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Updated: 1 hour 49 min ago

Enrollment data reveal trends for neighborhood schools, charter schools

October 22, 2014 - 12:09pm

As the district released this year’s official school-by-school enrollment numbers, officials pointed out that the steep 3,800 drop in the student population wasn’t the most dramatic in recent years:  Four times during the past decade enrollment has fallen more sharply, by 5,000-plus students.

Still, it’s the first time in years that Chicago Public Schools have had fewer than 400,000--just 396,683 students, according to the 20th day enrollment data that CPS released late Tuesday. Though it’s been nearly four weeks since the tally was taken, officials didn’t say why it took so long to release the numbers.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of the data reveals some important enrollment trends:

IB, STEM impact

While neighborhood high schools continued to take a hit on enrollment. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiative to launch new International Baccalaureate and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in these schools seems to be having a mixed effect: All but one of the five new “wall-to-wall” IB schools saw an uptick in enrollment. Clemente, which had been losing students for at least the last five years, saw 32 more students enroll this year, even as district officials were projecting a decline. But overall, most of the high schools that have small IB programs within a larger comprehensive school experienced a drop in enrollment.

On the elementary level, a lot of the schools in which the district launched IB and STEM programs were designated to take in students from schools closed in 2013. In addition to extra teaching positions for the new programs, these so-called “welcoming schools” received iPads and had major renovations to their buildings. Yet welcoming schools experienced an average of 6 percent decline in enrollment.

Alternatives up, some charters down

Alternative schools for at-risk students or dropouts saw the biggest increase in students, with 9,137 students now attending these schools—a 20 percent increase since last year. CPS has said it plans to open more alternative schools, a number of them for-profit.

About 2,500 more students now attend charter schools, a five percent increase since last year. But about 30 percent of charter schools saw a decline in enrollment. Charter schools, like district-run schools, have to contend with the opening of new schools and community population drops.

Cecilia Benitez, director of recruitment and retention at ACE Tech Charter in Washington Park, says the school has had trouble meeting its goal of enrolling 500 students since the opening of Back of the Yards High School, one of the new wall-to-wall IB high schools; and UNO Charter High -- Soccer Academy.

“We are seeing a drop in Latinos,” she says. For the past two years, ACE has been about 18 students short of 500. But this year, the school fell to about 448 students.

As a recruiter, Benitez goes to every high school fair to try to beef up enrollment. One of the big selling points for the school is that it can offer students a chance to earn a certificate in building trades, which can help them land jobs.

Even this late in the school year, ACE Tech will accept transfer students (who need to bring in their progress report and discipline report. Prospective students also have to have a meeting with the principal, who decides if they can attend. 

Chicago Collegiate Charter, a fourth- through sixth-grade school that opened last year in Roseland, is also still taking applications for fourth-grade and is letting families join the waiting list for fifth- and sixth-grade.  Roseland’s traditional schools also have plenty of space for more students and the community ranks on the top 5 for enrollment decline.

Sarah Elizabeth Ippel , founder and director of the Academy for Global Citizenship, notes that her charter school might be unusual because it always fills its spots. In fact, it usually gets about 14 times the number of applications for the spots available.

Ippel points to unique characteristics that are selling points for the school: It has an elementary IB program and dual language curriculum, an 8-hour school day--and serves 100 percent organic food.

But filling the seats also has to do with the fact that the surrounding Garfield Ridge neighborhood has many overcrowded schools. “We intentially went into an area that needed additional public school seats,” Ippel says. “I imagine it would be hard to be in an area where there [already] is sufficient capacity.”

Documentary series tackles school reform issues

October 21, 2014 - 10:32am

The first in a series of short documentary films on education issues in Chicago will premiere on WTTW Chicago Tonight and also at a public forum at the Chicago History Museum at 7 p.m. on Oct. 28, which will be live-streamed on CAN-TV27 and at schoolprojectfilm.com.

The forum panel will include Victor M. Montañez, who was policy co-director at Designs for Change, the leading research and advocacy organization behind the creation of local school councils; William A. Sampson, professor of public policy at DePaul University and former president of Chicago United; Penny Bender Sebring, co-founder of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, and Angela Rudolph, an education consultant and former program officer at The Joyce Foundation. Veteran broadcast and print journalist Carol Marin will moderate.

Entitled “The School Project,” the six-part film series is the work of a unique collaboration of five of Chicago’s top documentary production companies: Free Spirit Media, Kartemquin Films, Kindling Group, Media Process Group and Siskel/Jacobs Productions.

“After the decision to close 50 public schools in Chicago, we knew we had to look at the issue of public education, but we couldn’t cover it alone, said Jon Siskel of Siskel/Jacobs Productions. “We decided to ask other top companies to collaborate with us on the project.”

The first film, “Worst In The Nation?” centers on the contention by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett in 1987 that Chicago had the worst schools in the country.

Catalyst Chicago is one of several outreach partners that are keeping their audiences up to date. The others are WTTW/Channel 11, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago History Museum and Ebony.com.

The School Project series will look at the recent mass school closings in Chicago, the expansion of charter schools, the controversy surrounding standardized testing, school discipline policies and the history of reforms and educational models.

An interactive website, www.schoolprojectfilm.com, will allow visitors to watch the documentaries online and obtain data trends, demographics and, where available, stories on individual schools.

Stay tuned for updates not only about The School Project but also about a year-long community engagement campaign  Catalyst Chicago is planning to mark its 25th anniversary in 2015.

Jury still out on Emanuel preschool expansion plans

October 20, 2014 - 4:54pm

Unlike any Chicago mayor before him, Rahm Emanuel has made the expansion of quality early childhood education programs a focal point of his agenda.

He lengthened the official kindergarten school day, centralized the preschool application process, diverted some city revenue to make up for a loss in state and federal funding,  and, earlier this month, announced that the city would borrow millions of dollars through a so-called “social impact bond” to temporarily increase the number of slots in the city’s heralded child-parent centers.

By next year, Emanuel says, the city will be able to offer at least a half-day of preschool to all low-income children.

“If you’re a child of a parent that is basically described as poor, or lower, you will have universal preschool for that 4-year-old,” Emanuel told a room full of bank executives last week. “So when it comes time for kindergarten, we are going to be able to make sure every child in the city of Chicago – not just our children – but every child in the city of Chicago at the age of 4 will have preschool education […]so that when they get to kindergarten and go to those seven-hour days, they are ready.”

More than three years into the mayor’s tenure, advocates for the city’s youngest children say that they’re glad Emanuel has brought increased public attention to the issue. But many – especially working parents and union activists who are pushing for full-day universal preschool – say they’re still on the fence about how much his policies will ultimately expand and broaden access to what’s long been a complex web of early childhood programs.

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, education director for the Latino Policy Forum, says it’s obvious that Emanuel “gets that we have to start early if we’re talking about closing the achievement gap. It’s a lot more in the discourse than it ever has been. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.”

“We still need to ensure the right folks are at the table so they’re enacting policy from the ground up,” she adds.

Recognizing a good investment

Emanuel is no stranger to the world of early learning. At press conferences and education events, he often tells audiences how he studied the subject as an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College before switching his area of concentration. (A spokeswoman for the liberal arts school confirmed that Emanuel studied early childhood education during his first two years, in addition to working at an early childhood center on campus for three semesters.)

Emanuel’s experience, coupled with his later work in politics and as an investment banker, convinced him that early education is a good long-term investment.

“From the evidence I’ve seen, he does care about this and it’s not just because it’s a nice thing to do for kids. I think he believes the research out there […] that for every dollar you invest, you’re going to save $7 later down the road,” says Ric Estrada, president and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services, an organization that provides early education and other services to low-income families in Cook and DuPage counties.

“You have to believe it, because he’s putting his money where his mouth is. He’s expanded programs especially in poor neighborhoods and when there is no money, he’s forced to be creative,” Estrada adds.

As evidence, he points to the social impact bonds, a new financing tool that Emanuel has turned to in order to pay for 2,600 new slots at six CPS child-parent centers over the next four years. In a plan unveiled last week, the city would borrow about $17 million from Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund, Northern Trust and the JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation with the understanding it will only pay the money back if it saves on expensive special education services for children later down the road. The city would make additional payments if students reach high achievement levels on kindergarten literacy and third-grade tests.

According to projections presented to the City Council last week, CPS will wind up paying the lenders nearly $21.5 million back by the time the children graduate from high school.

The mayor’s proposal contrasts drastically with how a coalition of community groups and unions has suggested the city pay for “truly universal” full-day preschool. The groups want the city to go after banks for so-called “toxic swaps,” redistribute money from tax-increment financing districts, or lobby the state to create new revenue from taxes on commuters or luxury services.

“What they’ve done is put a drop in the bucket to deal with the massive demand for preschool services, and not even begin to address the extent to which people desperately need childcare for infants and toddlers,” said Jackson Potter of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Instead of providing those services, we’ll have a much smaller version of that and we’re on the hook for creating a profitable situation for the banks that are financing this.”

Ready to Learn! focuses on the neediest

The mayor’s signature early learning initiative, Ready to Learn!, has sought to redistribute preschool spaces to the areas of the city with the highest needs. Among the changes:

-- A centralized bidding process for schools and community-based sites that are applying for state or federal money for preschool slots.

-- A centralized enrollment process to try and guarantee that the city’s poorest children get top priority. However, the change has sparked complaints from some parents who could no longer enroll their children directly at their neighborhood school, contributing to a drop in enrollment of nearly 1,000 4-year-olds in school-based preschools.  “If parents can’t get slots available to them in their neighborhood, they might get referred somewhere miles away,” says Brynn Seibert, director of child care and early learning for SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which represents child care workers. “Transportation is a big problem that could obscure some of the access issues.” CPS hasn’t published this year’s enrollment figures yet, so it’s unclear whether the problem remains.

-- For those families that do not qualify as low income, CPS began charging for half-day preschool on a sliding scale. District data obtained by SEIU Healthcare Illinois and provided to Catalyst Chicago indicates that about 6 percent of all children in school-based preschools had to pay last year.

Not surprisingly, schools on the North Side, such as Edison Park and Blaine, had the highest percentage of paying students. The money generated from the sliding-scale fees – about $164,000 per month – helps pay for other early education programs in the city.

Adding up the numbers

Over the past several months, Emanuel has used the term “universal” to describe plans to provide a free, half-day preschool to the 25,000 or so 4-year-olds in the city whose families’ incomes would qualify them for free or reduced-cost school lunches. The estimates are based on U.S. Census data, and are similar to last year’s actual figures on the number of kindergartners who qualified for the lunch program.

According to the mayor’s office, about 23,500 low-income 4-year-olds are already being served in city-run early education programs in school- or community site-based slots. (Though city officials have not provided Catalyst with an accounting of that figure, the numbers roughly added up last year when taking into account 4-year-olds in Head Start, Preschool for All and child-parent centers in the city, including Head Start programs administered by other agencies.)

Emanuel’s social impact bond proposal – which could come into fruition by next month – makes a dent at reaching those additional 1,500 children who are now not in any program. Additional slots would apparently be funded with revenue generated from the city’s controversial red-light cameras, as Emanuel has said he’d invest an additional $36 million over three years from those revenues.

Last year, some of those funds went toward start-up costs for new early learning centers, including one that opened in February in the annex of Libby Elementary School in the Englewood neighborhood. Metropolitan Family Services operates the center, which provides early learning and childcare services in addition to a variety of other health, legal aid and workforce programs.

Trying to help working parents

During the press conference earlier this month, Emanuel spoke about how last year’s decision to make all kindergarten classes a full day was critical not just for the children, but for their working parents. (Previously, some schools offered a half-day and others a full-day.)

“No parent, specifically a mother, can get a job if she says, ‘I have to leave at 11 o’clock to pick up my child,” Emanuel said. “If you’re on a two-hour schedule for kindergarten, you’re not only short-changing the child, you’re short-changing the parent.”


Working parents like Hellen Juarez agree wholeheartedly with Emanuel’s assessment. But they say that the situation doesn’t just apply to those with kindergartners.

Juarez is a single mother with three daughters who lives in Brighton Park, which was ranked the neighborhood most in need of childcare and preschool slots by IFF (previously known as the Illinois Facilities Fund). Two of her daughters are in elementary school; the youngest, who is 2, goes to daycare in another neighborhood because Juarez couldn’t find anything nearby. Juarez, a paralegal who is also taking college classes, pays about $700 out of pocket for a full day of care. She says she looks forward to when her youngest daughter is old enough to go to full-day kindergarten.

“Would a half day of pre-school be useful? Not really,” Juarez said. “I have to drop off my daughter by 6:45 a.m. at the daycare, go to class then I go to work, and pick her up at 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m. Half a day is not universal. It’s just a job half-done.”

Take 5: Interim IG investigates banned company, testing petition, school funding math

October 20, 2014 - 9:55am

Banned by Mayor Rahm Emanuel from work for the city, Windy City Electric Company still managed to get $3.1 million in contracts from CPS, according to a Better Government Association story in the Chicago Sun Times. Windy City was accused of falsely claiming to be owned and operated by women. According to the article, CPS can terminate a contract with any company that is banned by another city agency. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment on why CPS continued to work with the company, but said it was under investigation by the district’s interim Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

This brings up another point: When is Emanuel going to appoint a permanent inspector general? In June--more than three months ago--James Sullivan announced that he was leaving his post after 12 years. McCaffrey says the process is "moving forward. The candidates are being reviewed and we expect an appointment soon."

Schuler seems a shoo-in for the permanent job. He was a police officer for nine years before going to law school. He started in the city’s Inspector General department before transferring to CPS and was second in command. Being an interim seems like it has the potential to make the office less likely to take action. Wonder what CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel are waiting for?

2.  Putting off the PARCC… Raise Your Hand-Illinois has started an online petition to try to convince the Illinois State Board of Education to put off implementation of the new state standardized test for a year. The PARCC is aligned with Common Core standards, which are supposed to be more rigorous than the old state standards. But there are concerns that the test is not yet reliable, hasn’t been field tested sufficiently and that many schools don’t have adequate technology to administer the test, which is administered by computer. The petition is suggesting that the state use the NWEA or another national test for elementary students and continue to administer the ACT for high school students. The petition notes that several other states have delayed using the PARCC.

Parents in Chicago are also upset because their children are being hit with a double whammy of tests this year. Not only will elementary and high school students have to take the new PARCC, but elementary students will also take the NWEA and high school students will also take the ACT. As a result, several weeks in April, May or June will be engulfed by testing. What's more, many schools are having their students take the NWEA in the fall and winter to chart their progress.

So far, the petition has 818 online signatures.

3. Playing with numbers … With just a few weeks to go before the Nov. 4 elections, The Associated Press took a look at claims made by both Gov. Pat Quinn and his opponent Bruce Rauner on school spending. Rauner, a Republican, has attacked the incumbent for a $600 million decrease in school funding since he took office. Quinn, a Democrat, says he’s increased spending.

State school data provided to the AP shows that funding on preschool through 12th grade dropped from $7.4 billion in 2009 -- the year before Quinn replaced his predecessor -- to $6.8 billion this year. However, the federal government poured in hundreds of millions of additional dollars in 2009 and 2010 through the stimulus package, which according to Quinn shouldn’t be lumped in when discussing the state’s spending on schools. “Without the federal aid, education funding in fiscal 2009 drops to $6.4 billion, which means state support has increased $442 million, or 7 percent,” according to the story.

4. Still on strike … Schools in Waukegan remain closed today as talks between the district and teachers have stalled. Teachers have been on strike for 11 days over salary issues.

District officials blamed the union for suspending contract talks indefinitely, according to the Chicago Tribune. Meanwhile the Waukegan Teachers’ Council president says teachers are “giving them time to reflect and to look at their own numbers and come back with a serious offer.”

Teachers in Waukegan say they sacrificed during lean years and now the district has a surplus that they should be sharing with teachers. However, district officials say the union’s proposal of a 9 percent pay increase would bankrupt them. Waukegan has 17,000 students and 23 schools.

5. Sign-on bonus… The City of Milwaukee has officially banned public charter schools from offering cash incentives to those who refer students for enrollment. Last week’s decision came in response to a “well-advertised offer” from a charter school that would pay $100 in cash to anyone who referred a student who enrolled a student by the state’s official head count day for state enrollment purposes. “Enrollment is the lifeblood for schools that rely on public funding because it guarantees a certain amount of per-pupil dollars from the state,” says the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The school in question “called the campaign cost-effective because it rewarded parents for doing what they might do anyway: talk up the school with family and friends.” The teachers union, meanwhile, calls it bribery.

Though it has never been substaniated, here in Chicago we have heard of charters schools offering incentives of computers or iPads to enroll. 

Also... Latasha Thomas, head of the City Council’s Education Committee, announced this weekend that she is not going to run again.

 



As CPS irons out school budgets, charters will also get more cash

October 16, 2014 - 5:42pm

CPS is increasing the per-pupil funding provided to charter schools for this year in order to “equalize” funding between them and traditional schools.

Charter school operators say that even with the slight increase, some of them are down so many students that they have had to shift spending around to create a balanced budget.

CPS will spend an additional $7.8 million on charter schools, but spokesman Bill McCaffrey says he is not sure how much more per-pupil that amounts to. 

The decision is in response to the late September announcement that CPS would not cut traditional school budgets even if they had less than the projected number of students. Under student-based budgeting, schools get a stipend for each student, but ever since implementing the new strategy two years ago, officials have declined to take money away from schools that enroll fewer students than expected.

"We must be fair and equitable and charter school students are still CPS students," McCaffrey says. 

CPS will spend an additional $24 million to let traditional schools keep money even if they enrolled fewer students, and to provide more money for those schools that got more students.

Charter schools had been budgeted to get the same per-pupil rate as district-run schools, which is an average of $4,390. Charter schools also get an additional $1,973 per student to make up for the support that traditional schools get from the district.

State law stipulates that charter schools must receive funding per student, so the district would have had to take away extra money from charters that enrolled fewer students than expected. Also, unlike CPS-run schools, charters have a cap for how many students they can enroll and must get CPS board approval to increase that cap. If they take in more than that cap, they don’t get more money.

Last year, as many as 38 of 120-plus charter schools did not have as many students as they were projected to get, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data. Many of the charters that were short of students were new.

 Though CPS must take an official count of students for state funding purposes on the 20th day of school, which was September 30, the district has not yet released school-by-school numbers.

McCaffrey has already acknowledged that the overall projection of 400,445 students district-wide was off by at least 3,000 students, leaving the district with a total of 397,000.

Seeking federal grant, Illinois promises huge investments in early childhood ed

October 16, 2014 - 9:37am

As part of an ambitious application for up to $80 million in new federal preschool expansion money, the State of Illinois says it can commit to increasing its own spending on early childhood education programs by $250 million annually by 2020.

That would mean a complete reversal of the state’s previous trend of cutting back allocations to the Early Childhood Block Grant, which stands at about $300 million this fiscal year – down from $342 million in 2010. Now the state says it could increase spending by $50 million during each of the next five years until it hits the $550 million mark in 2020.

The money would help fund nearly 14,000 full-day preschool slots for 4-year-olds, prioritizing children with the highest needs – including those with developmental disabilities, who are homeless, in foster care or living in poverty. In addition, the state is proposing major investments in its preschool programs for 3-year-olds as well as its Birth to Five Initiative, which includes increased funding for child care assistance, home visiting programs and outreach to pregnant women.

“Sometime the federal competitions come around and you have to twist and turn yourself around to fit what they’re looking for,” said Theresa Hawley, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, which submitted the federal proposal. “They came to us with what we were thinking we needed to do anyway and we’re planning to do […]. We think we put together a fabulous proposal.”

A massive infusion of state funds into early learning programs would give Illinois a competitive advantage over other states that applied for the four-year grant. But, given Illinois’ ongoing financial woes and the pending loss of income tax revenues in January (when a temporary tax increase is set to expire), it’s unclear where that additional money would come from. The budget is made even more uncertain with gubernatorial and state legislative elections coming up next month.

States that successfully obtain the grant but don’t make the investments they promised risk losing the federal dollars.

Galvanizing the early learning community

Hawley, whose office submitted the grant in collaboration with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), didn’t explain how the state should pay for the $250 million commitment but stressed that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is a strong advocate for expanding early education programs.

“The governor has repeatedly said the legislature left their work unfinished when they left” the spring session, said Hawley, who didn’t comment on what could happen to the grant proposal should Quinn lose.

The governor’s challenger, Republican Bruce Rauner, has promised to increase funding to the state’s early childhood programs if elected. His wife, Diana, heads the Ounce of Prevention Fund, one of the state’s biggest early childhood education organizations.

Some advocates told Catalyst that federal funding could be used as leverage with the State Legislature to ensure increased spending on early childhood education.

“I think this galvanizes the early learning community to really stand up and demand that state lawmakers stop pretending that this is not urgent,” said Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. “This is not speculative anymore. What we’re talking about is making a significant investment in making sure that the poorest, most at-risk children and their families have high-quality learning intervention that really will change their lives. If we as a state with a multi-billion dollar budget can’t come up with the money, then shame on us.”

In recent years, though, the Legislature has cut back spending on early childhood education. According to a report earlier this summer from Voices for Illinois Children, enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has “eroded” to levels not seen since 2005. The detailed report on the disparities in access to preschool across the state called for the Legislature to increase its investment.

Full-day classes, better teacher salaries

States had until Wednesday to apply for a piece of the federal Preschool Development Grants program, which was developed by the U.S Departments of Education and Health and Human Services earlier this year. The goal of the grants is to help states build and expand voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for children from low-income families.

Unlike the state’s existing Preschool for All program, the new federal initiative requires full-day preschool. Another key difference is eligibility: 3- and 4-year-olds who are considered “at-risk” of academic failure are eligible for Preschool for All slots, but the new federal initiative is only for 4-year-olds from low-income families. The federal initiative also requires instructional staff salaries to be comparable to local K-12 salaries.

The federal funding awards will be announced in December.

Last month (ISBE) unanimously voted to authorize the submission of the state’s grant application with no discussion on the feasibility of the spending plan.  (See summary on page 282 in ISBE agenda.)

State schools Superintendent Christopher Koch recognized it’s unusual to ask for permission from the board before applying for a grant, but that he wanted to be “up front” about it because of the spending commitment that’s part of the application.

“If you approve this, we would include that amount of $50 million annually, I wanted you to know that up front,” Koch told the board. “You may do that anyway, regardless of whether we receive the grant.”

Take 5: ISAT news, charter study and the corruption cure

October 16, 2014 - 9:33am

The Chicago Tribune reports that Illinois students showed improvement in math in almost every grade last year, although the passing rates for reading dropped slightly.

District superintendents told the Tribune the improvements in math make sense, as they’ve been revamping curricula for three years in order to meet the more rigorous Common Core standards. Last year’s ISATs used only questions that were aligned to the new, controversial standards.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has not officially released any of the data on the ISAT scores. But that information -- including school- and district- level data -- will be accessible to the public on October 31. CPS has traditionally released its ISAT information well before the state's official release, but officials have not said whether they plan to post it before October 31. This year, CPS will not be using the ISAT for its accountability system, leading a movement among parents to question why their children were forced to take it.

In addition to ISAT scores, a revamped state report card will include several new metrics and data, including information on post-secondary enrollment, freshman on-track rates and even rates of principal turnover and teacher retention. ISBE discussed some of the key, state-level findings from the report card during its meeting yesterday, including the fact that the percentage of white students has dropped below 50 percent for the first time

2. Looking forward…This week Chicago learned the grim details about the serious illness that has made CTU President Karen Lewis temporarily step down from her union position and back away from considering a mayoral run: Lewis, according to several media reports, suffers from a cancerous brain tumor. She had emergency surgery last week and is now recovering at home.

Her potential mayoral bid had excited many in Chicago’s progressive community who thought she’d be a formidable challenger to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Now, as Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes, progressives in Chicago are left without a standard-bearer, although a movement to elect progressive aldermanic candidates as well as put an elected school board to referendum in all 50 wards is underway.

The CTU, too, must now face contract negotiations without Lewis. The union has been in the process of forming its “big bargaining team” which will begin meeting with city officials in the coming weeks to discuss the teachers’ contract that expires next summer. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey admits he has big shoes to fill in a Crain’s article profiling the temporary new union boss. But even though Lewis isn’t running for mayor, the fight for equity in the city continues, Sharkey told a group of teachers Wednesday evening. So it was no surprise that shortly after Emanuel presented his proposed budget to City Council on Wednesday afternoon, the CTU was quick to issue its own response on how the budget “continues a top-down imposition of two distinct cities, one for the privileged and one for everyone else.”

3. More charter fodder… The Tribune, Sun-Times and Crain’s all covered the release of a report that concluded charter schools perform worse than traditional schools, even as the fact that families select them--and students are presumably more motivated--seemingly signals that they should be performing better. As the report’s author Myron Orfield points out, other more comprehensive studies have found mostly mixed results when comparing Chicago’s charters to traditional, non-selective schools. Orfield, however, only uses one year of data to conclude that, as a group, charters are worse.

Orfield’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota is mostly focused on how housing and school segregation is harmful. The report notes that Chicago’s charter schools are less likely to be diverse than other district schools. Orfield identifies schools as diverse if they have a mix of black and Latino students, as well as black, Latino and white students. But it is hard to blame school segregation on charter schools. With only 9 percent white students and neighborhood segregation pretty much the only traditional schools in the district that are truly diverse are some of the selective and magnet schools.

According to the Tribune, Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools quickly dismissed the report as a "policy piece masquerading as research."

4. Tangled web…There is growing concern about the way charter schools are allowed to do business. A ProPublica story looks at a North Carolina businessman named Baker Mitchell. Mitchell sat on the board of a charter school network and, at the same time, the companies he owns served as vendors for the charter, providing everything from the management to the buildings they rented to their desks and computers. North Carolina regulators eventually pressured him to step down from the board, but he still serves as the board’s secretary, taking notes at meetings.

Mitchell also played a political role, sitting on the state’s Charter School Advisory Committee and later pushing through a bill that loosened regulations over charters and get this, gave tax breaks to landlords, like Mitchell, who rent to charter schools.

ProPublica’s story says that the U.S. Department of Education is looking into such relationships and notes that the FBI sent out subpoenas to operators of at least three companies.

5. Cure for corruption?... Professor and researcher Dick Simpson told a state task force on Monday that the lack of “citizenship education” is the main reason that Illinois is one of the most corrupt states. He and others at the Monday hearing endorsed the recommendations in a preliminary task force report that calls for all students to take a civic learning class and for a revision of service learning requirements. If approved Illinois would join 20 other states that have standards related to civic education and engagement.

Barbara Cruz, a senior at Hancock High School, said that students in her community often don’t feel accurately represented by their elected officials, but don’t know what to do about it. “We are not apathetic, we are not hopeless, and we are not too stubborn to change. The truth is, we are going to be at the forefront, if you guys let us.”

Speaking of teaching service, over 100 schools in Illinois have already signed up to participate in this year’s We Day, an April event that celebrates students’ community service. The event was launched this week at Farragut High School where Martin Luther King III among others spoke. The initiative started in Toronto, Canada and has since expanded to 14 cities in three countries, including Seattle, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Take 5: Looking back at LSCs, elected school board tussle, bullying lawsuit, Sharkey takes over CTU

October 13, 2014 - 8:05am

Education Week marks the 25th anniversary of the first LSC election with an article that looks at where they are today. One big question the article asks is why local school councils haven't spread to other cities if they are successful. It also questions whether the experiment was uniquely "Chicago," while also pointing out that mayoral control also diluted some of the power and enthusiasm around LSCs and that their most important power--choosing principals--has been limited by the district in recent years. Few people run or vote in council elections, the article notes, quoting a Catalyst article that found 86 LSCs had no candidates and that the filing deadline had to be extended.

Currently, 40 percent of CPS schools are on probation and therefore the LSCs only serve in advisory roles.  In addition, more than 100 schools are charters or contract schools and are not required to have any parent or community  boards.  

Chester E. Finn, Jr., the president emeritus of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, says LSCs are too locally focused to implement big reforms that really improve schools. However, the now-defunct Designs for Change found that schools with vigorous LSCs were more likely to improvem while the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that a key componenet of a school improvement is strong community and parent involvement.

2. Another vote … Meeting at a school in Austin and then fanning out throughout the neighborhood, a coalition of parents and teachers on Monday are officially launching the push to get a referendum on an elected school board to voters on the ballot across the city. The coalition will meet at McNair Elementary School to start gathering petitions.

Though some precincts have had the question on the ballot in the past, the effort this year is to get it on in all 50 wards. Activists say part of their strategy is also to make the elected school board question a "litmus test" for incumbent aldemen and their challengers.

Collecting signatures is one of three ways to get a referendum to voters. The City Council could also place it on the ballot, but last week, an effort by a progressive group of aldermen was thwarted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies.

Ald. Bob Fioretti, who is running for mayor, says the Rules Committee last week violated state law by hastily approving two other proposed referenda that were never posted on the public agenda in order to avoid considering the school board item, according to DNAinfo . Fioretti says he’s filed a complaint with the state’s Attorney General to nullify the committee action.

3. Bully lawsuit.... The mother of a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide is suing CPS, according to DNAInfo. Last month, a CPS investigation found no "credible evidence" that McKenzie Philpots, a student at Pierce Elementary School, was bullied.  This finding stands in contrast to what her mother says and reportedly told the school before McKenzie killed herself. In addition, McKenzie talked about being bullied on social media.

This incredibly sad situation shines a light on the broader issue of how well CPS does in making sure staff know how to address bullying, especially in a big school system with few social workers or counselors who can focus on the social and emotional needs of students.

4. CTU without Karen... In a terse press conference on Thursday afternoon,  CTU's Vice President Jesse Sharkey announced that he will be taking over the reins of the union while President Karen Lewis deals with a  "serious health problem. " Such a role for Sharkey will not be new as he had been running the day-to-day operations as Lewis considered a run for mayor.  Sharkey said he had no news about whether Lewis is still contemplating a run for mayor.  

Even the Chicago Tribune editorial writers say they have been wondering if she will still run "though it is the wrong question for this moment. " While it seems hard to imagine that Lewis could muster a run in these circumstances,  the same Tribune editorial notes that Lewis promised her union would deliver a vigorous campaign against Mayor Rahm Emanuel: On a scale of 1 to 10, she said, a 15. The question however is who would the union get behind if not Lewis. Perhaps Fioretti?

5. Preparing teachers for the job … As the U.S. Department of Education focuses on improving the quality of teacher training programs, it has set aside millions of dollars in grants to districts with teacher residency programs that pair new teachers with experienced ones. The New York Times featured one such program, run by the Aspire charter system in California and Memphis, that helps its residents master the “seemingly unexciting — but actually quite complex — task of managing a classroom full of children.” The article describes the model’s lengthy and intense mentorship as “one of a number of such programs emerging across the country...a radical departure from traditional teacher training, which tends to favor theory over practice.”

A strong teacher training program isn’t always enough to keep new teachers from leaving the field. Earlier this year, Catalyst Chicago looked into the high rates of turnover at turnaround schools, most of which are managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which includes a highly regarded teacher residency component. Not all teachers at turnarounds were trained by AUSL, but many of them were. Catalyst found that more than half of teachers hired in the first year of a turnaround left by the third year, at 16 of the 17 schools that underwent a turnaround between 2007 and 2011.

Comings and Goings: Slavin, WITS/Boundless Readers, Mazany

October 9, 2014 - 3:43pm

Sarah Slavin is now the director of the New Teacher Center in Chicago. Previously she served as the education program officer at the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation and led Teach Plus as the executive director in Chicago. Slavin also serves on the board of directors of the Chicago Foundation for Education.

Working in the Schools (WITS) and Boundless Readers have joined forces to merge and combine their programming. WITS promotes literacy and a love of learning in CPS elementary students, and Boundless Readers helps children develop into lifelong leaders, readers, and thinkers. Their combined programming will focus on teacher development and volunteer activation to empower readers in the classrooms throughout the city.

Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, has been appointed board chair of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card. The board makes objective information on student performance available to policymakers and the public on national, state, and local levels. Mazany has served on the NAEP board since 2012.

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

Take 5: UNO's shaky finances, 36 kids in a class, school lunches, NYC preschool for the rich

October 9, 2014 - 9:08am

The fiscal health of the UNO Charter School Network--the third largest network in Chicago serving more than 7,500 students--is mixed, a situation "that could impair long-term fiscal viability," according to a new report from the Civic Federation. UNO recently settled a case with the Securities and Exchange Commission and acknowledged that it was being audited by the IRS, according to the Sun Times.

Some of the troubling findings about UNO is that the operator spent an average of 45 percent of its revenue on instruction between 2007 and 2011, less than the minimum standard average of 50 percent. The network is running a deficit and its reserves are shrinking, leaving it with less cash on hand for emergencies than recommended by the Illinois State Board of Education. On the positive side, though, its debt-to-worth ratio is low, which means the organization has the potential to borrow money should it need to.

The Civic Federation, generally supportive of charter schools, also found that LEARN and Namaste were in good financial shape, while UNO and North Lawndale Charter High School, a two-campus operator, were shakier. It examined 13 financial indicators, including instructional expenses, fund balance ratio and debt-to-worth ratio, of the four charter school networks. The federation also wanted to look at the capital, fundraising and strategic plans, but the authors note that the lack of cooperation from the charters made this impossible.  

Previous CPS administrations put out thick charter school annual reports that profiled each school’s academic and fiscal profile. Without that report, it is impossible to know to what degree CPS officials are monitoring the financial situation of charter schools. But it would be important to do so because, if a charter school goes out of business, the district will be left scrambling to figure out what to do with the children. North Lawndale College Prep’s two campuses are located in an area with underutilized neighborhood high schools likely able to absorb its 850 students. But UNO schools are mostly in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools.

2. Back to class… A fifth-grade class at Oriole Park Elementary School on the far North Side got a nice little visit with Reader reporter Ben Joravsky. He was in the class to observe what it is like to be in a classroom with 36 fifth-graders, over the maximum of 31 set out in the Chicago Teachers Union contract. He says he learned--surprises--that it is crowdy and noisy.

Before Joravsky wrote up the story, Principal Tim Riff decided to hire an additional fifth-grade teacher. Riff tells Catalyst that he was able to swing a third teacher because the already overcrowded school got more students than expected. Schools get about $4,300 per student.

Last year, under the first year of student-based budgeting, 17 percent of elementary schools were over the class size limits set in the teachers contract (28 students in primary grades and 31 in intermediate and middle grades), shows a Catalyst analysis of CPS data. That is nearly 58,000 students.

What is going on this year is still unknown. In fact, CPS has not yet released its 20th day enrollment count yet, though that tally was taken a week and a half ago.

3. Cafeteria Wars … New York Times political writer Nicholas Confessore tells the dramatic tale behind the national fight over healthier school lunches. On one side are school food service workers (or lunch ladies, as Confessore calls them) who struggle to maintain sales as students are turned off from the healthier, grainier and less salty foods; on the other, First Lady Michelle Obama and a cadre of health experts who support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. “The lunch ladies have become the shock troops in a sometimes absurdly complex battle to roll back the Obama’s administration’s anti-obesity agenda,” Confessore writes. “Some Democrats in Congress fear that if Republicans win control of the Senate this fall, Obama’s reform will be gutted within a year — and with it, the government’s single-best weapon against childhood obesity.”

The cafeteria wars are playing out here in Illinois, too. Just a few weeks ago, District 214 in Arlington Heights dropped out of the federally subsidized lunch program in order to avoid the new dietary standards. “The decision eliminated almost $1 million in federal reimbursements for the district, leading to a five-fold price increase for reduced-price lunches a reduced food service budget,” according to a Tribune article.

And now, Downer Grove’s high school district is also considering getting out of the program -- and giving up a half-million dollars in subsidies.

4. Another language… Get ready because next month CPS will announce its “plan for bi-literacy,” according a Chicago Tribune article, quoting district spokesman Joel Hood. A new state law allows school districts to indicate on high school diplomas and transcripts that a student knows English, as well as another language really well. This State Seal of Biliteracy is part of a statewide initiative to try get more students to show a high level of proficiency in one or more foreign languages. The state board of education is in the process of developing standards to get the seal. In other states, they have used the Advanced Placement Foreign Language exam to show proficiency.

The idea of such a designation started in California and has been spreading across the country. Having the seal could help students get scholarships or job opportunities. One interesting caveat is that students also have to show that they are highly proficient in English in addition to another language. District participation in the initiative is optional, but several suburban school districts, like Chicago, plan to offer it.

Experts say it will be hard for students to achieve a level of biliteracy if they do not start learning in elementary school. This could be difficult to achieve in most Chicago elementary schools. According to the 2015 budget, less than 100 elementary schools are getting funding for foreign language teachers. Other schools could be paying for such teachers on their own, but with Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushing more art and daily gym, it is hard to see how many elementary schools will also afford a comprehensive foreign language program.  

5. Pre-school for the rich … New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio campaigned on the need to address income inequality, and his signature initiative to provide full-day, universal preschool was supposed to help close the achievement gap. But, one study says it’s children from the city’s wealthiest families who are benefitting the most from the preschool expansion.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkley found that preschool enrollment in zip codes where families earn more than the city’s average income grew at twice the rate than in the poorest quartile of zip codes. One reason, the researchers say, is that “schools in poorer communities appear to be less likely to find space for pre-k children, or lack the organizational slack to take on new programs.”

City hall refutes the study, noting that poor neighborhoods already had more seats prior to the expansion. According to Chalkbeat New York, “while lower-income neighborhoods may have seen less of a percentage increase in seats, the sheer number of new seats created in low-income areas offer a different picture. For example, 3,293 seats were added to the city’s 10 poorest ZIP codes, while 288 were added to the 10 wealthiest.”

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, is targeting the city’s poorest children with his plans to expand half-day preschool. Earlier this week, Emanuel said one way he’ll finance the expansion is through a $17 million loan from big financial institution that ties repayment to better academic outcomes.

One last note … Later Thursday at a press conference we will get some more information about CTU President Karen Lewis’ health, why she’s been hospitalized since Sunday night or whether this will have any impact on her expected mayoral run.  In the meantime, we just want to wish her a full and speedy recovery.

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