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In the News: Common Core loses favor with teachers' unions

February 20, 2014 - 9:55am

Support for Common Core State Standards is starting to waver among some teachers' unions—the result flawed implementation in states, concerns about the fast timeline for new testing tied to the standards, and, in at least one instance, fallout from internal state-union politics. (Education Week)

Architects at JGMA won a second-place Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design for their work on the Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy (IHSCA), a charter high school with a health sciences and college preparatory focus that aims to train the next generation of nurses, doctors, and scientists. JGMA repurposed an abandoned, three-story, 77,000-square-foot industrial building into a state-of-the-art facility that is now a focal point for community health issues in Pilsen. The award will be presented Thursday at the 20th Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards ceremony. (Press release)

SAFETY PLANS: State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th) is sponsoring legislation to require all non-public schools to annually meet with local police and fire departments to update their safety plans. (Press release)

TEAM SUSPENSION: The Illinois High School Association on Wednesday suspended the top-ranked Homewood-Flossmoor girls basketball team and its highly regarded coach for rules violations hours before the team was to take the floor to begin its playoff march. The sanctions accuse coach Anthony Smith of improperly recruiting star players from other school districts in his first season at H-F. That prompted the school district to conduct an internal investigation that led it to acknowledge it had violated rules, though none for improper recruiting. (Tribune)

CURRICULUM CHANGE: In order for students to meet Common Core standards in math, a geometry class using high school curriculum will be taught at Arlington Heights School District 25 middle schools starting in the fall, officials said. (Tribune)

IN SEARCH OF A BETTER EDUCATION: Many parents in Washington, D.C., pull their children from the public school system after the fifth grade in search of a better education, leading to something of a brain drain in the district. Some students end up in the district's public charter schools, private schools or schools in the suburbs. The attrition embodies a looming challenge for the District’s school system and its next mayor: How can officials overhaul the city’s long-struggling middle schools to stop the exodus? It’s a test that comes as the first cohort of children to grow up with high-profile D.C. education reforms, including universal pre-kindergarten and mayoral control of the schools, reaches the end of elementary school and a decision about what comes next. (The Washington Post)

DATA LINKING: Only one state—Pennsylvania—currently links its K-12 data system and data from all of five key early-childhood education, health, and social services programs, although 30 states now link some of that information with their K-12 systems, a new report says. (Education Week)

In the News: DOE to act on placement of best teachers

February 19, 2014 - 9:18am

The U.S. Department of Education is developing a 50-state strategy designed to put some teeth into a key part of the No Child Left Behind Act that has been largely ignored for the past 12 years: the inequitable distribution of the nation's best teachers.

Central to the federal strategy will be a mix of enforcement and bureaucratic levers to prod states into making sure that poor and minority students are not taught by ineffective and unqualified teachers at higher rates than their peers. (Education Week)

PERSONAL STUDENT DATA: According to the first survey of how schools gather and use student data, there are no restrictions limiting private vendors use of that information, and most parents have no clue that schools let private companies store personal information about their children. (NPR)

STATS ABOUT SUPERINTENDENT SALARIES: Base median salaries for the nation's K-12 superintendents rose modestly this school year—1-2 percent—from 2012-13, and in most cases, salaries for female schools' chiefs were slightly higher than their male peers, according to a new survey. Among other top-level findings in the survey:

• Nearly half of responding superintendents said that economic conditions were "stable" in their districts, but 40 percent said that financial conditions were "declining";

• Nonwhite superintendents were more likely to report that they are managing school districts in a declining economic condition;

• More than 40 percent of respondents said that student outcomes and performance data are part of their annual evaluations; and

• More than 10 percent of respondents said they have been rehired as schools chiefs after retiring, a sign, the survey said, of an "aging superintendent population and potentially narrowing pool of individuals interested in entering the superintendency." (Education Week)

Lewis: CTU won’t renew contract for fourth year

February 18, 2014 - 12:42pm

After a bitter strike in fall 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools reached agreement on a three-year contract, with an optional fourth year under the same terms “by mutual agreement.”

In a recent interview with Catalyst Chicago, CTU President Karen Lewis laughed when asked whether the union plans to terminate the contract in June 2015 rather than renewing it for another year. She indicated that she is pretty sure that teachers would not want to extend the contract.

Negotiations typically start long before a contract ends. Tensions are already heating up between the city and its public sector unions, including the CTU, because of the current pension funding crisis and the city's push for financial concessions from union workers to help close the pension deficit.

Later, union Vice President Jesse Sharkey clarified that the union considers the language about renewing the agreement to be basically meaningless. He says it was added because CPS wanted a four-year contract and the union did not.

“If both sides wanted to do an extra year, we could. If both sides wanted to do an extra four years, we could,” Sharkey said. “But there’s a name for that, and it’s called bargaining a new contract. I think it’s extremely unlikely that our members are going to say, let’s just give us another year.”

He says the key issues on teachers’ minds include challenges with the new teacher evaluation system, the lack of resources for the longer school day, and a lack of substitute teachers to cover classes, which has led to some teachers missing their preparation time.

Bateman Elementary delegate Adam Geisler says he, too, expects the contract to end in June 2015.

“If I were to hazard a guess, I would say most teachers would prefer a stronger contract this time around, and so we probably will not go for the extension,” Geisler says, adding that class sizes, evaluations and job security are weighing on teachers’ minds.

“The shift to student-based budgeting this year has had a pretty extreme effect on how much leeway principals have in their budgets,” Geisler says. “Expensive teachers are feeling like they are not very secure, and they would like to see more protections in the contract.”

He adds: “It’s no secret CTU and the mayoral administration do not see eye-to-eye. CTU has certainly strategized around building its political influence, including the adoption of a resolution to begin an independent political organization, so I think that does factor in.”

Jay Rau, a delegate at Juarez High School, says he expects the same tensions could lead to another strike in fall 2015. And, he adds, the coming governor’s race will have an effect as well. If Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner is elected, teachers will likely not vote to re-open the contract given Rauner’s anti-union stance. But if Gov. Pat Quinn is re-elected, unions may feel more emboldened and take the risk of re-opening.

In the News: CTU blasts pension overhaul proposal

February 18, 2014 - 10:09am

A new study released by the Chicago Teachers Union on Monday said that using the same pension overhaul that passed last year on city pension funds would slash the pensions of city public workers, harm retirees and negatively impact the city’s economy. The CTU said the proposed cuts to Chicago retirees would amount to about $270 million slashed from retirement income over five years and hurt black, middle-class city workers the most. (Sun-Times)

FROM BANKER TO MATH TEACHER: Vernell Slaughter realizes he is a rare commodity within Chicago Public Schools: a black male who teaches math. Only 5.7 percent of CPS' 22,283 teachers are black men, and fewer teach math, CPS officials said. But the former banker went back to school and earned a master's degree in education from Dominican University before stepping into the classroom. "Working with children is something I have always thought about but did not develop an interest in until after college," he says. (DNA Info)

GETTING CONTROL OF FINANCES: Hinsdale Township High School District 86 is coming up short in some aspects of how it handles financial and business controls, according to an independent study. The report states that hiring a chief financial controller, director of financial controls, and coordinator of purchasing will alleviate the potential for financial malfeasance. (Tribune)

TEST CASES: A new study shows that high school performance, not standardized test scores, is a better predictor of how students do in college. "Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions," examined data from nearly three dozen "test-optional" U.S. schools, ranging from small liberal arts schools to large public universities, over several years. It found that there was virtually no difference in grades and graduation rates between test "submitters" and "non-submitters." Just 0.05 percent of a GPA point separated the students who submitted their scores to admissions offices and those who did not. And college graduation rates for "non-submitters" were just 0.6 percent lower than those students who submitted their test scores. (NPR)

TEACHER-EVALUATION DELAY: North Carolina is the first Race to the Top state to be allowed an extra year to tie teacher evaluations to personnel decisions—a measure of flexibility the U.S. Department of Education has offered to all waiver states but was reluctant to grant to winners of the Obama administration's signature education-improvement contest. (Education Week)

In the News: UIC faculty poised to strike Tuesday

February 17, 2014 - 10:10am

University of Illinois at Chicago faculty members are poised to strike Tuesday for the first time in campus history. The two-day walkout could cancel hundreds of classes at the Near West Side public institution. (Tribune)

BREAKING WITH TRADITIONS: A South Side Chicago high school is getting national press for breaking the mold of traditional schools. At Sarah E. Goode Stem Academy, students -- or, rather innovators as they're called -- attend for six years instead of four, ending up with a high school diploma and associate's degree.The school has only been open for 18 months, and emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math. (NBC5 Chicago)

SUPPORTING BLACK MALE ADOLESCENTS: The University of Chicago hosted a symposium, “Black Young Men in America: Rising above Social and Racial Prejudice, Trauma, and Educational Disparities,” Saturday that centered around research and developing strategies to support black male adolescents. Educators, social workers and youth service providers participated and panelists focused on to how communicate and build relationships with this population. They included Nia Abdullah and Elizabeth Kirby of CPS, Marshaun Bacon of Becoming a Man and Monico Whittington-Eskridge of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. (WBEZ)

SHOW OF SUPPORT: Protesters delivered petitions to Whole Foods’ Austin and Chicago offices Friday after an employee said she was fired after choosing to stay home with her special-needs child instead of going to work during cold weather on Jan. 28. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was among those supporting Rhiannon Broschat, 25, during a protest last week. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

TOPS IN FEDERAL FUNDING: Illinois was one of five states that got the most federal funding in the 2012 fiscal year (the year for which the most recent data is available). These numbers reflect funding levels for programs including career and technical education, programs for homeless children and youth, special education, and other projects. The total amount of federal money that Illinois received in FY 2012 was $3,580,835,000 according to the most recent state budget report. The governor's budget office recommends that federal funding for the current fiscal year should be approximately $3 billion, while the state covers about $6,241,114,000. (Reboot Illinois)

SUPERINTENDENT OF THE YEAR: Alberto Carvalho, the schools chief in the Miami-Dade district in Florida, was named superintendent of the year today in Nashville. The announcement came during the annual conference of the School Superintendents Association. Carvalho, has been Miami-Dade's schools chief since 2008, and also serves as principal of two schools in the district. The district was the winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education last year. (Education Week)

Child care centers forced to wait months to renew licenses

February 14, 2014 - 4:38pm

Staff shortages at the Department of Children and Family Services are causing some child care centers to wait months before their licenses can be renewed – causing problems for child care businesses and possibly putting children’s safety at risk.

In the fourth quarter of the 2013 fiscal year, just 53 percent of child care providers were able to renew their licenses on time, according to a report the department submitted to the Illinois General Assembly in September 2013.

Also, just 60 percent of providers received their annual monitoring visits on time (though in some cases this may be due to providers not responding to requests to set up the visits).

Karen Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the department, says there are currently 43 vacant licensing representative positions, plus 10 temporarily vacant positions due to staff on leave. Overall, at the time the report was issued, DCFS had just 125 licensing representatives statewide, compared to 155 in fiscal year 2010.

“We are looking at recruiting more staff. We are looking at whether we can be more efficient with technology,” Hawkins says. “It is budget season, so we are looking at ways to increase resources.”

She notes that the agency has long struggled with retaining its staff, who often move up the ladder into other state jobs.

But Sessy Nyman, Vice President of Policy and Strategic Partnerships at the child-care advocacy group Illinois Action for Children, says that the shortage of licensing representatives could be putting children in danger.

“What happens when a licensing process starts to falter is that some child care providers are eagerly waiting for their representative. [But] some of them are taking this as a free-for-all,” Nyman says. “[They’ll say to themselves] ‘I’m licensed for eight, but I’m going to take care of 12.’ The challenge is that you only find out about it after the fact, when it is, sometimes, too late. And that is what you desperately want to avoid.”

Altogether, the state is responsible for overseeing more than 8,500 home day cares and more than 3,000 child care centers.  The report shows caseloads for licensing representatives have increased dramatically in recent years. In Northern Illinois and in Cook County, there are currently an average of 104 home day cares and child care centers per licensing representative, up from around 90 in fiscal year 2010. The National Association for Regulatory Administrators recommends significantly fewer – 50 child care centers or 100 homes per licensing worker.

Though child care programs are allowed to continue operating with expired licenses, they are not able to access food subsidies for low-income children from the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which requires that licenses be current.

A report by ChildCare Aware of America ranked Illinois 21st in the nation for its oversight of child care centers. The state’s weak point: Infrequent visits by licensing representatives and other inspectors.

Finances pose barrier to hiring

One child care provider contacted by Catalyst Chicago, who did not want her name to be used, said she has been trying to get approval to open an additional child care room since December 2012.

Expanding would allow her to let in families off her waiting list and also allow her current students to attend for more days. 

“The DCFS representative has not been able to come out,” she said. “I have to keep turning [parents] down. We only have 16 children right now; for me to open this classroom would be another 10 children.”

Hiring licensing representatives can be a challenge for the cash-strapped department, Nyman says, because hiring for child protection positions is seen as a more urgent priority.

But, she notes, the state recently contracted with a licensing researcher to use a tool that will allow licensing representatives to check for “red flags” instead of verifying that every program meets every licensing requirements.

Under the new system that could start as soon as this July, licensing representatives will get a “top 10 list” of things to check which will show that “if that provider does those things well, statistically speaking, they do everything else well” – allowing licensing representatives to spend more time on child care centers where young children could be in danger.

She believes the new system will allow licensing representatives to give child care programs more attention – a crucial step to improving quality.

 “If you are building a quality (early childhood) system, but you have a faulty licensing system, it becomes very hard to succeed,” Nyman says.

In the News: Across nation, fights brew over testing

February 14, 2014 - 8:38am

This year's student testing season across the country is filled with tumult. Educators are questioning the purpose of testing, lawmakers in several states are pushing back against federal regulations and a standoff between California and the Obama administration looms. California is defying No Child Left Behind requirements to give annual tests in math and reading to every student in grades 3-8. (Washington Post)

LSC TRAINING: The Chicago Teachers Union and the Grassroots Education Movement are hosting a forum Saturday Feb. 15 at Westinghouse High School, 3223 W. Franklin Blvd., to train candidates for Local School Councils.

CHESS REFORM: Ted Oppenheimer, the president of the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and a major contributor to CPS, has joined those calling for a new chess program in the city's schools. Oppenheimer offered to help set up a new nonprofit that  would work in a partnership with CPS to spearhead a new program.


SNOW DAZE: Schools across the country are running out of the planned snow days they'd put in place to deal with bad weather. As winter's blast of frigid temperatures and snowy conditions drags on, some school districts have kids at home completing assignments online while others are figuring out ways to deal with lost school days. (NPR)

COLD DAYS, EMPTY STOMACHS: When cold snaps and blizzards shutter schools, kids miss more than their daily lessons. Some miss out on the day's nutritious meal as well. This recently became apparent to school administrators in rural Iowa, where extreme cold delayed openings two days in a row at Laurens-Marathon Community School, where 59 percent of students who eat school lunch qualify for free or reduced-price meals. On the first day, some students arrived on empty stomachs because parents thought breakfast would still be served that day. (NPR)

SNOW DAYS MAKE UP: The State Board of Education is encouraging Michigan public school districts that exceed six snow days to replace lost time with full days of instruction.

In the News: LSC elections draw less than 800 candidates

February 13, 2014 - 9:53am

To date, 769 candidates have turned in the required paperwork for Chicago Public Schools' upcoming Local School Council elections, according to CPS spokeswoman Jamila Johnson. (DNA Info)

CHARTER GROWTH: In the 2013-2014 school year, 600 new public charter schools opened their doors and an estimated 288,000 additional students are attending public charter schools, according to a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Over the past 10 years, charter school enrollment has risen by 225 percent and the number of new schools has risen by 118 percent. In Illinois, 14 new charter schools opened during that time, enrolling 9,000 students.

LUNCHROOM DEBTS: A Salt Lake City cafeteria worker's decision to take school lunches away from students with unpaid lunch bills has prompted a call for federal guidance on how to handle students' debts. (Education Week)

TWEAKING TEACHER EVALUATIONS: After criticism from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the State Board of Regents set aside a proposal to let teachers contest poor assessments by citing difficulties related to the new Common Core standards. (The New York Times)

WHITE STUDENTS GET BETTER TEACHERS IN L.A.: Black and Latino students are more likely to get ineffective teachers in Los Angeles schools than white and Asian students, according to a new study by a Harvard researcher. The findings were released lastweek during a trial challenging the way California handles the dismissal, lay off and tenure process for teachers. (Los Angeles Times)

Common Core tests a new starting point for Illinois schools

February 12, 2014 - 4:51pm

The Illinois State Board of Education recently signaled its intent to move toward a new generation of assessments - a move most educators would agree has been needed for years.  

This is a new starting point.

Four years ago, the state adopted the Common Core State Standards. Illinois now must put in place a state assessment system that better serves students by capturing whether they are developing the knowledge and skills they will need in an ever-changing world. This is an opportunity to replace current state tests with dramatically better assessments that work for students and educators. 

Illinois has played an active leadership role in a consortium of states working to develop new assessments called PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Initial analysis suggests questions on the new assessments will measure higher-order thinking through performance tasks and open-ended prompts that delve deeper than fill-in-the-bubble tests. By comparison, current state assessments often don't measure higher-order thinking. On average, 0 percent of U.S. students are assessed on deeper learning and conceptual understanding in math and 16 percent of U.S. students are assessed on deeper learning in reading, according to an analysis of current state tests - skills that students, families, educators and employers agree are critical to success in the world.

The Illinois State Board of Education last week requested $54.5 million to support assessments in the coming year. The state has an opportunity to invest in the best effort we've seen in generations to move beyond rote, fill-in-the-blank tests that are easy to score, relatively cheap and virtually unable to capture students' ability to handle complexity or synthesize information from multiple sources. By contrast, proposed new assessments have been designed to give teachers, school leaders, students and families significantly richer information. The caliber of sample questions have been encouraging and independent analysis has been strong. However, the work is ongoing, and we all should watch closely to see the ultimate quality of the endeavor.  If they live up to their promise, it marks a huge step forward and a worthwhile investment for our state.

At Advance Illinois, we spent more than a year speaking with educators statewide and visiting classrooms to observe the shift to new standards and assessments. Their insights deepened our own thinking and informed the report and video series we released earlier this month, titled Making Assessments Work. They also make clear that we all must be vigilant to ensure students, educators and schools have the resources needed - time, training and technology - to achieve these higher expectations. 

Key decisions will need to be made

Such a sea change raises several questions that Illinois will need to consider in the coming months. Some of these decisions include:

Should Illinois continue to administer the ACT and WorkKeys to all high school juniors if and when the state moves to a Common Core-aligned assessment system that spans grades 3 through 11? This is top of mind for Illinois high school educators. For more than a decade, Illinois has provided a universal college entrance exam, removing one of the traditional hurdles to higher education for many students. While PARCC may be used by 2- and 4-year institutions for placement purposes - enabling students who score well to matriculate directly into credit-bearing courses - it is too soon to know if and when it may be used as part of the college application process. Also of concern is the continuation of the Work Keys, a nationally-recognized career readiness indicator that Illinois has administered alongside the ACT. The value of an industry-recognized certification is clear, so here again it will be important to understand whether PARCC can or cannot provide similar value and then make decisions carefully. 

 Will Illinois invest in diagnostic assessments to inform instruction during the course of the year? On their own dime, many Illinois school districts currently administer mid-year assessments that provide an early window into teaching and learning, and enable teachers to tailor instruction to meet needs. The suite of new Common Core assessments includes diagnostics that aim to provide similar information early on. Done well, this could be an opportunity for the state to provide such assessment tools to school districts that cannot currently afford them. In a state plagued by funding disparities between school districts, such an investment in academic equity is significant.   

How will the state support school districts with the time, technology and training needed for the new standards and assessments? The new Common Core assessments are designed to be taken online, which means students and educators can get results within days, not months, and in a way that informs instruction. However, not all Illinois schools have the 21st Century technology to support this. While PARCC may be administered with paper and pencil, there is an increased cost that is estimated at $3 to $4 a student. ISBE's budget request presumes half of Illinois' 2 million public school students will take the new assessments with paper and pencil next year, thus contributing to the increased line item. 

Input from the field needed

The Illinois P-20 Council, in partnership with ISBE, plans to convene 18 focus groups of teachers, administrators, business leaders and others to gather input. This will inform the final decisions that will shape the next generation of assessments for Illinois students. 

Other issues will require a broader, national conversation given the overarching concerns about how the new assessments will meet the needs of students with special learning needs and students who are new to the English language, or whether a nationally-recognized indicator of career readiness is built into the new assessments.

No one enjoys spending money on assessments. But assessments matter. As one Chicago principal told us, quality assessments give a sense of “what our kids are capable of doing and what they have actually learned while they've been in our presence.”

Last month's budget request is part of the ongoing investment Illinois must make to support teachers and schools with the resources needed to help all students access the Common Core. Now more than ever, all means all.

 I’m anxious to hear what teachers, principals and others in the field have to say.  I know our current assessments do not capture students’ deeper learning or help inform instruction. Getting that right is a worthwhile investment.    

Robin Steans is executive director of Advance Illinois.

Making Assessments Work

Read about Illinois' shift to new standards and assessments in a new Advance Illinois report called Making Assessments Work.

Watch the Making Assessments Work Video Series:

In the News: CTU told to choose pension deal or layoffs

February 12, 2014 - 8:10am

Chicago Public Schools’ teachers will need to give up some benefits during upcoming pension system negotiations, or run the risk of “thousands and thousands” of layoffs, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said Monday. (Sun-Times)

MAYOR INVITES THE MEDIA: In what was supposed to be a “peer jury” of Wells High School classmates determining what to do about a freshman behavioral and academic struggles, instead turned into a media circus when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration invited reporters to witness the peer jury showcase a revised student code of conduct that has produced, according to CPS, a 36 percent drop in school suspensions. (Sun-Times)

CHARTER EXCLUSIONS: Wisconsin's Forward Institute released a new study of the Milwaukee schools yesterday that shows charter schools' better performance on Wisconsin's new "school report cards" compared with regular public schools is due almost entirely to the fact that the charter schools are able to exclude habitual truants. (The Progressive)

STUDYING YOUTH INEQUALITY: The  William T. Grant Foundation has a new initiative that could pour up to $11 million per year into the study of inequality among youth. Adam Gamoran, a onetime University of Wisconsin sociologist who took the reigns of the foundation in September, is spearheading the effort to examine programs, policies, and practices designed to reduce inequality among young people between the ages of 5 and 25. May 6th is the deadline for the first round of initial proposals. (Education Week)

For the Record: Digging deeper into suspensions data

February 11, 2014 - 4:19pm

CPS has spent the last week touting what officials say is a big decrease in suspensions, culminating with a school visit and press conference by Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday, where the mayor declared that curbing suspensions was just the “right thing to do.”

But a confidential document obtained by Catalyst Chicago shows that suspension data from last year is more troubling than something to boast about. Last year, young elementary-age students were suspended far more than in previous years.

Plus, the racial disparity in suspensions of black students compared to whites and Latinos—long a problem in CPS and something that current CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says she cares personally about—has widened over the past few years. (Catalyst Chicago has been covering the issue of racial disparities in discipline since 2009.)

The statistic that officials are playing up is a 23 percent decline in high school suspensions, from 46,000 in the 2010-2011 school year to 36,000 in the 2012-2013 school year. But the drop occurred at the same time that enrollment in traditional, district-run high schools has fallen by more than 6,000 students.

The enrollment decline in traditional school is a critical factor because of the simultaneous increase in students at charter schools--where CPS does not collect information on suspensions. Charter schools do not have to adhere to the CPS discipline code and often have tougher discipline than in traditional schools.

When asked about the current disparities at Tuesday's press conference at Wells, Byrd-Bennett said district officials have yet to analyze last year’s data and that she would not comment until she has “accurate” information.

Mariame Kaba of the group Project Nia, says the organization pushed for the district to provide detailed school-level information because overall data “tells us little.” CPS is supposed to release the school-by-school data broken down by race and gender within a few weeks. Project Nia won a huge victory by getting CPS to release the data. 

“We need to know where the issues are so we can address them,” Kaba says. “It is not enough to know that we are trending in the right direction. We need to know if we are trending in the right direction at certain schools, among certain racial groups. We need to know if we are addressing the issues where most of the issues are.”

CPS officials stressed that the PowerPoint dated December 2013 and obtained by Catalyst was a draft. However, the City of Chicago’s data portal has had school suspension rates posted for at least two months, and the data appears to come from the same source as the PowerPoint.

According to the PowerPoint:

-- Among pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, suspensions increased 48 percent between school year 2012 and school year 2013, even though the Student Code of Conduct does not allow the use of either in-school or out-of-school suspension among young children.

--Every elementary grade level posted an increase in suspensions.

--Areas with predominantly black elementary schools saw the biggest year-to-year increases, while areas with white and Latino student populations stayed about the same or experienced a decline. The Englewood-Gresham, Burnham Park and Austin-North Lawndale areas posted steep jumps in elementary suspensions.

--Among elementary school students who were suspended, 80 percent were black in 2012-2013, compared to 76 percent in 2010-2011. In comparison, just 40 percent of students in CPS are black.

 --Among high school students, 71 percent of those suspended last year were black, up from 66 percent in 2010-2011, according to state and CPS data.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood notes the long-standing problem of racial disparities and says the district clearly has more work to do reduce the gap. Hood also says that though much of the district’s effort to reduce suspensions has been aimed at high schools, district officials are concerned about reducing suspensions in elementary schools and preschools. 

At the press conference on Tuesday, Byrd-Bennett said she attributes the drop in suspensions at the high school level with a 2012 change in the student code of conduct. The change instructed principals to suspend students for only a maximum of 10 days for the most serious offenses, and reduced the maximum number of days allowed for lesser offenses. 

According to the PowerPoint, both elementary and high school students are missing fewer days due to suspension.

Byrd-Bennett says the district will further revise the code of conduct to ensure that no child is suspended for minor infractions, such as having a cell phone.

Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel also said there has been a change in philosophy since they took over the school system, saying that they have encouraged the use of strategies like peace circles and peer juries to address student misbehavior and avoid suspensions.

However, it is unclear how many schools have implemented these restorative justice practices, or what resources the district has put toward helping schools develop programs. At Wells, the school has extra resources as part of a three-year, $5.7 million federal School Improvement Grant. The grant will run out this year.

Tomale Williams, a junior at Wells High School, recalled that he often got in trouble and was suspended numerous times in elementary school and in his first years in high school. As a young black male, Williams felt targeted for harsher discipline.

But last year, the principal of Wells took him aside and got him interested in being a part of the peer jury.

“This taught me a lot of self-discipline and my grades increased from Ds and Fs to As and Bs,” Williams said.

Emanuel added: “Peer jury instilled in them a sense of who they are. It gave them ownership of accountability and responsibility.”

In the News: How IL funds education could change

February 11, 2014 - 7:24am

A proposal to overhaul Illinois' education funding system, made by the state senate education committee, aims to streamline how state funding flows to districts, provide weighted funding for "at-risk" students, and provide minimum state funding levels for districts. (Education Week)

AVERAGE GRADE: The National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy organization, has given Illinois a C-plus rating for its policies around teacher preparation, recruitment, ratings and firing. The state drew praise for factoring teacher evaluations into layoff decisions but criticism for a lack of merit pay and initiatives to retain the best teachers.

POLITICS AND EDUCATION: State elections involving 36 governors and more than 6,000 legislators this year could have major consequences for a variety of education policies, with the Common Core standards, school choice, collective bargaining and early education among the topics most likely to get time in the spotlight and on the stump. There also are seven state schools superintendent elections, as well as ballot initiatives related to K-12 education in a number of states.  (Education Week)

HEAD START CREATOR DIES: Dr. Robert E. Cooke, a pediatrician who helped Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson create major initiatives to benefit children, including Head Start, died on Feb. 2 at his home in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. He was 93. (The New York Times)

SENTENCED FOR EMBEZZLEMENT: The former CEO of a Philadelphia charter school was sentenced to three years in prison Monday for stealing funds from the school. (The Notebook)

Elementary on-track rate has merit, but no sure-fire predictor of success

February 10, 2014 - 3:59pm

For the last two years, CPS has pioneered the use of an on-track indicator for students in 3rd through 8th grades that now counts for 10 percent of elementary principals’ evaluations.

It’s based on the more widely known “Freshman On-Track” indicator, which has been backed by years of research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

A soon-to-be-released Consortium report has found evidence that grades and attendance in 6th through 8th grade predict high school success. But there is less evidence when it comes to 3rd through 5th grades, though a New York City study found that attendance and test scores can predict high school graduation in students as young as 4th grade. (LINK TO:)

And, says Consortium Director Elaine Allensworth, the indicators that CPS is using to determine whether younger students are “on track” are far from a guarantee of future academic success.

Students are considered on-track if they have “C” or higher grades in math and reading, a 92 percent or higher attendance rate and two or fewer write-ups for misconduct.

But 92 percent attendance “is not sufficient for getting good grades” in high school, Allensworth says. “[It] gives you 50-50 odds of being on track in 9th grade [and] is what you need to have a chance of graduating high school, but it’s not going to be enough to get the strong grades you are going to need to get into college.”

The same is true of middle-years students who get “C” grades, according to Allensworth.

Attendance works as a high school indicator because 9th-grade course failures are driven mainly by missed classes, Allensworth says, noting that high school students have weaker relationships with teachers and less monitoring from adults to make sure they actually get to class. “Students that are not in the habit of coming to school every day and seeing that as a priority… when things come up, adversities, issues, they are much more likely not to come, or to skip class.”

The Consortium may study how schools are actually using the new elementary on-track metric.

“Is it an indicator that schools are actually able to take action on? And how is it changing their practice?” Allensworth says. “In the high schools, just having the on-track metric made people aware of the importance of 9th grade, but people weren’t sure what they should do about it.”

At first, she says, many high schools did not act on on-track data. But when CPS began producing reports listing which students were veering off-track and which needed credit recovery, Allensworth says, it changed schools’ actions.

“I imagine different schools have different capacity [for] being able to pull the reports from the data system, and then having the time to pull your staff together and actually use the reports to reach out to kids,” Allensworth says, because that was the case with CPS high schools. “There is a capacity issue, always.”

Some schools see results

While the new metric generally lines up with the school district’s rating system--with Level 1 schools having the highest on-track rates and Level 3 schools having the lowest--there are a few exceptions. Six Level 1 schools have on-track rates under 65 percent, and six Level 3 schools have on-track rates over 75 percent.

The Level 3 schools Calmeca and Kershaw both have on-track rates above 80 percent, among the highest in the district. Gregory, McClellan, Prussing, Lowell, Pershing and Ronald Brown elementary schools, on the other hand, all have on-track rates lower than 65 percent despite being top-rated Level 1 schools.

Two principals said the new metric has been a boon to their efforts to improve their schools.

Matthew Ditto, the principal of Andrew Jackson Language Academy, says that having the data available has helped his school “align resources that need to be put in place to help (students) achieve their goals for the year.”

“With attendance, I can see on a daily basis what we are accomplishing,” Ditto explains. “Children who are having attendance issues, I can see that right away, reach out to them and see what is going on.” Staff use the data to arrange meetings with families whose children are struggling with attendance, Ditto says.

While principals have always paid attention to attendance data, Ditto says, “years ago… in order to catch these things it took hours and hours of human resources.”

Students who are getting grades of below “C” in reading and math get extra help in small groups throughout the day, Ditto says.

Brian Metcalf, the principal of Field Elementary, credits the on-track metric with helping him bring his school from a low Level 3 to a high Level 2 in just two years.

Metcalf says that he uses the data to see school-wide and grade-level trends, such as how many students are getting poor grades.

“Let’s say we see a disproportionate number of students receiving D’s or F’s in reading. It helps us as a staff look at, ‘What is our curriculum, and are we implementing it with fidelity?’” Metcalf notes.

The school is also using the data to customize students’ schedules, giving them extra time in math or reading if they are behind in a specific subject and targeting them for before-school and after-school enrichment, which is funded by Field’s community schools program.

“Students are more confident. We have an opportunity to fill in the gaps that they might have missed from all the way to first grade,” Metcalf says. “It caused me to be more intentional, more focused and more granular in our analyses of data."

In the News: Suspensions decline 36% in CPS

February 10, 2014 - 6:56am

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced on Friday that the district has seen a 36 percent decrease in out-of-school suspensions since the 2010-2011 school year. CPS credits the drop to changes the district made back in 2012 to its student code of conduct regarding school discipline. The district moved away from zero-tolerance policies and scaled back disciplinary actions that can take students out of the classroom. (Progress Illinois)

BUILDINGS ON THE BLOCK:The public bidding process for closed Chicago Public Schools buildings will start this spring. A committee appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel has released a report advising the district on what to do with its 43 shuttered buildings. The committee says possible building uses include churches, urban farms, housing and community centers. (WBEZ)

OTHER USES: An advisory committee looking at what to do with Chicago school buildings that were closed last year is recommending that the city consider using the buildings for other district or city agency uses before putting them up for sale. (Tribune)

ENGAGING THE LATINO COMMUNITY: Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett last week announced the formation of the Latino Advisory Committee, the district's first-ever, Latino-focused task force designed to increase engagement with the Latino community and to enhance the educational success of Latino students. The LAC intends to unite Chicago's Latino leaders in order to provide support to Latino students, teachers, administrators, and families at CPS. (Press release)

NAVIGATING CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS: A new paper that delves into how diversity in schools challenges the leadership of principals finds that school leaders, whether white or African-American, often doubt their ability to mediate the racial differences that crop up in their schools when student demographics shift. (Education Week)

PRE-K PUSH: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is now seeking to revive the populist zeal of his mayoral bid for a new campaign: persuading state lawmakers to back a tax increase to pay for prekindergarten. (The New York Times)

Mayor's committee releases recommendations for vacant schools

February 7, 2014 - 7:11pm

Maintaining vacant schools would cost the Chicago Public Schools some $3.5 million a year, according to a report issued Friday by the mayor’s Advisory Committee for School Repurposing and Community Development.

The committee disclosed the estimate in a report outlining procedures for putting vacant schools back to work. The costs averaged $81,000 for each of 43 buildings and ranged from $17,000 to maintain Buckingham to $256,000 to keep Morgan up.

The committee calls for a three-phase repurposing process that would include community hearings and a fund that would funnel the proceeds from the sale of some buildings to help pay for the repurposing of others. Many of the properties, the committee says, could be used to help fulfill the city’s environmental, development and housing plans.

In the first phase, some of the buildings would be transferred to sister agencies or temporarily leased to nonprofits. That already is underway with three schools, the committee said:

*The city’s Department of Fleet and Facility Management may take over King Elementary.

*Chicago High School for the Arts is expected to find its permanent home at Lafayette Elementary.

*Fiske Elementary already is being used by Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community, a nonprofit, to house community programs and an alternative school.

Also, CPS may wish to retain a school for some purpose but not yet know which school, the report notes.

Following such pairings, schools that remain vacant would be offered up for bid – by the end of 2014. A committee made up of CPS staffers and experts in various fields would make recommendations on the bids, considering such factors as financial viability, how quickly the project could be carried out, the bidder’s experience and ability to follow through on its plans, community support, the possibility for local hiring, and other potential benefits. Community meetings would be held to get feedback on the bids.

The CPS Board of Education would have to approve potential reuses.

Properties that remain after the bidding process would be “transferred to a third-party revitalization partner” to maintain and market the buildings. Again, CPS would have final approval.

For schools left vacant after that process, the revitalization partners ultimately would have the authority to decide a building’s fate, which could include demolition.

Eventually, the report says, the properties could be used by churches, urban farming projects, community centers, private schools or contract schools, affordable housing, health clinics or Park District activity centers. 

In the News: UIC faculty threatens strike

February 7, 2014 - 7:24am

University of Illinois at Chicago’s faculty union announced Thursday night that it will strike for two days later this month if it feels the administration is not beginning to “bargain in earnest” on a contract. (Tribune)

TESTING TIMEOUT: Parents of some Chicago Public Schools students are encouraging their children not to take the ISAT. The test is being phased out and will no longer be used to measure a student's progress when attempting to enroll in certain schools. (ABC 7)

URGED TO APPLY: First Lady Michelle Obama told a group of high school students and parents on Wednesday not to let financial concerns stand in the way of a college education. The first lady spoke the day after President Obama announced a commitment of more than $750 million from private business leaders to improve technology in schools.  (The New York Times)

MENU INSULTS: Officials at a Northern California private school are apologizing after a lunch menu option to celebrate Black History Month angered some parents and students. Students at Carondelet High School for Girls in Concord wanted to come up with ways to observe the occasion during a lunchtime celebration Friday. But when the school announced a menu of fried chicken, cornbread and watermelon, other students and parents became offended. (NY Post)

Charters not the problem with high school ‘market’

February 6, 2014 - 5:21pm

Danel Hertz’s recent column about school choice in Chicago raises important questions but ultimately misses the mark. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools would like to reframe the issue to provide a more appropriate conversation about school quality and the limited options available to Chicago’s families. 

Hertz’s central claim is that the growth of charter schools has not delivered on the promise of moving more families to higher-performing schools across the “market.”  Instead, Hertz asserts, families are activating their option to leave their low-performing neighborhood school, but sometimes in favor of an equally mediocre charter school.  Hertz concludes that this is a failure of the market-based solution that charters represent.

Because Hertz falls into the common trap of equating ending test scores – 11th grade ACT scores in this case – with a high-quality school, his analysis leads to short-sighted conclusions.  In addition, Hertz doesn’t take into consideration some important constraints on the supply of high quality schools of any type in the city.  Refining the analysis to address these crucial factors shows that overall, parents are leaving schools with low student achievement growth in favor of charter schools with a record of high student growth.  You’ll also see that politics stand in the way of more children’s access to a school that will support life trajectory-changing levels of growth.  So why not use charter schools – in conjunction with more school accountability – to increase the number of non-selective quality options across the city?

We can all agree that Chicago’s school market is far from textbook perfect. On the demand side, poor access to public transportation and concerns over safety through certain neighborhoods limit student mobility (see this recent Scientific American article). On the supply side, there is a clear lack of high-quality non-selective schools. Open-enrollment charter public schools, however, are overrepresented among those schools where students experience higher-than-average academic growth and higher-than-average college persistence.  

A refined analysis

We can enhance the previous analysis by incorporating the following refinements:

Focus on growth instead of attainment. Specifically, this means point gains from 9th to 11th grade on the ACT system known as EPAS. This is a better measure of school impact because it allows one to measure student improvement over time. Writer and Noble Street charter teacher Matthew McCabe makes this and other points nicely in his recent blog post in response to Dan’s analysis.

Exclude selective schools. These schools select students based on previous achievement and have extremely limited supply - last year, over 18,000 families applied to the roughly 3,000 freshman seats in the 10 CPS selective enrollment schools.  Realistically, these schools are not an option for the vast majority of CPS students whose low baseline achievement precludes them from applying, let alone for the five out of the six children who do apply for admission.  Below is a reconfiguration of Hertz’s analysis with the two points above in mind.

Note that most enrollment decreases between 2006 and 2013 occurred in non-charter schools with lackluster student growth. At the same time, many more students gained access to schools where the average student makes 4-7 points of growth between their freshman and senior year. In other words, the trend is that high-growth charter schools are gaining students while low-growth, non-charter, non-selective schools are losing students. In this sense, parents are making informed choices to choose schools that have a greater impact on student achievement. 

Some claim that charter schools are similar to selective schools because students have to apply. But incoming charter school test scores indicate that the average charter school student enters high school with academic results that are indistinguishable from those entering nonselective district schools. 

Here is another view of the same data. 19/20 non-selective schools that offer the highest average gains from 9th grade to 11th grade are charter public schools.

A call to action

Back in 2008, if a student who did not get into a selective school wanted to attend a non-selective school where the average student could come in with a 15 and still end up with a college ready ACT score of 21, she would not have had such an option available.  Today, she’d have high-quality charter schools available.

Hertz’s central question still stands – why don’t more families have access to these highest growth schools? I agree, this is criminal, but likely not an issue of lack of demand.  Unfortunately, the supply for these high-performing schools is restricted. There are numerous reasons for this; including the charter school cap (raised modestly in 2009), inequitable funding for charter school students that constrain proven operators from opening even more high-quality seats, the low supply of open facilities, and – most importantly - the political climate dominated by entities that protect adult interests at the expense of the well-being of families stranded in neighborhoods with low-performing schools. 

The new CPS accountability system coming this fall represents an opportunity to evaluate schools on metrics that matter – academic growth, credit accrual towards graduation, college enrollment and persistence.  We can have great public schools of all types, including district-run, charters, selective enrollment and magnet schools. What we can't do is take no action when schools are failing to help our students achieve the ambitious academic, social, and emotional growth that puts them on a trajectory to college and career readiness.  By all means, if charter schools don’t measure up on these crucial outcomes – they should be considered for closure.  In the interim, we should focus on getting every family in Chicago a safe, high quality school option.  As more than 50,000 Chicago families know, charters are a crucial part of this solution. 

Catherine Deutsch is senior manager of policy and research for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

In the News: Time spent on testing varies widely

February 6, 2014 - 7:15am

"The Student & the Stopwatch" study, released Wednesday by TeachPlus, examines the wide variations in the time spent on testing. Nationwide, some districts spend five times more time on tests than others. Urban schoolchildren tend to spend more time in testing than those in the suburbs. And teachers say that testing costs them twice as much instructional time as their students actually spend taking the tests. (Education Week)

SNOW MAKE-UP DAYS: CPS officials announced Wednesday students will have classes June 11, 12 and 13 to make up for snow days last month. March 28 will also be a make-up day. June 10 was supposed to be the last day of class. (Sun-Times)

SHOWING SUPPORT: When Whole Foods workers in Chicago walked off the job Wednesday in support of a co-worker they say was wrongly fired after staying home with “her special needs son” during last week’s polar vortex, Chicago Teachers Union  president Karen Lewis joined them. (Salon)

VACANCIES TO FILL: Detroit Public Schools needs to immediately fill 95 teaching positions, the result of a large number of retirements and enrollment spikes across the district.

FINDING COMMON CAUSE: Chambers of commerce in a growing number of states are casting themselves in the role of defenders of the common core against increasingly vocal opposition to the new standards from some of their traditional Republican allies. (Education Week)

A new end game

February 6, 2014 - 7:00am

On a November morning, the first agenda item in Krystian Weglarz’ class is to have students review the process of obtaining copies of their grade transcripts and ACT scores in preparation for completing college applications. 

Next, Weglarz takes a tally to see how many students have improved their ACT scores. “If it went down, you don’t have to submit that one,” he says. “You just keep the higher one.” 

Weglarz then hands out permission slips for a field trip to the Illinois Institute of Technology, and reminds students that a speaker from DeVry University is slated for a visit. “You want to be here,” he says. 

Students give their weekly update on career and college news. One young woman got into Miles College in Alabama with a $12,000 scholarship. Another got into Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill. Another received a full-tuition scholarship from Wilberforce University in Ohio.

A leaderboard on the wall shows how many acceptance letters and scholarship offers each student has earned. The same students, Weglarz notices, have good news week after week.

“What is it that you’re doing?” he pries. “We just turned in our stuff early,” one student says.

Another student sighs, noting the hard work involved. “I’ve been looking for these schools since my sophomore year.”

“Everyone should have those success stories,” Weglarz tells the class. Students who are lagging behind in their college search should get advice from those who are doing well. 

Next, students work in teams on a postsecondary research project. Finally, Weglarz offers a reminder: “Where are you at with the Common Application process? Or similar? Next thing you know, it is tomorrow; it is January.”

The agenda might not seem surprising for a class of seniors, except for one detail: Weglarz teaches at Gage Park High School’s Equipment and Technology Institute. Students learn about advanced manufacturing and automotive technology, how to follow technical instructions and get the chance to earn certification through the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council. 

But there’s also a strong post-secondary education component, something that the district has made the centerpiece of its overhaul of career program curricula. Fueled partly by the college-for-all movement and partly by the new, more rigorous Common Core Standards, education policymakers around the country as well as in Chicago are trying to bridge the gap between college-prep and career-prep education. 

At the same time, here in CPS, the number of career programs has fallen over the past five year, to 182 this year from 240 in 2008-09. “As the district has raised standards, schools have decided to shut down programs on their own,” says CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman. “Another contributing factor is decreasing enrollment. Schools facing low enrollment have had to close programs.” 

Though admission standards remain generally the same, CPS students are entering career programs with better academic preparation: This year, 33 programs had average EXPLORE scores of 14 or higher for incoming 9th-graders, a dramatic increase from just seven such programs in 2011-12. (A score of 14 on the EXPLORE is considered the threshold for reaching college-readiness on the ACT.)

The new approach has benefits. Students who aren’t on a solid college-prep track get an extra push toward post-secondary education—something that is virtually essential for the good jobs of the future. For lower-income students in particular, getting into college or earning a specific credential for a job in an in-demand field could be a ticket out of poverty. 

Yet the district has a long way to go to make its career education overhaul a success. 

College enrollment rates for students who finish a career education course sequence are only slightly higher than for CPS as a whole: 60 percent compared to 56 percent. Among students in the Gage Park program, 70 percent of those who graduated in spring 2011 (the most recent year available) enrolled in college. 

Fewer students are completing career education course sequences, with the number falling dramatically to 2,173 in 2011-12 from 3,108 in 2007-08. At Gage Park, for example, two classes of sophomores enter the Equipment and Technology Institute each year. By senior year, just one class is left.

Many career education programs have a hard time attracting students because they are in struggling neighborhood high schools. At more than one-third of the programs, 10 or more students were offered seats for each student who eventually attended. On average, nearly seven offers were made to fill each seat. 

Chicago is part of a national trend on the career education front. Stephen DeWitt, deputy executive director of the National Association for Career and Technical Education, says districts around the country have sought to link college and career education in recent years. “The focus on that is important,” DeWitt says. “It is helping students to realize that college is a potential option for them.” 

Recent research predicts that the number of jobs requiring two-year degrees will grow, and that some industry-recognized career credentials may lead to increased earning potential.

DeWitt says other districts are raising academic expectations, too.

“With the Common Core State Standards, it is going to become more important,” DeWitt says. 

Adding more challenging coursework, he adds, may help keep potential dropouts engaged in school. 

Karina Romano and Giovanni Fernandez are classmates in Gage Park’s Equipment and Technology Institute. Their goals differ, but both say they have benefitted from the program’s approach. 

Romano, a 17-year-old senior, plans to study creative writing in college. She doesn’t see a contradiction between that goal and the three years of study in Gage Park’s program.

“It still helps me research [colleges],” she says. “It’s helped me to keep going, not to give up [and] reach goals that are realistic to me.” 

Romano’s older sister tipped her off that the program would help her make it into college. Her sister is now studying anthropology at Hamline University in Minnesota.

“I just wanted to be in a class where people care about your education,” Romano notes. “She told me Mr. Weglarz was a big help. They helped me prepare for the ACT. They helped me write my personal statement.” 

The Gage Park program has closer ties to colleges—like Illinois Institute of Technology, Ranken Technical College in St. Louis, the University of Dayton, Universal Technical Institute and DeVry University—than to businesses.

Still, Weglarz admits that there are limits to what the focus on college can accomplish. “No matter how much we help them get ready, with the financial obstacles, with travel, with family responsibilities, students may go first semester” but then drop out, he says.

Fernandez, also 17, wants to further his education too. But his goal is tied to what he’s learned in the Technology Institute: He wants to study automotive technology at Ranken Technical College. 

Fernandez had planned to go to work right out of high school. But then his father, who works at Graphic Packaging as a machine operator, gave him some advice. “He told me, ‘You don’t want to be like me. I get home tired, I go to sleep and I go back the next day. Do something you love to do,’” Fernandez says.

The Gage Park program caught his attention. Now, Fernandez has learned skills that will be useful in automotive technology, such as following technical instructions. The workplace safety certification he earned in his junior year should be helpful in the job hunt, too.

In all, about a half-dozen students in the class are aiming for a career related to manufacturing.

“It is more important to expose them to a variety of technology [fields], to postsecondary options, and to give them the soft skills they need to succeed in any job,” Weglarz says. Soft skills are the personal qualities that are important for any career field, such as the ability to communicate, a strong work ethic, problem-solving skills and a positive attitude.

To get students in a goal-oriented frame of mind, Weglarz has them write letters to their future selves, which he mails to them five years after they graduate from high school. On a Facebook page for the program, Weglarz stays in touch with alumni and often invites them back to speak to current students. 

Xian Barrett, a former teacher at Gage Park and at Julian High School who is now national program director at New Voice Strategies (the parent organization of the advocacy group VIVA Teachers) says that students who face the most obstacles to staying in school have been hurt the most by the shift in career education.

Julian, for instance, closed programs in fashion design, cosmetology, carpentry and culinary arts. Teachers in those programs, Barrett recalls, tried to use the lure of those disciplines to recruit students who were gang-affiliated or had had trouble in elementary school. The programs became “kind of a gateway to academics,” he says.

“This idea that kids in the highest-need situations need to continually roll the dice on whether the program they are depending on, in some cases to a life-and-death level, is going to survive—I think there’s an element of injustice to that,” Barrett says. 

Decisions on whether to drop or add programs are typically made, he adds, “without any understanding of community context or input from communities, especially the students themselves.”

At Julian, five career tracks remain: business, allied health, broadcast technology, game programming, and digital media.

Kimberly Saunders, who has taught broadcast technology for over two decades, says that students learn to operate the latest equipment, practice their writing skills—“In order to do a production you have to do a proposal, a script, a video shot sheet and a storyboard,” Saunders points out—and create videos that are broadcast by Channel One News, a national high school news service. 

CPS data show that over the past several years, half or more of her students have gone on to college.

On a recent morning, the class practiced talk show production, with some students taking on the role of hosts, some running light and sound boards and others portraying actors being interviewed.

“Above all, they are learning how to work with other people,” Saunders says. 

Julian’s broadcast program has had success in sending students on to college. But Barrett takes issue with the “college for all” concept.

“Students have come to me directly and said, ‘This constant push that to be a good person you have to go to college, it seems like they’re saying my parents are bad people,’ ” he observes. “I see this direction of setting high bars and demanding that kids clear them to get opportunities as [a strategy of] disengagement.”

Julian and other career academies are struggling to become the citywide draws that the district envisioned when planners began working to better distribute career education programs among different areas of the city.

But career academies also struggle to attract students who live closer in.  According to CPS data, more than two-thirds of students who live in the attendance boundaries for career academies—more than 29,000 high school students—choose to attend elsewhere.

Counselor Krystal Kay, who was previously Julian’s career and technical education coordinator, says Julian is losing out to charter schools and to other schools with career education programs. Even though students come from 96 elementary schools, the school’s total enrollment is just 1,057 students, down 9 percent from last year.

“It is important for families to know they can get a quality education in a neighborhood school in a [career and technical] program,” she says. 

Yet many students come into high school clueless about what they want to do, so career education becomes a tougher sell. “They do not want to be in a three-year program just to get exposure,” Kay says. “We have to do more career awareness at the elementary level.”

Marketing is essential, notes health science instructor Judy Granger. “A lot of times people say, ‘I didn’t know you had that program.’ I would place my students up against the students at Sullivan (which has a more well-known health sciences program.) They need to know they have the same opportunities here on the South Side.”

In Julian’s business and finance program, sophomores practice typing and formatting business memos. Juniors take an accounting class as well as a class in entrepreneurship. As part of that class, they open a business and sell to customers at two open houses, keeping the money they earn. 

During senior year, all students take classes but then leave mid-day to go to jobs at places like Northern Trust Bank, Seaway Bank, Walgreens, and the Starks & Boyd law firm. It’s one of just a handful of similar work-study programs in schools across the city. 

The promise of a paying job is a huge draw for students, business teacher and work-study coordinator Joyce Ingram says.  But it’s not enough to counteract the enrollment decline.

“You have students who are living in neighborhoods that are relatively dangerous, and if they want to participate in a program that is across town, in an area where they’re not wanted, they don’t go,” Ingram points out. 

Several students from Mikva Challenge, a civic engagement program, said they had no idea career education programs were available, and would have appreciated an opportunity to enroll. 

Jordan Henderson, a 16-year-old junior at Lincoln Park High School, said that when he was selecting a high school as an 8th-grade student at Sabin Magnet, the focus was on selective schools.

In retrospect, Henderson says he would have liked to study computer programming. Next year, he hopes to take an Advanced Placement course in Java, a programming language.  But in a career academy program, Henderson would have tackled the subject sooner. 

Vincent Calderon, a 17-year-old senior at Hancock High School, also says he did not know career programs existed. He, too, wants to be a computer programmer. But his school has no programming classes to offer—just courses in Microsoft Office and in web design. 

Crane Medical Prep High School faces similar challenges. It’s one of several academically selective, health-focused programs that CPS has opened in the last several years. In theory, 40 percent of the seats are for students who come from the neighborhood, and 60 percent are for students from the rest of the city. But everyone must have a stanine score of at least 5 in reading and 5 in math on their 7th grade ISAT to qualify for enrollment at Crane. 

“We adhere to the policy primarily because we have a very robust math and science curriculum,” says the school’s principal, Fareeda Shabazz. “They say, ‘I want to be a cardiologist,’ ‘I want to be a pediatrician.’ (But) the five is already a very low bar, and students who come in any lower won’t be able to handle the rigors of the programs.”

After sophomore year, students choose a career track known as a major. They can choose nursing, allied health, or pre-med. But the school is still working to nail down whether nursing and allied health students will be able to earn credentials, and if so, which ones.

The school started this year with just 150 freshmen, but this spring is set to make 300 offers in hopes of having a larger freshman class. 

“We are looking for those numbers to increase tremendously,” Shabazz says. “There are many students in the city that are prepared for a curriculum this rigorous; (but) the biggest challenge has been the reputation of Crane High School.”

She points to the contradiction between the lack of applicants for Crane’s selective program, and the district’s lack of selective program seats: “A lot of parents leave the city because there aren’t a lot of viable options for students who don’t get a perfect score on the selective enrollment exam.”

Tell us what you think. Leave a comment below, or email

This story has been updated to correct a student's name.

A grand vision for career prep

February 6, 2014 - 7:00am

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced in 2012 that the district would open 10 International Baccalaureate programs in high schools across the city, a small but telling detail didn’t make the news: The IB’s then-new Career Certificate program, designed to give students a rigorous IB-style education while tailoring coursework to their career interests, would be a cornerstone of the “wall-to-wall” programs. 

Given the widely recognized success and academic value of the IB Diploma Programme, it makes a lot of sense to adopt the IBCC (now offered by 63 schools around the world, including 36 in the U.S.) as part of Chicago’s expanding IB portfolio. IB programs require significant professional development for teachers and a rigorous curriculum, reducing the odds that a career track ends up as a second-tier, lower-quality option.

The IBCC is one indicator of the district’s vision for upgrading career and technical education. As Associate Editor Rebecca Harris reports in this issue of Catalyst In Depth, the end game now isn’t a job as a mechanic, a hairdresser, a data entry operator or some other occupation typically meant for young people deemed not to be “college material.”  The goal now is more ambitious: Prepare students for post-secondary education—whether at a two-year college, a four-year college or a technical school—while teaching them practical skills and providing them with workplace experience.

The shifting paradigm is driven partly by the “college for all” movement and the advent of the Common Core Standards, which emphasize college- and career-readiness. A vision that reaches beyond 12th grade is a must: The 21st Century workplace landscape is barren of good-paying jobs that do not require some training beyond high school

With these parameters in mind, CPS is seeking to open more programs in information technology, health sciences, engineering and advanced manufacturing—areas of higher job growth. The district has also rewritten curricula to focus on college-going and “soft skills,” the personal qualities and attitudes, such as punctuality and a strong work ethic, that can be the deciding factor in getting or keeping a job. 

Sometimes, young people need an extra boost to navigate the work world. A small federally funded program in three high schools (Harper, Wells and Kelvyn Park) aims to provide this intensive help to students who are at risk of joining the ranks of the “disconnected”—youth who are not in school or in the workplace. 

Yet even here, the goal is broader than job placement (see story on page 14). “You help a kid get a job and they are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college,” says James Zeckhauser, who works for the social service agency Youth Guidance, which operates the program. 

Though small, the initiative shows promise. Almost 70 percent of students have found a job, enrolled in college or further job training, or enlisted in the military by the time they exit the program. Expanding the program to serve the 166,047 “disconnected” youth in Chicago would cost an estimated $249 million. 

Sound too costly? Break it down to each young person, and the price tag is a modest $1,500 per student.

The law of unintended consequences warns that any intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and sometimes undesirable outcomes. In Chicago Public Schools, the law applies in several ways with career education.

One consequence, tied to the district’s ongoing push to open new schools, has hurt already-struggling neighborhood high schools: Career prep programs in these schools have had a difficult time attracting students. 

With fewer students, schools have closed programs and the overall number has declined to 182 this year from 240 five years ago. It’s undoubtedly preferable to offer students training for a better job in a higher-paying field. But as one former Julian High School teacher points out, closing programs has left a void: Teachers used the lure of these programs to attract students who faced the biggest obstacles to finishing high school, making them “kind of a gateway to academics,” he says.

Last year, almost 4,500 students earned some type of credential through career education programs. Yet a third of these credentials were in Microsoft Office programs or financial literacy. Such credentials boost resumes, which is a plus. But fewer than 20 percent of credentials lead directly to jobs, and a relative handful put students directly on a pipeline to the best jobs in higher-paying fields.

At Gage Park High School, teacher Krystian Weglarz points out one challenge to increasing students’ success at earning valuable credentials in high-tech manufacturing: “The same struggles we have in a core class are the same difficulties we face with any other certification, any other course, whether it’s low reading ability [or] low math ability.”

Providing workplace experience has also been a challenge. Selective career programs are the only ones in which all students complete an internship. Summer internships are only part-time and thus less attractive to students who need full-time work. Fewer high schools are now participating in “work-related study” because these internships knock out class periods that many students use to take extra courses or make-up classes.