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Comings & Goings: Rico

April 9, 2014 - 12:47pm

Jose Rico has been named senior vice president of community investment at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.  Rico served four years as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.  He planned policy, strategic initiatives, outreach and communications for President Obama’s education agenda and the Latino community.  He helped develop the Promise Neighborhood grants for cradle-to-career programming in distressed neighborhoods across the country.  Previously, he was a founding principal at the Multicultural Arts School at the Little Village/Lawndale High School campus.    He will lead United Way’s work on education, income and health and its Neighborhood Network model, which concentrates services in underserved communities. 

In the News: Intense competition for CPS' elite middle schools

April 9, 2014 - 8:48am

Competition to get into middle school at elite Chicago Public Schools programs around the city was more intense than ever this year, as scores hit record highs at some of the programs that guarantee a coveted spot at a selective enrollment high school. (DNAinfo)

CPS DELAYS TEST: Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday that the standardized test being used for the first time in applications to the city’s top selective enrollment schools will also be required for private school students, but that those children won’t have to take the test until next fall. (Tribune)

TURNAROUND PUSH BACK: CTU President Karen Lewis joined Diedrus Brown, principal of Greshman Elementary, on Tuesday in pushing back against the Chicago Public Schools’ turnaround proposal, alleging officials are more concerned about money than students’ best interests. Progress Illinois has a video.

VALLAS HIRED: Paul Vallas, who returned to Illinois last month as Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate, has been hired to a six-figure job as a municipal finance consultant by a longtime friend and political supporter of the Democratic governor. Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, officially moved back to Illinois following the completion of his contract as schools superintendent in Bridgeport, Conn. (Tribune)

DUNCAN KEEPS HIS DISTANCE: In a hearing before a House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the competitive grants built into his fiscal 2015 budget request, gave no substantive details about a proposed Race to the Top for equity contest, and continued to distance himself from the Common Core State Standards. (Education Week)

Charter school supporters rally against slew of bills

April 8, 2014 - 5:09pm

One bill would eliminate the state’s independent charter school authorizer. Another would place a cap on salaries for charter school CEOs and require school districts—not schools themselves--to hold lotteries for new students. A third bill would prevent the opening of new charter schools in neighborhoods where traditional public school have been shuttered in the past decade.

These are just three of nearly a dozen charter school-related bills before the Illinois Legislature this year that pick away at the historic autonomy granted to charter schools.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy says it’s the biggest wave of anti-charter school legislation he’s ever seen.

“There’s no question about it. This year is the most dangerous year to the charter school system we’ve ever had,” Broy said in a recent interview with Catalyst Chicago.  “These bills would fundamentally alter the way charter accountability works.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and other critics say that publicly funded but privately run charter schools need more oversight, citing as proof last year’s corruption scandal at the United Neighborhood Organization Charter School Network.

“Taxpayers are demanding more accountability from charter operators,” said CTU President Karen Lewis in a statement. “They want to know whether the money going to these schools is actually being spent on educating students.”

Some outside observers say it might be time to have a conversation about whether Illinois should continue having charter schools, period, instead of addressing the issue through piecemeal legislation in a highly charged and impassioned environment. In a way, the bills are a response to the outrage felt by many educators and parents after CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools last year.

The battle over charter schools plays out differently from state to state. National attention has recently been focused on New York City, where the state Legislature thwarted Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s attempt to charge rent to charter schools operating in public buildings.

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called the anti-charter school bills under consideration in Illinois “out of step” with the best practices in state laws across the country. She weighed in on the legislation in a press release sent out on Tuesday in support of the close to 1,500 Illinois charter school students and parents who traveled to Springfield to lobby legislatures to vote against the bills.

Here’s a summary of the major bills and where they stand in the legislative process:

  • House Bill 6005/Senate Bill 3030: More accountability. This multi-layered amendment to the state’s charter schools law has been voted out of both the House Education Committee and Senate Subcommittee on charter schools. It would remove the authority to operate lotteries for new students away from charter schools and place it into the hands of the school’s “authorizer” (usually the district). The bill includes several accountability measures, such as: prohibiting charter school staff from being employed by the school’s management company; requiring charter schools to pay back a pro-rated portion of public funding provided to the school district when students transfer out; preventing charter schools from using public dollars for advertising purposes; capping the salary for charter school CEOs at 80 percent of the district superintendent’s salary, and charter school principals’ salary at 10 percent more than the average salary for other principals in the district; and creating an audit process for charter schools that spend more of their budget for administration purposes than the district. Also, the bill would require the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to conduct an assessment of the impact of charter schools on the school system – including funding flow, enrollment, graduation and attrition rates. Charter schools could also lose state funding if they don’t meet all reporting requirements.
  • SB 2627/HB 3754: Scrap charter commission. The bill to repeal the Illinois State Charter School Commission – which has authorized four charter schools since its creation – has been voted out of the full House, and a companion bill is in the Senate education committee. The bill would also require ISBE to prepare an annual report based on the evaluations of charter schools sent in each year by local school districts. ISBE opposes the bill, arguing that the commission complies with all state requirements and should be allowed to continue its work.
  • SB 2779/HB 4237: Approval referendum. This bill would significantly change the appeals process for charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards. It has been voted out of the House education committee, but remains in the Senate education committee. It would require prospective charter school operators whose applications are approved by the state in the appeals process to then go to a referendum. 
  • HB 4655/SB 3004: Curbing disciplineThis bill seeks to reduce the use of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions unless the safety of other students or staff is at risk at traditional public schools, while requiring charter schools to comply with some new requirements. It has been voted out of both the House and Senate Education committees.  Under the bill, all schools – including charters -- must provide behavioral and educational support services to suspended students and submit to the school district detailed documentation about incidents leading to out-of-school suspensions or arrests; school districts must compile these reports into annual summaries that are available for public review. Charter school employees can’t encourage students to leave a school to avoid formal disciplinary procedures or fine students for breaking the rules, both common practices in some Chicago charter schools. Catalyst has reported on some of these controversial disciplinary policies on several occasions.
  • HB 4527: Special education, ELL. This ISBE initiative explicitly mandates that charter schools comply with all state laws on special education and English Language Learners students. It has been voted out of the full House, but has not yet been voted on by the Senate’s Education Committee. ISBE believes all schools should comply with special regulations on educating vulnerable populations, but charter school supporters say it’s unnecessary because schools already comply with federal laws – which are less stringent. 
  • HB 4591: Return of public funds. This bill would require that state funding follow students who are dismissed from charter schools into their new schools. The bill has been voted out of the House Education committee but it has no companion bill in the Senate. Charter school operators would have to return 100 percent of the district’s per capita student tuition money, on a pro-rated basis for the time the student is no longer enrolled in the school. Critics say the bill ignores the fact charter schools receive less money in per-pupil funding than other schools.

Another bill -- SB 3303, which has had no traction in the state Legislature -- would prohibit the opening of any new charter schools in neighborhoods where a traditional public school has been closed in the past decade. Meanwhile, HB 5328 would require charter schools in Chicago to be administered by local school councils, just like traditional public schools. While that bill has been approved by the Education committee, it has no companion bill in the Senate. 

INCS is tracking all charter school-related bills on its web site, as is the CTU

SUPES Academy stories win national award

April 7, 2014 - 4:13pm

Deputy Editor Sarah Karp has won second place for investigative reporting from the national Education Writers Association for a series of articles that delved into the details of CPS’ questionable $20 million, no-bid contract with the for-profit SUPES Academy.

The contract to provide principal training was approved quietly by the School Board last summer and was the largest no-bid contract awarded by the district in recent years.

On Monday, CPS Inspector General James Sullivan said the investigation spurred by this report was ongoing.

EWA’s judges praised the articles. One wrote that “Catalyst Chicago battled far above its weight in digging up the details behind a no-bid contract in Chicago Public Schools. They are doing praiseworthy watchdog investigative reporting.”

Another judge wrote: “Very admirable digging into this contract and this organization, which is clearly fraught with conflicts of interest.”

Prior to being hired as CEO for CPS, Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked for the SUPES Academy as a coach. The owner of SUPES Academy, a for-profit-company based in Wilmette, also runs two other consulting companies, Proact Search Inc. and Synesi Associates. 

Karp’s reporting detailed how school leaders can be trained by SUPES, placed in jobs by Proact and then earn extra money working as coaches and mentors for SUPES Academy, which provides professional development for school leaders. 

The stories also led to the resignation of the superintendent of Baltimore County, Maryland schools, who had been working for SUPES as a coach and mentor for Chicago principals at the same time that his district had its own contract with SUPES for principal training.The Baltimore County district was unaware of the superintendent's work until Catalyst's stories were published.

Numerous principals complained that the SUPES Academy workshops and training were low-quality.

The first-place award in the category, Investigative Reporting/Education News Outlets, was given to the Chronicle of Higher Education for a series on the Gates Foundation and its influence on education policy.

The Chicago Sun-Times won first place in the Large Newsroom/Investigative Reporting category for its stories on corruption at UNO charter schools.

“This American Life” won first place in the Investigative Reporting/Broadcast category for its two-part series on CPS' Harper High School. The same series won a Peabody Award.


In the News: Noble network's discipline code in spotlight

April 7, 2014 - 8:04am

Officials and many parents from the Noble charter school network are defending its tough disciplinary code, but the network's disciplinary policies run counter to district and national efforts to find ways to keep students in the classroom. The discipline code also extends to teachers, who are penalized if they don't enforce the rules.

LSC ELECTIONS: Beginning Monday, residents will have the chance to elect parents and community members to Local School Councils. You don’t need to have kids enrolled in a particular school — or kids at all — to cast a ballot. You just need to be at least 18 years old and live within the boundaries of the school where you're planning to vote. To determine the boundaries, check the CPS school locator. (DNAinfo)

VALLAS GETS HIRED: Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who is running for Illinois lieutenant governor, has taken a new job with a Chicago-based consulting firm. (ABC 7)

CERTIFICATION PROGRAM IN PERIL: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is set to vote this week on whether to pull the plug on a multimillion-dollar effort to develop an advanced national credential for principals. (Education Week)

SCHOOL PRAYER BILL BLOCKED: Viriginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a school prayer bill on Friday, saying it could lead to “coercive prayer” or “religious messaging” at school events. (The Washington Post)

In the News: CPS reveals little about meal ingredients

April 4, 2014 - 7:46am

WBEZ's Monica Eng asked Chicago Public Schools to tell her the ingredients that go into students' meals and she had to filed a Freedom of Information Act to get an answer. So what does go into the chicken nuggets that the district serves? The complete ingredient list for CPS chicken nuggets is two words: “chicken nuggets.” And it took more than a month for CPS Nutrition Support Services to figure this out and get back to her, Eng reports.

GLITCHES PLAGUE TEACHER LICENSING SYSTEM: Hours after the state launched a new, multimillion-dollar teacher licensing system last year, an educator logging in was shocked to find a serious security breach. The glitch-prone system,which  has been compared to the Obama administration's troubled Affordable Care Act website, incorrectly labeled one educator a felon. Others were mistakenly listed as delinquent on child support, which could block them from getting a license, according to records obtained by the Tribune.


ANOTHER HIT TO COMMON CORE: The Oklahoma Senate passed a bill that would repeal the Common Core State Standards, moving closer to becoming the second state to officially dump the standards, following the lead of Indiana. (Tulsa World)

COST OF OPTING OUT: Students opting out of New York state tests could cost schools grants and trigger state reviews. (

JANITORS MAY GET GUNS: A bill that would allow teachers, janitors or anybody else a principal or superintendent designates to carry concealed weapons on school campuses passed a Florida House committee. (The Palm Beach Post)

EXPANDING CHARTERS IN LOUISIANA: Twenty-two organizations have applied to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to open 34 charter schools in Louisiana in 2015 and beyond. They could substantially increase the number of charters in the Louisiana, which has 117 charter schools already in operation. Fifteen new state charters will open in the fall. (Times-Picayune)

ADJUSTING TO COMMON CORE: Passing rates plummeted when New York State changed its tests to match Common Core curriculum standards, but this year students say they were better prepared to handle the material. (The New York Times)

In the News: How politics played a role in NYC charter victory

April 3, 2014 - 8:08am

The New York Times offers a behind-the-scenes look at how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo out manuvered New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio to give New York City charter schools some of the most sweeping protections in the nation.

END OF THE LINE FOR INBLOOM? New York state legislators made clear in their recently inked budget deal that they didn't want student data uploaded to the inBloom database, which the Gates Foundation spent $100 million to build, hoping it would become a resource for states and school districts nationwide. So the New York State Education Department has directed inBloom to delete all data stored there to date. No additional data will be uploaded, a spokesman said. That abrupt termination leaves inBloom with no known customers. Massachusetts is still officially considering a contract with the nonprofit, but a state education department spokesman said it was unlikely to proceed. Illinois no longer plans to upload large amounts of data, though individual districts may participate; inBloom won't say whether any have agreed to do so. (Politico Morning Education newsblast)

Golden Apple has selected 175 young people for its 2014 class of the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois, making it the largest ever in 26 years. The program is also the leading pre-service teacher preparation and internship program in the nation. Chicago Public Schools recently approved a $1 million agreement with the Golden Apple Scholars program to provide 150 new teachers on top of the program's annual state-supported cohorts, during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. (Press release)

PEABODY AWARDS RECOGNIZE STRUGGLING SCHOOLS: The 2014 Peabody Awards honored three reports about schools facing poverty, crime and serious educational challenges. They included "This American Life’s" two-part feature on Harper High School in Chicago which aired on public radio stations across the country as well as "180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School," shown on Public Broadcasting Service television stations. (School Book)

PUBLIC, CHARTER SCHOOLS COMPETE FOR SAME FUNDS: In one corner: cash-strapped school systems with aging facilities and billions of dollars tied up in debt service. In the other: charter schools looking to build and refurbish facilities of their own. Both want dollars from an ever-shrinking pot of money. (Tampa Bay Times)

HOMEWORK BURDEN: A report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., shows that homework load has been mostly stable over the past two or three decades, but those who complain about too much homework get most of the attention. (The Detroit News)

TEACHER TENURE ON TRIAL: A lawsuit filed by the nonprofit advocacy group Student Matters on behalf of nine California public school students followed unsuccessful attempts in contract negotiations and the legislature to give school districts more freedom to hire and fire teachers. (Stateline)

Lawmakers consider LSC requirement at charter schools

April 2, 2014 - 3:17pm

As CPS gears up for the next Local School Council elections, legislation under consideration in the state’s House of Representatives would require every charter school in Chicago to be administered by an LSC.

Unlike traditional neighborhood schools in the city, charter schools are not overseen by an elected body of parents, community members and staff.

“The whole point of this is bringing democracy into our schools,” says Rod Wilson, a member of Communities Organized for Democracy in Education, which has been lobbying for the bill. “We feel that if a school is in District 299 and receives public funding, there should be parents with decision-making authority, not just giving advice or input.”

House Bill 5328, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) also restores some authority to LSCs at schools under probation and requires Chicago Public Schools to provide $2,500 to each council for training purposes. The bill passed on first reading in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee in late March and is awaiting a second vote to get out of committee.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) opposes the bill, arguing that it “would create an additional and conflicting decision making entity in the charter school authorization process,” according to a summary of charter school-related legislation that the organization is tracking in Springfield.

Charter schools under current law and contract are governed under non-profit governing boards, and if you add LSCs as a layer, it’d be unclear what role they’d play,” says Andrew Broy, president of INCS. Charters get to design their curriculum and they get held accountable for results, not process.”

Broy said most charter schools already have active parent councils and that many schools’ governing boards include parents and community members. As an alternative to the LSC proposal, he said he’s suggested to lawmakers that charter schools should demonstrate how they’ll ensure parental and community involvement during the authorization process.

Even though the group doesn’t want charter schools to have elected governing entities, three staff members of INCS are currently running for seats on LSCs in Chicago. LSC elections take place on April 7 at the city’s elementary schools, and on April 8 at the high schools.

The INCS staff running for seats at LSCs include: the group’s spokeswoman, Jodie Cantrell, community candidate at Blaine Elementary School; director of development and capacity, Eric Johnson, parent candidate at Audubon Elementary School; and charter support manager, Jelani McEwen, community candidate at Kenwood High School. WBEZ first reported on some of the unusual candidates running for the Blaine LSC in March.

Suspicious of motives

Broy says he doesn’t think it’s a contradiction for his staff to run for positions on LSCs while the organization opposes having councils at charter schools. He considers it a sign of their “well-roundedness” if they participate in community organizations in their neighborhood.

“They’re trying to have a role in governance in local schools, and in those schools they can do that through LSCs,” he says.

But perhaps not surprisingly, activists against charter schools say they are suspicious of the true motives of LSC candidates who support charter schools.

Earlier this week, for example, some parents and educators circulated a list of candidates “not to vote for” on Facebook because of their support for charter schools and supportive politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.

“If they’re running for LSCs, does that mean they want to make them charter schools? Is that the purpose?” asks Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville and a former LSC member himself. “Or do they want to be a part of a democratic process? If so, they should support this bill.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is also getting increasingly involved in promoting LSC participation to both its own members and community groups. In February, the CTU and the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) organized a summit for about 250 LSC candidates and other community activists who wanted to learn about how to run an effective council. The coalition of like-minded LSC candidates voted to share a campaign platform that advocates for an elected school board, universal pre-kindergarten and an end to charter and military school expansion.

“We realize how important the LSCs are, and that they’re pretty much in the same boat as the union,” said Michael Brunson, the CTU’s recording secretary. “We have the same interests in having our publicly funded schools survive.”

LSC elections

LCSs are responsible for approving schools’ discretionary budgets, hiring principals, and overseeing the school’s Continuous Improvement Work Plan, although councils at schools on probation have more limited powers. Each council is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, one non-teacher staff member and the school principal. High schools also include one student representative.

Getting teachers, residents and community members interested in joining their LSCs isn’t always easy, Brunson says.

“You mention LSCs and people’s eyes roll,” he says. “There has been a lot of cynicism and disengagement. You can see that each year as you have elections, fewer and fewer people running for school councils.”

After passage of the historic School Reform Act and during the first elections in 1989, more than 17,000 people ran for seats.  But interest in LSC elections has since dwindled. This year, for example, CPS extended the deadline for candidates to file their paperwork to encourage more people to sign up.

Despite the extension, many LSCs still lack enough candidates to fill the vacancies. Nine of the 516 schools with LSCs lack any parent candidates, while 39 lack any community candidates. In total, 35 percent of councils don’t have enough parent candidates to fill the vacancies, and 22 percent don’t have enough community member candidates, according to CPS data. Click here to see an interactive map of all LSCs and the names of all of the candidates.

Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who studies race and class inequality in urban schools, says that despite the lack of interest in LSCs, they remain “the only place where there is democracy at any level” in Chicago schools. The city’s School Board is handpicked by the mayor, although there is currently movement in Springfield to change the system. 

“They have great potential to involve parents and community members and teachers with the principals in robust discussions of what they want to happen at their schools and put pressure on CPS to provide it,” Lipman says.

In the News: State task force to study Chicago School Bd overhaul

April 2, 2014 - 8:10am

The Illinois House opened the door ever so slightly Tuesday to stripping Mayor Rahm Emanuel and any of his successors of the sole authority to appoint the Chicago public school system's board of education, the Sun-Times reports.

By a 108-5 margin, the House approved legislation sponsored by Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, to create a task force to study whether the board should be appointed, elected or mixed.

DEVELOPING VOCABULARIES: The PNC Foundation will partner with the University of Chicago Medicine’s Thirty Million Words Initiative to help parents develop their children’s vocabularies. The initiative is based on an influential study showing that by age 4, a low-income child will hear 30 million fewer words than a child from a higher-income family. PNC is investing $19 million into the program as part of its Grow Up Great 10th Anniversary. (Press release)

STUDENT STRESS: Lyons Township High School students reported higher levels of academic stress than students at similar schools in a recent survey, reinforcing education officials' efforts to reduce stress at the competitive school. Students and parents reported the homework load is the primary cause of the stress. Teachers ranked "family problems" and "competitive college requirements" above homework. (Tribune)

CHARTER GROUP FAILS: As Indiana's charter school association completes a shutdown, which could be done within days, questions about what sort of group might replace it remain unanswered. (Chalkbeat Indiana)

KHAN ACADEMY AND COMMON CORE: Continuing its evolution from quirky disruptor of traditional classroom learning to mainstream player aligned with the education establishment, the nonprofit Khan Academy recently unveiled new online math resources tied to the Common Core State Standards. (Education Week)


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