done the same way in all classrooms.

“For us, they stay the whole hour. For other [schools], they may only stay 15 minutes,” says Gerit Nora, a 5th-grade teacher at UNO’s Officer Donald Marquez Elementary. “In some schools, teachers never get feedback all year but then get a score at the end.”

At Marquez, teachers are formally observed and evaluated four times a year, Nora says. The evaluations are factored into a year-end score that comprises 40 percent of a teacher’s rating. Half of the rating is student growth on the NWEA test, and the remaining 10 percent is a mix of student attendance, student dress code compliance, and school-wide and network-wide performance.

The evaluation process did not change under the new contract ratified this week by UNO teachers and staff, who were represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, or Chicago ACTS.

But the contract did eliminate the link between evaluations and pay. Mallory Bruno, a special education teacher at UNO’s Octavio Paz Elementary School, said the bonus system “really formed bad relationships and ruined morale.”

Organizers said UNO administrators “really believed” in the system and were unwilling to change it, but compromised on the link to bonuses.

UNO representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

While traditional schools in CPS must adhere to the new evaluation system called REACH (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago), one of the hallmarks of charter schools is the variety of systems used to evaluate teachers. 

Nationally, charter school teacher evaluations can be “as different as the number of charters,” says Nancy Waymack of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “It is hard to generalize and say that charters evaluate their teachers in one way, versus districts.”

Allison Jack, director of charter growth and support at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says charter school principals often can spend more time in the classroom for observations because they more commonly hire business managers to take on school operations. As a result, they may be more hands-on, teaching lessons and observing teachers regularly.

As with UNO, charter schools commonly weigh growth in test scores more heavily in evaluations than non-charters. (Under REACH, test score growth currently accounts for up to 25 percent of teacher evaluations.)

In charters, scores are also often used to determine merit pay, unlike in traditional CPS schools.

Chicago ACTS President Brian Harris says that union members are almost entirely opposed to merit pay, believing it sows distrust. Instead, Harris suggests, evaluations should be about coaching and improving teachers’ work.

Teacher firing not a big strategy

Waymack notes that charter schools have more freedom to fire teachers with—or without—negative evaluations. But charters have not necessarily been quick to get rid of teachers who don’t measure up. Instead, some say they place more emphasis on good hiring practices and training.

Angela Montagna, director of external affairs at the Noble Network of Charter Schools, says the network leaves it to principals to “decide if and how they want to evaluate teachers.”

All teachers in the Noble network are eligible for bonuses based on factors including growth in student test scores, school culture, and parent involvement. But principals get the leeway to create their own evaluation systems.

Tyson Kane, the founding principal of Noble Street-Chicago Bulls College Prep, says that the network places a greater emphasis on hiring teachers who can demonstrate good results with students, rather than on evaluation once teachers are hired.

At Kane’s school, 80 percent of teachers’ evaluations scores are based on factors related to student achievement, like ACT and Advanced Placement test results and whether students are on-track to be promoted to the next grade. The remaining 20 percent is determined by more intangible factors, like professionalism and helping other teachers.

Teachers are measured against the Noble network’s own historical data that shows how much progress teachers are able to make with students.

He says the school focuses on outcomes such as test scores because those are the same factors that will determine life opportunities for students.

“If those outputs are on the critical path to our students being able to graduate from college, then we really have to give credence to these things [that] Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth are saying,” Kane says.

Allison Slade, the founding principal of Namaste Charter School, says that school uses a modified version of Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, the teacher rating system CPS has adapted for its observations.

Teachers receive 12 short, informal observations each year from administrators and colleagues who drop into their room, and two longer, formal observations from their immediate supervisor.

Teachers don’t get an overall rating, however. “I don’t think that is helpful in helping a teacher grow,” Slade says. Instead, they get ratings in each category of the scoring rubric.

Teachers with lower ratings are put on an “Improvement Action Plan,” but three-quarters of them complete it successfully and are able to keep their jobs.

Test scores are a factor in teachers’ raises, along with attendance on the job and at professional development workshops, plus other intangibles like collegiality, communication with families, and observation ratings.

Contributing: Melissa Sanchez

In the News: CCSR report looks at sorting students by ability

March 20, 2014 - 8:34am

How students are sorted into classrooms by skill level can have as much of an effect on their achievement as the content they are taught, according to a new report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. "Skill-Based Sorting in the Era of College Prep for All" examines the effects of two curricular reforms by Chicago Public Schools, one that sorted students into algebra classes based on ability and another that de-sorted students. (Press release)
Key findings from the report include:
• Overall, test scores are higher when classes are sorted by skills due to large benefits for high-skilled students’ learning gains.
• However, sorting by ability has different effects on test scores than on grades and pass rates; the grades and pass rates of high-skilled students decline, while the grades of low-skilled students improve.

HAPPY STUDENTS IN HYDE PARK: A video of Kenwood Academy High School students singing and dancing in the hallways to Pharrell Williams’ infectious hit “Happy” has become a minor YouTube sensation, drawing nearly 14,000 views – more than seven times the school’s population – in just a few days. Produced last week on the South Side campus, teens perform for the cameras alongside teachers, security guards, administrators and the school mascot, Billy the Bronco. (Tribune)

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS AND DATA MINING: To woo prospective students, many schools are increasingly gathering multiple streams of online information to hone the most personalized pitch. Institutions are turning to "big data" companies such as Hobsons, Oracle and Ellucian to be their Match.com. The trove of data allows recruiters to mine social media interactions, Internet habits and the socioeconomic standing of a student's parents, experts say. (Tribune)

IN THE STATE
LET GO: The Belleville School District 118 school board unanimously approved the honorable dismissals of one full-time teacher and 24 teaching assistants at its meeting Tuesday night. (Belleville News Democrat)

IN THE NATION
BOON FOR PUBLISHERS: The new education standards called Common Core that are being adopted in 45 states and Washington, D.C., have has created an opportunity not just for companies that make textbooks and teaching materials, but also publishers of children's books - novels, nonfiction, the kind of books people read for pleasure. (NPR)

MORE PRE-K EXPANSION: Maryland already offers free pre-kindergarten classes to economically disadvantaged or homeless 4-year-olds, but state leaders proposed a new bill that would slowly expand those classes to all 4-year-olds. (The Washington Post)

In the News: CPS to begin computer science curriculum pilot

March 19, 2014 - 6:46am

Chicago Public Schools announced Tuesday that 46 schools will pilot the district’s new computer science curriculum beginning next fall, the most comprehensive K-12 computer science education program of any major school district in the country.

This effort is part of CPS’ plan to provide access to computer science at an earlier age to bridge the digital divide and gender gap. While computing occupations are among the highest-paying jobs for new graduates, fewer than 3 percent of college students across the nation will graduate with a degree in computer science – and of all students taking Advanced Placement Computer Science, fewer than 20 percent are women and fewer than 10 percent are African American or Latino.
 
Participating schools include:
Elementary schools: Ariel Community Academy (Pre-K-8); Armstrong International Studies (Pre-K-8); Azuela (Pre-K-8); Bateman (K-8); Daniel Boone (K-8); Carson (Pre-K-8); Chicago Academy (Pre-K-8); Coles Language Academy (K-8); Disney Magnet (Pre-K-8); Edison Regional Gifted Center (K-8); Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy (Pre-K-8); Hamilton (K-8); Henderson (Pre-K-8); Andrew Jackson Language Academy (K-8); Mahalia Jackson (Pre-K-8); Moos (Pre-K-8); Kwame Nkrumah Academy (K-5); Sauganash (K-8); Sayre Language Academy (K-8); Sheridan Math & Science Academy (K-8); STEM Magnet Academy (Pre-K-8); Tonti (K-5); Washington (K-8); Waters (Pre-K-8); Whitney (Pre-K-8).
 
High schools: Amundsen (9-12); Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy (9-12); Bogan (9-12); Corliss (9-12); Hancock College Prep (9-12); Julian(9-12); Kenwood Academy (7-12); Lake View (9-12); Lane Tech (7-12); Lindblom (7-12); Marine Math & Science Academy (9-12); Mather (9-12); Morgan Park (9-12); Solorio Academy (9-12); Urban Prep West (9-12); Urban Prep Bronzeville (9-12); Urban Prep Englewood (9-12); Wells Community Academy (9-12); Whitney Young (7-12); U of C Woodlawn (6-12); Young Woman's Leadership (7-12).

UNO TEACHERS RATIFY CONTRACT: Teachers and staff at schools operated by the United Neighborhood Organization, one of city’s largest charter school networks, overwhelmingly ratified a first contract Tuesday. The contract includes salaries that will promote teacher recruitment and retention and increased time to prepare and collaborate. The vote was nearly unanimous, according to a press release from the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

LSC CANDIDATES: A Chicago school that vociferously protested school budget cuts last summer has some interesting candidates running for its local school council, among them a former member of the Chicago Board of Education. (WBEZ)

SUGAR IN THE MORNING: University of California-San Francisco anti-sugar advocate Dr. Robert Lustig says the U.S. School Breakfast Program is "poisoning our kids." He explains here in a conversation in WBEZ's Monica Eng.

IN THE NATION
RACE TO THE TOP PROGRESS: States sharing $4 billion in the federal competitive grants are delivering on some promises, but continue to struggle on teacher evaluations, the U.S. Department of Education finds. (Education Week)

LOOKING FOR COMMON CORE DEFENDERS: Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who is spending part of his considerable fortune trying to change U.S. public education, last week called on teachers to help parents understand the new Common Core academic standards in an effort to beat back “false claims” lobbed by critics of the standards. (The Washington Post)

In the News: Safe Passage workers get thanks from mayor, lunch

March 18, 2014 - 6:22am

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday thanked safe-passage workers for a job well done  and urged them to finish the school year strong and carry child safety into the summer months at a celebratory luncheon at the UIC Forum. (DNAInfo)

IN THE NATION
'PLATOONING' TAKES HOLD: The relentless pressure of high-stakes testing keeps driving educational leaders to experiment with new ways to increase scores and emphasize their importance in this “accountability” era. One of the most recent examples is “platooning” of students beginning in kindergarten and first grade. “Platooning” ends the long-standing primary grade practice of homerooms where a teacher works with the same group of students throughout the year in all of the major subject areas. Instead, each group of students, or “platoon,” moves every 45 minutes or so to a different classroom to receive instruction from a “teacher  specialist” in math, language arts, social studies, science, music, art and physical education.  (The Washington Post)

VOUCHER BILL ADVANCES: A narrowed version of a special education voucher bill for Mississippi students is moving ahead. The measure now would bar using state money to home-school students and give state officials more control over how the money is spent. (Clarion Ledger)

INSTILLING TRUE GRIT: Around the nation, schools are beginning to see grit as key to students' success — and just as important to teach as reading and math. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who coined the term "grit" — and won a MacArthur "genius grant" for it. Others say teaching grit has become a fad in education, a convenient distraction that doesn't address the pedagogical and curricular problems in the schools. (NPR)

UNO teachers, staff ratify first union contract

March 17, 2014 - 10:08pm

Teachers and staff at the United Neighborhood Organization’s 16 charter schools overwhelmingly voted to ratify their first contract on Monday, becoming Chicago’s biggest charter school network to operate under a labor agreement.

Union organizers say the contract, approved in a 445-to-16 vote, sets a “gold standard” for future charter school labor agreements across the country. It includes:

  • A salary schedule based on years of experience and educational attainment that will raise some employees’ salaries by as much as $10,000. Pay increases will be retroactive to the beginning of this school year.
  • Elimination of year-end bonuses based on evaluations that employees say used inconsistent metrics and fueled resentment among colleagues.
  • A “just cause” provision for terminations and a grievance procedure.
  • Paid and unpaid release time for bargaining unit members to do union-related work.
  • A longer summer break for teachers. Previously, teachers and staff had four weeks of summer vacation; now they will have five weeks under the new contract. However, the total number of instructional days remain unchanged.

 

“This contract will give a lot of people hope that [the charter network] is a place they can stay at for more than a year or two and grow as teachers and professionals without thinking their jobs are going to be on the line at the end of the year,” said Mallory Bruno, a special education teacher at UNO’s Octavio Paz Elementary School. “The salary schedule is so appealing now, I look forward to staying here for years to come.”

UNO charter school officials and board members – who approved the contract in a meeting last week -- did not respond to multiple requests from comment. UNO administrators and union members reached a tentative agreement in late February after months of negotiations.

The three-year contract will apply retroactively to the beginning of the school year. It covers about 520 teachers and professional staff at UNO schools, including information technology staff, office support, nurses and social workers.

Previously, only about 300 teachers and employees at 11 of the 126 charter schools in Chicago worked under labor contracts. The Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, or Chicago ACTS, an affiliate of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, is the bargaining agent for all organized charter schools in the city.

“The UNO effort is a great example of what can happen when teachers and charter management work together for what’s most important—the students’ success,” said IFT President Dan Montgomery in a written statement. “Strong staffs lead to strong schools, and their ability to advocate for high-quality education with a collective voice will greatly benefit the students and our communities.”

UNO staff unionized last spring in the midst of a corruption scandal at the charter schools network.

Former CEO Juan Rangel bowed out of both organizations last year after a series of revelations by the Chicago Sun-Times of nepotism and contract steering. Adding to UNO’s woes is a loss of millions of dollars in state grant money and an ongoing U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into a 2011 bond deal that helped expand the network.

Bruno said she hopes the contract ratification changes the public image of UNO for the better.

“I think people will start to respect UNO more than it’s already respected,” Bruno said.

 

UNO teachers and staff say their next step after today’s vote will be to schedule elections for union representatives and officers.

For the Record: "Chicagoland" and Fenger High

March 17, 2014 - 2:02pm

Last week’s episode of “Chicagoland”  on CNN once again featured Fenger High Principal Liz Dozier as a heroine trying to help her students get an education while coping with intense violence in the surrounding Roseland neighborhood. At the same time, Dozier has to deal with the fact that Fenger’s hefty federal grant, which paid for services to support students’ social and emotional needs,  was about to run out.

Fenger is one of 19 high schools in Chicago to be awarded a multimillion dollar School Improvement Grant. Along with Harper, Marshall and Phillips, Fenger was part of the first cohort of schools from 2011.

These grants targeted the bottom 5 percent of high schools in the nation. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s idea was to throw so much money at the schools that lack of resources would cease to be an excuse for low achievement.

The cliffhanger in the last episode of the Chicagoland series, which was filmed last year, is how Fenger will fare once it loses the $6 million grant. The answer: Fenger lost 36 of 100 staff members, including 10 teachers, four security guards and the school’s social worker.  

In fact, few CPS schools have a full-time social worker on staff. In 2012, Dozier fretted about the potential loss of a worker who ran much-needed group and individual therapy sessions on trauma and anger management. 

Altogether, Fenger and the other three schools that received School Improvement Grants in 2011 have lost 126 staff members as their grants ran out this year, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS employee rosters.

These schools were hit with a double whammy:  losing the grant while continuing to lose students, which meant a loss in district funds. This year, Fenger has 87 fewer students compared to last year and the freshman class has just 75 students, down from 102 last year. 

Enrollment loss from neighborhood schools is a citywide trend caused by population loss from  distressed neighborhoods as well as the opening of charter schools that draw students away from traditional schools. 

The Fall 2011 Catalyst In Depth questions whether the School Improvement Grant initiative can save schools that are rapidly losing students. 

To get the grant, schools and districts had to promise to enforce one of several drastic strategies. Fenger and five other high schools fired the entire staff in a process called turnaround. Other schools have undertaken what is called transformation, a strategy in which school employees stay on but the school partners with an outside institution to improve education.

Schools were charged with using the grant money to develop programs that could be sustained once the money ran out. But that challenge is often nearly impossible. Therapy sessions, anti-violence training, tutoring and other supports require staff--and it is hard to “sustain” people without money to pay them.

The early results from the School Improvement Grant initiative, both in Illinois and nationally, have been mixed. A 2012 Illinois study found that attendance, truancy and mobility improved, but not academics.  The findings are similar in CPS.

However, Fenger has posted more impressive results, with the percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards doubling in three years.

A federally-funded national study released in November 2013 showed that two-thirds of schools saw an uptick in test scores, but the rest saw declines. 

Comings & Goings: Moreno Cargie

March 17, 2014 - 12:03pm

Nora Moreno Cargie, the director of global corporate citizenship at The Boeing Company’s Chicago office, is stepping down in April.  She is moving to Boston, where she will serve as vice president of corporate citizenship for Tufts Health Plan and executive director of its foundation.  Before her work at Boeing, Cargie was the vice president of external relations at Illinois Action for Children.  She has also worked for the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Department of Human Services and Chicago Public Schools.

In the News: Moody's downgrades CPS

March 17, 2014 - 8:15am

Moody's Investors Service said its outlook remains negative for the Chicago Board of Education.The Wall Street credit rating agency reduced the Chicago Board of Education one notch to Baa1 from A3, the same downgrade the city got March 4. The rating applies to $6.3 billion in outstanding school-related general obligation debt. (Crain's)

CASTING A BAD LIGHT ON CPS STUDENTS: CNN’s "Chicagoland" contributes to the "one-sided journalism that highlights only the violence, only the failures, only the stereotypes that taint our low-income students in Chicago Public Schools," writes Ray Salazar on his blog The White Rhino: A Chicago Latino English Teacher.

IN THE NATION
PRE-K EXPANSION MOVES FORWARD: Even as he came under escalating attacks from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature for his stance toward charter schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio last week stepped closer to securing state financing to expand prekindergarten in New York City. (The New York Times)

COMMON CORE GETS AXED: The Indiana Senate approved legislation that would void the national Common Core standards the state adopted in 2010. An hour after S.B. 91 was sent to Gov. Mike Pence for his consideration, members of the state board of Education discussed progress on new English and math standards that will replace those Common Core benchmarks. (Indiana Star)

For the Record: Maintenance costs for closed schools cut by $300 million

March 14, 2014 - 7:15pm

To help sell its plans for closing 50 schools, CPS leaders claimed that it would cost more than $400 million over the next decade to keep the buildings open, repair them and maintain them. Closings the buildings would thus save a big chunk of money.

But now that the district is trying to get the shuttered buildings off the books, officials have dramatically reduced their initial estimate of maintenance costs.

CPS now says that it would cost only about $100 million to maintain the buildings, as schools, over the next 10 years, according to a Request-for-Proposals that was issued in February to solicit bids from real estate agents. CPS also includes TIF information for each school, showing how much money is available from tax increment financing, an incentive program that developers can access to pay for capital improvements.

Cecile Carroll of the grassroots group Blocks Together says she is alarmed that CPS is having brokers look at the schools before getting feedback from the community about what they would like to see the buildings used for. 

Carroll and a few other activists showed up on Thursday at the closed Ward school where, according to the RFP, district officials were going to conduct a walk-through for potential brokers. Unbeknownst to them, CPS had withdrawn the RFP and was rescheduling the walkthroughs.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood said the RFP was withdrawn because officials wanted to clarify some of the language around community involvement in the process. He said the solicitation for brokers was just in case the community couldn’t come up with a use for the building and a broker was needed. 

About four of the new estimates on the RFP don’t differ much from last year’s figure. But most of the differences are huge. For example, CPS estimated that it would avoid spending $25 million by closing Morgan in Auburn Gresham. Now, it says the cost to maintain it as a school is $287,000, and just $256,000 to maintain as a vacant property. 

A more typical example is Songhai on the Far South Side. Last year, CPS estimated it would avoid spending $8 million over a decade by the closing the school. Now, it is telling potential developers that it will only cost $340,000 yearly to maintain.

Hood said the estimates last year included "needed capital improvements."

"The maintenance numbers in the this RFP (as a school) are our own estimates about what it would likely cost someone to operate this building as a school or office building or whatever else," Hood wrote in an e-mail. "It only takes into account annual utility costs, janitorial services, landscaping, etc."

However, some of the criticism of the original cost estimates were that they included capital improvement projects, even though CPS often puts off improving buildings for decades.

From the moment that CPS put out cost-savings estimates last winter, principals and parents questioned the figures. One principal told Catalyst Chicago that when he saw the district’s huge estimate for maintenance, he immediately knew that the numbers would be used against his school and that it would be targeted for closure. 

A joint analysis by Catalyst and WBEZ/Chicago Public Media showed that the cost savings touted last year were significantly flawed, and were based on outdated assessments of building needs and other flawed information.

The RFP only included information for 41 schools because some of those shuttered are not being sold. About five already have new uses planned, such as Lafayette in Humboldt Park, which will become the new home for Chi Arts. Some schools shared a building with a school that is still operating: for instance, Wadsworth was consolidated with nearby Dumas, and the school that previously shared Wadsworth’s building, the University of Chicago Charter High School-Woodlawn, now has the entire building.

In the News: Failure built into the system, researcher argues

March 14, 2014 - 8:41am

A new book by Camille Farrington, a research associate (assistant professor) at UChicago Consortium on Chicago School Reform, argues that high schools were designed to generate widespread student failure and considers the changes that would need to occur for all students to have a legitimate shot at college.

Roughly half of all incoming ninth-graders across urban districts will fail classes and drop out of school without a diploma, suggesting an underlying flaw in the way high schools are structured. Failing at School: Lessons for Redesigning Urban High Schools proposes fundamental changes to high school design, based on what researchers know about how students learn, what motivates them to engage in learning, and what kinds of educational systems and structures would best support their learning. The book is available on Amazon. (Press release)

MURDERS AND TESTING: Homicides in a handful of Chicago neighborhoods "are affecting children's test scores, some studies show -- at the same time the school system is struggling to fund enough counselors, social workers and psychologists who could help students cope with the violence," according to CNN's docuseries "Chicagoland," which recently looked at the city's "crime gap."

LSC ELECTIONS: Earlier this week, the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Local School Councils reported 4,474 candidates had filed to run in the April 7 and 8 elections for 5,771 LSC positions. That leaves 1,297 positions to fill by 3 p.m. today. (Austin Talks)

IN THE STATE
POOR FINANCIAL HEALTH: Statewide data show that Illinois public school districts are continuing to struggle financially, with 532 districts – or nearly 62 percent – deficit spending, using their reserves or borrowing, this year compared to 32.5 percent in 2008, according to an annual Illinois State Board of Education statewide review. The ISBE analysis shows that one third of students in state are in schools in poor financial health. (Press release)

IN THE NATION
PRESCHOOL EXPANSION: Starting in the 2011-12 school year, the 27,000-student St. Louis school system began increasing its number of preschool seats, using part of the money from a 2011 court settlement of a long-running desegregation case. The number of preschoolers enrolled grew from about 1,300 in 2011 to about 2,000 this school year. And now, the preschool program is counted as a bright spot in the troubled district, and an example of the working partnership between Kelvin R. Adams, 57, the district's superintendent since 2008, and Mary J. Armstrong, the president since 2003 of the St. Louis Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. (Education Week)

In the News: UNO teachers to vote on union contract

March 13, 2014 - 7:22am

Teachers at the scandal-plagued UNO charter school network are about to vote next week on their first union contract. (Huffington Post)

If approved by teachers and by UNO's own board, the contract negotiated by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff would more than double in number, with between 500 and 550 teachers and other UNO staff joining about 300 ChicagoACTS members at 11 charter schools. The UNO contract could be one of the biggest labor contracts in the country for a charter network.

NAME CHANGE: Gordon Tech College Prep will become DePaul College Prep as soon as summer, the school’s board announced Wednesday. The school in the 3600 block of North California Avenue will be renamed DePaul College Prep, but its campus will be known as “Fr. Gordon Campus.” (Sun-Times)

IN THE NATION
ZERO-TOLERANCE DISCOURAGED: Schools should avoid zero-tolerance policies and reserve suspension and expulsion of students only for the most serious offenses or when it is legally required, a draft of a model policy under discussion by the State Board of Education says. (MLive.com)

POORER FAMILIES BEAR BRUNT: Tuition tax credits and other tax breaks to offset the cost of higher education _nearly invisible federal government subsidies for families that send their kids to college— disproportionally benefit more affluent Americans. So do tax-deductible savings plans and the federal work-study program, which gives taxpayer dollars to students who take campus jobs to help pay for their expenses. (The Hechinger Report)

CHARTER STRATEGIES: New York City charter leaders strategizing about how to work with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and avoid paying rent say committing to particular enrollment policies could be one way to assuage de Blasio’s and Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s concerns about charter schools “doing their part.” One main issue is backfill, or what happens to space vacated by students who leave charter schools. Some schools fill those spots by calling students off of their waiting lists. Other schools focus on teaching the students who remain. (Chalkbeat)