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For the Record: Steep rise in chronic absences, truancy

June 16, 2014 - 4:23pm

More children were chronically truant or absent at three of every four elementary schools in the 2012-2013 school year, compared to just two years earlier, according to district data obtained by Catalyst Chicago.

Click here to see our analysis of the data.

Overall, chronic absenteeism rose at 80 percent of elementary schools during the three-year time period.

Last month, Catalyst reported on internal Chicago Public Schools data showing that chronic absenteeism and chronic truancy were up overall in the elementary grades. But officials did not provide the data on a school-by-school level until June 3, after Catalyst asked the Office of the Illinois Attorney General to review the district’s stalled response to a Freedom of Information Act public records request first made in March. 

The increase was especially evident at nearly three dozen schools that saw chronic absences increase by 10 percentage points or more in the three-year period. These include some of the schools that closed last year, such as Paderewski (from 18 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2013) and Attucks (from 8 percent to 28 percent). At the same time, some of the schools that closed last year saw a decline in chronic absenteeism, including Songhai and Lawrence.

Chronic truancy, meanwhile, went up at 74 percent of elementary schools. Most of these schools saw increases of more than 10 percentage points, but several experienced increases higher than 30 percentage points. These include Woodson South, O’Keeffe, Caldwell and Paderewski.

Students are considered "chronically truant" after missing at least nine days in a school year without a valid excuse. “Chronically absent” students, meanwhile, have missed at least 18 school days, either excused or unexcused.

On the flip side, fewer high school students skipped class or were absent in the 2012-2013 school year, when compared with two years earlier.

Catalyst’s analysis did not show any clear trend or strong correlation between high truancy or absenteeism, and other factors such as the number of homeless students, suspension and expulsion rates, or school closures. Still, family problems, illness, school discipline and other circumstances may contribute to students missing school.

CPS officials said they were still trying to get a handle on why so many more children were chronically absent and truant at elementary schools.

In a statement, CPS officials said their new strategies for reducing chronic truancy and absenteeism attempt “to respond to the root causes of why students are absent (e.g., unclear school expectations, punitive school discipline practices, academic struggles, health concerns, challenges at home, etc.)”

The CPS statement also explains that the strategy “is a shift from years past when there was a heavier focus on truancy officers who could knock on doors and bring students back to school, but were unable to adequately address the root causes of students’ absences.” Coincidentally, WBEZ’s Curious City recently reported on the history of truancy officers in CPS.

CPS officials say that new data tools will help schools monitor absence trends, while the district will provide additional funding support – including mentors and after-school programing—for schools with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism and truancy.

A state-appointed task force is now looking at the problem of chronic truancy in Chicago Public Schools. The group, which was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation on chronic truancy, next meets at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 19, in Room 2-025 of the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph Street.

In the News: Baltimore County superintendent nailed for SUPES involvement

June 16, 2014 - 12:30pm

Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance violated ethics rules by taking a consulting gig with the SUPES Academy to coach CPS principals just months after his district signed a $875,000 contract with the company, according to a ruling last week by an ethics panel. Dance’s relationship with SUPES came to light in a Catalyst article in October. Dance, who is 33 years old, has agreed that he won't take on anymore consulting jobs. (Baltimore Sun)

Dance was one of several school leaders getting paid to be coaches or master teachers for the SUPES Academy in Chicago and whose school districts also have contracts with SUPES or one of three other businesses run by the owners of the company. One of the selling points of SUPES is that the owners have relationships with school leaders and can bring them in to provide training. But—as the Dance ethics violation reveals—that relationship can be dicey because the company’s owners also look to school districts for contracts to provide training, search for administrators and do school turnarounds.

Because the companies are private, for-profit businesses, they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act so it is unclear how many school leaders are involved or how much they are getting paid. A log of meetings and sessions obtained by Catalyst in the fall listed the last names of the school leaders serving as coaches and master teachers in Chicago. In addition to Dance, Catalyst was able to identify the school leaders of the school districts that serve Atlanta, St. Louis and Minneapolis—school districts that are also listed as clients on the SUPES Academy website or related businesses.  

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s relationship with SUPES also has come into question. Up until the time she was hired by CPS, she worked as a consultant for SUPES. She says she has not gotten paid by the company since. However, as recently as this November, she answered questions at a SUPES session for aspiring superintendents. She says she had just “stopped by” the training in Chicago and informally took some questions. CPS principals have said the $20 million training was not valuable, but CPS has made no move to exercise an option to cancel the contract. (Catalyst)

School closing success: CPS officials and board president David Vitale are declaring victory in the transition of students from closed schools. In articles in the Tribune and in a piece on CBS, CPS officials said that during the first full school year after the historic closings, the fears many had were unrealized. The Safe Passage program performed as promised, and CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett on Friday noted an uptick in mid-year performance at schools designated to take in students whose buildings were closed. (CBS and Tribune)

Common Core testing delayed: Many states are moving to delay or alter test-based accountability for schools and teachers, as tests associated with the Common Core State Standards head for their debut nationwide in the coming school year. (Education Week)

Charter expansion: The Success Academy charter network’s plan to double in size could reignite a war over classroom space in New York City. A new state law passed in April gives the city just two options to meet the demands of the Success Academy network: It can hand over free space in public or private buildings, or give the schools money to find their own space. (The New York Times)

Talking With Principals, Part 4: Money matters

June 13, 2014 - 2:35pm

CPS has yet to release its official budget for next fiscal year, but principals have been grappling with their school-level allocations since April. In the last of four excerpts from a roundtable discussion hosted by Catalyst Chicago, Blaine Elementary Principal Troy LaRaviere, outgoing Peterson Elementary Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer and Sullivan High Principal Chad Adams share their views on the district’s per-pupil budgeting system, now in its second year, and the district’s claim that the system gives principals more “autonomy” in spending decisions.

Gresham Elementary Principal Diedrus Brown also participated in the roundtable but did not have much to share: Gresham is slated to become a turnaround school and she will not be at the helm next year.

The vote on next year's budget was supposed to be held at the June board meeting, but has been delayed for unspecified reasons. According to state law, the budget must be published 30 days before the required public hearing. CPS’ fiscal year ends on June 31, but it is not unusual for the board to approve the budget in July or August.

Last year, officials made a dramatic shift in its system for allocating money and resources to schools: Instead of allowing schools to have a certain number of teachers based on enrollment, schools now receive a specific amount of money for each student. In addition, the overall amount allocated to schools was cut by $80 million.

CPS officials said that the new scheme would give principals more freedom that would offset the pain of budget cuts. But many principals said that, with scarce resources, the new system merely shifted the responsibility for bad decisions onto their plate, such as cutting an art teacher in order to afford a recess monitor. Plus, new requirements such as daily physical education are a drain on budgets.

For next year, officials announced a $250 increase per student, raising the per-pupil stipend to an average of about $4,390 from $4,140.

Catalyst: Are you being asked to buy specific books or specific programs?

Parrott-Sheffer: I’m not, but I have colleagues who had to meet with their network person and they were handed a list. I got to see it and it said, what level of Achieve 3000 are you buying? They’re being told how to spend their budget, whether they have the funds or resources.

Catalyst: What side of town does that principal work on?

Parrott-Sheffer: West-ish.

Catalyst: Some principals have said they are also being forced to get Compass Learning (Compass Learning and Achieve 300 are online education programs.)

LaRaviere: Compass Learning is the big company, and they have a program called Odyssey. We have Odyssey. It’s a big initial price, $25,000, and it’s like $4,000 a year. Nobody made me get it. My old principal, who I respect a lot, was using it. I went and saw a demo of it. I liked it. I still like it. It is not some miracle-working program. It has some good content that otherwise kids might not be exposed to. You can get an additional opportunity at home to expose them to some content and skills and practice. It is actually decently-designed instruction, not just practicing what you already learned. You can be introduced to new content through the program.

Parrott-Sheffer: it’s a good fit for you, but you made that decision. There’s other places where that decision is being made for you. If you’ve got a small school with 200 kids, that’s [taking all] your money.

The other issue is that you can’t buy [on your own]. Math curriculum, reading curriculum, are all on hold. It’s quite a maneuver to purchase anything, because in theory we’re moving to district-wide curriculum. It is unclear where they are in the process of that right now. [Not being able to purchase books] puts you behind the eight ball, unless you use non-school funds.

Adams: And we need to be careful of going down the district curriculum road. We went down this road a while back with [High School] Transformation. (High School Transformation was a 2010 initiative to have low-achieving high schools choose between a vetted list of curriculum.)

Catalyst: How are your projections for enrollment for next year?

Adams: Mine are way down. I think there was an over-projection when I started, so I think what I’m looking at now is probably the reality of what’s going to happen.

(Like most neighborhood high schools, Sullivan’s enrollment has fallen in recent years. Last year, Sullivan was projected to get 858 students but had enrolled only 708 by the 20th day audit of enrollment. Technically, schools that were underenrolled were supposed to be stripped of the money they received for students that did not show up. But CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett—perhaps sensing the mayhem such an action would cause—let the schools keep the extra money.)

LaRaviere: We will know in the fall, but it is about what we expected. We keep growing on one end, but we have to keep cutting on the other end because we don’t have space. So every time our kindergarten numbers rise, and they rise every year, we have to cut a preschool class. So we had seven preschools, and we’re down to three.

Catalyst: Chad, you come from a charter school. Tell us how the schools are different.

Adams: I thought I had a good shot at a charter, and could really make it happen. That charter is actually being closed – Chicago Talent Development. I went back to [traditional] public education because the charter world was hard in so many ways. The way that charters and neighborhood schools that are near each other interact is something that definitely needs to be looked at.

I have an UNO charter that is drawing students from [Sullivan]. Slowly but surely throughout the year, I got more and more kids from UNO because they didn’t want to have to wrap their arms around those families and work with those kids, despite their needs. That can be said about some other charters that are near me: Chicago Math and Science Academy. We don’t have the liberty of just kicking students out of school and having them never coming back. I do fear what some of the long-term effects on those children could be. I worry about the amount of trauma they’re being exposed to because of [being pushed out], and then landing at my school. I probably think about it more than anything because I was a part of it. I did the same damn thing that is being done to me.

LaRaviere: Wow …

Adams: But I quit, in the middle of the year. I couldn’t take the social injustice behind it.

In the News: Cheers for the end of teacher tenure

June 13, 2014 - 9:23am

A Tribune editorial applauds a California judge's decision earlier this week on teacher tenure, saying it hopes the ruling and reform efforts across the country, eventually lead to the end of tenure.

RAIDING SCHOOLS: FBI raids last week targeting Concept Schools included the charter-school operator’s Des Plaines headquarters and a school in Rogers Park. (Sun-Times)

GRADING TEACHERS: The Ohio legislature decided that grades and ratings of Ohio's teachers shouldn't depend as much on student test scores. (The Plain Dealer)

DISMISSING TEACHERS: A bill making it easier to fire abusive educators heads to Gov. Jerry Brown two days after a judge found California's teacher tenure laws unconstitutional.

Talking With Principals, Part 3: Evaluating educators

June 12, 2014 - 3:03pm

Our third installment of a conversation between principals focuses on how educators are being evaluated, an issue that has taken on greater importance because state law now requires that test scores be part of these evaluations.

Participants in the roundtable Catalyst Chicago recently hosted included principals Troy LaRaviere of Blaine Elementary, Adam Parrott-Sheffer of Peterson Elementary, Deidrus Brown, of Gresham Elementary and Chad Adams from Sullivan High. Our first two stories covered why principals speak out publicly—or don’t— about school district policies LINK and the controversial SUPES Academy.

Last year CPS changed the way it evaluates principals in order to meet new state standards that hold them accountable for student academic growth. 

In addition to data that show students’ academic growth, principals are also to be graded on ”practice criteria” that include less easily measured indicators, such as whether they champion teacher and staff excellence through continuous improvement, build a school culture focused on college and career readiness and “create powerful systems of professional learning.”  Network chiefs conduct two formal observations of each principal annually, and provide feedback to discuss the observations, the data and the school’s goals.

Most principals were graded as “proficient”—squarely in the middle--last year. 

Principals at Catalyst’s roundtable discussion expressed dissatisfaction with the evaluation system, comparing it to the similarly data-driven teacher evaluation system, Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago Students (REACH). In both cases, principals said the evaluation process was bogged down by paperwork and gave limited opportunities for detailed feedback that could help them – and their teachers – grow.

Catalyst Chicago: What has the principal evaluation process been like so far ? What has the interaction been like between you and your network chiefs?

 Troy LaRaviere: The time and energy put into it is as much a waste as the time and energy put into REACH. Getting in and observing teachers and giving feedback is important. REACH is not designed to do that. It’s designed to collect evidence to justify a number you give a teacher, a 1, 2, 3, or 4 -- an unsatisfactory, a satisfactory, a proficient or a distinguished. All of the feedback you give them is designed to justify that label, not improve their practice. It would be as if I’m coaching a baseball team, and I decided we’re going to improve a team by creating a rating system, and the feedback is to justify the rating. I’ve put so much time in creating the system to justify the rating, that I’ve taken away 80 percent of the time that I had previously used to actually coach them to help them become better players. That is what’s happening with CPS, on the teacher level and with the principal evaluation. You pull this mountain of documentation together, spend a lot of time doing it, and you take away that time from your responsibilities at the school. I told my chief that, frankly, of all the things I did last year to improve my students’ performance, the work I put into that evaluation contributed to it the least. So I decided I would not put any more effort than I had to in this year’s evaluation--you can give me whatever mark you want.

 Chad Adams: My school has been on [academic] probation for a number of years, and probation basically strips the power from the Local School Council (LSC). My LSC rating was pretty good, I was really happy with it, and I liked the feedback they gave me. I’m not so sure the size of the network allows the chiefs to spend the amount of time they need in schools to really help a first-year principal, or principals in general. So I was putting more stock in my LSC, because they live and breathe the school a little more than the chief. At the same time, my chief’s rating of me, at this point, carries more weight as far as me having employment and me being able to feed my child than the LSC rating. So I have to put some time into it, because that allows me to have a livelihood.

Catalyst: Did your chief give you good feedback on your evaluation?

Adams: I got air time, where they came and did walk-throughs in classrooms with me and talked about what we were seeing, what my next moves were going to be, and after that they had a conversation with me, saying “These are the things you need to think about.” My chiefs are former principals, I don’t have the experience they have, so I listen to them. I was happy they were able to give me that. But I don’t think they have enough time to give me the time you really need as a first-year principal.

 Adam Parrott-Sheffer: That’s where you get the sense that it’s a design flaw. If you take it from the abstract, we definitely need a common language around what effective instruction and effective leadership looks like. All good organizations do. When I think about REACH, that’s a positive thing to have – a common vocabulary around what we say good instruction looks like. We might disagree around the edges, around certain pieces of it, but to have a common language? Good thing. To have feedback? Really good thing. But we’re talking about networks that have 50-some schools in them. You could probably get somebody in to observe your school every two months, if that’s all that they did. My evaluator is phenomenal, she’s brilliant, and then I have to wait six months before I get that sort of feedback again. And by then we’ve moved all sorts of ways with it.

 Deidrus Brown: I would have loved to have a person evaluating me that had some experience with elementary schools, and would have visited my school more than two times, and knew the culture of elementary schools. My chief did not have that experience, so I took the evaluations with a grain of salt.

In the News: A new day for CPS principals?

June 12, 2014 - 7:38am

Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary in Lakeview whose op-ed in the Sun-Times a month ago sparked a citywide conversation on how Chicago Public Schools are run, says he's one of some 35 CPS principals organizing, in his words, "to speak directly to the public on matters of concern regarding education policy." (Chicago Reader)

CAUSE FOR INVESTIGATION: The apparent identity thefts of more than 40 former and current New Trier High School employees have prompted the school district to ask local and state law enforcement authorities for help with the investigation, New Trier officials confirmed this week. (Tribune)

WISH FULFILLED. NOW WHAT?: When the Los Angeles school district was rocked by the largest abuse scandal in its history two years ago, Supt. John Deasy wanted one thing from the Legislature: the ability to quickly fire offending teachers. He didn't get it from lawmakers. He got it this week from an L.A. County Superior Court judge who ruled that school districts should have more authority over who they hire and fire. Now, the question is: Will this victory pay off in the classroom? (Los Angeles Times)

LAUNCH DELAYED: The state has backed away from its planned July start date for a new mandatory quality rating system for early childhood education and officials now say they are aiming for a November launch. (Chalkbeat Colorado)

SHORT-LIVED UNION VICTORY: A Detroit charter school joined a small group of charters in Michigan where the staff have voted to unionize. But it could be a short-lived victory for the staff, because a new management company is taking over the school July 1 and just a small number of the existing staff will remain at the school. (Detroit Free Press)

Talking With Principals, Part 2: SUPES Academy

June 11, 2014 - 1:26pm

CPS officials seem to be forging ahead with the second year of a principal professional development contract with the SUPES Academy, despite lingering questions about the quality of the training  and the relationship between CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the founders of the for-profit business, for whom she previously worked as a consultant.

The Inspector General’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding the award of the $20 million contract is ongoing. At last year’s June board meeting, members approved the no-bid contract, the largest such contract in at least three years. Some Board of Education members have said they want to review the three-year contract annually. Yet they don’t need to wait: According to the board report, they can terminate the contract anytime with 30 days written notice.

Responding to complaints by principals that the training has been too elementary for leaders of struggling urban schools, and that the Saturday sessions forced them to give up weekend time, principals have twice been given the chance to opt-out of the sessions (the most recent opt-out form was due June 9). Yet some principals say the form’s language is intimidating. It reads: “I understand … I will still be held accountable for the content of the sessions and will be expected to demonstrate professional growth in the same fashion as my colleagues who attend CELA.”

CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman says few principals have officially opted out and the district has no plans to redesign the program. On its website, SUPES highlights the academy, called CELA for Chicago Executive Leadership Academy, as one of its success stories. Principals, however, say they are showing their discontent by simply not attending.

One principal told Catalyst that at the last training in early May, 75 name-tags were made for principals. In the morning, 45 principals attended. By lunch, fewer than 35 principals remained.

Principals also say they were frustrated to learn that the state has not yet approved the training, which means they cannot receive credit with the Illinois Administrator Academy for attending. Principals must obtain at least one IAA credit per year to stay certified.  

Meanwhile, as recently as November, Byrd-Bennett apparently participated in the 2014 National SUPES Academy. A Facebook picture from Nov. 16, 2013 has this caption: “Chicago Public Schools CEO - Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett fields questions from our 2013 Cohort about her tenure as superintendent in Chicago and former districts.” CPS spokesman Joel Hood says Byrd-Bennett “sometimes informally stops by SUPES Academy trainings for aspiring superintendents around the country and will talk to participants. She is not paid for these visits.”

A Catalyst investigation showed that several of the superintendents who were being paid to act as speakers and mentors for CELA ran school districts that also had contracts with SUPES. One of them S. Dallas Dance, the superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, was forced to give up the consulting gig after Catalyst revealed his participation. Dance failed to disclose the job to his school board.

During Catalyst’s recent principal roundtable, the subject of SUPES emerged as Deputy Editor Sarah Karp, Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez and the principals discussed why some school leaders speak out about policies they disapprove of and other principals stay silent. (Read Speaking out from the trenches, Part 1 of our series.)

The roundtable included Adam Parrott-Sheffer, principal of Peterson School (who is leaving CPS for the suburbs); Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine; Chad Adams, a new principal from Sullivan High; and Diedrus Brown, whose school, Gresham, has been slated for turnaround. Of the 10 SUPES sessions, Parrott-Sheffer did not attend any; LaRaviere and Brown each attended one; and Adams went to seven.

Catalyst:  How do you get principals who are maybe on probation, in a much more vulnerable position, to speak out?

Parrott-Sheffer: If you design the job in a certain way and create systems and culture around it, you end up starting to attract a certain type of person. So have we created a system where the type of people going through the eligibility process, who are being appointed to interim contracts--are they the type of people who are willing to stand up? I don’t have an answer to that. … When you talk about the people at SUPES [sessions] it’s people who are afraid of speaking up. We are talking about being able to say, “The professional development you’re providing is not very good. It’s on a Saturday for 10 hours, and that’s somewhat disrespectful because you did not ask or include me in the process.” You should feel comfortable saying that. We have people who are not even willing to bring it up and go under duress. I wonder can we change it unless we intentionally decide, who are the leaders we want in our schools, and how are we supporting local school councils or giving LSCs that power again to make those sorts of decisions?

Catalyst: How were the sessions?

LaRaviere: At the first one, I sat around for about an hour being encouraged to tell other people how great they were, and hearing them be encouraged to tell me how great I was. I left feeling like I wasted my time. It did not get any better as the weeks progressed. The second was about marketing your school. A very polished gentleman led the workshop – Dallas Dance from Baltimore. He made the statement that perception is reality. You have to alter people’s perception of your school. I told him and everyone gathered that I altered the perception of my school by doing what it takes to increase our student achievement. I told him it seems to me that CPS is more interested in changing people’s perception of CPS than with changing CPS itself. And the fact they paid you $20 million to come in and took money from my students and gave it to you to tell me how to market my school is evidence of that fact. That, I believed, was going to be my last training. [He was then switched to another cohort.] The new one was the best one I had been to. Principals were talking to each other, getting ideas from each other. I’ll never forget, at the end, the guy who ran it said “I know I went off script and let you guys talk.” I realized the reason it went so well was he decided to stop and not do the SUPES curriculum and actually just let us talk to each other. CPS didn’t have to pay SUPES $20 million to put principals in a room together and let us talk to each other.

Adams: That was the best part, being in the same room and talking to each other. .. I’m a New Leader [New Leaders is a principal training program in Chicago and 11 other cities and metro areas]. So I was able to retain my mentor. A lot of the curriculum was the stuff I’d learned through the leadership program. There might have been some misalignment.… The hardest part for me was I got my principal contract on June 30, and July 1 became a principal. Within the first or second day [I was told to be in SUPES]. I hadn’t even been in my building yet.

Parrott-Sheffer: The email was sent at 4:58 p.m. by [Chief of Talent Development] Alicia Winckler on the Thursday before the Fourth of July weekend. You were expected to be there at 7:30 a.m. the next Monday, which is why I never went.  I thought it was so disrespectful that two minutes before a long weekend, you expect me to be somewhere the following Monday. If you want to get on my summer calendar, you better start scheduling things in February. Because we are planning professional development with teachers, we are planning interviews if we have to do any hiring, and all these others sorts of things. To expect people to be able to clear everything is dismissive of the job and the role and the profession.

Catalyst: CPS told us just one person opted out.

LaRaviere: I don’t know if that one was me. I gave it to my clerk to email in.

Parrott-Sheffer: The language [on the opt-out form] was intimidating. Anyone who can read between the lines can see--if you don’t go and your school doesn’t perform as well as we expect, we are coming after you. ..  If you’re spending $20 million, we should have the best people here. We should have Grant Wiggins [a nationally-recognized assessment expert] here for a week teaching people how to do unit planning and lesson design. If you gave him a million dollars, I bet you could get him for half the year, and then some.

LaRaviere: Bring in [Stanford University education professor] Linda Darling-Hammond.  

Adams: Customize it for principals.

Parrott-Sheffer: Do it from the best, not some wackadoo person you found in Wisconsin. I mean, come on. CPS doesn’t do anything based on who is the best person doing the work.

Illinois Humanities Council will host panel discussion on school closings coverage

June 11, 2014 - 11:25am

On June 19, the Illinois Humanities Council will host The (Untold) Stories Behind the Story, a public forum on how the media have covered Chicago’s school closings.

Co-sponsored by Catalyst Chicago and Free Spirit Media, the forum will feature Sarah Schulte of ABC 7 News, Sarah Karp of Catalyst, Linda Lutton of WBEZ, Sidney Trotter of Free Spirit Media, and Charles Whitaker of the Medill School of Journalism. Catalyst publisher Linda Lenz will moderate.

Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed School Board voted to close 49 elementary schools and the high school that shared space with Madison elementary and middle schools, the largest school closing in Chicago’s history. The closings rocked the city and have been a focal point of Chicago news coverage.

Whitaker, a magazine journalist and professor at Medill, will present a content analysis of selected media, documenting the kinds of stories that have been written and broadcast.

Clips from “Chicagoland,” the CNN documentary that features Fenger High School, and “The School Project,” a multi-platform documentary on school issues now under development by four local companies, will serve as prompts for discussion, as will a variety of school closing stories aired on WBEZ.

The forum is part of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s three-year, $6 million “Why News Matters Initiative,” a grant-making program designed to increase media literacy and help people become better informed and more engaged in their communities.

“This is a great opportunity for people to hear what reporters are learning and thinking about the issue, and engage in informed discussion,” said Mark Hallett, senior program officer for the McCormick Foundation.

The free open forum will take place in the Wells High School auditorium, 936 N. Ashland, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 19. Registration is required

In the News: Teacher tenure laws ruled unconstitutional

June 11, 2014 - 7:28am

A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the State Constitution and violated their civil rights, handing teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states. (The New York Times)

DYETT SUPPORTS BLAST ALDERMAN: Activists who are fighting to save Walter H. Dyett High School from closing at the end of the 2014-2015 school year on Monday blasted Chicago Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes Dyett, for not supporting their proposal to keep the school open beyond 2015 and transition it into a "global leadership and green technology" open-enrollment, neighborhood high school. (Progress Illinois)

ON CPS' PAPER TRAIL: A week after Curie High School won the city basketball championship, a Chicago Public Schools investigation revealed that seven Curie basketball players had been ineligible for the entire season because the correct paperwork hadn’t been filed. Now, a Sun-Times investigation has found that CPS officials can’t say for sure whether basketball players at every school — including the top teams — were eligible. (Sun-Times)

STRIKE THREAT: The Hinsdale High School Teachers Association, the bargaining representative of the district's 377 teachers, voted to strike if a new contract agreement is not met by June 30. (My Suburban Life)

TEACHERS' VIEWS ON NCLB: A study by professors from Indiana University and the University of Texas at Dallas finds that since No Child Left Behind, teachers report feeling more autonomous, more supported by school administrators and have higher levels of job satisfaction. At the same time, teachers are working longer hours and may feel less cooperation with fellow educators. (Huffington Post)

GATES FOUNDATION EASES UP: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced its support for a two-year moratorium on tying results from assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards to teacher evaluations or student promotions to the next grade level. (Education Week)

PUSH TO DIVERSIFY NYC ELITE HIGH SCHOOLS: New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña backed a bill on Monday that would require the city’s specialized high schools to use more than a single test score as their student admissions criteria, an effort grounded in the administration’s desire to increase diversity within the eight schools and reduce the emphasis on testing. (Chalkbeat New York)

Talking With Principals, Part 1: Speaking out from the trenches

June 10, 2014 - 3:16pm

Last week, Catalyst Chicago held a roundtable discussion with a handful of CPS principals to gauge their thoughts on issues that the public usually doesn’t hear them talk about, but that have a significant impact on how well they can do their jobs as school leaders. Catalyst talked with four principals about new, state-mandated evaluations; managing budgets; principal training; and principals’ ability to speak their minds without fear of reprimand from the administration.

The idea for the conversation emerged after Blaine Elementary School’s principal, Troy LaRaviere, wrote about a top-down culture of suppression in CPS in a much-circulated op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times. Other principals quickly followed suit, including Peterson Elementary School’s Adam Parrott-Sheffer, who wrote his own op-ed for Catalyst about how CPS turns good ideas into bad ones by not listening to those on the ground. 

So we invited LaRaviere, Parrott-Sheffer and a dozen other principals to a panel discussion at our offices on June 5. Several expressed interest, but only four – including three vocal critics of CPS policy -- participated: LaRaviere, Parrott-Sheffer, who both lead high-ranking schools in the North Side; Deidrus Brown from the soon-to-be turned around Gresham Elementary School on the South Side; and Chad Adams, a first-year principal at Sullivan High School, a North Side School on academic probation.

Unlike most CPS principals, all four of the participants were very familiar with the media spotlight. Brown has declared an all-out war against CPS for the action against her school, and Adams was featured in This American Life’s much-lauded Harper High School radio documentary

Because of the length of the discussion – about 90 minutes – we divided the transcript into four parts and edited it for clarity. Today, we begin the series with a general conversation about the mood among principals and where they go from here. On Wednesday, we’ll continue with a discussion about principal training and the controversial program, SUPES Academy. Thursday’s discussion will focus on principal and teacher evaluations. We will wrap up on Friday with a conversation about budget matters.

Catalyst Chicago: How are principals feeling these days?

Deidrus Brown: There’s a lot of melancholy, because of the [hope] that principals would be somewhat autonomous in making decisions as to what’s best for their students, teachers, parents and community. And that is really not the case. You’re told to do something and you have to do it that way. I am not a puppet. I didn’t go to school and get four college degrees to be a puppet. I want to be valued, or at least be heard. I want to sit at the table and discuss what is best for the students and the staff. That’s where my frustration comes from. Decisions are being made by individuals who do not really know about the school.

Adam Parrott-Sheffer: I just laugh, and I remember when [former CEO] Jean-Claude [Brizard] first started and his big thing was this idea of “bounded autonomy.” We get a lot of the bounded. I’m not really sure I know what the pieces are that are autonomous. You go back to the first day of school and they were passing out checklists to district chiefs -- $150,000-plus a year employees – who were supposed to go to schools to check on things like, ‘Are your bathrooms clean enough?’ It read more like the checklist for running a Hardee’s than it did for running a school.

Catalyst: What has been the reaction to the op-eds? Do you, as principals, feel like you now have permission to speak publicly, as CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have both publicly said they welcome principals’ input? 

Troy LaRaviere: Teachers and principals have told me that they were so grateful for that article, which has allowed for a conversation that would never have been possible in the environment that existed before it was released. Barbara Byrd-Bennett called me and asked if I’d had any negative experience with her office. And I told her this wasn’t about her. The things that are coming out of CPS aren’t coming out of her office. Frankly, they don’t even come from the mayor’s office. This is a national and international movement to privatize education and to create the excuse for it by destabilizing neighborhood schools, and our mayor is just one of many public officials across the nation who has bought into this effort.

Chad Adams: I guess I’ve never felt a fear to speak out, or maybe it’s just my personality. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I have a little bit of a different perspective than these [colleagues]. I’m a new principal. I’m a first-year principal. So I only know what I know from what’s happened now. My question would be: what organization that is as big as CPS wouldn’t have some sort of parameters in place for talking to the press? Do you think Microsoft wouldn’t have some sort of protocols to follow? What about United Way?

LaRaviere: This is the City of Chicago, run by an elected official and his appointed Board of Education. [CPS is] a public institution that spends public tax dollars. The United Way does not spend public tax dollars. Microsoft does not spend public tax dollars. We do not elect Bill Gates. We elect Rahm Emanuel. He appoints Barbara Byrd-Bennett and as residents of the City of Chicago, we absolutely must hold them accountable, and any question to me that hints at some idea that we should not then begins to hint at the idea that we should stop calling ourselves a democracy.  Principals should go up to their 8th-grade classrooms, where they’re teaching the Constitution, and tell them that it’s not real. For clarity, if you say you’re speaking for the Board of Education or CPS, then of course you should check in. You can’t assume you’re speaking for CPS. I’m not speaking for the board. I’m speaking as a resident who knows what board policy is and who is a principal.

Parrott-Sheffer: We have local school councils, so technically I’m appointed by an LSC which is also an elected body. It’s more complicated than “what protocols are in place.” Those protocols need to reflect the fact that at some level I’m also appointed by an elected body and I report to the body in a public forum. And I think you lose credibility when you’re only able to engage in the positive news, the fluff pieces, the let’s-feel-good pieces. If we really want these schools to be good, and we really believe that, there are some difficult conversations we need to have as a city, and we need to have many voices that are a part of that.

Catalyst: What has been your relationship with the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association (CPAA)? Have they been a voice for you?

Brown: I’ve received no support from them [since the announcement of the turnaround]. No phone calls. I’ve been a paying member of CPAA ever since I was a principal, a decade, so I would have thought someone would reach out. I’ve gotten lots of support from the Chicago Teachers Union.

Catalyst: We’ve heard there’s talk about trying to change the CPAA. What’s in the works?

LaRaviere: There is an effort of principals organizing themselves behind the scenes. After the op-ed was published, a few principals stepped out and began an effort to meet and create an institution that would be a collective voice for principals. That work is ongoing, and that’s about all I can say about that at this point. The work is not being led by me. I have been recruited into it. Hopefully the public will hear from it soon, maybe a month or so.

But if we want to be effective at changing policies that affect our schools, we have to change legislation. We have to get out and talk to the public so they can talk to their legislators. The defunding of schools was a decision made at the mayoral level, the aldermanic level, the state level. We can’t have a conversation with Barbara Byrd-Bennett and affect the defunding of public education. As principals, we have to step out into the public sphere and have a public conversation.

Adams: The best way I can personally, as a leader, affect legislation is by making my public school a viable option. To show [people] that a neighborhood school can work at the high school level. There are not many of them that have succeeded. Public officials see charter schools and think that’s where it’s at. I know my alderman is pro-charter. But I’ve brought him in and said, ‘Look at what I’m doing.’ I think that’s affecting his mindset a little bit toward public education. So if I can do that and see that he can change his mindset, I can hopefully do that for the community members, for other legislators and senators.

I invite people into our schools. I want them to see that even if the school has had some downs, if you get a good leader in the school, a public education in a neighborhood school can be a flourishing place for kids to learn. But if you keep draining them of resources, it is going to be harder and harder. I feel like sometimes I barely have enough to survive.

In the News: NEA seeks to boost membership

June 10, 2014 - 8:50am

With its membership down by more than 230,000 members over the past three years, the National Education Association is imploring local affiliates to better engage current and potential members, and has launched a Center for Organizing to provide tools and training. (Education Week)

SCHOOL SAFETY PROGRESS: While large-scale and dramatic acts of school violence have drawn a public focus to safety concerns in U.S. schools, violent deaths at school remain statistically rare, a report released by the U.S. Departments of education and justice Tuesday says. (Education Week)

CHARTER SPENDING GAP: Philadelphia charter schools received more than $175 million last year to educate special education students, but spent only about $77 million for that purpose, according to an analysis of state documents. That is a nearly $100 million gap at a time when city education leaders are considering raising some class sizes to 41 students and laying off 800 more teachers in District-run schools due to severe funding shortfalls. Payments to charters, which are fixed under law, make up nearly a third of its $2.4 billion budget. (The Notebook)

ANOTHER COMMON CORE OPPONENT: Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wants Louisiana out of the Common Core and the tests that go with it. He has made similar statements in recent weeks. (The Advocate)

Community rallies once again to save Dyett High

June 9, 2014 - 3:17pm

The on-going, seemingly never-ending fight to keep Dyett High School from shutting down next year took a more pointed turn on Monday as activists and parents accused officials of planning to hand the building over to an alternative school.

Ald. Will Burns (4th Ward) would not directly answer whether there were plans to have the alternative school--or as CPS now terms it, “options” school--operated by Little Black Pearl Arts Center move into the building that sits in Washington Park. But Burns said his priority was to have an “open enrollment, neighborhood” school in the Dyett building. 

Dyett was targeted in 2012 for a phase-out and has since lost students and programs. Next year, the school is slated to serve only a final class of seniors.  Fewer than 40 students are likely to remain.

Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School have been pressing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Burns to change course on Dyett. They want them to hold public hearing and support the coalition’s plan to turn Dyett into a school focused on global leadership and green technology and providing wrap-around supports for every student. Dyett would accept approximately 150 9th-grade students beginning in August 2014, adding a class of 150 until having a full roster of approximately 600 students in the 2017-18 school year.

The group has collected 700 petition signatures.

“In the absence of a vision from the district, we created a comprehensive plan that we will think will revitalize Dyett,” said Jitu Brown, National Director for Journey for Justice Alliance and education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. “What district wouldn’t support a community activated to improve its school?”

Thus far, the plan has not been endorsed by any officials, though the group has recently had meetings with School Board President David Vitale and Burns.

“Right now, I’m trying to work with community organizations to figure out ways to keep Dyett open,” said Burns.

However, Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School members said Burns was “aloof and unconcerned” at a meeting last week, and “did not ask any questions” following a 15-minute presentation of their proposal to improve the school.

Burns said he will not sign off on their plan because he does not think it is representative of the Bronzeville community, and is instead working with the board to determine the fate of Dyett.


In the News: How Bill Gates fueled Common Core revolution

June 9, 2014 - 8:24am

The Washington Post looks at what it took to bring Common Core to the fore of U.S. education policy: a meeting in 2008 by two education advocates will Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation ended up spending millions to build political support across the country and persuading governments to make systemic and costly changes.

SUICIDE INVESTIGATION: Chicago Public Schools has launched an investigation into allegations that the suicide of a 12-year-old girl came after she was bullied by classmates and a teacher at her North Side elementary school. (DNAinfo)

UNO'S POWERFUL FRIENDS NOW SILENT: With charter operator UNO and its former leader Juan Rangel under fire from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as a result of a contracting scandal, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other powerful politicians who helped the group become a potent force in politics and education don't have much to say. (Sun-Times)

CPR TRAINING FOR STUDENTS: Gov. Pat Quinn has signed a bill requiring Illinois high school students to get trained on how to operate mobile defibrillators and to learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation. (Tribune)

TACKLING THE SUMMER SLIDE: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes that much of what students learn during the school year slips away during the long summer break, and a solution is needed for what educators call the summer slide. (State Impact)

Peace march closes out the school year

June 8, 2014 - 11:35pm

As the school year draws to an end and with violence
traditionally getting worse during summer, more than 1,000 students took to the
streets last week. They chanted: "Hands up. Guns down. Stand up

The Peace March was organized by two Perspectives Charter
Schools students, Razia Hutchinson and Janeya Cunningham.

Hutchinson, a junior at the Rodney D. Joslin campus, was
reacting to the response by her peers to the shooting deaths of 17-year-old
Tyrone Lawson in January 2013 and 14-year-old Endia Martin this April.
"What do you expect?" was her classmates' response. She became
concerned that they were so used to violence that they stood by passively,
leading to more unnecessary student deaths.

In response, she and Cunningham planned the march. Fellow
Perspectives students filmed the march and hope to add it to a documentary
they're filming about how to combat violence in their neighborhoods with peace
practices. The students have started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project,
but are still about $13,000 short as the deadline approaches.

The march began at Perspectives' Rodney D. Joslin campus and
ended with a "Peace Jam" at Perspectives/IIT Math & Science
Academy campus at 3663 S Wabash Ave. Tony Schofield from WGCI radio emceed the
event, which included short speeches by the Rev. James Meeks and Ald. Pat
Dowell and a performance by rapper FM Supreme.



In the News: New teacher union dissidents try to turn the tide

June 6, 2014 - 7:44am

The Boston Globe looks the "new face of teachers unions" as opposition candidates in local unions across the country prevail over union insiders, pointing to the union revitalization model championed by reformers that has been on display in Chicago since the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, took over the leadership of the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union. (The Boston Globe)

TURNAROUND COULD LEAD TO LAWSUIT: The president of the South Side branch of the NAACP said her group might file a civil rights lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools for its decision to make Walter Gresham Elementary School a ''turnaround.'' (DNAinfo)

NO GRAUDATION PARTICIPATION: Facing backlash from parents, Ogden International School decided that eighth-grade students accused of bullying a classmate because he was Jewish will not be allowed to walk across the stage at their graduation Saturday, a Chicago Board of Education member said. (DNAinfo)

WHAT TEACHERS THINK: Adam Heenan, a social studies teacher at Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago, kicks off the new Sun-Times Summer School teacher essay series in which Chicago-area teachers weigh in on the big challenges facing education.  His topic? The new Common Core learning standards, which he believes are threatening his ability to prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to his students. (Sun-Times)


ANOTHER ASSESSMENT: Indiana will have to impose a new statewide standardized test on K-12 students next year if it wants to maintain control over $200 million a year in federal education funding. (State Impact)

Early childhood providers awarded capital funds

June 5, 2014 - 11:10am

CPS recently awarded nearly $4.6 million in grants to 10 early childhood learning providers that are seeking to expand or enhance their facilities and serve more children, from birth to age 5.

The non-profit organizations received between $64,000 and nearly $1 million in the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) early childhood construction grant program, which each year sets aside a portion to be redistributed by CPS. The state’s Capital Development Board distributes the funds and monitors the programs on behalf of CPS. 

"We know that the early years are critical to a child's future success, which is why we are committed to ensuring that all students are prepared for a 21st century education before they walk through our doors,” said CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in a statement. “Through partnerships with community based organizations and city agencies, along with this grant from ISBE, CPS will expand seats to serve more of our youngest learners, putting them on a path for success at an earlier age so that one day they will graduate 100 percent college ready and 100 percent college bound."

A total of 19 agencies – including licensed and license-exempted private nonprofit childcare centers – applied for the grants in a competitive grant process. The 10 awardees include:

  • Chicago Commons, for its Paulo Freire and West Humboldt Park centers, which serve Humboldt Park, the Lower West Side and New City. Award: $999,994.
  • El Hogar del Niño, which serves the Lower West Side. Award: $855,000.
  • Metropolitan Family Services, for its Learning and Wellness Center that serves New City. Award: $731,712.
  • Asian Human Services, for the expansion of its Leaf Program that serves Uptown. Award: $603,900.
  • Chicago Child Care Society, for its Best Beginnings Learning Academy I, that serves Englewood. Award:  $563,089.
  • Mary Crane Center, serving Rogers Park. Award: $464,105.
  • Concordia Place, for its Seeley Center, serving North Center. Award: $127,100.
  • Northwestern University Settlement Association, serving West Town. Award: $116,649.
  • Southeast Asia Center, serving immigrant and refugee families in Uptown. Award: $78,097.
  • Children’s Place Association, for its Arthur E. Jones Early Childhood Care and Learning Center, serving families citywide affected by HIV and AIDS. Award: $64,231.

The grant is intended to support the early childhood programs and may be used for the construction of new additions or facilities; purchase of equipment; safety improvements; or classroom conversions.

In addition, CPS also awarded funding to Camras, Hanson Park, J. Locke and McCormick elementary schools to expand opportunities for children, a CPS spokeswoman said.

In the News: CPS shares in $1 million STEM grant

June 5, 2014 - 7:23am

Chicago Public Schools is one of seven nationwide school districts that will share a $1 million competitive grant through the US2020 City Competition. The competition challenges school districts across the country to develop innovative models that will increase the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals working with students and STEM education opportunities for girls, minority students and children from low-income families. Cisco Systems sponsors the competition. (Northwestern News)

WHAT HAPPENED TO TRAUNCY OFFICERS?: Prompted by a listener's question, WBEZ's Curious City project looked in to why Chicago no longer employs truancy officers, the men and women once employed by Chicago Public Schools to track down students who did not turn up for class.

COMPOSTING COMES TO CPS: Blaine Elementary School in Lakeview is partners in a pilot program with the Chicago Community Trust, Loyola University, Seven Generations Ahead to compost food scraps. (WBEZ)

PARENTS, OFFICIALS MEET: CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Board of Education President David Vitale met Tuesday night with Gresham Elementary School parents, who say they implored the school officials to rethink their decision to replace the school’s staff. (Sun-Times)

GIFTED EDUCATION: New York City’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, recently by downplayed the importance of the city’s “gifted and talented” program and wants neighborhood schools to offer “gifted practices” for all students. Two policy leaders and two economists weigh in on gifted programs—which in most cases enroll a disproportionately high number of white, middle-income students and too few minority and lower-income children. (The New York Times)

To solve truancy and absenteeism, put aldermen in charge of community outreach

June 4, 2014 - 12:40pm

When students don't show up for school, it is not only a student problem: It’s also a school and a community problem. Poor attendance has a ripple effect on students. Research has shown the long-term connection between poor attendance in the early grades and low achievement later on. Moreover, low attendance means CPS ends up leaving money on the table, which hurts schools:  Every student that is not counted for state funding based on attendance costs the district thousands.

Despite a new focus by the administration, Catalyst Chicago reported recently that attendance and truancy have worsened in the elementary years instead of improving.

Though attendance has been in the news, the problem is long-standing. CPS has not had “truant officers” for years, since the 1990s when budget cuts axed those positions.  But other school systems in the U.S. have upgraded that job to include duties other than just tracking down missing students. Such jobs are often called “community outreach workers.”  The positive impact in these schools system is instructive, and so is the related research.  

When calling at the homes of absentee children, researchers discover a great many children who are absent for health-related reasons—57 percent, according to the results of research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research in a report on preschool absence.

But there are also significant family problems that result in student absence.  Family problems include a parent’s illness, absence of other adults to get children to school, dependence on time-consuming emergency room visits for medical care and problems with child care – an entire litany of the effects of concentrated poverty. 

In short, low-income children and families cope up with a host of problems that schools have neither the staff, money, time nor partnerships with outside organizations to adequately address.

Working alone individual schools cannot solve the problems that lead to poor attendance. Doing so will require establishing connections between schools, the home and city and community services.  

Aldermen know schools, communities, services

The city has a stake in improving education as well as a responsibility to heal broken communities. For those reasons, I am proposing that the locus and hiring responsibility for community outreach workers should be the alderman’s office.  Aldermen know their communities.  They know their schools -- both traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools -- and their local community organizations.  They also know what city services are available.

These outreach workers, once trained and armed with attendance information from the schools, would visit the homes of students with chronic absence problems, making connections for the students and their parents with the social workers or psychologists in schools where these support staff exist and have time to take on extra students.  More likely, the outreach workers would connect families with public services, such as health clinics and sites for Medicaid applications.

Most neighborhoods have community organizations that serve their residents in a variety of ways, including job training and literacy programs.  There may be community organizations that could be major partners for the aldermen in helping to organize a comprehensive effort.    

Another reason to locate outreach workers at the alderman’s office is that a single home or apartment building may have chronically absent students who attend multiple schools at more than one level--preschool, elementary or high school.  Outreach workers could make sure that efforts to help these children are coordinated, even if students are in different schools.

Dropouts could be put in touch with some of the city’s nearly-empty high schools, which have plenty of space and would surely welcome more students – and the money that comes with them.  

This arrangement could be the beginning of a meaningful partnership between the city, the schools, and their communities.  Everyone wins, and if attendance improves, educational outcomes will improve. 

Nancy Brandt is retired and previously worked for the Continental Bank/Bank of America Foundation, managing its grants to education and youth programs. She is a board member of the Community Renewal Society, which publishes Catalyst Chicago and The Chicago Reporter.

In the News: Strict reporting on discipline targets racial disparities

June 4, 2014 - 7:47am

Students from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, known as VOYCE, gathered Tuesday with other activists to celebrate passage of a bill that for the first time requires all schools, including charters, to publicly report school discipline data and requires districts that are in the top 20 percent in the use of suspensions and expulsion to submit an improvement plan to the state.

The discipline data will be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, age, grade level, limited English proficiency, type of incident and the duration of the suspension or expulsion, making it easier to track racial disparities. Senate Bill 2793 was passed May 30 and by this fall, the Illinois State Board of Education must prepare a report on discipline in all Illinois school districts. The bill was intended to curb the use of harsh discipline that disproportionately affects African-American young men. “We shouldn’t be pushed out of schools for minor offenses, and this is a big first step in fixing our broken system – showing how students are treated in schools,” said Roosevelt High sophomore and VOYCE member Jamie Adams. VOYCE students helped draft the bill in partnership with other members of the Campaign for Common Sense Discipline.  The bill is the first of its kind in the country to address an issue that has drawn national attention. (Sarah Blau, Catalyst Chicago)

BOOK BET: Mayor Rahm Emanuel put the city's schoolchildren on the hook to read a couple of million more books this summer, part of a bet on national TV to get late-night host Jimmy Fallon to visit Chicago again. (Tribune)


CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM: Teachers in the nation's 40 largest school districts came to school 94 percent of the time in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the report released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality. On average, the urban teachers missed about 11 school days out of 186, and used slightly less than their allotment of short-term leave. But the National Council on Teacher Quality classifies 16 percent of teachers in those cities as "chronically absent," meaning they missed 18 or more days per school year.  Districts in which more than 50 percent of teachers were frequently absent were Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; New Orleans; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Antonio, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn. (Huffington Post/USA Today)

COMMUNITY AND CHOICE: Sam Chaltain, a former educator and writer, has written a new book, "Our School," in which he turns his attention to two big themes: community and choice. He follows two public schools in Washington, D.C. over the course of a year—one a brand-new progressive charter school, and the other a hundred-year-old neighborhood school now experiencing the early stages of gentrification. Through the stories of these two schools he addresses the meaning of community in multicultural America, the pros and cons of school choice, and what this all means for today’s big education policy debates. (Education Next)

IMPROPER DIVERSION OF CHARTER FUNDS ALLEGED: The founder of one of the oldest and largest D.C. charter school networks, allegedly funneled millions of school dollars to a for-profit management company he owns, according to a legal complaint filed Monday by D.C. attorney general. (The Washington Post)

LABOR CONTRACT APPROVED: New York City teachers have approved a nine-year labor contract, their union announced on Tuesday, a deal that raises pay by 18 percent but leaves questions about the future of their health benefits. (The New York Times)

Community collaboratives to test new models for early childhood programs

June 3, 2014 - 11:29am

From opening “pop-up” preschools in Cicero to building new partnerships with existing service agencies, teams of parents, educators and health care providers are developing locally-based projects to improve access to early childhood education in the communities that most need it.

With the help of some Race to the Top Early Childhood federal grant money, the teams will begin testing their strategies this fall – and fine-tuning the projects as data comes in about enrollment. All of this, advocates say, will help the state analyze what works best in building local community systems around early childhood education.

“This can help us figure out which of the strategies we’d been thinking about might be the most useful in the end,” explains Theresa Hawley, director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, which is overseeing the initiative.  “The best way for us to look at this problem is to zero in on the local level.”

This month, the state approved the so-called “Innovation Zone” projects and will provide each team between $100,000 and $250,000, in addition to in-kind and technical services, next fiscal year so that they can put the plans into action. Funding for the Innovation Zones will continue through 2016. The Illinois Action for Children partnered with the state to convene the teams in Aurora, Cicero, Thornton Township, Greater East St. Louis, and Williamson County, as well as the Pilsen/Little Village and North Lawndale areas of Chicago.

The Innovation Zones funding model flips the script on the traditional government funding method, where organizations tailor their applications to fit parameters drafted by the state, says Leah Pouw, director of program innovations at Illinois Action for Children. Instead, the state guided the teams as thought about and researched their own communities, identified high-needs groups, and proposed projects to get more children into early childhood education.

“It’s a bottom-up approach, not top-down,” Pouw said. “Each community has unique characteristics. We’re trying to see it from their point of view.”

Children of immigrants, children with special needs

Early in the process, the teams honed in on outreach, screening and follow-up; transportation; program quality; and pipelines – or connecting families who are in contact with one organization to other services – as key issues. High-need groups included teen parents, homeless families, children with disabilities, children living in deep poverty, children in license-exempt child care, children of migrant workers and families that are unable to access services because they do not speak English.

In Cicero, for example, the team found that language and cultural barriers were keeping immigrant parents from enrolling their children in preschool programs. Many immigrants were unfamiliar with the concept of preschool simply because these state-funded programs don’t exist in their home countries. To target this specific group, the team will create “pop-up” structured play groups close to where families live that simulate the preschool experience.

“Maybe they need to try it out in a less threatening environment than dropping off your kids every day,” says Hawley.

The team will then analyze whether any of the parents who take their 2- or 3-year-olds to the “pop-up” preschools enroll those same children in traditional preschools later down the line.

Meanwhile, in both the North Lawndale and the Pilsen/Little Village communities, the teams are building a “pipeline” between families in deep poverty to early childhood education options. They’re doing this by identifying and partnering with a variety of partners that already provide some needed service to families – including neighborhood clinics and the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office – and can agree to share the same message about the importance of early childhood education.

 “When parents take their children in for their immunizations, when they’re in the health clinics, are we talking about how those children can gain access to the early care and education?” asks Cerathal Burnett, CEO of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning and a core member of the planning teams in both Innovation Zones. “We want to make sure we’re all connected across the different service points, to make sure whoever touched the family was talking about the same thing.”

One area of focus in the North Lawndale community has been homeless families, who struggle to get the official required paperwork together in order to enroll their children in pre-school programs. Documents such as birth certificates and proof of income, for example, sometimes disappear when families are evicted from their homes and become transient or move into shelters.

“The documentation can be a barrier to them having everything ready for the applications,” Pouw says.

The team in Little Village and Pilsen, meanwhile, aims to increase the number of children with special needs, ages 3 to 5, in early childhood education programs.

“You want to get them screened as early as possible,” Burnett said. “The earlier you can catch and diagnose them, in many cases you can resolve the issues before going forward in their education.”

Teams in both Chicago communities plan to offer training to parents to be ambassadors in their own communities and talk with other parents about the benefits of early childhood education.

For Burnett, who has been working in the early childhood education field for 18 years, participating in the Innovation Zones has also really nailed down the understand the importance of collaboration—and making time for it.


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