The city’s After School Matters program will get a big shot in the arm with a $25 million donation from ‘Star Wars’ creator George Lucas, allowing the program to restore the stipends paid to students and helping to make up for a shortfall in fundraising in recent years.
“It’s wrong that teens who love this program are unable to come because of basic economics,” said Mellody Hobson, board chair for the George Lucas Family Foundation and wife of Lucas. Hobson and Lucas both attended the Wednesday press conference at Gallery 37 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, where the gift was announced.
The $25 million, to be paid over the next five years, will help shore up a program that has suffered a significant decline in fundraising in recent years.
Founded by the late Maggie Daley 20 years ago, After School Matters offers apprenticeships to youth in a variety of fields, from sports to the arts to technology. Teens are given stipends to help cover costs or have extra pocket money, giving them extra incentive to participate as well as teaching them practical skills such as how to budget money.
The donation will be augmented by $12 million from the City of Chicago. After School Matters will not only restore stipends but also serve 4,400 more students.
In recent years, the number of teens who were able to participate in the program dropped when funding fell, forcing cuts in stipends of up to 75 percent. A student could have gone from making $400 a month to just $100, making it difficult to afford transportation and other costs associated with participating such as transportation.
“George and I are really excited to make this gift to the teens of Chicago,” said Hobson. “You all know that I’m in the investment business, and investing in young people is the best investment of all. There is no better use of money.”
A portion of the donation is also set to go towards a Challenge Grant to help create an endowment to replenish the stipend program in the future, so the gift won’t end up being just a “hit and run” investment, said Hobson.
This fall, After School Matters offered more than 6,000 program opportunities at approximately 150 locations, operating in Chicago Park District buildings, schools, and libraries across the city.
Mecca Johnson, a former After School Matters student and current senior at Loyola University, said the skills she gained in the program have been “put to work every day in college,” and that her adult mentor was particularly helpful with things such as cover letters and resume writing.
“For our children to live up to their full potential, we adults have to live up to our full responsibility,” Emanuel said. “During those crucial hours of 3 to 6 [in the afternoon], they have to have a safe space and adults that are there for them. Then, they have the ability, and I say this as a former dancer, to discover something about themselves.”
Out of School Time
The city launched a major effort to improve after school programming back in 2006, called the Out of School Time Project and funded by a three-year, $8 million grant from The Wallace Foundation.
The project narrowed its focus to solve a major problem: the lack of comprehensive data collection on after school programs. By 2009, the project had built Cityspan, an online database for submitting information, such as applications and enrollment, from after-school program providers.
“It’s a struggle to quantify what’s out there, what’s available to kids, what they still need and why,” says Kelley Talbot, director of youth development for ACT Now, (After School for Children and Teens Now), a coalition of advocates working to increase access for kids all over the state to high-quality afterschool programs. “Cityspan was an effort to answer those questions.”
But with a focus on data collection, the project left other areas unfinished. The After School Chicago website , meant to help parents and students find programs in their neighborhood that are suited to their interests, does little more than list nearby sites for programs, with a pop-up window that states “Call for additional information.” A citywide youth employment initiative, a multi-agency database that was supposed to link youth with employment opportunities, never got off the ground.
Still, top officials say the effort was worthwhile. The data collection allowed them to “escalate” their work in two key areas, said Mary Ellen Caron, CEO of After School Matters, in an emailed statement: Quality assessment and data-driven decision-making.
Students were surveyed on a variety of areas, including their experience in the program, support from and interaction with instructors, and skills they learned. Instructors were also surveyed on issues such as professional development and resource use.
The information was collected in Cityspan for assessment and used to “drive evaluation efforts,” according to Caron.
But data collection, while it can make for better decisions, can’t make up for a lack of consistent funding.
“Every year it gets harder and harder to secure the funds, and it’s been decreasing over the years,” says Lissette Moreno-Kuri, director of community learning centers at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said that while private philanthropy has recognized and supported after school programming, public investment has lagged behind.
However, Chicago was recently chosen as one of 13 finalists in the US 2020 City Competition, a program that supports city efforts to build STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics--mentoring capacity at the local level. Up to 5 cities will share over $1 million to increase mentoring for girls, low-income children and students of color.
Overall, Talbot says one of the biggest misconceptions is that there are a lot of options out there for kids, when in reality the “demand outweighs the supply.”
“There is this increased recognition of the results that after school programs provide,” she says. “But that demand is not being fully met and we need to push for these resources. We need to make sure to answer these demands and get kids access to [programs].”
The Northwestern Academy, in partnership with the city of Chicago, is the latest program designed to encourage qualified Chicago high school graduates to attend selective colleges and universities, particularly students who may not realize they have the academic qualifications for a top school. The University of Chicago, in Hyde Park, also has increased its CPS-specific programs in recent years. (Tribune)
The Northwestern Academy will target up to 200 CPS freshmen from low-income households who don't attend one of the city's selective enrollment high schools. The goal is to better prepare them for Northwestern or another top college or university by providing year-round tutoring, college counseling, test preparation, family workshops and other services during high school. The vast majority of the Northwestern students from CPS graduated from one of the city's selective schools, university officials said.
SHOOTING ALONG SAFE PASSAGE: A teenage boy was hurt in a shooting along a Chicago Public Schools Safe Passage Route in the Woodlawn neighborhood Monday afternoon. The boy, 16, was shot in the arm about 2:30 p.m. in the 6200 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue, police said. That block is a Safe Passage Route leading to nearby John Fiske Elementary School, according to the CPS website. Fiske is a receiving school for students from Sexton Elementary School, which was closed earlier this year. (NBC Chicago)
DAY OF ACTION: On December 9, parents, students and educators in cities and towns across the country will mobilize in public action as part of the National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education: Our Schools, Our Solutions. In Chicago, parents, teachers and youth will hold a press conference at City Hall and a march to the headquarters of corporate agents such as Loop Capital to demand equitable funding and public voice in education. At the press conference, the groups will deliver holiday cards to City Hall and sing custom Christmas carols that will target the racist destabilization of schools in communities of color, and address school closures, corporate profiteers, charter expansion and other key issues in the district. You can see here which groups are planning in other cities across the country.
IN THE NATION
EDUCATION IN INDIAN COUNTRY: To explore why Native American children trail every other racial and ethnic group of students, Education Week sent a reporter, photographer, and videographer to American Indian reservations in South Dakota and California. The resulting package of stories and multimedia details the challenges and opportunities facing this population of students.
Chicago teachers weren’t included in the state's new pension reform bill, but there is still a chance state legislators will impose similar benefits cuts on them in the coming weeks or months, says Chicago Teachers Pension Fund executive director Kevin Huber.
That’s because historically, the law governing the state Teachers Retirement System and the law governing the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund have been very similar. For example, a 2010 pension overhaul affected both pension systems in the same way.
However, such changes would require lawmakers to tackle the pension crisis anew right after a difficult and controversial vote, which public employee unions fought tooth and nail.
“The mayor is looking at keeping some kind of equitable relationship between the benefits for the teachers in the suburbs and the benefits for the teachers in the city,” Huber says. “If he has his choice, we would have been included in the bill.”
For now, the changes slated to affect teachers outside Chicago include:
* Cost-of-living adjustments would be based on a portion of teachers’ pensions equal to $1,000 per year of service, rather than the whole pension. For example, a currently retired teacher who worked for 28 years and is earning a $43,000 pension would see the annual cost of living adjustment reduced to 3 percent of $28,000, rather than 3 percent of $43,000.
* For teachers who have not yet retired, the retirement age would go up and between one and five cost-of-living adjustments would go away. Teachers who are under age 43 will see the greatest cuts to their adjustments, and those under age 46 would see their retirement age increase between four months and five years.
* The salary used to calculate pensions would be capped at $110,000, which would primarily affect principals, assistant principals, and teachers with advanced degrees.
* New hires would not be able to count vacation pay or sick pay toward their pension.
In exchange for the benefits cuts, lawmakers plan to reduce employees’ required contributions from 9 percent to 8 percent of their income, and strengthen requirements for future funding so that pensions don’t run out of money again.
Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, says the pension deal “takes an important step in the right direction to begin stabilizing the state’s pension crisis” but is “only one step in a 30-year journey the state has to take.”
Msall points out that the law is expected to face a court challenge, and will have to be found constitutional in order to take effect. Also, the state faces billions of dollars in unpaid bills, as well as the coming expiration of an income tax increase.
Without either more revenue or a separate bill to tackle Chicago pensions, Chicago Public Schools will face a billion-dollar deficit next year. However, it’s not clear how much money a Chicago pension reform bill similar to what the state passed today would save the district.
“Chicago Public Schools are in severe financial condition. They have been downgraded and continue to be downgraded by the ratings agencies because they have no comprehensive plan for dealing with their pension problem,” Msall says.
He says the Civic Federation has called on CPS to create a plan for stabilizing the district’s finances.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s press office did not respond to an inquiry about his lobbying efforts related to the pension bill.
Here’s a roundup of principal contracts announced in November: Nathan Manaen, Ravenswood, formerly an instructional support leader in the Pilsen-Little Village Network; James McNealey, Nicholson, former principal at Delano; Kelly Mest, Northside College Prep, previously an assistant principal at Lindblom High, Nicole Monroe, Tanner, previously principal at Sexton; and Rituparna Raichoudhuri, Wells High School, formerly an interim principal at Wells High.
Edgar Ramirez has been named executive director of Chicago Commons, a neighborhood-focused non-profit dedicated to improving the well-being of children, adults, seniors and families. Ramirez was an associate executive director at Chicago Commons. Before that, he was a community organizer in the Little Village neighborhood and an advocacy and leadership director at Erie Neighborhood House.
Jeanne Walker, a visual arts teacher at Orr Academy, is this year’s winner of the OPPY Award for Education, given out by the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. Walker encouraged her classes to build relationships with community partners such as Mikva Challenge, American Friends Service Committee and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. She also studied micro-credit and social business in Bangladesh and introduced new curricula to encourage students to use creative problem-solving to collaborate and support each other.
Bargaining talks that have lasted a year-and-a-half between the University of Illinois at Chicago and its unionized faculty reached a breaking point, as faculty started voting Monday to authorize a strike. (Sun-Times)
IN THE NATION
As Florida prepares to release another batch of evaluation results under the state's new job review process, officials are still struggling to improve a system that judges as many as two-thirds of teachers on the test scores of students they've never met or on subjects they don't teach. A solution to the problem lies in the development of hundreds of new exams. But skeptics say creating and issuing the assessments could cost billions. (Miami Herald)
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced $10 million in funding support for the "Start Smart" pre-K programs for lower- to middle-income families and also restored $7 million in funding for the Missouri Preschool Project and Early Head Start. The idea, "Now for Later," contends that investments in preschool programs lead to economic development down the line. The initiatives could help close gaps in access, some observers said. (Columbia Missourian)
A new report calls for a revitalization of civic education to better prepare young people to become active and engaged citizens and ensure a vibrant democratic society. It outlines steps to improve civics learning in schools and suggests that civic education deserves greater attention in state assessment and accountability systems. The authors caution, however, that more sophisticated assessments will be required. (Education Week)
Equal funding and more vocal grassroots advocacy was the focus of Monday's kick-off of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools annual conference. Catalyst Chicago's Twitter coverage is below.
Two charter schools vying for approval to build new campuses on the city's Northwest Side went before the community last week — a move some of those present likened to "a dog and pony show." The Noble Network and Intrinsic Schools are seeking approval for the construction of two new charter campuses in and around Belmont Cragin.
But several members of the local Neighborhood Advisory Council, who were given the opportunity to question school leaders during a meeting Monday, said the schools' proposals will likely pass whether the community approves them or not. (DNA Info)
SCHOOL RELOCATIONS: Chicago Public Schools announced last week that four schools currently co-located — Frazier Prep with Frazier IB and Urban Prep with Drake — will move one of the schools to another campus. Expanding Frazier IB and relocating Urban Prep-Bronzeville were among recommendations included in the recent Education Facilities Master Plan. Feedback from parents and CPS will be solicited before proposals are finalized or approved. (Press release) Here's Catalyst's story from last week.
THE VALLAS EFFECT: Former CPS chief Paul Vallas, who is now running for the office of Illinois lieutenant governor, implemented a plan that resulted in black teachers coming under relentless attack because their schools were "failing," while black women and men in other jobs in the school system were eliminated, mainly through the privatization of their jobs and the elimination of the job categories in which they had worked, George Schmidt of Substance News writes.
IN THE NATION
SUSTAINABILITY IN THE LUNCHROOM: Compostable plates are but the first initiative on the environmental checklist of the Urban School Food Alliance, a pioneering attempt by six big-city school systems to create new markets for sustainable food and lunchroom supplies. The alliance members — the public school systems in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Orlando, Fla. — are betting that by combining their purchasing power, they can persuade suppliers to create and sell healthier and more environment-friendly products at prices no system could negotiate alone. (The New York Times)
CPS is one of 31 finalists for the federal government's Race to the Top competition that provides funding aimed at improving student learning, closing the achievement gap and improving the skills of teachers at school systems throughout the country. Last year, CPS was not a finalist. This year, district officials are hoping to get as much as $30 million for programs at noncharter schools. (Tribune)
NEW CHOW: CPS food chief says Aramark, the catering company that took over three months ago, has improved food and sales since taking over the $100 million-plus contract at CPS. (WBEZ)
IN THE NATION
A MORE DIVERSE GROUP OF ACHIEVERS: An increasing number of school districts, including Boston, Cincinnati and Washington, have recently begun initiatives to expand Advanced Placement course offerings and enroll more black and Hispanic students, children from low-income families and those who aspire to be the first in their generation to go to college. In the spring, lawmakers in Washington State passed legislation encouraging all districts to enroll in advanced courses any student who meets a minimum threshold on state standardized tests or the Preliminary SAT exam. (The New York Times)
CPS is suggesting relocating two schools that currently share buildings to other campuses. That would give the two other schools that had previously shared their buildings room to expand, CPS said. Chicago Public Schools is going easy on the school overhauls it’s proposing. Last time CPS announced its proposals, dozens of schools were on the chopping block. (Sun-Times)
DATA DECISION: Chicago Public Schools has decided against using inBloom, a controversial data storehouse run by a nonprofit, and will work directly with a state-run data program. CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district will use on online platform called the Illinois Shared Learning Environment and that CPS has the resources to implement the data-sharing effort on its own and doesn’t need a third party. (Sun-Times)
ICY SURROUNDINGS: The cold weather appears to be to blame for pipes bursting early Tuesday at a mobile classroom on Chicago's West Side. Water was seen gushing from the pipes in the 5200-block of West Harrison near Leland Elementary and Michelle Clark High School. Chicago Public Schools officials said the damage inside was minor. But the water spread all over the parking lot and leaked onto surrounding sidewalks and Austin-area streets, causing dangerously icy conditions. (ABC 7)
HEATED DISCUSSION: Tempers flared at a meeting to discuss Lincoln Elementary's newly announced annex last week, culminating with two men throwing punches and the principal escorting one of the men out. Chicago Public Schools officials, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) and Lincoln Principal Mark Armendariz attempted to explain the upcoming addition to the school to alleviate overcrowding, but were consistently interrupted by a group of about 30 people in the crowd. (DNA Info)
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS leaders treaded lightly as they announced school actions for this year, holding true to a promise made by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett by declining to close schools.
According to state law, CPS must announce actions by Dec. 1.
The only two actions being planned are to move Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus to the building currently being used by Chicago High School for the Arts at 521 E. 35th St., known as ChiArts, and to have Frazier Prep Charter School share the Herzl Elementary building at 3711 W. Douglas.
Urban Prep currently shares a building with Drake Elementary at 2710 S. Dearborn. Drake expanded this year because it received students from the closed Williams.
CPS leaders say they haven’t identified a “final,” permanent location for ChiArts High, though parents of the school's students received a letter saying that Lafayette, a shuttered school across town in East Humboldt Park, is likely to be the new location.
Moving ChiArts to Lafayette is controversial because parents point out that it is not a central location and will be difficult for South Side students to travel to. In addition, ChiArts is a contract school and some view its possible relocation in a closed school as a violation of Byrd-Bennett’s promise not to turn over shuttered schools to charters.
Since Chi Arts moved into its current location in 2011, CPS has spent more than $9 million renovating its space.
The other move will put Frazier Prep, which is a low-performing charter school in North Lawndale, in a building with a low-performing elementary. CPS says the move will allow Frazier International, which is currently sharing a building with Frazier Prep, to expand from 265 students to eventually 930 students. Frazier International is a high performing school.
What that would mean for Herzl is unclear. Herzl is a turnaround school run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. But it is among the lowest-rated schools in the district and its enrollment dropped from 554 students in the 2012-2013 school year to 421 students this year.
The fact that CPS did not propose more co-locations is a bit surprising. Because of Byrd-Bennett’s promise not to hand over vacant school buildings to charters, new charters are searching for locations.
Even with this year's closings of 49 schools, about 100 schools are half-full, including 13 neighborhood high schools. CPS officials have laid out no plans for these high schools, except to say that co-locations with charter schools are an option.
Closing them is a dicey proposition. Not only is Byrd-Bennett’s moratorium in place, but moving high school students has in the past led to violence.
This story has been corrected. It orginally said that the Frazier magnet would be sharing a building with Herzl. It is actually Frazier charter school that will be moving in with Herzl, if the board approves these plans.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has agreed to reduce the size of his proposed cigarette tax increase, but Chicago is still poised to have the highest per-pack tax in the nation. About $1 million of the new money coming from the tax will still be used to expand free vision care and Medicaid enrollment for low-income Chicago Public Schools students, Budget Director Alexandra Holt said.
COMBINING NAMES AND TEST SCORES: Despite merging with a larger, academically low-performing school earlier this year, Mary E. Courtenay Elementary has retained its level 1, or "excellent," CPS rating — a development some called deceitful. Chicago Public Schools did not consider scores from the school Courtenay merged with, Joseph Stockton Elementary School, which was on academic probation last year for test scores below CPS standards. Though Courtenay's Ravenswood campus was closed, and its students were sent to Stockton's building in Uptown, the Courtenay name was kept. A CPS spokesman said the district is determining academic level ratings citywide using the test scores connected to the schools which retained their names. (DNA Info)
CHEM CLASS ACCIDENT: Three students were taken to hospitals Monday after an accident in a chemistry class at Lincoln Park High School on the North Side. Methanol was being burned inside a container that shattered, causing the chemical to spill, Fire Media Affairs Director Larry Langford said. (Sun-Times)
SEEKING INNOVATORS: Opening Minds Innovation Awards is seeking nominations for teachers, parents, librarians, social workers and organizations that are advancing the field of early childhood education to better the lives of young children and their families. Application deadline is Dec. 13. For more information, visit the Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children's website.
IN THE NATION
MORE MONEY, WORSE SCORES: After receiving turnaround grants from the federal government for the wholesale overhauling of schools, the nation's lowest-performing schools have yet to show dramatic improvement, according to results released Education Department. And some have actually shown declines. On average, two-thirds of schools that received funding in the first possible year posted increases. (Huffington Post)
TEXTBOOK REVIEW: The Texas Board of Education on Friday delayed final approval of a widely used biology textbook because of concerns raised by one reviewer that it presents evolution as fact rather than theory. The monthslong textbook review process in Texas has been controversial because a number of people selected this year to evaluate publishers’ submissions do not accept evolution or climate change as scientific truth. (The New York Times)
Last summer, in a little-publicized $311,000 consulting deal with the Illinois State Board of Education, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas who is now Gov. Pat Quinn’s newly named running mate offered a financial blueprint to turn around the nearly bankrupt North Chicago school district, the Sun-Times reports.
To avert insolvency in North Chicago Community Unit District 187 by 2015, Vallas recommended closing four of the district’s nine schools and laying off 130 teachers and staff — 39 percent of the district’s workforce. His consulting company, the Vallas Group, also urged a rewrite of the district’s curriculum, with more intensive teaching of literacy, math, social studies and science and longer class periods. (Sun-Times)
UNO SUED: The Chicago Sun-Times filed suit Friday against the United Neighborhood Organization and its charter-school network, seeking records the newspaper says fall under Illinois’ open records law that the organizations have refused to release. UNO has maintained that only records held by the UNO Charter School Network Inc. must be made public under the law. (Sun-Times)
BOOSTING PARENTS: About 130 parents received recognition Saturday at Noble Chicago Bulls Prep Academy for completing a 10-week program giving parents the tools to help their children succeed in the classroom. The program, Stand University for Parents - or Stand UP - taught parents from six elementary schools across the city. The 10-week course was designed to boost parents' self-esteem, while providing educational pieces to give parents the confidence to encourage their children. Teaching these parents how to be involved helps schools increase attendance rates up and academic achievement, the program's family engagement coach said. (DNA Info)
IN THE NATION
IPAD DOMINANCE: From Los Angeles to Illinois to Maine, iPads are hot, commanding nearly 94 percent of the tablet market in K-12 schools, according to IDC Research, a San Mateo, Calif.-based firm that provides market analysis of technology. However, Apple’s king-of-the-hill market position in tablets is being eroded by various players—most recently by Google, with its official launch Nov. 13 of the Google Play for Education app store, delivered now on Nexus 7 tablets and intended to compete with the educational applications available through Apple. Meanwhile, some high-profile tablet deployments around the country are making headlines, as various issues have arisen that could chill the market. (Education Week)
The Department of Education — in partnership with the Advertising Council, Microsoft, State Farm Insurance, Teach for America, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions and several other educational groups — is unveiling a public service campaign this week aimed at recruiting a new generation of classroom educators. (The New York Times)
SETTING PRIORITIES: The State of California should finance programs specifically designed to improve the academic performance of African-American students, and community activists need a media platform to mobilize more black parents to join in on efforts to improve their schools. Those recommendations topped a list of school funding priorities laid out by African-American parents at an education forum organized for parents and the black media in Los Angeles last week. (New America Media)
TEACHING KENNEDY: Many educators are viewing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a significant teaching moment. Some schools are going to impressive lengths to commemorate the historical significance of the day. Easton Middle School in Brockton, Mass., for example, is planning to start the school day with a moment of silence—after which students will read from some of Kennedy's speeches over the school intercom. The Fort Worth school district in Texas, meanwhile, has already produced its own short documentary on the assassination featuring the recollections of former students, teachers, and administrators. (Kennedy had made a stop in Fort Worth on the day he was killed.)
Parents were warned about potential privacy threats posed by a planned state student data system at a forum Thursday night organized by Parents United for a Responsible Education (PURE). Julie Woestehoff, executive director for PURE, claimed that the Illinois State Board of Education’s partnership with non-profit InBloom could lead to student’s entire scholastic history being susceptible to a data security breach or becoming the property of third-party companies.
(Editor's note: A copy of a letter sent by CPS to PURE regarding InBloom can be found below.)
Woestehoff has put together a number of organizations against the data storehouse including ACLU Illinois, which would provide assistance in a potential lawsuit. “Clearly we reached out to ACLU for their legal expertise,” Woestehoff said in an interview after Thursday night’s forum at Fosco Park field house on the Near South Side.
The meeting was largely comprised of parents, who expressed alarm about the data portal but also seemed galvanized to fight the idea. “I think InBloom is a great organizing topic,” said Josh Radinksy, parent of a CPS student and a University of Illinois-Chicago faculty member, toward the end of the 90-minute long forum.
InBloom is an Atlanta-based organization that provides data-cloud technology so states or individual school districts may create a “secure, single-access point” of centralized student data, according to the company’s website. Through InBloom technology, applications can be created to provide student’s academic, attendance, and behavioral history.
InBloom originally partnered with nine states on data storage projects. But each state, except Illinois and New York, bowed out, citing privacy concerns. A group of parents in New York have sued the state to block the data storehouse, and New York state lawmakers are currently convening hearings on InBloom.
In Illinois, state officials stress that the online data portal they are rolling out this winter, called the Illinois Shared Learning Environment (IESL), will only track student’s academic progress. IESL is scheduled to start as a pilot in the Bloomington and Normal school districts this January, before coming to other districts, including Chicago, that receive federal Race to the Top money.
At the forum, Kurt Hilgendorf, a policy researcher with the Chicago Teachers Union, pointed out that while state data will only look at academics, individual school districts have the option of using InBloom’s full array of services. Hilgendorf argued that, “Parents [in each district] should have a role in deciding what data gets shared in the system.”
The forum included a presentation from Leonie Haimson, executive director of the New York City-based Class Size Matters. Haimson focused on the fact that in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education changed its privacy law so that school districts may share student data with third- party vendors without notifying parents.
Woestehoff called this a “big concern” arguing that, “The Chicago Public Schools might sell our kids data to the highest bidder because they are trying to balance their budget.”
CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll, however, said in a statement that "protecting student data is critical and we are working closely with ISBE to ensure that all such data would be used for the explicit purpose of creating personalized learning plans for students in need of academic support -- and we won't move forward with this initiative unless it is guaranteed that the process is secure and student data is safe. Should the district decide to participate in this initiative with the state, it would not stand to gain monetarily by providing limited access to such data.”
Mary Fergus, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said in a phone interview Thursday that school districts must still adhere to “strict federal privacy laws,” making it doubtful districts can legally get away with such data sell-offs.
The difficult battle of finding a good school for children with autism or other severe cognitive disabilities is usually waged behind the scenes, by moms and dads sitting in small conference rooms with social workers and other specialists.
But last fall, some parents were forced to go public after CPS announced the impending shutdown of 49 schools, a third of which had what are called special education cluster programs—special, separate programs for children with serious disabilities.
Students in these cluster programs made up only 4 percent of children in the schools that were set to close. But they were portrayed as the most vulnerable of the displaced students, and two lawsuits charged that special-needs children would be disproportionately hurt by the closings and the trauma of quickly forcing them to leave their schools. (The lawsuits were eventually dismissed.)
Advocates braced for trouble. But now, these often-vocal critics of CPS say they have not received complaints from parents of children in cluster programs, and are applauding the district’s work to make the transitions seamless.
Still, they say they are still monitoring the situation—and that larger concerns still must be addressed.
“It is not always apparent to parents what is happening or not happening,” says Ashley Fretthold, staff attorney for the children and families practice group at the Legal Assistance Foundation. “Things may not crop up until the next IEP [Individual Education Plan] meeting when they realize that their child is not making progress or not getting the aide they need.”
CPS data shows that 89 percent of students from cluster programs in closed schools enrolled in their designated welcoming school—far more than the 60 percent of non-cluster students who did so. However, students in cluster programs get a change in school placement only if their parents fight for it.
Fretthold and others say bigger concerns still loom: Parents of severely disabled students have little way to tell which programs are good—often they have no access to basic information such as which programs serve children with specific disabilities--and have few options for their child’s schooling. In fact, mere word-of-mouth is a common way for parents to get an idea of program quality.
“Education is the No. 1 topic of discussion,” says Paul Eric Butler, executive director of the Chicagoland Autism Connection, which runs a support group for parents and siblings of disabled students. “It is always a critical issue.”
Butler points out that CPS is not the only district that lacks a rating system for programs that serve students with severe disabilities. It’s a problem across the suburbs and state.
About 6,800 students in CPS are in this category (as measured by whether they are placed in separate classes for most of the school day), according to Illinois State Board of Education 2011-2012 data. About half of these are autistic students, whose ranks have increased by 77 percent in recent years.
Outreach and extra attention to make it work
The district’s targeting of under-utilized schools for closure ended up affecting cluster programs, which were slightly more likely to be in under-used schools. Yet in welcoming schools, space seemed to be an issue. Several principals said they have little to no extra space and would be overcrowded if they were to receive more students.
Markey Winston, the head of special education for CPS, says she and her staff visited every welcoming school taking in students from cluster programs to determine if the space was adequate.
Winston says she and her staff took the transition seriously, holding tele-town halls with parents and conducting outreach to hundreds of families.
“We made sure that if there was a Dyvavox [a communications tool] at school A, it was at school B when the child got there,” she says.
Yvette Tracy, whose son went from Lafayette to Chopin, was worried about the transition and now has two complaints about Chopin. Unlike Lafayette, it doesn’t have a sensory room, a room with special equipment designed for autistic children. Plus, her son’s classroom is small—a “shoebox,” she says. CPS officials say that four schools that were closed had sensory rooms and only two welcoming schools do, but that sensory materials were put into each classroom so the students didn't miss out on it.
Yet his teacher was hired on at Chopin and the consistency has made it easier for him. “Mrs. Susy kept things normal,” Tracy says.
Principals of welcoming schools did not have a chose as to what teachers they got from the closing schools. Because of the teachers’ contract, the teacher had to qualify and the position had to be open so some schools got cluster teachers and others didn’t. But Fred Williams, the new principal at Chopin, says he was glad to get the Lafayette teacher whose specialty is teaching autistic children.
Williams says CPS’ special education office was attentive and has stayed in touch, asking him regularly what the school needs.
“They were here almost every day,” says Williams. Chopin took in 25 of Lafayette’s 67 cluster students. “I didn’t see any major fall-out.” The transition went smoothly, Williams says.
As the official welcoming school, Chopin received an extra $100,000 this year, plus a $3 million renovation.
But 33 cluster students from Lafayette went to Lowell instead—and Lowell didn’t get any additional resources. District officials say that space at Lafayette was a consideration, but also making sure that students could stay together as they progressed through school.
Winston says her office held disability awareness training for students and staff at all the schools that took in cluster programs.
At McCutcheon, Principal Jennifer Ferrell says students read a book and participated in an assembly about understanding differences. McCutcheon received just 24 of Trumbull’s 262 regular education students but more than half of Trumbull’s 88 cluster students. (Some Trumbull parents, worried about the neighborhood around McCutcheon and its reputation, enrolled their children elsewhere.)
While parents have yet to voice any complaints about McCutcheon, the fact that they had no choice about where children would go and lacked information about the quality of the cluster programs still upsets them.
“It sucks,” Tracy says.
Ratings on the horizon?
During a hearing on the closure of Lafayette, one mother described her dismay about losing a cluster program that had helped her daughter. At her first school, the girl hid in a corner and wailed. But at Lafayette, the woman said, her daughter’s “world opened up.”
“You can imagine my anger at the idea that you are rocking my kid’s and her friend’s boat by closing these schools,” said the mother, one of many who spoke out at that hearing.
The woman heard about Lafayette from other parents—a common way that families find out about programs, given the lack of a rating system.
At that same hearing, Access Living’s Rod Estvan testified that no empirical evidence existed to prove that Lafayette’s cluster program was any better than others. In fact, the achievement gap between special education and regular education students was virtually the same at both the closing and welcoming schools.
The sole standardized test given to students with the most severe disabilities, called the Alternative Assessment, is not a good measure because it is subjective and too many students do well, Estvan said.
Markey Winston says parents often complain that they want more information about programs. Parents of children with more significant disabilities should be looking for the same indicators that other parents want—evidence of high-quality instruction and high expectations.
But determining what that looks like for children with learning disabilities can be difficult. Winston says that one future task for her office is to help parents better understand how to discern a good special education program
Antoinette Taylor, an Exceptional Needs Consultant, says she is hopeful that in the future some standardized way of differentiating programs will exist. Taylor serves on Illinois’ P-20 Council Family Youth Community Engagement Committee. She believes that through P-20 committee’s such as the Data, Assessment and Accountability Committee, benchmarks in a longitudinal database will document student transitions as they move through school from Pre-School to Post-Secondary learning environments
Taylor says she is hopeful that this longitudinal data will give parents more information about school performance. Yet she notes it is difficult to marry the subjective measures that parents look for with the need to make sure that students are pushed academically.
“You might have a parent who is upset because they have a child going into 3rd grade who cannot tie their shoes,” she says. “We have to ask ourselves ‘Is that the job of the school?’ Those lines get blurry.”
Furthermore, Taylor says many times parents are more focused on the social and emotional environment than on academic learning. “They want to know that their child is loved and feels safe,” she says. “This becomes more important when your child can’t communicate and tell you, ‘I had a horrible day today.’ ”
"Wealthier communities that ask for more resources to expand their schools, they are listened to," said one of the parents from several crowded schools who complained to the Board of Education on Wednesday that their buildings deserve improvements just as much as an elementary school in the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood that is in line for a $20 million annex. (Tribune)
IN THE NATION
TEST TRIALS: Thousands of Massachusetts students next spring will try out a new state standardized testing system — many of them answering questions online — under a plan approved by state leaders Tuesday that pushes most MCAS exams closer to extinction.The measure calls for a two-year trial run of the system. (The Boston Globe)
COMPETING FOR FEDERAL DOLLARS: The Obama administration announced a $100 million competition for high schools to better prepare students for college and high-tech careers. The competition is a mix between the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation programs and will be funded and run through the Department of Labor. Between 25 and 40 grants will be awarded next year for high schools that team up with colleges and employers. (Education Week)
GETTING TOUGHER ON TEACHERS: Only one in four aspiring teachers passed a beefed-up version of Michigan’s teacher certification test – an exam that teachers must pass to be hired to lead a classroom – when the new test was administered for the first time last month. (MLive.com)
TECHNICAL GLITCH: Contradicting earlier claims, Los Angeles school district officials said Tuesday that their right to use English and math curriculum installed on district iPads expires after three years. At market rates, buying a new license for the curriculum would cost $50 to $100 each year per iPad, an additional cost that could surpass $60 million annually. The expense would add to the price tag of the $1-billion effort to provide a tablet to every teacher and student in the nation's second-largest school system.
Parents from Lincoln Elementary reacted at Wednesday's board meeting to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial plan to build an $18 million addition to the school, with some expressing elation while others pointed out a less expensive solution: redrawing attendance boundaries so some Lincoln students would be sent to other nearby schools, Alcott or Mayer.
But nothing was said about Manierre, a school just 1.3 miles away and more underutilized than any of the other neighborhood schools. In fact, as the district planned the closings, officials considered using Manierre--or at least its building, emptied of its students--to solve overcrowding in Lincoln Park.
Manierre, a predominantly black school, was initially placed on the list of schools to be shut down, but was taken off after intense community objection--in large part because of the plan to send Manierre’s students to Jenner, the only other school in the area that is predominantly African American and has the lowest academic rating. Several of the other nearby schools had space, are racially diverse and have the district's highest rating.
Documents submitted by CPS to lawyers in discovery for one of the federal lawsuits challenging the school closings states that the action to be taken in Lincoln Park was to “reduce underutilization and possibly leverage the empty Manierre building in the future.”
Asked in a deposition for the lawsuit why CPS officials didn’t consider redrawing attendance boundaries so some students in overcrowded schools would be sent to Manierre, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said “a reason why not is because it is highly disruptive to relocate people from their existing school to another school.”
The attorney then points out that most of the students in closing schools were black and asks Cawley whether CPS officials were more concerned about disruption involving white students. Cawley says that is “patently false.”
Later, in talking specifically about why Lincoln students were not moved into Manierre, Cawley said that would be difficult, considering families move into the neighborhood specifically to attend Lincoln.
“We’d be going into a neighborhood and saying we’re sorry, you moved into this neighborhood to go to this school,” according to the deposition transcript. “You can’t go to this school anymore. So that’s a difficult thing.”
Asked about sending displaced Manierre students to some of the higher-performing, racially diverse nearby schools, Cawley said that Jenner has a “terrific facility that had a lot of room for Manierre kids.”
Sherise McDaniels, who fought to keep Manierre open, says she saw the announcement to spend $18 million on an addition for Lincoln Elementary as a “slap in the face.”
“It is a disrespect to teachers and parents at Manierre,” she said. “It is a sign that we don’t matter and that this is a segregated city and there are people who are working to keep it that way.”
McDaniels said she and other parents were aware of the documents that outlined plans to “ship out” Manierre students and use the building to expand Lincoln. Realizing the racial dynamics and desperate not to have their children go to Jenner, where they felt their children would not be safe, she said parents proposed giving Lincoln half of their building.
“We would use one door and they could use the other door,” she says.
Some of the parents who oppose the addition to Lincoln are upfront about the situation with Manierre. Lincoln parent Caroline Vickrey pointed out that CPS officials suggested once before that attendance boundaries be redrawn to send some of their students to LaSalle, a high-performing, diverse magnet school.
Imagine the outcry if CPS suggested Manierre as it currently is, she wrote in an e-mail.
“The black/white issue with Manierre is the elephant in the room,” Vickrey said. Manierre “struggles academically, to be fair, unlike all other schools around Lincoln, which are either magnet Level I or underutilized Level I neighborhood schools. Incredibly sad, but true.”
Another parent said the sticking point was property values, which she said would plummet should the attendance boundaries be redrawn to send some of the Lincoln students to Manierre.
Vickrey and other parents who oppose the addition also note that other CPS schools are more overcrowded than Lincoln. Last year’s list puts Lincoln at No. 53 out of 65 overcrowded schools (not including charter schools).
CPS officials said an adjusted list that takes into account all leased space that overcrowded schools are using puts Lincoln at No. 15 among 33 schools.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposed $20 million annex to a crowded Lincoln Park neighborhood elementary school continues to generate heat from a group of residents who fought for alternative options to deal with the problem. The proposal will be discussed at Wednesday's monthly Chicago Public Schools board meeting. (Tribune)
SEEKING LSC CANDIDATES: Chicago Public Schools is encouraging all parents and community members to seek seats on their Local School Councils. Candidates have until Feb. 26, 2014 to submit nominating forms. Elections will take place on April 7, 2014, during report card pick-up for both elementary and high schools, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The forms, along with additional information, can be found online, in the main office of any CPS school, CPS Network Offices, and the Office of LSC Relations at 125 S. Clark, 5th floor. (Press release)
IN THE STATE
EDUCATOR HONORED: The Illinois State Board of Education and the Milken Family Foundation Tuesday named Melissa Leisner, a seventh-grade English and language arts teacher at Prairie Knolls Middle School in Elgin as the 2013 Illinois recipient of the Milken National Educator Award. The Milken National Educator Award is given annually to teachers demonstrating exemplary skills and a personal commitment to education. Each winner receives $25,000 from the Milken Family Foundation. (Press release)
IN THE NATION
CODING CURRICULUM: More than 60 high schools nationwide are developing and trying out a curriculum to get more high school students learning the many languages of computer coding. (The Kansas City Star)
RATINGS DISCONNECT: Even New York State's 2012 teacher of the year couldn't get the highest rating under the state's new teacher evaluation system. Kathleen Ferguson testified last week before a state Senate Education Committee that she couldn't get a "highly effective" rating because she teaches second-graders with special needs, and they do not do well on tests. (Syracuse.com)
CHURCH AND CLASSROOM: The Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld Mount Vernon city schools’ firing of an eighth-grade science teacher who was accused of advancing religion and the Christian theory of creationism in his classroom. But the court held that the district’s orders that he put away the personal Bible he kept on his desk violated his First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and therefore would not have been sufficient cause to fire him.