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Independent reporting on urban education since 1990 2015-09-01T17:29:26Z
Updated: 2 hours 45 min ago

Beyond basketball, a tough road for sports

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

The small group of teenaged boys, dressed in royal blue sweatshirts and matching baseball caps, walk past a barbed wire-lined intermodal on 47th Street that is crammed with loud trucks belching clouds of diesel exhaust. They head under a crumbling viaduct, where crevices are stuffed with glass from broken bottles, empty chip bags and other trash.

The boys turn down a side street and finally reach Fuller Park, about six blocks from Tilden High. Today’s game, Tilden vs. DuSable, will be played here.

Tom Maher Jr., a husky boy with a blond buzz cut, quickly presses his teammates to warm up. Nine boys take their places along a spray-painted white line and respond in unison as Tom counts down stretches: first the calves, then quads and ending with arms.

Today’s game is an intimate affair. Combined, the teams don’t add up to more than 20 players, barely enough to field the two teams. Each of the two coaches has an assistant coach. The spectators can be counted on one hand: Two Tilden girls follow a freshman named Adrian to the field and sit on the bench for the first few minutes, while Tom’s dad is the lone parent.

Baseball and football are everything to Tom Jr., and that is why Tom Maher Sr. rearranges his schedule as an air conditioner/heating repairman to come to the games.

Maher Sr. initially enrolled his son at Leo High School, a Catholic school with a strong, well-funded sports program. But when the financial weight became too heavy for his budget, he transferred his son to Tilden. “I just couldn’t afford it anymore,” Maher Sr. says.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Tom Maher Sr. tries his best to show up at most of his son's baseball games. He is one of the few parents involved in sports at Tilden. His son, Tom Jr., was at Leo High, a Catholic school with a strong sports program, until tuition became too much for his budget.

In general, the move has been good. Tilden, a struggling school in Back of the Yards, was awarded a big federal school improvement grant and has money to incorporate cutting-edge technology into the curriculum. Tom Jr., now a junior, is personable and has plenty of friends. What’s more, the school is only about a block away from his house, so he doesn’t have to travel the rough South Side streets as he did when he was at Leo, at 79th Street and Sangamon Street.

Yet some of Tilden’s sports programs have been a disappointment. This fall, the football team was forced to disband midway through the season. The long-time coach left at the end of last school year, and Principal Maurice Swinney says that he got his budget so late that he barely had time to figure out what to do about the football coaching position. Some schools begin practicing and bonding as a team in August. But Tilden’s new coach was not able to pull together practices until almost the start of school, and had virtually no time to connect with the players.

Tilden has fewer than 400 students, so there weren’t many young men available to recruit. The players who did show up for the football team had trouble playing both offense and defense. The team did poorly, losing every game. Eventually, the adults made the call to quit for the year.

“He took that really hard,” Maher Sr. says of his son.

Maher Sr. says he and Juan Ruiz, the only other involved dad and the team’s third-base coach, are trying to make sure the baseball team is strong. The young coach, Alberto Simental, is committed and convinced Swinney to spend $1,000 on an indoor batting cage.

Simental, who played baseball for Juarez High, says the baseball field was the one place he could “breathe” while growing up. Young and idealistic, Simental wants to provide that for his gaggle of Tilden boys.

But the team is lacking so many of the basics. “Balls, bats,” Maher Sr. says, ticking off a list. “I brought in two old pairs of cleats for students who needed them.”

A few years ago, Ruiz had a job installing state-of-the-art baseball cages and working on athletic fields in the suburbs. His heart aches when he remembers how the shiny new facilities compared to the meager resources for the students at Tilden.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Tilden Blue Devils (from left) Lenord Davis, Christian Ruiz and Shanon Quantez walk from Tilden to their home field, Fuller Park, about six blocks away. Only a third of CPS baseball teams have a diamond on campus.

Tilden’s building, which stretches an entire city block, is surrounded by concrete dotted with small patches of grass. The only practice field option for all the outdoor sports teams is Fuller Park, a 100-year-old facility with an aging gray field house. In front is a lawn with the baseball diamond. “This is just a dirt field,” says Ruiz.

Maher Sr. and Ruiz have gotten the message that it is up to them to raise money if they want something better. They are considering candy sales, car washes and even just sending their boys to stand on the street with tin cans, asking for coins. “It is sad,” Maher Sr. says.

Like so much else in CPS high schools, sports programs are like a tale of two cities: Schools with larger enrollment — which means more funding — and more well-to-do parents or donors offer more opportunities, while other schools just limp along. To some degree, basketball is the exception: CPS has a long tradition of having competitive basketball teams even in low-income neighborhoods, and the sport is inexpensive — all participants really need is a ball, some shoes and a hoop.

Yet sports can play a vital role in engaging students in school and helping them to succeed.

Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor of education, says that sports, like art and other extracurricular programs, have come to be seen as “extras” rather than integral to a healthy, vibrant school. Yet he notes studies have unequivocally shown that these things are critical.

“These are not just frills,” said Noguera during a recent visit to Chicago to give a speech for Generation All, an initiative aimed at revitalizing neighborhood high schools. “Sports and arts lead to better learning. It is not the kids in the suburbs and the private schools [who pay the price] — it is poor kids that are being shortchanged.”

The impact of sports programs also reverberates beyond the students, helping to build a relationship with the surrounding community and solidifying its support of the school. “Look at ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ” Noguera says, referring to the movie and TV series on high school football in small-town Texas. “The whole community comes out.”

A Catalyst Chicago analysis shows that in general, lower-income students have far less access to a variety of sports programs at their schools. High schools with fewer than 85 percent low-income students have an average of 24 sports programs, while schools with more than 85 percent poor students have half as many.

Take Curie High School. It is the third-largest high school in the city, with more than 3,000 students. More than 95 percent of its students are considered low-income. Yet Curie offers only 25 sports programs. Seventeen smaller high schools have more.

Nellie Cotton, whose daughter attends Curie, notes the financial obstacles. Students have to pay for their own uniforms, as well as fees to participate, so many don’t join teams because of the cost, she explains.

Curie parents planned a $20 fundraiser to pay for improvements to an athletic field on campus, so that football and soccer practice and games could be held there and students wouldn’t have to take a bus to another field.

But so few people RSVP’d for the breakfast that it had to be cancelled. The group recently had a $2 fundraiser but even then had to give away tickets and hoped it could make money through food sales.

“We didn’t want our kids to have to travel,” Cotton says. “We wanted fans to be able to show up so the kids could have pride in their school.”

CPS data show that only about a third of high schools have baseball diamonds on campus; while half of high schools have football/soccer fields, some of them are not big enough to host games. The district has seven stadiums that are used by all schools.

Barely any high schools have sports programs that can compete with those in suburban school districts that not only have bigger budgets, but also booster clubs with a tradition of raising additional money for extras.

Maurice Swinney was shocked when he took over as Tilden’s principal three years ago. He came from a school in Louisiana that had a robust athletic program, complete with fields, gyms and all the equipment that students needed or could want. The schools in that district also had booster clubs that purchased extras.

“It was just so huge,” Swinney says. “When I came to Tilden I thought, ‘Oh my God...’ I already had a [picture] of what an athletic program can and should look like. And then to not have it... I had to take that in for a moment and then figure out, ‘How do we build it up as best we can?’ ”

In CPS, the central office pays for only two things: Coaches’ stipends and referees. Up until five years ago, the district also paid all assistant coaches’ stipends; now it pays stipends for assistants for only seven sports, including football, basketball and track and field. The district also quit providing a sports stipend of $750 per school — a pittance, but still something.

Principals point out that the stipends still leave them at a disadvantage. Coach stipends are negotiated in the teachers’ union contract, and football coaches, who are the highest paid, make about $6,000. Coaches for golf, tennis and cross-country only earn about $1,000.

Yet in many suburban high schools, coaches can earn double what they make in Chicago.

Ron McGraw, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, which promotes interscholastic sports, says that there is such a wide variety in how schools deal with sports funding, it is impossible to get a full picture of what is going on. “It is a local decision,” he says.

But beyond coach stipends, what really hinders schools is that CPS does not provide any other sports funding — not for buses to games, not for uniforms, not for equipment, not for tournaments.

Principals then have one of three choices. They can limit the number of sports offered, which schools often do.

They can use discretionary money, forcing sports to compete with extra teachers, supplies, office clerks, attendance officers and counselors for funding. An analysis of discretionary spending shows that in 2014, schools spent anywhere from 0 to 13 percent on “other after-school activities,” which include sports and clubs.

Or, as another option, principals can look to parent groups or students to raise money. But student fundraisers were dealt a blow when the district imposed new rules limiting the number and location of candy and chip sales. In 2012, CPS passed a policy that banned the sale of unhealthy snacks during the school day. Candy and chips can still be sold during games, but except for some basketball games, few people show up, so it often isn’t worth the effort.

At Hyde Park High School, Principal Antonio Ross says he instructed each team’s coach to come up with a fundraising idea. But now that they can’t sell snacks, none of the coaches have been able to come up with solid options.

Tony Howard, CPS’ executive director of education and sports policy, says the administration does not help schools figure out how to offer robust sports programs. “We don’t get into it,” he says.

However, this year, sports administration put out a Request for Proposals for corporate sponsorships. While some teams get donations of shoes and other apparel from Nike, no team is currently sponsored outright. The RFP asked for proposals to sponsor individual teams as well as sports throughout the district; the administration decided to pursue sponsorships through the central office to make sure they are doled out equitably.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman says the district got eight proposals, but has not decided which ones to pursue.

Sports programs have never been adequately funded, says famed Marshall High School girls’ basketball coach Dorothy Gaters, who is also the school’s athletic director. But in recent years, sports programs have been hit harder, becoming collateral damage from the district’s pursuit of school choice as well as the overall loss of students.

Tilden Blue Devil Fernando Sandoval runs home and scores. This year, Tilden won all but two games, but the boys lack basic equipment. One parent brought in two pairs of old cleats for students who needed them.

As more new schools open, neighborhood high schools decline; half now enroll fewer than 600 students. Once known and celebrated for their athletic talents, schools like Tilden and Marshall have dwindled into shells of what they once were. In decades past, Tilden won state championships in wrestling and track and field, and had strong baseball and basketball teams. A decade ago, Tilden had more than 1,300 students; at last count, it had 318 students.

Marshall is also now a third of the size it was years ago. When Gaters was a student in the 1980s, Marshall had just won city or state titles in boys’ basketball and football. It had competitive track and swim teams. The band also was strong.

“We had a lot of kids. We offered a lot,” Gaters says. “It had a great impact on the community. Everyone in the community was so proud of the achievements.”

“The charter schools have siphoned off not just our students but our athletes,” Gaters adds. “When you were once looking at 1,000 kids or 1,500 kids, and now you are down to 400, it is going to impact your sports program.”

Today, only 11 percent of the students in Marshall’s attendance area go to the school, according to CPS data. Marshall’s girls’ and boys’ basketball teams are still competitive, but few of the other sports teams are.

When sports teams could sell candy and chips during the school day and at games, it might take them a month to raise the $1,200 or so they would need to go to a tournament in a nearby state like Wisconsin or Iowa, Gaters says. By contrast, it took the girls’ basketball team five months to raise enough cash to go to Las Vegas for a tournament last year and much of the money came from a former student who made a donation.

Howard says he sympathizes with the principals and coaches, but that the district is also worried about the growing epidemic of childhood and teenage obesity.

Gaters stresses that going to out-of-state tournaments is a good idea not only because it gets the girls seen by college coaches in other places, but because it is an experience they might not otherwise have. “The kids just had a great time. It was an opportunity for them to experience something entirely new and different. So we are not able to do those types of things on a regular basis,” she says.

Despite Gaters’ substantial success with her teams, she knows she is still at a disadvantage.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Tilden Blue Devils (from left) Lenord Davis, Christian Ruiz and Shanon Quantez walk from Tilden to their home field, Fuller Park, about six blocks away. Only a third of CPS baseball teams have a diamond on campus.

The selective high schools on the North Side and in the central part of the city not only shine academically: They are among the only schools with a variety of financially viable sports programs. Simeon Academy, where basketball superstar Derrick Rose and budding star Jabari Parker played, is the lone traditional high school on the South Side with a booster club.

Whitney Young, North Side College Prep, Walter Payton and Jones all have 30-plus sports teams, even though North Side and Payton are relatively small schools.

Part of these schools’ advantage is strong parent involvement, including active fundraising, and families with money. The schools also charge hefty activity fees. One example of the result: The football team at Whitney Young had a budget of $12,000 in the 2013-2014 school year (not including the coaches’ stipend paid by CPS), while Marshall’s team had less than $2,000.

Whitney Young Principal Joyce Kenner has perhaps the most developed sports program in the city, including tennis, lacrosse and water polo. No other school offers any sport that isn’t also offered at Whitney Young, with the exception of perhaps rugby. Whitney Young also has two competition-size gyms, a regulation-size athletic field and tennis courts.

It is one of only two schools that have booster clubs that raise significant money. According to tax documents, the boys’ basketball booster club regularly brings in more than $100,000. In 2013, it had an unusually successful year, raising more than a quarter of a million dollars. Lane Tech’s Baseball Boosters brought in $52,000.

When Kenner took over as principal at Whitney Young in the mid-1990s, the school had sports programs, but Kenner felt they weren’t connecting with students. Kenner had been a physical education teacher, and her entire family was deeply involved in sports.

Kenner considers it “stupid” for principals to put sports and other extracurricular programs on the back burner. She makes it a point to go to as many games and other events, from math competitions to lacrosse matches, as she can manage when her students are participating. It shows students that she and the school care about them, she says.

If teams need something, Kenner is usually able to provide it. The key: Parents who are financially able and willing to step in.

Kenner points to a time when her son played baseball and basketball for Whitney Young. Both the teams traveled, and the parents who could afford it not only paid the way for their sons, but also chipped in to cover the cost for those whose families could not pay.

On top of that, if a coach comes to Kenner and says they need a bus to get a team somewhere or fans to a game, she finds money for it. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending out an e-mail or letter to parents with the ‘ask.’

“I can’t remember a time that I really said no to anybody,” she says.

Kenner notes that Whitney Young has been able to attract the children of wealthy Chicagoans, including basketball icon Michael Jordan’s youngest son, Marcus.

Kenner notes that for top-flight athletes, selling the school is easy. “Why wouldn’t you want to come to a school that is focused on academics and has successful athletic programs? I mean the answer to that to me is very simple.”

The price of fundraising

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

A new fundraising craze is pumping money into some North Side Schools: Theme parties at parents’ homes. Think of a party focused on the ‘70s or wine-and-dessert, sold to the highest bidder.

Parties like these are not just fun, but also lucrative, says Tracy Portnoy, president of Friends of Coonley, a fundraising group for Coonley Elementary. The parties are offered on an auction table at a recent gala, with other items such as a stay at a vacation home and airline tickets to get there, gift baskets and jewelry. At the end of the night, the auction raised a whopping $205,000 for Coonley, in North Center. In 2014, their total was more than $400,000.

“I care about making sure that the school is effective through the highs and lows of the budget,” Portnoy says. “It truly takes a village.”

For a select but growing group of schools in Chicago’s wealthier communities, parent fundraising has risen to new heights. Most parent groups can only dream of bringing in significant money. And most schools don’t have “Friends of” groups, for which the main focus is fundraising, though PTAs and similar groups sometimes raise small pots of money.

In just a decade, the number of parent groups at district-run schools that raise more than $50,000 a year doubled to 41, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of tax information and annual reports filed with the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Of those 41, 30 brought in more than $100,000 and eight raised more than $200,000.

Altogether, these 41 schools raised roughly $7.6 million in one year, or an average of about $300 extra per student. By far, the biggest fundraiser was Alcott, which took in $600,000, according to its tax information. This money is on top of the $4,390 per student that the district provides all schools, plus extra for specialty programs and students who are in special education, low-income or English learners.

All of these schools are in upper-middle class communities, with an average of 41 percent white enrollment, compared with 9 percent district-wide.

Only five high schools, all of them selective — Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Jones, Payton and Northside Prep — fundraise to a significant extent. A few high schools, such as Amundsen and Senn, have newly launched Friends of groups.

Most people don’t begrudge parents the chance to make their child’s school better with more money. But the fact that some schools are able to raise so much contributes to the already-glaring disparities among schools, and at least partly explains why two schools in the same district can look so different.

Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, says that if Illinois schools were funded adequately to cover the basics, the extra cash wouldn’t be problematic. But as it is, Chicago schools are “dramatically underfunded,” he notes. “Everybody is getting too little, so it heightens the inequities.”
Rebell’s organization uses constitutional law as it attempts to convince the courts to force states to provide equitable funding. Yet Rebell points out that, while Illinois’ state constitution has strong language around parity, the courts don’t seem inclined to enforce it. Illinois ranks dead last among the 50 states in funding equity between low income and wealthier school districts, according to a recent Education Trust report.

When issues around school fundraising and equity emerged in New York 15 or 20 years ago, the state banned outside groups from paying for core teachers — such as regular classroom teachers or those for basic subjects — but allowed them to chip in for supplemental teachers, Rebell says.

Neither Illinois law nor CPS policy prevents schools from using fundraised money for teachers or other staff. According to a district manual on the subject, schools must not use fundraised money to buy things that only benefit individual employees, should be able to document purchases and must make sure the expenditures benefit students.

CPS could not provide Catalyst a full accounting of how the money is spent, but officials said that in this school year, 18 full-time and five part-time teachers were hired in schools using money from private fundraising. In addition, 15 teachers’ salaries were partly paid with private fundraising money.

As schools have experienced deep budget cuts, parents say they are increasingly called upon to pay for basics. Some parents say their main purpose is helping their schools survive cuts.

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Principal Chad Wieden of Edgebrook School on the Northwest Side explains how The Commons, a new flexible media space in the school that was paid for with fundraising, will be configured after completion.

But schools also fundraise for expensive extras such as computers, sound systems and impressive playgrounds.

Take Edgebrook Elementary. This year, the PTA and the school’s foundation paid to renovate a room into The Commons, outfitted with new computers and projectors so students would have a place to work on projects.

Edgebrook Principal Chad Weiden says he is grateful for the parents’ effort, but emphasizes that the school would still be good without the extras. “Good teaching is good teaching,” says Weiden, who spent five years as principal at Social Justice High School in North Lawndale.

To some degree, Nellie Cotton agrees with Weiden. She is a local school council member at Grimes/Fleming Elementary, a highly rated school in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Clearing. Parents at the school have book fairs and bake sales, but only manage to raise about $8,000 a year.

Nearly 90 percent of students at Grimes/Fleming are low-income and most of the fundraised money is used to help students who can’t pay for their own transportation or for student fees.

“It is stretched thinly to where it needs to go,” says Cotton.

Two years ago, after big budget cuts, Cotton says the school replaced two retiring teachers with less experienced ones. This year, Cotton says she is hearing that the budget will shrink again, and her school is out of options.

“We are really scrambling,” she says. “We don’t know what will happen.”

When Weiden was principal at Social Justice High School, the school received a significant amount of poverty grant funds — extra state and federal money given to schools based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “Here we get almost nothing,” he says of Edgebrook. It’s a point echoed repeatedly by others who defend private fundraising.

At Edgebrook, only about 15 percent of the 512 students are considered low-income, so the school receives just $46,000 in poverty grants. By comparison, similarly sized schools with all low- income students got an average of $370,000 in poverty funds.

“The way they do things is an imbalance,” says Debbie Kobak-Nielson, president of the Edgebrook School Foundation. “The foundation helps us to stay on top of things.” The foundation raised about $50,000 last year. In addition, the Edgebrook Parent Teacher Organization raised about $160,000.

But the argument that parent fundraising replaces poverty grants isn’t necessarily valid. For one, some schools don’t get a lot of poverty money, nor are they able to raise a lot of money. Fourteen of the 45 elementary schools in the district that have fewer than than 50 percent low-income students fit this category. Many of these schools are on the Southwest Side or Northwest Side in solid middle- to working-class neighborhoods, like Mt. Greenwood, where families are making ends meet but don’t have a lot of extra cash.

Second, schools that do get a lot of poverty grants are the schools where children are likely to have the greatest needs — the rationale for providing schools with extra funds. Studies show that it takes double the amount of funding to educate a low-income student compared to a student from a middle-class or wealthy family, Rebell says. Schools with lower-income students, like Grimes/Fleming, often use their poverty grants to hire extra staff to support children, such as counselors, social workers or attendance officers. The money rarely stretches far enough for fancier extras like new computers.

Third, as Bobby Otter from the Center for Tax and Budget Policy points out, schools in wealthy areas often have specialties, such as magnet programs, for which the district provides extra money.

Lolita Sereleas, president of Friends of Audubon for two years, has serious reservations about the heavy reliance on fundraising at schools like Audubon.

“CPS and the administration seem like they cut the budget and leave it to parents to figure it out,” she says. “But for those schools that can’t fundraise as much, it creates a lot of disparity.”

Sereleas helped Audubon raise $312,000 last year. “The amount we are expected to raise keeps getting higher,” she says. “How much can you do, and how much can you be expected to raise? I think there is a fair amount of fundraising fatigue.”

Friends of Audubon keeps a small amount in reserve and hands over the bulk of the money to the local school council. The money is mostly used to help pay for teaching positions or supplemental staff, such as reading specialists.

Sereleas thinks it’s unrealistic to expect Friends of Audubon to continue to raise a quarter of a million a year. The group is bracing for the coming year, when deep cuts could materialize.

“We have heard a lot of doom and gloom,” says Sereleas. “The climate is not positive.”

Despite the reservations, Friends Of groups are beginning to be seen as essential tools to improve schools.

Paul Schearf revived the Friends of Agassiz group eight years ago, when his son was only 2 years old and hadn’t even started preschool.

Agassiz is in the gentrified Lake View area, but many families did not send their children there at the time. Instead, the children attended private schools or magnet schools, like nearby Hawthorne.

While Schearf says they did not want to completely change the school, he jokingly says they kind of wanted to “gentrify” it. “We were aspiring to be like the schools that did mega-fundraising like Blaine, Alcott and Nettelhorst. They raise more than $100,000 a year. We wanted to have that support,” he says.

The first year he ran the group, it raised $25,000; the second year, $50,000. Schearf wanted to keep doubling it, but fundraising held steady after it reached about $80,000.
Schearf believes that to really be successful, Friends Of groups need to have a parent who can work on fundraising virtually as a part-time job.

Chris Hewitt is part of a group of families in Logan Square who want to turn Brentano into a viable neighborhood school. About two years ago, they started Friends of Brentano and just filled out the paperwork in February to become an official non-profit. He says the first thing the group wanted to do was to let parents know about the school and get them enthusiastic about it. For example, one member runs a weekly playgroup at the school.

“Fundraising, while important, wasn’t our first goal. However, once we realized that most of the schools that offer extra programs in CPS have to do so with community and parent fundraising, it became more important to us,” Hewitt says.

Yet it has been a difficult road. Though the neighborhood is changing and wealthier residents are moving in, about 86 percent of Brentano’s students are low-income. So far, the organization has brought in less than $10,000 in two years.

Hewitt says CPS could help schools with the daunting process of registering as a non-profit to help them get organized.

The question, however, is whether these groups can really be successful in keeping parents in the city, especially the groups that don’t raise as much money.

After running Friends Of Agassiz for three years and then serving on the local school council, Schearf and his wife moved the family to Naperville.

“The story of the middle class in Chicago,” he says. Still, the desire for a good school was only one reason they moved. In Chicago, they lived in a small condo, and they wanted a house with a backyard and a community that was “kid-centric.”

Public Ed fund, private role

May 26, 2015 - 6:00am

The federal investigation into SUPES Academy is shining a light on a quiet though influential player in the city’s education arena: The Chicago Public Education Fund.

SUPES, of course, is the for-profit leadership training firm at the center of an FBI probe that has targeted CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett (who is now on leave). Before SUPES got its now-infamous $20.5 million no-bid contract from CPS, The Public Education Fund had given SUPES a $380,000 contract to train area network chiefs and their deputies. The Fund isn’t a target of the investigation and is apparently only a tangential player.

The Fund decided not to keep funding SUPES after its initial project, despite a request from CPS to do so. But that didn’t emerge until April 2015, nearly two years after CPS gave SUPES a contract for $20 million.

The larger question, though, isn’t about SUPES. It’s about the role of a privately financed foundation that is deeply entwined with a public school system.

If the larger school community had known about The Fund’s decision not to keep funding SUPES, taxpayers might have saved the $12 million SUPES was paid before its contract was cancelled.

For the most part, The Fund supports projects meant to be scaled up as part of the school system. In recent years, it has also paid consultants to conduct searches for top district staff and to help develop plans for the district.

Yet no one outside The Fund’s staff and board of directors know how it decides which programs to support, what the results have been and how or whether the results are communicated to CPS.

As the Fund’s CEO and President, Heather Anichini, explains it, her staff meet and talk with numerous people — from teachers to principals to other foundations to players in the field — and then decide what initiatives to support. To keep their funding, initiatives have to meet benchmarks set by The Fund.

“So we actually don’t do a ton of formal reporting in the way that many other organizations might,” Anichini says. “But we do have these checks along the way.”

Information on outcomes is communicated to CPS through “conversations with administrators,” Anichini adds.

The process might seem innocuous enough. But it also sounds ripe for manipulation. And it is certainly not public.

It is worth noting that The Fund’s board is made up of some of the richest, most powerful people in Chicago—people with strong and definite opinions about the direction of CPS and including some of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staunch supporters and campaign donors. “It would be difficult to assemble a board that screams 1 percent louder than (The Fund)—from the schools its members attended to jobs held to marriages made,” as Chicago Magazine’s Carol Felsenthal wrote in a column.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is a former board president. Current board members are billionaire Kenneth Griffin, Penny Pritzker and Susan Crown of the Crown family.

The only way to make sure that the voices of the well-connected don’t drown out the voices of parents and the general public is to have complete transparency in decision-making about public schools. The public has the right to know the costs and the results of initiatives taking place in our schools, with our children, teachers and principals.

When The Fund was started 15 years ago, the Annenberg Challenge, which pumped $50 million into a variety of initiatives, was ending. Then- CEO Paul Vallas says he, former Mayor Richard Daley and other school leaders wanted to keep the momentum going.

The Fund’s current focus is on principals and educational innovation. In recent years, though, it has paid for consultant work affecting major district leadership and strategies.

In 2011, The Fund paid a consultant $100,000 to search for a chief financial officer; the man hired, Peter Rogers, only stayed for about two years. In 2012, The Fund paid three consulting companies — McKinsey & Company, Parthenon Group and Global Strategy Group — to do planning and marketing work for CPS.

The $1.5 million paid to Parthenon and McKinsey is particularly interesting. Parthenon helped CPS write the 2013 Request for Proposals for new schools.

McKinsey got the largest cut and was paid to provide data analytics and management support for the district’s 10-year master facilities plan—which was criticized for lacking detail—and to design the structure and duties for a new Office of Strategic Management, which analyzes trends, establishes school attendance areas and does long-term capital planning.

The Fund points that the consultants were needed because CPS leadership was new and state law called for the master facilities plan to be done on a “short time line,” and stresses that McKinsey did not “write” the plan.

CPS hired Todd Babbitz from McKinsey to run the new office, where he spearheaded the mass school closings in 2013.

During this time, thousands of parents and community members were attending numerous public hearings clamoring for to be heard on the closings as well as the facilities plan. It’s unclear how much of what parents said was taken into account by the consultants.

But neither the school closings plan nor the master facilities plan changed.

CPS recommends controversial charter relocations, shorter renewals for low performers

May 22, 2015 - 5:19pm

Despite a push this week by North Side principals, elected officials and others against a proposal to relocate the Noble Street Academy to Uptown, CPS is recommending that the Board of Education approve the move anyway.

And much to the dismay of activists, the district also wants the board to OK a proposal from Rowe Elementary charter school to expand to the site once occupied by Peabody Elementary. In the wake of the historic 2013 school closings in Chicago, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had repeatedly promised to keep charter schools out of closed schools.

“This opens a potential Pandora’s Box,” says Valencia Rias-Winstead, who was part of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force. “If you go back on your word for one school, then you’ve got to give it to all the others.”

CPS officials did not comment Friday afternoon on the recommendations.

The Noble and Rowe petitions are among more than two dozen proposed modifications or renewals for charter and contract schools that the district is recommending for approval at next Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Principals and others protesting the Noble proposal fear a charter school would siphon off students from neighborhood high schools and say that the area doesn’t need another high school.

"I realize this charter thing is going to happen, but are you really choosing the neighborhoods where the schools are needed?" asked Chad Adams, principal of Sullivan High in Rogers Park. "I feel like the reason they're doing it is more of a long-term strategic, budget move that none of quite understand what's actually behind it."

Noble Street officials have told Catalyst they don’t think a new school in the area would impact enrollment at any one specific high school significantly.

Shorter renewals for some

CPS is also recommending renewals for all 14 charter and contract schools whose agreements are up this June. However, only half of the schools are being recommended for five-year renewals, the length most schools have typically received in years past. The district is using shorter renewals as a way to hold privately-run schools accountable for academic performance and financial stability.

The district wants to give three-year renewals to six of the remaining schools -- and is asking for additional terms such as improved academics or finances.

And one school -- the Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter -- is being recommended for just a single-year extension. The district wants the alternative high school in the Englewood neighborhood to improve by at least one notch on the district’s accountability system, in addition to stabilizing its finances.

Pa Joof, the school’s principal, says the School Quality Rating Policy doesn’t fully capture the successes he’s seen at Johnston. The metrics included in the SQRP for alternative schools are snapshots in time, he says, and ignore the fact that many students float in and out of the school.

“During the five years we have been in existence, we have graduated 176 kids who otherwise would be in jail,” Joof says. “That’s a success. The kids that come to us are on the streets, are homeless. Why are they giving other schools three years and not us?”

Conditions on charter renewals

Meanwhile, two of the three Urban Prep campuses -- West and Englewood -- are slated for three-year renewals. Only the Bronzeville campus, which last year earned the second-highest rating under the five-tiered SQRP, is being recommended for a full five-year renewal.

The renewals for all three Urban Prep campuses are contingent on improvement on two metrics on its financial scorecard. These include its audits on legal compliance and its liquidity ratio, which measures the ability to pay off debt.

Evan Lewis, Urban Prep’s chief operating officer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.

Chicago Tech Academy High, Galapagos and Epic schools are also being recommended for three-year renewals. All three schools received the second-lowest rating possible under the SQRP last fall.

As part of the recommended renewal for ChiTech, CPS says the school’s “Academic Excellence Committee must continue to provide oversight and support for the term of the agreement.” In addition, ChiTech has to provide the district minutes of the committee’s meetings as proof that it’s working toward improvement.

Galapagos, meanwhile, is being given two years to make substantial renovations to its buildings. These include repairing or replacing boilers, water lines, the ventilation system, and installing sufficient exterior lights for safety precautions.

No additional conditions are being applied to Epic, a charter high school that had been placed on a warning list in 2013 but made sufficient improvements to come off the list last fall.

The district is recommending a five-year renewal of the Youth Connection Charter Schools network -- in addition to 301 new seats at its alternative schools. Last year YCCS executive director Sheila Venson spoke to Catalyst about the years-long struggle to increase enrollment at the schools and her disappointment in the district’s expansion of for-profit alternative schools. Venson could not be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.

Renaissance 2010 launched to create 100 new schools

May 22, 2015 - 10:37am
Then - 2004:

With great fanfare, Mayor Daley announced the creation of 100 new schools, mostly charters,  to replace existing failing schools. Backed by the business and philanthropic communities, the Renaissance 2010 project pledged to open only high performing schools.  The effort ran into immediate trouble from parents, community groups and the CTU upset by school closings. Funding took time to materialize, as did teachers and principals capable of starting up new schools. CPS persisted with the Renaissance 2010 project, claiming that the new schools would drive improvement throughout the school district.  CPS was supported by the Renaissance Schools Fund, a private fundraising and strategic partner formed by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and which helped raise $70 million for the project.

See Rocky start for renaissance, Catalyst October 2004


By 2010, CPS had created 92 Renaissance schools, yet just 16 of the schools were performing at or above state averages on the ISAT. Depressingly, 3 out of 4 CPS students still attended low performing schools. CPS acknowledged that new schools were not the main catalyst for systemwide improvement. Yet the closure of 50 schools in 2013 did not stop CPS from continuing to approve new charter school applications.

See, Searching for equity, Catalyst In-Depth, Summer 2010


Superintendent Barbara Byrd Bennett placed a moratorium on closing more schools and on charters moving into closed CPS buildings. Now that she is on leave, CPS is making noises about permitting charters to move into closed buildings -- if a community requests the move. Northside high school principals are already organizing to protest the move to place more charters in their boundaries. Expect the issue to become part of teacher contract negotiations in some way.

See Take 5: charter opposition, Catalyst May 21, 2015; and Charter might move into closed CPS schools, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio

Catalyst Critical Conversation focuses on improving high schools

May 22, 2015 - 10:31am

More than a 100 educators, advocates, parents and students gathered on Thursday for the premier of the sixth and final episode of a local schools documentary series -- and a lively discussion about how to improve Chicago high schools.

The forum was hosted by Catalyst Chicago and The School Project, whose final fim, "Teaching," explores the use of intensified algebra -- back-to-back periods of algebra -- at Roosevelt High School.

Catalyst founder and publisher Linda Lenz moderated the forum.

Speakers included: Camille Farrington, a researcher at the Consortium on Chicago School Research who's written a book about reforming high schools; Beatriz Ponce de León, executive director of Generation All; Laura LeMone, principal at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center; Cynthia Nambo, principal at Instituto Justice and Leadership Academy Charter High School; Regeta Slaughter from University of Illinois at Chicago; and Warren Currie, math teacher at Michele Clark High School.

CAN TV Chicago broadcast the event live, and it will be rebroadcast at a later date.

The event is one of three town hall forums organized this year by Catalyst, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.  Join us for our future events, including our third Story Slam, and please consider making a donation so that Catalyst can continue reporting on education for another 25 years.

Below is a Storified version of the tweets from Thursday's film showing and discussion. And see more photos of the event here.

[<a href="//" target="_blank">View the story "The High School Challenge" on Storify</a>]

Take 5: Charter opposition, discipline reform, opt-out bill

May 21, 2015 - 10:15am

A group of North Side parents, teachers and principals have formed a coalition against a proposal to relocate the Noble Street Academy to the Uptown area. They’ll be protesting this afternoon outside of a public hearing on proposed changes to existing charter and contract schools -- including the Noble proposal.

“Opening a charter or any high school in our respective communities will undermine the efforts that are currently underway and the momentum we have gained in our neighborhood high schools through the hard work and dedication of our staff and our communities,” says Susan Lofton, principal of Senn High School, in a statement. “Relocating or opening a new school will be a detrimental diversion of needed resources away from our existing schools.”

Loften is working with the principals of Lake View, Sullivan, Mather and Amundsen high schools against the project, according to a story in the EdgeVille Buzz.

Also at today’s meeting the district will hear from the group that operates the Rowe Elementary charter school to create a middle school on the property once used by the now-closed Peabody Elementary. You may remember that CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had promised to block charters from using closed schools. Now that Byrd-Bennett has stepped down due to the federal probe of the now-infamous SUPES contract, it’s unclear whether her promise still stands.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey told the Chicago Tribune that the district “continues to follow” the earlier commitment but if a community determines that a charter school is a desirable option, CPS will consider that option." WBEZ has a great story that asks whether it makes financial sense to keep charters out of closed schools.

2. School discipline reforms… Student activists seeking to reduce the excessive use of punitive discipline practices in school hailed Wednesday’s passage in the state Legislature of SB 100. The bill, which had already cleared the Senate and now needs final approval from Gov. Bruce Rauner, puts limits on when schools can suspend and expel students, prohibits the use of zero-tolerance policies and bans the use of disciplinary fines and fees.

"For too long, harsh school discipline practices have contributed to the under-education and over-criminalization of young people, and especially youth of color," said Dalia Mena, an 18-year-old member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, in a statement. "Illinois legislators have demonstrated that by listening to students, we can create schools where all students are valued and supported in their learning. SB 100 makes Illinois go from one of the worst states when it comes to overusing exclusionary discipline, to being a national leader with a model for other states to follow."

3. Speaking of student activists… More than 300 Chicago high school students gathered on Tuesday at the Chicago Cultural Center for the 13th annual  Mikva Actions Civics Showcase. It was an opportunity to show off student projects about a range of social issues, from violence and gentrification to recycling and LGBT rights, DNAinfo reports.

"The beautiful thing about this showcase is the way that the same curriculum comes out differently with each class, depending on what students wanted to change and what kind of an impact they wanted to have," Jocelyn Broitman, director of Democracy in Action, told DNAinfo. "So we're seeing so many different projects here, but the one thing they have in common is that they involve students taking action about an issue they really care about."

The story features a group of students from Julian High School who made music videos about gang violence and police brutality. It’s an especially poignant issue for many that school; last week two students were shot and killed while picking up their tuxes for prom.

4. Opt-out bill … After stalling for weeks, a bill that would allow parents to opt their children out of state assessments cleared the Illinois House of Representatives on Tuesday. If now goes to the Senate, but that’s not the only hurdle HB 306 would have to clear to become law: Gov. Bruce Rauner has threatened to veto the bill and, as the Sun-Times puts it, has been “leaning on Republican lawmakers to vote ‘no.’”

Rauner and others in his administration -- including the state’s new superintendent -- say they worry about the potential loss of federal dollars if too many children opt out of the controversial assessment known as the PARCC. Hundreds, if not thousands, of CPS students have already opted out of the assessment. This is the final week that the PARCC is being administered this year. Proponents of the opt-out bill, led by the Chicago parent group Raise Your Hand, say the PARC, is too long and and takes away valuable time in the classroom.

5. Earning college credit … Another education-related bill that’s further along is HB 3428 , which would require public colleges and universities to give course credit to students who receive a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams. The proposal, which overwhelmingly passed in the House and is now before the Senate, has been met with resistance from higher education officials who worry about losing out on tuition dollars.

In addition, college officials say they “fear that requiring them to give blanket credit for AP tests would unacceptably lower academic standards,” according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. As a result, they want the bill to grant them flexibility in how they allot the credit. A high school freshman from Arlington Heights told the Tribune changing the law "would give students a better chance of getting into the college they want without worrying about financial issues." Catalyst wrote about how financial troubles were one of the biggest hurdles faced by low-income college students in our winter issue.

A few last notes … The Tribune has a long story about how SUPES came to Chicago. It’s a good recap but doesn’t offer a whole lot of new information -- aside from the fact the mayor’s former education advisor,  Beth Swanson, had been involved in the decision to bring SUPES to CPS.

It's too bad that the Tribune and most other media outlets in town weren't asking these same questions two years ago, when the no-bid contract with SUPES was first approved and Catalyst raised questions about conflicts of interest.

Finally, Catalyst is hosting a film and discussion tonight with The School Project on the challenges and opportunities for high school reform. Come join us.

Photo: Charter school chalkboard/

Teachers union asks for 3 percent raise

May 20, 2015 - 11:54am

The Chicago Teachers Union is asking for a 3-percent raise – the same amount that educators could have received had the district offered to extend the current contract for another year.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told an audience of North Side parents, community members and teachers on Tuesday that the union presented the district its economic demands during negotiations last week. CPS officials have previously said a 3-percent raise would cost an estimated $105 million.

“We’re not seeking big things. We’re seeking a 3-percent raise,” Sharkey said during the union’s community contract forum sponsored by the group Parents 4 Teachers. “But that’s not what they want. What they want is a 7-percent cut.”

Union leaders had previously said they would seek a raise, but it’s the first time the exact amount has been said publicly. CPS officials, who generally decline to speak about contract negotiations, have said the district faces a crippling budget deficit and is seeking help from Springfield to alleviate its pension debt burden.

Last month, CPS officials said they couldn’t afford to offer the union the one-year extension that would have required a 3-percent raise. Instead, the union says the district has proposed to stop “picking up” pension costs for educators, which would effectively equal a 7 percent pay cut for most CTU members.

The existing labor contract expires at the end of June. At the current pace of contract negotiations, Sharkey says it’s unlikely there will be a new contract in place by the time school begins. He says he worries that the district won’t have its finances in order by then or be able to meet payroll. The district, which borrowed two months’ worth of tax revenue from next year in order to close this year’s budget gap, doesn’t have many options left.

“I do not know if they have money to open schools in September,” he said.

Shaping up to be a battle

Sharkey says the district’s negotiating team submitted its first written contract proposals during last Thursday’s bargaining session. He says the district wants to freeze any step-and-lane pay increases and eliminate the appeals process for teacher evaluations.

“We think negotiations are going poorly,” he says. “It’s shaping up to be a battle.”

Many teachers have told Catalyst Chicago they’re leery of another strike, which would be the second in three years.

Sharkey outlined the series of steps that would need to take place before a strike is even a possibility, including formal mediation, arbitration and fact-finding. That puts the possibility of a strike months after school starts – which could make for a cold picket line.

Two weeks ago the union filed a bad-faith bargaining charge against the district and sought formal mediation.

Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo who participated in Tuesday’s contract forum, told the audience contract teams in each school building are reaching out to parents to tell them about the union’s contract demands and build up community support.

“If we don’t get a contract that supports our students and our teachers, we are prepared to go on strike,” Chambers said.

To keep and graduate freshmen, turn to charter schools for answers

May 20, 2015 - 11:01am

Andrew Broy

In the Federalist Papers, John Adams famously quipped that “facts are stubborn things.” Chicago policymakers would do well to keep this in mind as they debate the current performance of Chicago charter schools.

For years, charter opponents have explained away charter school academic success by arguing that charter schools do well with students who stay, but that many leave and are therefore no longer counted in the performance data.  Now, for the first time, recently-released data prove that a very different story is true: Chicago charter schools actually keep and graduate a higher percentage of incoming ninth-graders than do district-run schools. In fact, the data from Chicago Public Schools reveal that charter schools are among the most successful schools at graduating the students that choose to enroll on the first day of high school.

We can all agree that a high-quality high school takes responsibility for the success of all the students who enter its doors the first day of freshman year. Until now, the public only had access to the official graduation rates for schools, which report how many of a school’s original ninth-graders ultimately graduate from any CPS school – even if they transfer to another school.

However, in a recent article, WBEZ examined this graduate rate and obtained data that has never before been disclosed: the number of freshmen who actually went on to earn a diploma from the school they first enrolled in.  This rate – the percent of original freshmen a school graduates – is referred to as the “freshman retention rate.”

Contrary to the claims of charter opponents, the results reveal that charter schools are graduating their original cohort of ninth-graders at substantially higher rates than their district counterparts. The average freshman retention rate for charter schools is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the average for district open enrollment schools. Although only a third of the open enrollment high schools are charter schools, charters make up six of the top 10 open enrollment schools with the highest freshman retention rates. Three of the charter schools in the top 10 are part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. In fact, this new data reveals that Noble schools are graduating their original freshmen at very high rates: eight of the nine Noble campuses have freshman retention rates that exceed the average for district open-enrollment schools.

The average freshman retention rate is higher in charters than non-selective district schools.

These data reveal another critical trend – the number of families who start high school in CPS, but leave the school district altogether during the high school years - a group referred to as “verified transfers.” We have long known that Chicago is a city with high mobility and a declining student population, but our analysis shows that 15 percent of students from district-run open-enrollment schools leave the system all-together (nearly 3,000 students), compared to only 3 percent of students who start their high school careers at charter schools. We can’t say where these students are going – private schools, parochial schools, suburban schools – but it does raise questions of why district-run high schools are unable to hold on to these students.

While charter critics often claim that charter schools are responsible for students leaving the traditional system, the data actually suggest that charter public schools keep more students from leaving CPS than their district counterparts. In short, charter public schools are keeping students in the district at a higher relative rate. For a district with a long-standing pattern of declining enrollment, this is a notably bright trend.

At the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, we commend WBEZ for bringing this data to the public. Not only does it provide a useful metric for families looking to better understand their high school options, it also raises important questions about how the city can better retain students and bring them to the finish line. Let’s just hope everyone working to increase graduation outcomes pays attention.

Photo: Graduation cap and diploma/

Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Broy is a former civil rights attorney and public school teacher.


Data breach triggers sharing of personal info for 4,000 students

May 19, 2015 - 3:22pm

CPS mistakenly shared the names, home addresses, phone numbers, disability status and other personal information of 4,000 students to five vendors seeking to do business with the district.

After learning of the unusual data breach, CPS officials say they took steps to remedy their actions. These include instructing the companies to dispose of the information, notifying parents of the unauthorized disclosure, and training staff about how to better protect student information.

“All [of the companies] have confirmed that they have responsibly destroyed the information,” Chief Accountability Officer John Barker wrote in a letter to parents last month.

Social Security numbers were not given out.

Data breaches like this violate federal and state student privacy laws and open the district to potential litigation; however, plaintiffs would have to prove the unauthorized disclosure caused damages. No suits have been filed.

The 4,000 affected children are a random subset of the 22,500 students who utilize CPS bus transportation.

Leonie Haimson, of the national group Student Privacy Matters, says there’s been an increase in the number of data breaches in recent years – in part because of increased federal requirements for data collection.

She says states and the federal government need to do a better job of ensuring districts are taking the right steps toward protecting private student information.

“Data should be encrypted. There needs to be better training, security audits and indemnification,” she said. “There’s been this huge push by the federal government to create the conditions under which the schools and districts have to collect more and more information and keep it in digital form […] But as we’re moving into a digital universe, the security and privacy protections have not kept up.”

Workers getting training on safeguards

In March, CPS gave the information to five vendors that had submitted proposals to provide management software for the district’s bus system. The companies were supposed to use the data set – which also included bus pick-up and drop-off locations – to test out their software.

District officials now say that the district should have given the companies a randomized list of addresses to test the companies’ software instead. Because the procurement process is still ongoing, CPS cannot identify the five companies.

“CPS takes student privacy very seriously and we deeply regret these circumstances,” officials said in a statement. “To prevent future unauthorized disclosures, the District is training staff members on student information safeguards and the importance of maintaining student privacy.”

Employees in the district’s procurement and transportation departments will be among the first to receive the training. CPS is also placing information on this breach in student files.

The steps that CPS has taken closely follow what the U.S. Department of Education recommends in cases of inadvertent data breaches. The department's Family Policy Compliance Office gets involved only when districts don't take steps to address the breach or if parents or students file complaints, according to a spokesman.

One parent who learned of the data breach said she’s not “completely convinced” her daughter’s information has been destroyed by the companies. “I just have to trust that the people with access to it know how to be responsible.”

Photo: Data security/

Take 5: State funding fix, testing opt-out bill, race and discipline

May 18, 2015 - 10:38am

It doesn’t look like a bill to overhaul the state’s school financing formula will go anywhere this year, but expect some significant changes to how the state funds schools anyway. That’s because the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is considering moving away from current model for handling funding when the state fails to provide the recommended foundation level of per-pupil funding, currently $6119. Instead, ISBE appears to be leaning toward switching to model that would lessen the financial impact for districts with a high percentage of poor students and low local property wealth.

At last week’s ISBE meeting, board members heard from more than a dozen students, superintendents and advocates from across the state that are lobbying for the alternative. Under the current model of "pro-ration," Illinois provides an equal percentage of state aid to rich and poor school districts when the Legislature fails to provide the recommended foundation level. For rich districts, the cuts have less of an impact because local tax dollars cover more than the foundation level.

But poorer districts with less property wealth rely more heavily on state aid, so the cuts are more significant. “Year after year, the pro-ration further deepens disparities that are baked in our funding formula,” said Mike Gauch, superintendent of Harrisburg Community Unit 3 School District.

Chicago lost more than $45 million in general state aid due to pro-ration this year; if ISBE had operated instead the alternative, Chicago would have actually gained an additional $1.7 million. ISBE will vote in June on whether to change the formula -- which board members see as a policy decision, not something that needs to be decided by Springfield.

2. Testing opt-outs … Will Guzzardi’s opt-out bill was given until this Friday to get voted out of the House, about two weeks past the standard deadline for moving legislation from one chamber to another. This is the bill that would clarify parents’ rights for opting their children out of taking standardized tests.

Meanwhile, the second window of testing for the PARCC ends this week. Parents across the district and state have been opting their children out of taking the exam -- although it’s too early to know exactly how widespread the movement has been so far. The Illinois State Board of Education won’t receive official testing rates until the summer, according to a Tribune article. ISBE officials say federal funding may be lost if fewer than 95 percent of students take the test in any school, or district, or statewide. ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus says the state will review each district with low participation on a case-by-case basis once the official tallies come in.

3. Dirty kitchens? The Chicago Tribune analyzes health records and finds that inspectors failed to visit about 300 of the city's day care centers last year -- more than 40 percent. When inspectors finally did show up, they'd sometimes find rodent droppings in food areas, standing water and other problems.

State law requires inspections in kitchens at day cares, restaurants and other institutions at least twice a year - but Chicago is one of only three municipalities in Illinois that routinely fails to meet this standard. In the case of the day care kitchens, inspections were "overlooked because of a glitch involving license code numbers and that staff discovered the problem."

It goes without saying, but frequent food safety inspections are important because they help "keep food-borne diseases at bay — especially for toddlers and young children, who are at high risk of serious complications or death," according to the story.

4. Delayed audit … What happened with the third-party audit of how CPS awards no-bid contracts in response to the FBI investigation of SUPES? Preliminary findings were expected by this Friday, but the Tribune reports that an auditor has yet to be selected. Now, results aren’t coming until June 12 because the district wants to thoroughly review the review process first. The auditor is being chosen by a three-person committee of district officials, while district attorneys and the inspector general’s office will review the audit’s “final scope” before any auditing can actually begin, according to the story.

"It is essential that the sole-source process review is done effectively," says district spokesman Bill McCaffrey. "And to make sure that takes place, CPS formed a committee of senior leaders from several departments to select the vendor that will carry out the review."

5. Talking about race … Absurd. That’s what the father of a second grader called the suspension of his daughter from a Forest Park school. The black girl--apparently upset that she was excluded from a hand-clapping game--told a white classmate that she couldn’t play with her anyway because black children can’t be friends with white children, according to an article in the Forest Park Review. The parents of the black girl, who coincidentally are white, appealed the suspension, but it was upheld by the District 91 Board of Education.

In a letter to parents, the principal of the Western suburban elementary school said the comment fit under a section in the Code of Conduct that prohibits “verbal and/or written threats, intimidation, fear or other comparable conduct toward anyone.”

The father alleges that if his daughter were white she wouldn’t have been suspended. He may have a point. In a related story, the Forest Park Review reveals that District 91 has a disturbing racial disparity when it comes to suspensions. Eighty percent of the students suspended in the school district over the past five years were black, while only 46 percent of students are black. The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is investigating the racial disparity in the school district.

A few last notes… CPS is holding a public hearing on whether to renew 14 charter and schools on Wednesday. Then on Thursday will be a much longer hearing over changes for already approved new schools, including several delayed openings for alternative schools and a proposal to move a Noble Street Charter school to Uptown. This last item, which we wrote about previously, is sure to generate some opposition as it will mean a charter school in a neighborhood on the upswing.

And if you didn’t hear it on WBEZ last week, check out Becky Vevea’s quest to find out whether Chicago schools were ever “good” in an ambitious piece for Curious City.


Photo: Education budget/

50 schools closed, students scattered

May 15, 2015 - 9:44pm
Then - 2013:

Two years ago this month, despite massive protests by parents, teachers and community members, the CPS board voted to close 50 schools at the end of the school year. It was the largest number of schools ever closed at one time in the nation, and impacted some 30,000 students, who either had to move schools or whose schools received displaced students. The rationale? There were several. Mayor Rahm Emanuel initially touted savings but then, when the numbers didn’t pan out as anticipated, he switched his focus to moving kids into better schools. Meanwhile, CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett said that the closing of under-used buildings would allow CPS to focus limited resources on a smaller number of schools.

See: 50 school closings approved at raucous board meeting, Catalyst May 22, 2013.


Students who made the transition from closed schools to different CPS schools have shown only modest improvement in attendance and performance, and only 20 percent transferred to significantly better schools. Most worrying, CPS lost track of over 400 students and does not know where or whether they enrolled in other schools.

See CPS touts minute improvements for students from closed schools, Catalyst March 26, 2014; Tracking 434 missing students after closings, Catalyst February 4, 2015.


Thirty-three of the closed schools remain boarded up and unsold. It is costly to maintain and secure the buildings. What will CPS do with these buildings that used to be centers of their communities?

See: Vacant schools still waiting for a second life, Catalyst March 30, 2015.

Quit complaining about the PARCC

May 15, 2015 - 11:27am

LeeAndra Khan

What is college readiness and how do you get it?

If we know that college readiness leads to access, then we know that readiness is what we need to prepare our students for. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is intended to help us do just that.

The PARCC is designed to tell all of us--schools, principals, teachers, parents and students--what we know and don't know about whether students are learning, what we are doing well and what we need help with. That's a good thing, right? So what's all the fuss about?

We have complained for years about standardized tests not being a true measure of student ability, arguing that these tests are disconnected from the classroom and from how students learn and are traditionally assessed. We have complained that standardized tests don't predict college persistence and success.

Now we have an assessment that is aligned to the standards that we believe in, the Common Core. This assessment that can help us tailor our instructional programs to best suit our student body and individual students as well.

Achieving standards, not compliance

I am a principal who has moved to standards-based grading. I started the conversation with my faculty by talking about what we see when we open a “grade book.” What does it tell us? Traditionally, it tells us how students are performing in categories like homework, quizzes, projects, exams. As a parent, how does this help me? It doesn't.

What you end up finding out is that your student has a 90% in homework, a 90% in projects, 65% in quizzes and 70% in exams.  Instead, what if the categories were specific learning standards? Like: "factoring," "solving equations", "expressions," "polynomials," and "graphing"? Then you would know how well your student is doing on the standards. You could get them the specific help that they need. You would know where to focus. We can then have conversations about teaching and learning instead of compliance and habits.

This is what we hope to learn from the PARCC. We want to know how our students are performing on the standards and how our schools are preparing our students to master skills and standards.

Yes, there are issues with the exam. Schools weren't ready for it. The exam is different from other assessments we have seen. The technology—the PARCC is administered online—is challenging. The exam is challenging; I took a few practice exams and I had to do some real thinking.

I have read many blogs and op-ed articles, and, more important, I live in Chicago. So I have been bombarded with opinions. What I know, though, is that good instructional planning starts with the exam: Design the assessment first and plan your lessons and tasks with the assessment in mind. While "we," as principals and teachers, didn't write the PARCC exam, now that we know how students will be assessed, we can plan accordingly.

Changing classrooms for the better

If you have a quality assessment, you can plan for quality instruction. While many school districts are behind the eight-ball, this is our chance to change what we do for children and how we will address their need to be college ready and therefore have access to college.

For PARCC success and college readiness, the way our classrooms look and function must be different.

We need classrooms where there is authentic student-to student discourse; classrooms where students know the criteria by which they will be assessed; classrooms where students are asked factual, debatable and conceptual questions; classrooms where students can make their thinking visible; classrooms where students ask each other questions; classrooms where students are allowed and encouraged to struggle with new ideas and concepts; classrooms where students think critically, act responsibly, and communicate effectively; classrooms that empower academic risk-takers, thinkers and life-long learners who demonstrate personal resilience, problem-solving skills, and an appreciation of multiple perspectives.

The PARCC exam requires students to have some staying power. It requires grit. It requires students to believe in themselves and what they know.

Coincidentally, this is what college readiness requires.

LeeAndra Khan is the principal of Bronzeville Scholastic Institute.


A growing trend to promote students based on skills, not seat time

May 14, 2015 - 3:07pm

In a suburb just outside of Denver, Principal Sarah Gould stands outside a fifth-grade classroom at Hodgkins Elementary School watching students work. This classroom, she explains, is for students working roughly at grade level. Down the hall, there are two other fifth-grade classrooms. One is labeled “Level 2 and 3,” for students who are working at the second- and third-grade levels. The other is for students who are working at a middle-school level.

But some of these students won’t necessarily stay in these classrooms for the whole school year. The students will move to new classrooms when they’ve mastered everything they were asked to learn in their first class. This can happen at any time during the year.

“We have kids move every day. It’s just based on when they’re ready,” Gould said.

Six years ago, Hodgkins Elementary worked the same way most schools and districts do: Students were assigned to a class for a fixed amount of time and were promoted when the time ended, assuming that they had gained the skills they needed for the next class — and sometimes even if they had not.

Now, the school is part of a growing movement toward “competency-based education,” which replaces “seat time” with skills as the main standard for whether students are promoted.

Competency-based education goes by many names — mastery-based, proficiency-based and performance-based education — but the idea is the same: Students are measured by what they’ve learned, not the amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom.

Innovations in technology and how teachers can monitor students’ progress, along with changes to regulations about how long students must spend in class, have made it possible for schools and districts to adopt competency-based systems in an effort to use students’ time in school more effectively.

At least 40 states have one or more districts implementing competency education, and that number is growing, according to a 2013 KnowledgeWorks report with the most up-to-date numbers on the trend.

In Chicago high schools

In Chicago, several schools have classes that use one of several versions of a curriculum that judges students based on mastery, rather than completion of tasks, said Sarah Duncan, director of the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, which works with neighborhood high schools to ensure students are ready for post-secondary education.

Duncan’s daughter attends Walter Payton High School, one of the city’s top selective high schools, where homework is optional in some math classes and students are given the power to judge whether or not they need the practice.

One of the city’s neighborhood high schools, Juarez High in Pilsen on the Southwest Side, has the most developed system of mastery learning. Juarez calls it “benchmarking.”

Students are given grades based on the number of skills they acquire as opposed to whether they turn in homework. If they do poorly, students are not given Ds and Fs; instead, they keep trying until they master the skill.

Juarez Principal Juan Ocon has explained that he thinks this system is more challenging for students, who cannot just scrape by and turn in low-level work. But Ocon says he has had some resistance from teachers who are used to giving students low grades for not turning in homework.

Duncan, whose organization works with Juarez through a federal School Improvement Grant, said that she thinks rating students on how well they have mastered standards makes a whole lot more sense than rating them on whether they comply with turning in homework.

She notes that using this method also removes the issue of time because students do not move on until they know what they are doing.

“It becomes less of a race,” she says.

Different models on a continuum

But competency-based education doesn’t look the same across the country. In fact, advocates say schools and districts fall on a “competency continuum,” based on which aspects of competency education they’ve implemented.

When advocates talk about a “pure” model of competency education, they describe a model that isn’t bound by grade levels or the Carnegie unit, a measure of the amount of time a student has studied a subject in class. At that end of the spectrum, schools like Hodgkins or New York City’s Olympus Academy have essentially gotten rid of standard K-12 grade levels and only move students to the next learning level if they’ve proven they’ve mastered the concepts. (The schools generally must track students by grade level for funding and state testing purposes, even if their classes are not designed for single-age cohorts. Some advocates, including officials in Hodgkins’s district, want state policies changed to allow competency-based learning schools to track students differently.)

“Education systems in the past have been notorious for jumping on bandwagons, but nothing substantially changes under the surface. In our model, everything has changed under the surface,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer of Hodgkins’s district, Adams County School District 50 in Colorado.

But at the same time, advocates acknowledge that the “full system overhaul” is a heavy lift and that schools need to start from a place that makes the most sense for them based on their time, resources, and community support. For some districts, the clearest path has been to create new schools based on the model, as Philadelphia did this year when it opened three high schools that assign students to workshops rather than classes.

The schools retain some of the traditional school organization, but are working toward replacing standard grading with a detailed, competency-based matrix that lets students know at all times where they stand and helps them understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

Traditional letter grades don’t give students much information about what they know and can do, said Thomas Gaffey, the technology coordinator at Building 21, one of the three Philadelphia schools. The competency-based evaluation he helped design “makes the learning process transparent,” he said.

More often, schools have nestled a competency-based philosophy within their existing operations, maintaining their grade-level arrangements while adapting how they assess student learning.

“We’re a hybrid, which is what I think appeals to people who look at our model,” said Brian Stack, principal of Sanborn High School in New Hampshire. “It’s not vastly different from what they do with a traditional model, but it’s not so far out on the spectrum that it’s unattainable for them to get to where we are.”

At Sanborn, students are still enrolled in traditional classes and still receive credit for class at the end of the year. But all the courses have defined core competencies, and if students don’t gain those competencies, they have to do extra work in order to earn credit instead of simply accepting the lower grade. The school is also in the process of doing away with numerical grades in favor of a scale that ranges from “limited progress” to “exceeding expectations.”

“We grade kids every day,” Stack said. “The difference is, what are you doing with that grade? Are you using that as feedback to tell students how they’re doing and to inform instruction or are you just using it as a determination to say did they know it or not?”

Stack said as much as he would like for his school to be totally unbound by seat time, its model is still dictated by the school calendar.

“If we can’t move kids when they’re ready, we can at the very least try to personalize instruction to the extent possible when they’re with us,” he said.

Holding on to some grade levels

Other schools offer their own reasons for maintaining grade levels while rolling out a competency-based approach.

After a competency-learning pilot in math yielded major gains for California’s Summit Preparatory charter schools, the network adopted the approach in most academic subjects and considered going further.

“We thought eliminating grades was the gold-standard ideal,” said Adam Carter, chief academic officer. “We thought, ‘Those stupid grade levels are holding us back.’ ”

That changed when Summit officials thought through what they would lose by doing away with grade levels and realized that students benefit by belonging to a fixed cohort that advances together. “If students can plug into a project that is rich and full of layers, we don’t need to get rid of grade levels,” he said.

Schools operated by Rocketship, a national charter school network, regroup students four to six times a day based on their academic skills, in a robust example of how educators can use student data to foster competency-based learning.

“But we still have grade levels because of the social-emotional needs of students, especially early elementary,” said CEO Preston Smith. “Five-year-olds need to be with 5-year-olds most of the day so they can develop the life skills they need to be successful.”

Advocates of competency-based learning say the diversity among schools’ approaches should be expected — and appreciated — as more experiments take shape.

“Each school and each district is on its own journey and they’re going to have different entry points,” said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, which champions online and blended learning models that are often part of competency-based programs. “Most school leaders who are implementing this well … had been working on the building blocks for three to six years.”

Lillian Pace, senior director of national policy for KnowledgeWorks, said, “Naturally, you’re going to see a tremendous amount of diversity in implementation. … That’s healthy. We need to try different approaches. We need to figure out ultimately which methods are the most effective.”

For now, the experience of schools like Hodgkins suggests that competency-based education might help engage students in their learning.

When kindergarten teacher Jenn Dickman recently asked for volunteers to share their “data notebooks” with a visitor, her students rushed en masse to grab the binders.

Jayleen Vasquez was first in line. She flipped quickly through the pages—each a mini-progress report of her skills. At the top were headers such as, “I can read a Level D book with purpose and understanding” or “I can read 50 sight words in 100 seconds or less.”

Underneath were columns shaded in colorful crayon hues showing whether she’d met the goal, and if not, how much farther she had to go.

“I passed these. I got those two right and this one I just forgot one. I did not pass this one,” she said, gesturing to one page. Then she concluded with pride: “I passed all this.”

This story was produced as a collaboration among news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project. Reporting was contributed by Ann Schimke for Chalkbeat Colorado, Sue Frey for EdSource California, Dale Mezzacappa for the Philadelphia Notebook and Sarah Karp for Catalyst Chicago.


Take 5: Budgets delayed, theft arrests, cutting Holocaust history

May 14, 2015 - 10:11am

Anxiously awaiting their school budgets, principals received a letter  on Wednesday saying they will get them… sometime later. The letter from interim CEO Jesse Ruiz says that the district won’t release budgets until after Springfield takes some sort of action. With a projected $1.1 billion deficit, whatever the district could hand out now would be a “doomsday” budget and would basically freak people out.

“This letter is to let you know that while we continue to work on individual school budgets for next school year, we do not think it is productive or in the best interest of our school communities to release school budgets that will drastically impact our classrooms if Springfield does not take action,” according to the letter.

Last year, then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett proudly sent budgets out early April, noting that the early release would help principals make hires early and figure out if they needed to lay teachers off. Schools also got a bump of $250 extra per student. In years past, it was not that unusual for the district to wait until May to send out budgets but principals complained that was difficult to find good candidates for teaching positions because they had already been hired by suburban districts.

CPS is in the midst of increasingly tense negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union.

2. Junk-level debt … It’s been a tough week financially for CPS -- and Chicago in general. On Wednesday, just a day after dropping the city’s bond rating to junk status, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the district’s $6.2 billion general obligation debt to the same category.

The ratings company indicated the new Ba3 rating for CPS reflects "increased strain on the district's precarious financial position" in view of last week's Illinois Supreme Court decision overturning state pension reform, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business. It also placed the district on watch, “meaning that further downgrades in the coming months are likely.”

The drop doesn’t trigger any new payments to financial institutions, the Sun-Times notes, “but the worsening of CPS’ ratings could potentially affect negotiations the district has entered into with several banks over those ‘swap’ termination fees.”  Certain borrowing costs could also go up as a result, the Tribune reports. Two weeks ago the district announced it would seek $113 million in bond money for next year’s capital budget -- the smallest amount in decades.

3. Charges finally filed… It has been five months now since the CPS inspector general released his annual report outlining the massive theft of $870,000 allegedly orchestrated by a high school business manager. On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that the following people were charged: Jermaine Robinson, 36, of Chicago; Sidney Bradley, 46, of Chicago; Jonathan McKinney, 38, of Chicago; Albert Bennett, 49, of Carpentersville; and Paul Simmons, 55, of Calumet City, according to Cook County court records. Bradley, Bennett and Simmons are connected to companies that were banned from doing business with CPS at last month’s board meeting.

Employee records show that Robinson worked at Gage Park High School from at least 2009 to 2012. In 2012, he made $104,000. In the 2013 employee roster, he shows up as a 0.5 (half-time) position at both Clark and Gage Park, with an annual salary of $109,168.

According to the inspector general's report, the scheme had many tentacles, but most of the theft was carried out by engineering payment to a number of companies for more than $700,000 in goods and services that were never delivered to the schools. The CPS employee in question is accused of receiving at least $100,000 in kickbacks from one of the deals, according to the inspector general report.

4. Cutting electives … Are schools cutting back electives in order to offer more college and ACT prep courses? That’s the implication from an interesting DNAinfo story about the decision to cut a popular Holocaust history course at Lake View High School. Rosa Lamb, who teaches the class, says "it's mostly because we're cutting down electives in general to make sure we focus on things like ACT scores and college readiness."

Ross learned of the decision a week after getting accepted into a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum program. The museum’s educational program coordinator told DNAinfo it’s a familiar story: "The challenge we're seeing is time limitations are getting more and more restrictive because of the focus on standardized testing and Common Core. People don't necessarily see how this content can perfectly align with the skills students are required to use and will be tested on.”

CPS says decisions to cut electives at Lake View “were influenced by student data and are the basis for final decisions on which classes to offer each year, which is left to the teachers.”

5. Teachers stressed out … A new survey from the American Federation of Teachers on working conditions for teachers finds that nearly three-quarters of teachers are often stressed out at work -- and the biggest source of stress is having to adopt new initiatives without proper training or professional development. Teachers are far less enthusiastic about their professions now than they first started, and thirty percent say they’ve been bullied in the past year -- with the biggest bully likely to be their administrator or supervisor.

The 80-question AFT survey was filled out by more than 30,000 educators and circulated via email and social media between April 21 and May 1. It was created  by both the AFT and the Badass Teachers Association, a group that the Washington Post describes as “aggressively fighting the use of student test scores to measure teacher quality, the rise of charter schools and other market-based education policies.”

The AFT acknowledges the survey wasn’t scientific, but the Post writes that the “results were startling enough that it has asked the U.S. Department of Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to follow up and conduct a valid survey to determine if there is a national problem of stressed-out teachers."

Photo:Education budget/


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