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Updated: 2 hours 51 min ago

Take 5: New rating system OK'd, Oppenheimer awards end, Advance Illinois report

November 20, 2014 - 7:56am

Screaming from the audience, reprimands from Board President David Vitale and security guards carting people out are nothing new to CPS Board Of Education meetings. But the audience was much larger, more engaged and emotionally charged than usual at Wednesday’s meeting, which was held in the late afternoon in the auditorium of Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side. Many parents and teachers thanked board members for moving the meeting into the community, to which Vitale responded that they’re giving serious thought to holding more meetings outside of downtown headquarters.

It was the first opportunity for many to openly ask the Board to seek legal recourse over a series of financial transactions with banks since the publication of a Chicago Tribune investigation concluding they cost millions more than traditional municipal bonds. More than a dozen speakers  -- including mayoral candidate and Ald. Bob Fioretti -- took on that issue during the public comment period, though board members did not say much in response.

Other speakers included many parents from Mollison and Cook elementary schools who  complained about insufficient resources to pay for teachers and other key staff, while two opposing groups from Decatur Classical School debated whether the city should divert $15 million in tax-increment financing to expand to seventh and eighth grades and relocate into the shuttered Stewart Elementary.

In addition CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the district is looking into raising the wage for school employees and those of contractors to $13 per hour, mirroring a new city policy. The Board also approved another change to the district’s school ratings process, which Byrd-Bennett called a “perfecting” of the system already approved in 2013. To show the district had taken account public input on the controversial changes, the CEO asked several school representatives in the audience to stand and read a letter of support from Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The final vote was not immediately available Thursday morning.

2. Goodbye Oppy awards … After 39 years of supporting CPS educators, the Oppenheimer Family Foundation is ending its Teacher Incentive Grant and OPPY achievement awards. Ted Oppenheimer said the work involved in putting together the annual grants has gotten exhausting for him and his wife, Susan. “There’s got to be a better way to support Chicago public school teachers without putting that much pressure on her,” he said.

The Oppenheimers plan to partner with another education organization through which to funnel their money and continue their mission of supporting teacher-developed, hands-on projects in classrooms. Over the years, the foundation has awarded grants totalling $3.7 million to 7,348 teachers.

“To see the enthusiasm of the kids, the excitement of the teachers being able to do projects they would not been able to afford to do otherwise has been very uplifting for us,” said Oppenheimer, a former CPS teacher himself. “And when we have [our award ceremony] each year and hand out the grants, we try to make them feel as positive about being a CPS teacher as possible, as opposed to how they’re being knocked down by politicians. We’re there. We have their backs.”

In its final ceremony this evening, the foundation will award 263 grants totalling $157,000 in addition to recognizing two educators for their work: jazz musician Diane Ellis, a band instructor at Dixon Elementary, and Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president and former chemistry teacher.

3. A complete picture, but not a pretty one overall. There’s good news, albeit sprinkled among plenty of not-so-rosy statistics, in The State We’re In 2014, a report from the group Advance Illinois. While the report doesn’t provide much in the way of “new” news, it offers a comprehensive look at how Illinois compares to other states when it comes to education from preschool through college.

Overall, elementary school students have made small gains in reading and math, with CPS students making gains at a faster rate than students elsewhere. It’s worth noting that the report measures gains made on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, which is a tougher test than the state’s ISAT and is probably more in line with the new Common Core-aligned tests that students will take this school year. Plus, high schools are offering more college-level courses, and more students, including students of color, are graduating.

Yet more students are living in poverty; fewer children are enrolled in preschool; the achievement gap between minority and white students hasn’t narrowed and remains widest for black students; minority students are still less likely to graduate from college; and the cost of college has become prohibitive.  Currently, a family earning $50,000—near median household income for the United States—would have to pay 32 percent of its annual income for one child to attend a public, four-year university in Illinois, the report states. That puts Illinois 47th among the 50 states for college affordability.

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, acknowledges that there’s good and bad news in the report. The circumstances children and schools face are more challenging, given the increase in poverty and the growing number of students who are English-learners.  But the signs of academic progress, however small, show that “if we make the right investments, who knows what we could do?” Steans points out.

4. Illinois spending problem…  The Advance Illinois report points out that Illinois remains shamefully almost-dead-last among the 50 states when it comes to K-12 education funding. Illinois provides just 25 percent of total public education dollars, while other states average 50 percent; and state per-pupil spending on education has fallen by $1.4 billion in the past decade.

The lack of state funding and the funding formula have put many school districts in a bind. Using Illinois State Report Card data, the Chicago Tribune found that, in 2013, 500 of 860 school districts in Illinois spent more than they took in. Overall, school districts were almost $1 billion in the red.

But a big part of that $1 billion was CPS. CPS spent $5.7 billion, while only bringing in $5.4 billion, according to CPS’ report card. Only one year in the past decade did CPS spend less than it took in. However, 2013 was one of the worst years.

Meanwhile, the state average spent per student rose to $12,045, about 2 percent more than the year before. The Chicago Tribune points out that some school districts in Illinois are now spending more than $20,000 per student.

Lawmakers have done nothing to change that equation—and appear poised to continue doing same. The latest funding reform bill Senate Bill 16, , which was bantered about this week in a joint House committee hearing, is “…actually a dead bill, a repository of school funding reform bill language in a vehicle that is stalled and will cease to exist when the 98th General Assembly expires on January 13,” according to Jim Broadway of State School News Service.

5. A new vision … Leaders from school districts across the state say they want teachers to be represented on the state’s board of education, licensure reciprocity with neighboring states and expansion of broadband Internet access.

These were among the 25 education policy recommendations released this week by an alliance of school management organizations. Other suggestions in their report Vision 20/20 include prioritizing effective educators, learning integrity, shared responsibility, and equitable and adequate funding.

“We’re good at knowing what we lobby against [...] but this is an effort to lobby for things we are for,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

The alliance doesn’t take a stance regarding the controversial PARCC assessments set to roll out in the spring. Jason Leahy of the Illinois Principals Association said his group supports “what the elements of PARCC are attempting to do,” such as providing more immediate instructional feedback and growth assessment aligned to Common Core, but urged caution.

“We’ve got to be very careful moving forward with how high-stakes we’re making this assessment,” Leahy said. “Because we’re hooking a lot of big decisions to that.”

 











A campaign for good schools and jobs

November 20, 2014 - 12:00am

Five months from now, Chicago voters will go to the polls to choose whether to send Mayor Rahm Emanuel back to City Hall for another term. It’s no secret that Emanuel is not popular right now among Chicagoans. But whether or not another candidate can ride the wave of discontent into the mayor’s office is still a big question mark. His highest-profile challengers are Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and 2nd Ward Ald. Bob Fioretti, who face an uphill battle to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot, not to mention money to run a serious campaign. But given the mayor’s approval rating of 35 percent in one recent Chicago Tribune poll, don’t write off his challengers yet.

Emanuel has cited the country’s lagging economy as a major factor in his dismal poll numbers. And nowhere is the economic outlook as bleak as in Chicago’s black neighborhoods, where he faces his toughest sell for a second term. Black Chicago turned out in droves for Emanuel, giving him nearly six out of every 10 votes cast in predominantly black wards. That support is now turned on its head: Nearly six in 10 black Chicagoans, according to the Tribune poll, disapprove of Emanuel’s job performance. 

It’s not hard to see why the mayor has lost African-American support. I see the signs in my own Woodlawn neighborhood, where a community mental health clinic shut down, the jobless hang out at 63rd and Cottage Grove, virtually every street has abandoned homes marked with a red “X” and awaiting demolition, and two schools were among dozens shuttered last year. Yes, there are other hopeful signs. A school that took in displaced children is now a specialty STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school, the Grove Parc apartments on Cottage Grove are being revitalized, small businesses have popped up—a coffee shop here, a clothing store there—and pothole-riddled streets have been repaved. But perceptions die hard. 

Consider the citywide statistics below, compiled with the help of The Chicago Reporter from city, Chicago Public Schools and federal data:

Chicago has the highest black unemployment rate among the nation’s five largest cities—25 percent, compared to 19 percent in Philadelphia, 18 percent in Los Angeles, 15 percent in Houston and 14 percent in New York City—based on 2013 figures.

Public sector jobs, traditionally a route to middle-class success for African-Americans, have been vanishing in recent years. But city workers from black ZIP codes account for 40 percent of the 5,000 city jobs lost since 2009 (two years before Emanuel took office).

Those layoffs don’t include the 1,691 school system employees from black ZIP codes who lost their jobs since 2011.

White households with an income of $100,000 a year now outnumber black households by a 6-to-1 ratio.

Responding to these and other numbers, the mayor’s office points to success stories such as Chicago Neighborhoods Now, projected to target $2.9 billion altogether to projects in seven communities that include predominantly black Bronzeville, Pullman and Englewood.

Whatever the statistics, one thing is clear: There is plenty yet to be done to ensure that all Chicagoans have an equitable share of economic and educational opportunity.

The mayor’s popularity in the black community took a major hit with last year’s closings of 50 schools. Then there’s the rest of Emanuel’s education policies: Charters and other privately run schools have mostly opened in black neighborhoods, often in the face of local opposition; black teachers have been hardest hit by layoffs; and the achievement gap remains widest for black students.

In this joint issue of Catalyst In Depth and The Chicago Reporter, Deputy Editor Sarah Karp examines the potential effect on the mayor’s policies on his re-election bid. Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez explains how the Chicago Teachers Union and its progressive allies are seeking to make inroads in City Hall. Sanchez also talked with former mayoral candidate Miguel del Valle about the upcoming election and the state of Latino political power in the city.  And the Reporter’s Ade Emmanuel explores the reasons behind the city’s high black unemployment rate.

Also, Stay tuned for details about “Education: Then, Now, Next. Celebrating 25 years of Catalyst Chicago.” We’ll have a range of activities, from forums around town to an online almanac featuring education highlights. We look forward to your participation in the celebration.

Tough lessons for Rahm

November 20, 2014 - 12:00am

On a Monday evening in September, the normally desolate stretch of 75th Street near Yates Avenue in South Shore was lined with cars. Inside a banquet hall, Charles Kyle sat on a small stage with Karen Lewis and asked her questions about crime, economic development and, most of all, education.

“Renaissance 2010 was a real-estate plan,” Lewis told the crowd in her matter-of-fact style. Lewis was referring to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s controversial plan, aggressively continued by his successor Rahm Emanuel, to open new schools while closing failing ones in an effort to keep middle-class families in the city. “I don’t think many people understand that.”

Though the mayoral election was months away, Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, was gearing up to mount a dramatic challenge to Emanuel in his bid for a second term. As is well-known by now, serious health issues forced Lewis to bow out of the race before she officially entered it. 

Yet Kyle, the moderator for the Exchange Ideas community forum, which sponsors events aimed at improving South Shore, says the concerns that drew so many residents out to hear Lewis and cling to her words still weigh heavily on the neighborhood.

Black communities, more so than any other neighborhoods in Chicago, have been dramatically affected by the education reform policies championed by Emanuel. The neighborhoods are simultaneously struggling with crime, high unemployment, loss of wealth as a result of the housing crisis and a dire need for economic investment.

[See Black Chicago by the numbers]

A case in point: Last year, South Shore became a food desert when the Dominick’s grocery store on 71st Street closed, leaving residents with one neighborhood choice: a weekend farmers market. The neighborhood’s dilemma reflects the economic development problems faced by other black communities in the city that want to lure new businesses and jobs. For example, tax increment finance districts, created to spark economic development, have not generated the same level of revenue on the South Side as elsewhere. Among the city’s active TIFs, not a single district on the South Side is ranked in the top 20 for property tax revenue. 

Meanwhile, the anger about schools came to a head with last year’s closings of 50 schools, virtually all in black neighborhoods. And it is squarely at Emanuel’s doorstep, a potential threat to his re-election hopes: A shocking 77 percent of black voters disapprove of Emanuel’s handling of schools and only 10 percent agree with the policy of increasing funding for charter schools while cutting budgets for neighborhood schools, according to an August 2014 Chicago Tribune poll. 

Education also promises to figure prominently in aldermanic races, where both the teachers union and the group Democrats for Education Reform, which supports Emanuel’s policies, are seeking to field and support candidates who will back their agendas.

Mayoral challenger Bob Fioretti calls Emanuel the most divisive education politician since Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chief who made national headlines for shaking up the district but became mired in allegations of test-score cheating on her watch.

“For the sake of politics, he gave children the shaft,” Fioretti says. 

Another challenger, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, spoke to an audience of teachers union members at a recent dinner and told them that a belief in the importance of neighborhood schools is what sets him apart from Emanuel. Garcia recounted his involvement in a hunger strike that led to the creation of Little Village High School. 

“We stood up for our children and protected them,” Garcia told the audience, after receiving Lewis’ crucial endorsement. “Instead of closing our schools, I believe in successful community schools.”

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says she has not seen the polls that show dissatisfaction with the mayor’s policies. And she strongly disagrees with the notion that neighborhood schools have suffered from disinvestment under Emanuel. The district has spent “tens of millions of dollars” putting new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curricula and International Baccalaureate programs into some neighborhood schools, while providing extra help to failing schools, Byrd-Bennett points out. “These things have made a tremendous difference,” she says.

*    *    *

The dissatisfaction with Emanuel’s education agenda is local evidence of a rising tide against the current version of “school reform.” In New York City, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio rode to victory on campaign promises that he would curb charter expansion and standardized tests, and forge better relationships with teachers and parents.  

Chicago’s mass school closings became symbolic across the country of the disinvestment in neighborhood schools that has come as a result of the privatization movement, says author and education historian Diane Ravitch. “No one had ever done that in one day in America,” she says of the 50 closings. Ravitch, who is also on the education faculty at New York University, is perhaps the most outspoken and well-known critic of the reform movement that she once strongly supported. 

The public is also increasingly resistant to the use of standardized tests, another hallmark of reform. More and more, people have begun to realize that standardized tests are used to justify the closing of neighborhood schools and privatization of school systems, Ravitch says. 

A recent report by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, examined the anti-testing movement. According to the report, in New York City, 60,000 children and their parents refused to take federally mandated state tests in grades three through eight in 2014, up from a few thousand in 2013. More than 1,000 children and families opted out in both Chicago and Colorado, FairTest found, and smaller numbers of families did so in other regions. 

Meanwhile, the charter movement is now more than a decade old and the public is starting to ask hard questions about it, notes Peter Cunningham, who was press secretary for Arne Duncan when Duncan ran Chicago schools and followed him to the U.S. Department of Education. 

“We are further down the path,” says Cunningham, who now runs an organization called Education Post. “Is it enough to say that 29 percent of charter schools out-perform traditional schools? Maybe it should be 40 percent or 50 percent. It is not acceptable for charter schools to be worse.” 

CEO Byrd-Bennett says she is “absolutely agnostic [about] the type of school” and wants to talk instead about high-quality schools. She also points out that her administration has held charter schools accountable by creating a warning list for those not performing well, and closing two charters during her tenure. But the mayor and Byrd-Bennett will not commit to curtailing charter expansion altogether. 

These days, Emanuel talks little about charter schools, perhaps recognizing that they are not politically popular.  No new ones will be approved for next school year, putting the timetable for the approval process outside the timeframe for the run-up to the mayoral election.

*     *     *

Providing a good education for his son has always been a priority for Charles Kyle and his son’s mother, Kyle says. But the issue really hit home when he began to look at schools as his son was nearing kindergarten age. He went to visit Madison Elementary School, which he had attended until sixth grade. Along with familiarity, proximity was a factor: Madison is located less than a block from where he lives. 

Kyle says he would have liked to show his commitment to the neighborhood by sending his son to the local school. But he just wasn’t impressed. “The kindergarten classroom didn’t have sight words on the wall,” he says. The school’s test scores are average to below-average. 

Fewer than half of the children who live in the attendance area go to Madison, which has space for up to 750 students, but enrolled only 233 students at the time Kyle visited. 

So when Kyle’s son was offered a seat at Murray Language Academy, a magnet school two neighborhoods away in Hyde Park, he reluctantly accepted it. Murray has high test scores and also offers foreign language classes—French, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese—every day. 

Kyle’s experience is replicated in families throughout South Shore: About 8,000 school-aged children live in the community, but instead of attending the neighborhood schools, they are spread out among 364 schools across the city. That means more than half of the city’s public schools have at least one student from South Shore, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis.

Yet the exodus hasn’t resulted in children traveling to substantially better schools. Among those children who leave the neighborhood to attend school, only 21 percent are enrolled in top schools. A larger number, 25 percent, are enrolled in schools with test scores that are among the worst in the city. African-American students are more likely to travel to mediocre or poor-performing schools than any other group of children.

The phenomenon is not new. For years, the number of students traveling outside their neighborhood to school has been on the rise. And one point in Emanuel’s favor is that a smaller percentage of students are now making the trip to low-achieving schools than under Daley, according to a Catalyst analysis. 

Still, Byrd-Bennett says she is “very worried” about the numbers and says the district needs to do a better job of sharing information with parents. “Sometimes schools appeal to parents because they are quiet or calm, but they are not high-quality [educationally],” she says. 

Last year’s school closings may have aggravated the trend: Two-thirds of the schools designated to take in displaced children experienced a significant drop in state test scores—an indicator that children from closed schools perhaps fared no better academically in their new ones.

*     *     *

Another bone of contention in black communities is the diminishing public input and control of decisions about schools in African-American neighborhoods. 

When Emanuel walked into office, only three of the schools in South Shore and South Chicago, the community next door, were run by private entities. Now, eight of 21 schools, or about 38 percent, are either charter schools, contract schools or turnaround schools, which are managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership.  

A telling example is evident in South Shore. Val Free, executive director of the South Shore Planning Coalition, recalls the opening of Great Lakes Academy, a charter school that is technically in South Chicago but draws South Shore students. 

Free feels that Great Lakes was forced upon the community unnecessarily. Virtually all the neighborhood elementary schools in the surrounding area are underutilized. While many are low-performing schools, one of them, Powell Elementary, earned the highest academic rating last year. 

“Why would you try to dilute Powell by adding a charter?” Free says. “It seems like sabotage.”

Neither the planning coalition nor the South Shore Community Action Council—one of several such entities created by CPS to weigh in on school decisions—supported the Great Lakes plan. Yet school board members approved it and the charter opened its doors last school year.

Free says her group asked the charter operator to sign a community benefits agreement that would stipulate having a certain number of people from the neighborhood on the school’s board, in the classroom and in other jobs, such as janitorial. 

Great Lakes Charter operator Katherine Myers was resistant, Free says. At one point, the charter did offer spots on the board to community members. Yet when Free was nominated to serve, Myers refused because Free had opposed the opening of the school. 

Despite how she felt about the school, Free says she would have been fair on the board out of a desire to have the students get a good education. (Myers did not return numerous calls from Catalyst.)

Henry English, the head of the Black United Fund, which supports local non-profits and is active in the community, says he is disappointed when he sees the teachers walking through the doors of Great Lakes. 

“They seem short on experience,” he says. “Great Lakes did not hire any teachers from the community… that is for sure.” 

*     *     *

The impact of school actions—closings, turnarounds in which most teachers end up losing their jobs, and charter expansion—on the black teaching force is a major flashpoint for many in the black community. African-American teachers have borne the brunt of layoffs as a result of closings, since the teaching force at shuttered schools was largely made up of veteran black teachers, according to an analysis of Illinois teacher service records. Meanwhile, the new, privately run schools have tended to hire younger, white teachers.

Citywide, 1,134 black educators—teachers, social workers and school counselors—are gone from the CPS payroll in recent years, according to CTU data. (The numbers include retirees.)  In South Shore, the number is 91. These job figures help fuel antagonism toward charters and turnaround schools. 

What typically has happened to schools in South Shore and other black communities is the exact opposite of what has taken place in white and Latino communities. 

Take Lakeview, a mostly white North Side community that, like South Shore, sits on the lakefront. Here, 70 percent of children attend their neighborhood school. Of those students who travel outside the community, nearly 90 percent land at a high-achieving school. No charters or contract schools operate in Lakeview. No schools have closed or undergone a turnaround. And since 2011, 140 additional teachers are working in schools in the neighborhood.

The contrast in what has happened in different communities has been by design. Andrea Zopp, a school board member and head of the Chicago Urban League, told a City Club audience recently that charters and other privately run schools were opened in neighborhoods that needed “quality options.” 

District officials have also maintained that school closings were intended to make the school system more efficient by shuttering buildings with too few children, and that the closings were done at one time to minimize disruption over multiple years.  

But the closings were still a bitter pill for many to swallow. And as for choice, education organizer Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization argues that what people want is good neighborhood schools, not a million options to sift through. Brown is also national coordinator for Journey for Justice, an alliance of activists who have fought against school closings, turnarounds and charter expansion in communities of color.

“It has ripped black communities apart, and people are becoming more sophisticated and angry,” Brown says.

*     *     *

Last year, Kyle worked in an afterschool program at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn, a school designated to take in displaced students from Sexton. Kyle says that the students in his program felt as if they were being moved around like pawns on a chess board.

“No one asked them what they felt about the merger,” Kyle says. “They didn’t have a choice at all, and they felt abandoned by the staff at their old school.”

The first few months at Fiske were rough, Kyle recalls. Students fought and the staff struggled to maintain discipline. Eventually, the environment calmed down. But Kyle worries that the disappointment the students had in the education system will linger.

Like others, Free has mixed feelings about the closings. The schools were failing and “not producing global citizens,” she says. Free, like so many parents, decided not to send her son to a neighborhood high school; instead, she enrolled him at the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, a good 6 miles from South Shore.

Yet what didn’t make sense to her, and still does not, is that immediately after closing schools, neighborhoods with a lot of half-empty buildings got new schools thrust on them. 

Byrd-Bennett acknowledges that some community groups are still unhappy about the closings, but adds that parents of displaced students have told her they are pleased with the education their children are getting. 

According to CPS statistics, 74 percent of welcoming schools saw their enrollment fall by more than 10 students. Byrd-Bennett said she is not familiar with those figures.

*     *     *

When Emanuel talks about schools now, he emphasizes new programs and statistics that have improved, like graduation rates. The five-year graduation rate this year was 69 percent, up from 58 percent when he came into office.

Kyle says the statistic does not resonate for him or people in his community. Despite areas of South Shore that are wealthier, the community still has blocks crowded with abandoned apartment buildings, boarded-up businesses, high unemployment and too many young guys hanging out with nothing to do all day.  

The graduation rate for black males in Chicago still hovers at about 50 percent and is still the lowest compared with other racial groups. A shocking 92 percent of black male teens in Chicago are unemployed, according to a January 2014 Chicago Urban League report.

Sitting at a coffee shop one day, Kyle looks out the window and points to a young man whose shoulders are slouched as he peers down the block.  Kyle says the boy’s name is Donte and he worked with him at Fiske.  “I told him to go home, but look, he is back out there,” he says. 

The combination of dropouts and high unemployment means that illegal activity is commonplace. This reality intertwines with other concerns, including education and the ability to attract businesses to the neighborhood. 

It becomes a cycle that is hard for a community to break. “I never saw a good school surrounded by a depressed community,” says Kyle.

karp@catalyst-chicago.org

Another change proposed to rating policy

November 17, 2014 - 11:47am

In August of 2013, CPS officials announced they would make the school rating system more comprehensive, looking at multiple factors, including college enrollment and how particular groups of students were doing, and change the ratings from three "levels" to five "tiers" to make it more nuanced.

But this new rating system does not seem to be working out.

Schools have yet to see the results for 2013-14 and now CPS is announcing yet another change. The CPS board meeting agenda posted this morning includes an amendment to the comprehensive performance policy that would retain a three-level system but would add "Level 1+" and "Level 2+."

Also, it adds a paragraph that would allow CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to keep a school to at "Level 1+"  (the highest level) or "Level 1" if the school experienced a “significant event.” Significant events are defined as a change in student population, teaching staff, principal, academic program or “any other event that had a significant impact.”

That Byrd-Bennett could overrule the rating system’s results would be unprecedented. It is sure to raise the ire and suspicion of principals and parents who are already suspicious of the ratings because they are late. Even before the more recent amendments were announced, one principal said he thinks that CPS officials are trying to protect particular schools that didn’t do well under the new policy.

In a statement released Monday afternoon*, Byrd-Bennett said that "schools that experienced a significant change that may have contributed to a lower rating deserve a full school year to recover without an impact to their rating.  By giving schools a one-year reprieve, we are recognizing the effect of the change on students, teachers and leadership without unfairly burdening the school with the additional requirements of a lower level school.”

District officials said the new ratings will be released "in the coming weeks" but did not specify when. The ratings are usually released in late September and given to parents as part of a school progress report on the November report card pickup days, which were last week.

This would be the second major change since CPS adopted a comprehensive rating system. In August of this year, CPS already had decided to give schools two ratings, one based on multiple measures and the other based solely on test scores. Schools get to claim the higher of the two ratings. Many suspected these changes were made to protect high-performing schools that didn’t do well on the other factors. ​

Ratings are used by parents to help choose schools. Principals say they are frustrated that the ratings are not available yet, especially if they are expecting to do better, because they use the ratings to market their schools.

The ratings are also used by officials as they decide what schools to close or turn around.

*This story has been updated to include Byrd-Bennett's statement.

Take 5: Discipline reporting push, CPS schools in football semi-finals and Senate Bill 16

November 17, 2014 - 10:43am

Young advocates will go to Springfield this week to press lawmakers to pass a bill that would make it mandatory for school districts to release information on punitive discipline practices. Jose Sanchez, coordinator for the student group VOYCE, says the group would like to see the legislation passed in the veto session. The bill calls for the reporting of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and student retention. It also requires school districts to report law enforcement involvement, including arrests--something already required by the federal government. And it prohibits schools from charging students fees for misbehavior, a controversial practice that the Noble charter schools once used but abandoned last year under political pressure.

The bill also calls for school districts to report when students are removed to alternative settings. In revising its Code of Conduct this past Spring, CPS officials created a loophole that allows schools to transfer students to what is called a Safe School--a special school historically reserved for expelled and dangerous students awaiting expulsion--as an alternative to expulsion, without any due process, Catalyst reported this summer. Without this bill, it will be near impossible to find out how many students were given this "disciplinary reassignment."

Under the bill, schools with the highest rates of exclusionary discipline would need to submit improvement plans to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Sanchez says that some school superintendents are pushing against the bill. But he thinks the stories of students who have been suspended for small things or things that they couldn’t help, like being near a fight but not in it, have helped to convince lawmakers that some light needs to be shined on the issue.

After years of having advocates fight for the information, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett released school-level suspension and expulsion data. However, that data, which cover the first semester of last year, have not been updated. Byrd-Bennett also announced a revision of the Student Code of Conduct that made suspension and expulsion the punishment of last resort. However, Sanchez says he still hears stories of students being suspended for what seems like insignificant reasons. For example, one boy, who is struggling since his father passed away, was suspended for missing school.

2. Three cheers… The football teams of Simeon and Phillips made it to the state semi-finals--the first time two public league teams have been in the final four, reports DNA info. The last public league team that made it this far was Hubbard’s 2005 team,  and the last state championship won by the public league was Robeson in 1982. Simeon’s coach Dante Culbreath says that the achievements show the “growth in the public league.”

Phillips seems to be beating the odds in other ways. It is a turnaround school, managed by the Academy of Urban School Leadership. Though ratings aren’t out for this year, it earned the district’s top rating last year. Yet like other public high schools in Chicago, it still is losing students. This year only 614 enrolled, which makes fielding a strong football team even more impressive. Simeon, the career and technical education school attended by the Bulls' Derrick Rose, has a middle rating and has been able to maintain a healthy student body of 1,400 students, though it also has lost students.

The importance of a strong sports program was underscored in a 2009 Catalyst story on the achievement gap between black male students and other racial/gender groups. Researchers say organized athletics can provide a sense of structure and discipline for youngsters. “There’s a point when you realize that stability is really the beginning point of academic achievement,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sports in Society, a Boston-based sports research and advocacy group.

3. Bring them back… WBEZ’s Curious City returned to the question of whether CPS should bring back truancy officers, a position the district eliminated more than 20 years ago to help balance its budget. Curious City had previously looked into the history of truancy officers, but in this update to that story, the reporter actually interviews someone who used to have the job.

Patrick Nelson, who was a full-time truancy officer in the 1990s, offers an interesting and timely perspective. He says he tried to be “as positive and uplifting with children as possible, to show them that someone cared — and noticed — they were missing.”

This summer, a state-appointed task force suggested CPS create a position similar to truancy officer. These “attendance coordinators” would go out to find absent students fortified with a background in psychology or social work and training in data analysis and counseling.   The task force was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation into the “empty desk epidemic." Catalyst reported earlier this year that chronic absenteeism and truancy increased in 2013, despite all the additional attention, though the numbers fell slightly last school year. Nelson told Curious City he thought the state was asking for too much in the catch-all “attendance coordinator” position: “You put too much plumbing in the works, you’re gonna get clogs.”

4. Senate Bill 16's future... Lawmakers are set to take up Senate Bill 16 -- the proposed legislation to revamp how schools are funded -- on Tuesday at the start of the Legislature’s fall veto session. But as an Associated Press article points out, it’s unlikely to get very far before the January inauguration of Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

Republicans in the Illinois House criticized their Democratic colleagues for excluding the GOP from summer meetings about SB 16. “Sadly, the way in which the majority party presented it and went into hiding was a terrible disservice to taxpayers and families whose children are part of the public education system,” said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

Meanwhile the parent group Raise Your Hand came out against the bill over the weekend, noting it brings no additional revenue to schools. “Our schools are severely underfunded and merely shifting inadequate dollars won’t change that,” Wendy Katten posted on the group’s Facebook page.  Raise Your Hand is asking legislators to pledge to support a funding reform bill only if it “includes a fair weighted formula, significant new funding for education and adequate resources for students with disabilities.”

5. Four more years … The U.S. Department of Education last week extended waivers for states to avoid compliance with the tough 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Forty-one states, including Illinois, had gotten waivers -- which were set to expire next year but can now be extended for up to four years, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Politico says the long extension “would carry the Obama administration’s policies well into the next presidential administration and possibly buy time for a congressional fix to the law,” which requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

To get the waivers, states must do more to show how they plan to intervene in low-performing schools, but, as Education Week reports, “they won’t have to provide any data to show their new systems are actually improving student achievement.”

Anne Hyslop, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit consulting organization in Washington, told EdWeek it doesn’t seem like the federal government is “really making significant changes [...] They are not necessarily doing anything new or ambitious, they are not collecting any new outcome data. It's kind of just the same old, same old."

 

 

 

 




Most teachers get high ratings in second year of new system

November 14, 2014 - 10:05am

More teachers evaluated under the district’s new rating system scored in the top two categories as “proficient” or “excellent” in the classroom, with elementary school teachers scoring higher than their counterparts in high schools.

The scores from evaluations conducted last year are from the second cycle of the REACH (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago) Students system, which takes student test scores into account as well as classroom observations.

Non-tenured teachers, who had already been rated once using REACH, scored better than the small subset of tenured teachers who were being evaluated for the first time.

In the first cycle, only non-tenured teachers were rated with REACH; in last year’s second cycle, about 10 percent of tenured teachers were included.

This school year, in the third cycle, all tenured teachers will be evaluated and student performance on tests will account for 30 percent of ratings. (In the first two years, tests accounted for 25 percent of ratings.)

According to CPS data from the second cycle:

- 65 percent of the 7,031 evaluated teachers were rated proficient or excellent. In comparison, just 58 percent received these high ratings a year earlier.

- About 59 percent of tenured teachers were rated excellent or proficient, compared to 68 percent of non-tenured teachers.

- More than 8 percent of tenured high school teachers were rated unsatisfactory – the lowest category – compared to about 5 percent of elementary school teachers.

District officials said the improved performance of non-tenured teachers could be because they have had “additional experience with the evaluation […] Also, previous evaluations enabled principals and assistant principals to improve feedback and develop targeted support for teachers.”

Jennie Jiang, a research analyst at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research who has studied the new system, cautioned against comparing the ratings of non-tenured versus tenured teachers, because the pool of tenured teachers who were evaluated using REACH included only those who’d been rated poorly under the previous system or who hadn’t received any rating a year earlier.

“These are the teachers who were already struggling in the previous system or, for whatever reason, they had no rating,” she said. “We’re not really getting a sense of what ratings for tenured teachers would look like.”

Meanwhile, CPS officials said they are still looking into why ratings for elementary and high school teachers were different. Jiang said the issue merits further analysis, but offered some possible explanations. She said the observation rubric – known as the CPS Framework for Teaching – was orginally piloted more in elementary schools than in high schools, meaning that elementary school principals and teachers are more familiar with it.

In addition, in interviews with teachers, Jiang and her colleagues have found that more high school teachers complained that their principals were unfamiliar with their specific subject area – which could have negatively impacted the observations.

“Teachers don’t feel that their principals understand their specialization, which we heard more at high schools than elementary schools,” she said.

Jiang further added that "it’s easier in elementary schools to really observe that a student is engaged. Kids tend to get excited, and there are visual cues of engagement,” Jiang said. “High school students are different. They could be listening, but maybe they’re not showing it as much.”

In a report released last year, Jiang and her colleagues at the Consortium found that most teachers and administrators thought REACH provides helpful feedback. But researchers pointed to several important challenges, including an increased workload for principals and anxiety among teachers about using test scores as part of evaluations.

The consortium plans to release a follow-up to the report in two weeks.

Questions about delay

CPS released ratings to individual teachers on Oct. 30, more than a month after teachers got the data last year. In the weeks prior to receiving the ratings, many teachers had expressed anxiety over not knowing how they performed. Though teachers got immediate feedback from the observations, they did not know how students’ test scores affected their cumulative ratings.

The frustration mounted after principal observations for this year’s evaluations began in late September.

“No one has been clear on when we’re getting them,” one teacher said during a study group on the CPS Framework for Teaching last month organized by the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center.

(In collaboration with CPS, the Quest Center offers teachers regular study groups on different parts of the Framework, which is the rubric principals use to grade teacher performance.)

In a statement on the Chicago Teachers Union web site, officials called the delay “entirely unprofessional and unacceptable.”

“Educators started to receive new observations in their classrooms without full information from the previous year,” according to the statement. “Educators have a right to accurate, thorough and timely feedback at the end of a given school year so that over the summer, they can either begin or seek out new professional learning opportunities and state the process of adjusting their plans for the following school year based on complete feedback."

CPS officials said it took longer to release the data this year because of the higher number of teachers being evaluated.

"Adding these teachers increased the amount of time necessary to review and incorporate the data into composite scores," a district spokesperson said in a statement.

Common sense on Common Core

November 13, 2014 - 12:34pm

David Coleman and his team developed the Common Core State Standards in slightly less than a year between 2009 and 2010.  That quick turnaround time begs the question, “How complicated can this be?” 

But in the four years since, education’s mandarins have produced landfills-worth of material to explain and promote the new standards--graphs, charts, curriculum documents, reference material, frameworks and guidelines.  Textbook publishers rushed out “old wine in new bottles,” by slapping on labels proclaiming, “Aligned with the Common Core!”  Yet no one has comprehensively piloted this new paradigm, and no one can provide enough longitudinal evidence on the effectiveness of any particular instructional approach for it. 

The end result is a web of complexity that too often results in pedagogical overload for administrators and classroom teachers who will have to do the work “in the trenches” of transforming teaching and learning.

Yet what the education world needs right now is a dose of perspective and common sense when it comes to the Common Core.

Putting content into context

First, the shift to Common Core-focused instruction will have to take into account two contradictory realities. One is education’s obsession with the amount of content students should process and remember. For confirmation of this, just skim through any of today’s 800 to 1,300-page high school textbooks. Juxtaposed with this focus on content is another reality: An unlimited amount of information is available, 24 hours a day, from practically anywhere on the planet, via the Internet.  Further, the amount of information, on any subject, is increasing at almost an exponential rate.  Soon, technology will not only be able to provide content, but to furnish the answers to questions about content.

As a result, it will become paramount for students to learn how to put content into a productive context, rather than just know what that content is. The justification for the Common Core rests on one overriding, hoped-for outcome: That students will develop the ability to think, not just remember information.

As I deconstruct what David Coleman and his team have wrought, I believe that the foundation of Common Core rests upon thinking skills represented by about two dozen key terms. Each of these terms—such as analyze, evaluate, develop, main idea, infer, theme and others—represents a specific cognitive process required for learning within the structure of Common Core.  Understanding what these terms actually mean is more important than being able to recite simple definitions.  For example, “metaphor” is often defined as, “A comparative not using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’ ” However, if you ask a student, “What does that actually mean?” you will often get a simple shrug of the shoulders.  Indeed, “rock is a stone” is a comparative, but not a metaphor. 

The more useful meaning of metaphor can be expressed as, “understanding one thing in terms of another,” or describing something as being something else, even though it is not actually that something else, as in 'He is the black sheep of the family.”

For students who enter school with a vocabulary deficit, like many of those in Chicago Public Schools, it is all the more important for them to grasp the concepts inherent in each of the key terms that are the foundation of the Common Core’s thinking skills.

Giving ‘teaching to the test’ a positive spin

While the upcoming Common Core-aligned assessments such as the PARCC will focus exclusively on passages of text as the content of their tests, application of the thinking skills referenced above is not limited to the written word. “Content,” per se, can be anything--students can analyze a piece of music, develop an hypothesis, interpret data, determine a common theme that flows through an historical period, compare or contrast two images on the same subject, evaluate the claims made on a website, and so forth. 

Each of those italicized words is embedded repeatedly in the Common Core English Language Arts standards and collectively they form the basis of PARCC questions and prompts. Lesson content used to develop students’ understanding can even come from the students’ own cultural and social contexts, not being limited to strictly academic material.  Proficiency with these skills increases students’ development into competent adults.

Bottom line: The Common Core was devised not only as a way to level the pedagogical playing field from state to state, but also to prepare students to grow up as capable adults in an increasingly complex, global 21st Century economy and society that will require them to imagine things that do not yet exist, produce products and methods that matter to someone else, and communicate effectively with people different from themselves.

So if teaching through the prism of Common Core is intended to deepen students’ capacity to actually think in a variety of ways, and if assessments such as the PARCC actually measure to what degree this has been attained, perhaps “teaching to the test” could take on a more positive gloss.

 Ultimately, the Common Core has the potential for encouraging a greater interest in life-long learning as our children will live in a more dynamic world that will require constant adaptation to new and unfamiliar experiences.  In spite of some current efforts to derail the implementation of Common Core, the train has left the station. If past precedents regarding educational reform are any indication, Common Core, or some manifestation of it, is on track to remain with us for at least the next decade.

Bruce Taylor is a consultant and the author of  two books on arts education: "The Arts Equation"  and "Common Sense Arts Standards." He has served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department and as the director of education for Washington National Opera.

Take 5: Emanuel on risky bond deals, charter closure, selective segregation, teacher ed

November 13, 2014 - 9:20am

In response to the Chicago Tribune series detailing how CPS is paying millions more as a result of risky bond deals, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tells reporters it’s too late to do anything about it: “Unfortunately there’s a thing called a contract.”

But as the Tribune points out -- and as the Chicago Teachers Union has been arguing for some time now -- the city could do as other government agencies around the country have done and seek legal recourse to recoup some of the money. “A federal rule requires banks to ‘deal fairly’ with governments when they underwrite government bonds,” the article notes. The investigation showed how bank officials failed to fully disclose the risks of the deals and drew a parallel to a suit filed by New Jersey’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. The suit alleges that its underwriter, UBS, “fraudulently urged the agency to temporarily change the terms of its contract so there would be no cap on the interest rate.” Attorneys for the state agency say the issue that came to light only after the contract was signed. That case is awaiting trial.

The story ends with a quote from Brad Miller, an attorney who has worked with the CTU on urging the city to take action on related deals known as interest-rate swaps: “I don’t think CPS needs to show fraud, just that the banks left out information about what could go wrong that might have scared CPS off.”

2. Easy come, not so easy go… An Ed Week story on charter school closures reminds us of another reason it would be good for the district to release school ratings that have been delayed with little explanation. These ratings help determine whether charter schools will be placed on academic warning or, if already on the warning list, allowed to stay open. Schools on the warning list get one year to improve. Last year, four campuses were put on the warning list and parents don’t yet know if the schools will remain open.

The story points out the difficulties of closing any school, charter or not, and highlights one instance in which an Indianapolis charter school was shut down after a cheating scandal. There, the mayor’s office, which serves as the authorizer, reached out to each family and held enrollment fairs where parents could talk to other schools and enroll their children on the spot.

One question for districts is the timing of announcements if charters are to close. If a closure is announced in the fall, sometimes teachers check out for the rest of the year. But waiting till spring cuts close to the deadlines to apply to new schools for the coming fall.  

Parents in Chicago would likely want to know soon because the application deadline for selective enrollment and magnet schools is December 12.

3. Where are the white kids? “Curious City” on WBEZ asks why so few white children attend public schools in Chicago and notes that just half of white children in the city attend public schools. The district’s white enrollment is just 9 percent.

The story doesn’t raise any new points about Chicago’s long-standing racial segregation. It features two white families to tell the larger story. One white family sent its children to the University of Chicago Laboratory School – an expensive private school where Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his own children. The other family sent its children to public school, Ray Elementary in Hyde Park. The first family said it has nothing against public schools, but that the elite Lab School was more convenient because one parent works at the university. The second family chose public schools for political reasons, saying they “believe in public education and always knew their children would attend CPS.”

In both families, at least one child attended the public Whitney Young for high school. The story reiterates the point that white children are disproportionately represented at elite selective and magnet schools. Other public schools are hyper-segregated, high-poverty and close to 100 percent African American.

4. Not just a Chicago problem... Chicago isn’t the only big city with selective public schools that disproportionately enroll white and Asian students.

A story from the Gotham Gazette looks at the admissions policies of districts with the highest number of elite public high schools -- Chicago, New York and Boston. Of the three, New York City has the biggest demographic mismatch. Nearly 60 percent of students at these high schools are Asian and another 24 percent are white, though whites and Asians are just 30 percent of the total student body.

Chicago is the only district of the three that reserves seats for students from low-income areas, so the racial makeup of these schools does more closely match the overall demographics. (The end of Chicago’s federal desegregation decree led to a whitening of CPS’s top schools.)

Ultimately, the article points out, the debates around admissions policies across the nation boil down to equity. “Are the terms of access to these scarce and coveted institutions fair - and where does the measurement of fairness begin?”

5. Teachers get easy As… A new report by a group that some educators love to hate, the National Council on Teacher Quality, says that it’s too easy to get A’s in university schools of education. The report states that an average of 44 percent of education majors qualified to graduate with honors, while only 30 percent of all graduating students got that distinction. One reason is that education courses were more likely to dole out easy assignments than other kinds of courses.

Like other reports by NCTQ, the study has been denounced by college programs and teacher unions that say the organization relies on faulty data and assumptions, according to a story in Inside Higher Ed. NCTQ developed its own “rigor standard” to rate the colleges, but most of the Illinois schools on the list have a caveat because the final score was “derived from less precise data.”

While it might easier to get good grades in teacher education programs, Illinois, like other states, have taken steps to make it harder to become a teacher. In 2010, Illinois raised the cut scores needed to pass the basic skills test, limited (but later scrapped) the number of times teachers could take the tests, and now requires teachers to pass a new performance assessment.

School quality ratings delayed, but no details on why

November 12, 2014 - 7:17pm

Parents picking up their children’s report card today and on Thursday were supposed to find out their school’s rating based on a new, more comprehensive accountability system, but for some reason CPS officials have not released the ratings, nor did they give out the colorful school progress report parents are accustomed to receiving.

Principals use the ratings as a way to market their schools. Also, parents use them to decide which schools to apply to or whether they want to keep their child at their current school. Applications for selective enrollment and magnet schools are due on December 12.

Since 2008, when CPS started rating schools in an attempt to help parents choose among them, the ratings have been released in early fall. The new rating system, which was announced in August 2013, has five levels rather than three and takes into account more factors, including college enrollment and how many students took tests.

In response to questions about why the ratings have not been released yet, CPS issued a vague statement: “CPS has spent considerable time reviewing data and examining the impact of this new system, which has caused a delay in releasing the new ratings. As a result, the school ratings were not included in student report cards. We expect to release more information on the new ratings in the near future."

The lack of information has fueled speculation that the ratings are being withheld for political reasons or because the ratings are not what leaders expected.  One principal said the delay raises questions about the validity of the ratings.

Parent Andrew Kaplan plans to go to next week’s board meeting to press the district to release the information. Kaplan’s daughter attends Mitchell Elementary School in West Town. He says the school's attendance rate, among other indicators, has improved. 

“They (the principal and staff) worked their tail off,” says Kaplan, who is involved in the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand. “We expect to do really well. I want them to get credit for their work.”

Kaplan also says it is ridiculous that the ratings are not out since applications for selective schools are due soon. “If there is a problem, CPS owes us some transparency,” he says. “Parents use these ratings to make important decisions about their children’s education.”

Morrill Principal Michael Beyer says that school ratings affect entire communities. He is working with local housing groups to try to bring in developers to rehab foreclosed homes. His school’s neighborhood of Gage Park was hit hard by the housing crisis, he says.

Morrill was rated Level 3, the lowest level, based on 2012-2013 data, but Beyer believes his school will be a Tier 2 school—the second to the highest rating—based on last year’s progress.

“What bothers me is that we are stuck at Level 3,” he says. “We are still considered by parents as a Level 3 school.”

Many suspected that there were problems with the new rating system when, this past August, district officials announced  that they were making a big alteration. After originally touting the fact that the new rating system was more comprehensive and was based on academic research, CPS officials asked the board to allow some schools to be rated solely on test scores.

Under the revised policy, schools will get two ratings: one based on multiple factors and one based solely on test scores. The higher of the two ratings would be their official rank in the district’s 5-tier system.

Under the new performance policy, growth on the NWEA exam counted for 45 percent of the school’s score, but Chief of Accountability John Barker told the board at the time that schools that already have high achievement would have a harder time achieving more growth in scores.

In addition to using the rating system to help parents, the district uses the ratings to to decide which schools will be recommended for closure or turnaround. CPS is now in the second year of its five-year moratorium on closings.

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Take 5: CTU's fight against risky financial deals, ed policy under Rauner

November 10, 2014 - 10:44am

Chicago Teachers Union leaders have repeatedly warned about the district’s high-risk financial dealings. Now, the Chicago Tribune weighs in with a story on “auction rate” swaps that will cost the district about $100 million more than it would have using traditional, fixed-rate bonds.

The story -- part of a series that continues this week -- says that financial advisors did not clearly spell out the financial risks, at least according to the documents the district turned over after the newspaper hired attorneys. The interest rate swaps and the auction rate swaps are part of the same series of deals, says Saqib Bhatti, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute who has been providing information to the CTU about the swaps.

In fact, the Tribune has nifty little videos explaining how these deals work. So far, though, the Tribune hasn’t mentioned that the CTU has been harping on these deals for years, though Bhatti says he was interviewed by the reporters. 

In an interview with Catalyst Chicago, Bhatti says that it is clear that the banks misled district officials and that they could join other government agencies who have sued over them. “It is clear that CPS dove in head-first and went deeper than other borrowers,” Bhatti says. “Now that we can see what happened we need to try to get out of these deals.”

The district disagrees with the Tribune’s analysis, and the main financial advisor highlighted in the article accused the reporters of singling her out because she’s a woman. David Vitale, a top district administrator at the time the debt was approved, championed the complex financing method and told reporters he understood the risks. “I am not a neophyte,” he said.

What is really troubling to Bhatti is that CPS hired an outside firm to do an analysis of these deals to justify getting into them, rather than to consider the options for getting out of them.

2. More PARCC testing backlash The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) hasn’t budged on its refusal to delay the new Common Core standardized test this spring, despite parents’ and CPS officials’ requests. In fact, state Superintendent Chris Koch recently reminded district officials that “opting out of the PARCC is not an option.”

But a  Sun-Times story points out that at least six other states do allow parents to opt out. And “even more remain mum when parents do so” including New York City, where thousands of children refused to take their annual state test last year with no repercussions.

It’s unclear how or whether governor-elect Bruce Rauner will address parents’ concerns about the PARCC and over-testing. As governor, Rauner will appoint new ISBE members who share his vision on education policy -- and who will be responsible for hiring a schools chief. Still, if the new governor decides to side with parent groups, delaying the PARCC could come too late in the school year and throw districts’ testing calendars into upheaval.

Chicago isn’t alone in concerns about the PARCC. The New York Times this weekend reported on how school officials across the country are responding to the pushback from parents on over-testing. Meanwhile, a survey by the Center on Education Policy found that 75 percent of 187 school system leaders who responded “said they face either major or minor challenges [with the PARCC], including a lack of computers with adequate processing speed, bandwidth and personnel who can handle technical problems during testing,” according to a Washington Post story. 

3. What will Rauner do?  The results of a non-binding referendum on the ballot last week showed that more than 74 percent of voters support the idea of providing more money to poor students. But what is unclear is how they want to distribute that money to students.

Senate Bill 16 would redistribute money from wealthy school districts to poor ones. But Rauner said during the campaign that he would not support the bill, which passed the Senate and which House Democrats have been meeting about for the past few months. Rauner said he did think the education funding formula should change, but did not spell out specifics. Democrats could try to push it through during the veto session, but State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia said she likely won’t bring it up until the new January session.

According to the Illinois Review, a conservative website, 120 superintendents are calling on Rauner to support SB 16. Two of them mentioned are Peoria and Elgin. But several school boards, including two in Evanston, have come out against it.  

Need help understanding SB16? Catalyst publisher Linda Lenz will moderate a forum on the bill this Tuesday afternoon at the Union League Club of Chicago. Speakers include: Andrea Zopp, a CPS school board member and president of the Chicago Urban League; Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois; State Sen. Daniel Biss; Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability; Dr. Diane Rutledge, executive director of the Large Unit District Association; and Juan Salgado of Instituto del Progreso Latino.

4. Education policy under the GOP.  Illinois isn’t the only place that could see significant changes in education policy under new Republican leadership. Come January, Republicans will be in the governor’s offices of at least 31 states -- up from the current 28, according to a story in Education Week. The winners “could be advocates of school choice programs,” although in many states, like Illinois, Republican governors will still need to battle with a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Still, the elections could provide a particularly strong mandate for governors to expand the reach of charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers, says Matt Frendewey, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a Washington-based advocacy group that backs such scholarships and vouchers that parents can use to pay private school tuition.

At the federal level, Republicans -- who easily took control of the U.S. Senate and increased their majority in the House of Representatives -- say that an overhaul of No Child Left Behind and the Higher Education Act is at the top of their agenda, according to another Education Week story. Previously, Republicans have proposed that states test students but not necessarily set achievement goals or intervene in schools that aren’t making progress with particular groups of students. Another proposal would scale back the federal role in K-12 policy.

5. Leadership at The Ounce Just as she’d said during the heated gubernatorial race, Diana Rauner plans to remain in her role as president of the Ounce of Prevention come January, when her husband takes the governor’s office.

The Ounce, a leader in early childhood education, has received more than $123 million in state funding over the past 11 years -- making up about a fifth of its budget, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. A spokeswoman for the organization told Crain’s there is no conflict of interest if The Ounce’s president is married to the governor: “The Ounce has received state contracts for decades under administrations of both political parties because of its excellence in high-quality programming and training early-education professionals.”

Still, for weeks, some in Chicago’s early childhood education community have been asking themselves whether it’s appropriate. Few if any would say anything publicly, however, because, as one advocate recently told Catalyst, “You don’t want to make enemies with the wife of the future governor of Illinois.”

From classroom to City Council?

November 6, 2014 - 1:22pm

In South Chicago, an elementary school counselor tells her neighbors that City Hall needs to begin paying attention to the working class. In Avondale, a social studies teacher says an elected school board and a higher minimum wage are essential to improving neighborhoods. In Austin, a special education teacher says she doesn’t want to work at another school that gets turned around or closed.

These Chicago Public Schools educators are each running for aldermanic seats, pushing a progressive agenda with the ambitious goal of unseating incumbents in the February 2015 elections. Though Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is no longer considering a run against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, at least eight CTU members have entered the political fray.

You could call it the political year of the teachers. 

The CTU House of Delegates, which will endorse aldermanic candidates in stages, voted on Nov. 5 to endorse Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for mayor, along with three of the teacher candidates:  Sue Sadlowski Garza, a counselor at Jane Addams Elementary School, running in the 10th Ward, which includes South Chicago; Tim Meegan, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School, running in the 33rd Ward on the North Side; and Jenner Elementary teacher Tara Stamps, in the 37th Ward.

More endorsements will come next month.

Though it has historically been difficult to unseat sitting aldermen—especially those who aligned themselves with City Hall and, in turn, received mayoral backing—the candidates hope that widespread dissatisfaction with Emanuel and his City Council allies will set the stage for grassroots change next February.

“Everything I’ve done up until now has been instrumental in getting me ready for this moment,” says Sadlowski Garza. “I was really inspired to run by Karen Lewis’ [potential] bid … but had been poked and prodded to do this for a while. I think we really have the potential to change the entire political landscape of the city."

Candidates have until Nov. 24 to gather signatures and file nominating petitions to run. 

On a personal level, Sadlowski Garza and other candidates say events such as the historic 2012 teachers’ strike (the first in Chicago in more than two decades) and the protests over last year’s massive school closures convinced them that they won’t see the changes they want in schools and neighborhoods unless the political system is radically transformed.

On a broader level, the decision by CTU members to run for public office speaks to the union’s wading more deeply into electoral politics. The shift started in 2010, when the progressive Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was first elected into the union’s leadership. The new CTU prides itself on being a “social movement” union concerned with social equity and economic justice, not just the bread-and-butter issues that impact members in schools. 

As such, the union and its progressive allies in labor and community organizations consider politics as critical to advance that mission. It’s a strategy that is also playing out on a national level, as progressive unions work to elect pro-labor candidates.

“This is not about one race,” Lewis herself reminded supporters in September. “It’s about building a movement so that our city can be what it’s supposed to be—a city that responds to every single person, a city that responds to every single neighborhood.”  

From activism to campaigning

In a way, it’s not surprising that Sadlowski Garza is running for office. She grew up in a radical union home in South Chicago, the same working-class neighborhood where she still lives and works. Her father, Ed Sadlowski, was a steelworker and local union leader who nearly won the presidency of the national United Steelworkers in the 1970s.

“As a child, I spent a lot of days getting woken up at 6 in the morning, dressing in the dark to go to gates at the mill to hand out pamphlets,” says Sadlowski Garza. “I was taught that when you see a picket line, you raise your fist and beat your horn—and then you go to the doughnut shop and bring the guys doughnuts.”

Unionism might be in her blood. But Sadlowski Garza, who worked as a “lunch lady” and teaching assistant before becoming a counselor, says her personal awakening didn’t come until the 2012 strike. There’s a telling photo of Garza from one of the last days of the strike: Pulling out of a parking lot in her silver 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis, which is covered in union signs, Garza is waving her fist out of the car window.

Across town, in the Austin neighborhood on the city’s impoverished West Side, Tammie Vinson says the strike generated a welcome uptick in activism among teachers. That summer, Vinson and other black teachers [who have been hardest hit by layoffs stemming from closings] revitalized a fledgling Black Caucus within the union. 

“The CTU has been like a beacon of hope,” Vinson says. 

Vinson, a special education teacher running in the 28th Ward, had been organizing against so-called “school actions” (turnarounds, in which the entire staff has to reapply for their jobs, and closures) since 2008. That year, the school where Vinson worked, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, was turned around. Vinson lost her job and moved on to Emmet Elementary. Emmet closed last year.

“With both schools, we were actively fighting, mobilizing the parents, going to the board, strategizing for ways to keep it opened,” says Vinson, who now teaches at Oscar DePriest Elementary.

Stamps, who is running in the neighboring 37th Ward, is the daughter of a longtime Chicago housing and civil rights activist, Marion Nzinga Stamps. “I was kind of born into revolution and activism. This is what I inherited,” Stamps said at a forum on social justice activism and violence in September. 

And nearby, in the 29th Ward, community activist and parent Zerlina Smith, is running for aldeman, too. Smith was an active parent leader in last spring’s boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, where her daughter attends preschool. She says CTU staffer Jackson Potter, who is widely considered the union’s de facto political strategist, became her mentor.

Other teacher candidates are Dianne Daleiden, a math teacher at North River Elementary School, running in the 40th Ward on the North Side; Guadalupe Rivera, a bilingual teacher at Morrill Elementary School, running in the 16th Ward on the Southwest Side; Ed Hershey, a science teacher at Lindblom Math & Science Academy, running in the 25th Ward on the Southwest Side; and Marcia Brown-Williams, a recently retired teacher running in the 9th Ward on the Far South Side.

Like the other teacher candidates, Brown-Williams says schools aren’t the only issue on her agenda. She’s concerned about bringing economic development to her neighborhood, reducing crime and adding affordable housing for families. The 9th Ward includes parts of Altgeld Gardens and Roseland, two communities that are in dire need of an economic boost.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of education,” says Brown-Williams, who resigned from her job in June because of what she considered a “bullying” atmosphere against teachers at her school. “But if you have economic growth in your neighborhood, then you have better schools, more parent involvement, and more businesses involved.”

Building a movement

Though some of the candidates went through the union’s summer organizing program, union leaders say there was never a concerted effort to get educators to run for office.

“But there was a political conclusion that was drawn going into the school closings fight,” reflects CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “People saw their aldermen taking cowardly positions and just going with the person in power as opposed to supporting the teachers.”

Conversations about forming an independent political organization in Chicago and planning what its agenda would be began during CORE’s annual convention last year.

“We were asking ourselves, do we step out and form an independent political movement or do we work with the Democratic Party?” remembers Meegan, who is running in a ward that includes Avondale and Albany Park. “I’ve mostly voted Democrat my whole life but I’m no longer interested in supporting the party […]. Nobody is representing the working class anymore.”

What was born out of those and other discussions is United Working Families, an independent political organization made up of the CTU, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and the community groups Grassroots Illinois Action and Action Now. Although they share similar names and visions, the group isn’t officially connected to the Working Families Party in New York and New Jersey, which helped progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio win last year’s mayoral race in New York City.

United Working Families’ mission is to support progressive candidates in the 2015 municipal race who agree to champion an elected school board and a $15 minimum wage as part of their campaign platform. (Emanuel is opposed to an elected school board, but supports a $13 minimum wage to be implemented gradually over the next few years.) 

Kristen Crowell, the group’s executive director, says United Working Families will likely make early endorsements for the city’s incumbent progressive aldermen. It will also train and vet the nearly three dozen progressive candidates before making endorsement decisions. With those endorsements, of course, will come financial backing.

Crowell notes that United Working Families will have a long-term strategy that goes beyond a single election cycle. That means continuing to hold accountable—and support—any progressive candidates who win their races. Plus, she adds, “We need to shift the culture of how we work together after the elections.”

Crowell is known in progressive circles for her role in helping to put together organized labor’s recall effort against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose policies ended most collective bargaining rights for public sector employees. A year ago, Crowell moved to Chicago from Wisconsin, in part to get away from what she describes as a depressing political atmosphere that formed after the recall failed.  

Crowell was attracted to the movement she saw building in Chicago since the CTU strike. “There’s hope here,” she says. “The fight is alive and well.”

In the coming weeks, United Working Families will form a political action committee that can start serious fundraising. Crowell says she expects the PAC will be able to easily collect donations from organized labor and “lots of progressive small donors” from across the country. 

Chicago’s organized labor

It’s not unheard of for union members or labor leaders to run for political office. Among the aldermanic candidates in the 11th Ward, for example, is John Tominello, who spent more than a decade working to unionize state court reporters. (“It’s not just Rahm,” he says. “It’s the City Council. They’re anti-union.”) And a handful of former local teachers’ union presidents have been elected to the state legislatures in Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin.

But those who study organized labor and politics say that what’s happening with the CTU and the upcoming elections is part of a larger national trend. In locales as diverse as Vermont; Minneapolis; New Haven, Conn.; and Jackson, Miss., among other places, progressive unions have encouraged their members to run for office to try to unseat incumbent Democrats who don’t value labor concerns. 

“It reflects the disenchantment with [President Barack] Obama, six years of lowered expectations and disappointments” in the Democratic Party, says Steve Early, an author and former union organizer who studies labor movements. “People are trying to intervene at the local level, where mobilized union members and local issues can energize voters and you can overcome the disadvantage of not being able to spend as much on politics.”

In Chicago, unions have historically held an important role in fundraising and getting out the vote for candidates who were friendly to organized labor. With few exceptions, that meant joining the Democratic Party coalition and supporting that party’s candidates. Trades unions were especially loyal to City Hall because of the benefits of prevailing wages and yearlong work; in addition, unions tended to support the incumbent politicians who controlled the city’s purse strings.

Things started to change after 2006, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley exercised his first and only veto on the so-called “big box” ordinance. Unions—and especially the more liberal ones such as SEIU and AFSCME locals—wanted stores such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot to increase wages and provide healthcare benefits to workers.

Disenchanted with Daley, many of these same unions poured millions of dollars into the following year’s aldermanic races and gained seats for a handful of progressive aldermanic candidates– including now-mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti—over incumbents who had Daley’s backing.

The trend has accelerated since Emanuel’s election in 2011 as “labor unions have become disaffected with City Hall, thinking that it doesn’t represent them,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago and former city alderman.

Still, organized labor is divided. The city’s trade unions and the Teamsters have already given the mayor and his PAC hundreds of thousands of dollars—even though the deadline for candidates to file isn’t until Nov. 24.  It’s too early to tell who many of the other unions will support.

Next for CTU

In September, the CTU’s House of Delegates voted to allow union staff to provide some technical help to members who are considering electoral runs. The resolution notes that, as a general rule, CTU won’t formally endorse candidates until they’ve secured a place on the ballot—and any early help doesn’t constitute an endorsement.

“Candidates know an endorsement from the CTU means something,” says the union’s political director, Stacy Davis Gates.

To get a sense of the work CTU might do for mayoral or aldermanic candidates, it’s helpful to look at two of last spring’s state legislative primary races in which the union campaigned hard for two progressive candidates with strong education platforms: Will Guzzardi, a journalist-turned-organizer, who won his race in the 39th District, which includes Logan Square and Belmont-Cragin; and community organizer Jhatayn “Jay” Travis, who lost hers for the 26th District, which snakes down from Streeterville to South Chicago.

The teachers union poured money into both campaigns, while also encouraging members to write their own checks, help out at phone banks, and knock on doors for the candidates, Davis Gates says.

“To be perfectly honest, this past spring was the most intense amount of work we’ve done for an electoral cycle before. It was intense, intentional, and focused,” she says. The upcoming electoral work promises to be more intense.

Meanwhile, the teacher candidates are putting in long hours after school and on weekends to gather the signatures they need to qualify as candidates.  It’s a lot of work, admits Daleiden, but people are getting the message.

Daleiden tells voters she wants to fight the privatization of public schools and “stop corporations from siphoning public money from public assets.”

 “I’m not out there knocking on doors to save my job in a public school,” she says. “I’m knocking on doors because I think children deserve quality schools and we all need to stand up to this as community members.”

Take 5: Preschool deal gets OK, principal training, middle school success

November 6, 2014 - 7:26am

The City Council voted on Wednesday to approve Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to borrow $17 million from investors to pay for a temporary expansion of a high-quality preschool program. Under the so-called “social impact bond,” the city and CPS will only repay the money if fewer children need expensive special education services and have high academic achievement. But as we reported earlier this week, banks face little risk in the complex financial agreement.

That's due largely to the fact that the chosen program -- child-parent centers, which enroll children through third grade -- are backed by decades of research proving their long-term savings. If the program is very successful, Goldman Sachs and other investors stand to double their money. Only five aldermen voted against the proposal, including Northwest Side Ald. John Arena, who said that if he “was at Goldman Sachs, I would be doing this, too,” according to a Sun-Times story. Critics from the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare Illinois, meanwhile, called it “another parking meter deal.”

During a finance committee meeting on Monday, Lois Scott, the city’s chief financial officer, threw a lot of numbers at aldermen to convince them it was a good idea. At one point, she even said the city could save up to $300 million over the duration of the students’ K-12 education if all of them avoided special ed. The Chicago Tribune parroted this claim without questioning why Scott would ever suggest that 100 percent of any preschool class would need special ed services to begin with, whether they attended preschool or not, since district data show that about 12.6 percent of CPS students need the services. In addition, children with severe disabilities, who are part of that total, won’t be included in the program. 

2. Expected endorsement… The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted Wednesday to endorse Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for mayor. CTU President Karen Lewis had already said she backed him and he was the keynote speaker at the union’s legislative dinner on Friday.

The fact that union leadership had seemingly already thrown their support behind Garcia, before the vote, frustrated some delegates. But delegates said that inside the meeting, they were told the endorsement shouldn’t wait. An activist teacher questioned on Facebook who Garcia was and why he had seemingly come out of nowhere. Lewis, who has a brain tumor and had to bow out of the mayoral race, responded: “Point of personal privilege: I endorsed Chuy because many of my non-CTU supporters wanted to know what to do once it became clear I could not continue my mayoral bid. Chuy was an invaluable advisor to me in terms of building coalitions throughout the city.”

As the Tribune article pointed out, the other main mayoral challenger Bob Fioretti was not happy with the union for so quickly running to Garcia’s camp. "Bob has been in the trenches fighting with parents and educators from the start and will continue that fight as mayor," campaign spokesman Michael Kolenc said. "He has been there for educators over the years, and we know a lot of them are with us now."

3. More principal training... This week the district quietly announced a three-year partnership with Northwestern University to provide professional development, executive coaching and other leadership opportunities to at least 20 principals each year. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett called it an “unparalleled opportunity” for principals. 

Sound familiar? You may recall that CPS awarded a $20 million no-bid contract last year for another principal training program, the for-profit SUPES Academy, run by a private operator. A Catalyst investigation revealed questionable ties between Byrd-Bennett and the founders of the business, while many principals still complain about the quality of the training. The CPS Inspector General is investigating the contract.

The 21 fellows chosen under this program won’t have to attend SUPES trainings. Under the new Chicago Public Schools Principal Fellowship program, Northwestern faculty will provide participating principals six days of academic training, a 360-degree assessment -- which involves feedback from coworkers, not just superiors -- and group and individual coaching from Northwestern experts. 

“We recognize that principals may need different types of support or different experiences to grow professionally, depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses,” said a spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Education Fund, which has committed $500,000 to fund the new training program and had previously funded SUPES Academy before it became a district program. Catalyst has written about Chicago’s efforts to better prepare and retain principals.

4. Getting poorer… WBEZ offers up a rather academic discussion on what it means for the state to have more than half of its students identified as low-income. Michael Rebell, the head of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, says that the trend has “tremendous” implications because poor students need more services, such as before-and-after school programs.

But the president of the Fordham Institute notes that the numbers may be inflated and points out that the number of students identified by schools as low-income has grown more than the official numbers of children in poverty. He says that not many low-income students make it through college and that the nation might need to rethink the idea that college is the path to the middle class.

In Illinois, the child poverty rate went from 15 percent in 2000 to about 21 percent in 2012, according to Voices for Illinois Children. For schools, the definition of low-income includes students whose families have incomes just above the poverty line as well as those below it. WBEZ's Linda Lutton points out that two-thirds of low-income children live outside of Chicago and all of the increase occurred in the suburbs or downstate.  

A Catalyst analysis of state data shows that 24 school districts had increases of more than 20 percent. On average, 64 percent of the students in these school districts are white, 15 percent are Latino and 11 percent are black.

Karen Triezenberg, principal of Willow Spring School District 108, says her low-income numbers jumped by more than 30 percent as student population in the one-school district went up. The mobile home park in the area offers specials to families, she says, and some of the houses vacated during the housing crisis are now being rented to low-income families.

5. Middle-school intervention… Thirty-four CPS schools will get extra help to make sure sixth- through eighth-grade students are on track to graduate.The new initiative, called The Success Project, will also use a program called 6to16, designed at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute to help middle-schoolers set and reach goals for high school and beyond. The Lefkofsky Family Foundation is funding the project.

John Gasko of the Urban Education Institute called the initiative a “compelling answer to what research says matters.” A new study released today by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that middle-grades performance is strongly connected with both high school and college success.

Ten neighborhood schools will gain a full-time “success coordinator” and 23 Academy for Urban School Leadership  turnaround schools will receive training and professional development. A final school, Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center, which already has a strong focus on high school preparation, will also use the curriculum.

“We feel there’s inconsistency across the country, especially here in Chicago, in terms of trying to get students to pay more attention to the choices they make in high school,” Gasko said.

For the Record: Paying for preschool with social impact bonds

November 3, 2014 - 11:58am

Board of Education member Henry Bienen took an unusual step at last month’s meeting: He voted against a plan that came down from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.

Bienen, a former president Northwestern University, said he was “very uneasy” with a proposal to borrow nearly $17 million from investors in a so-called “social impact bond” (SIB) to pay for a four-year preschool expansion.

“I’m not against social investments,” he said during the meeting. “And I don’t question the good motives of the people who are putting up the money. I think the measurement issue is very difficult, and I think the rate of return, or interest rate, is high.”

Social impact bonds haven’t been around long enough for researchers to have a consensus on the benefits to local governments, which must pay significant start-up costs and set aside money in escrow to make projected repayments. As a result, it's too early to tell whether Bienen is right.

But a review of the loan agreement and related contracts – which were approved by the CPS board and still must go through the City Council -- shows that the deal relies on a complicated formula that poses little risk to investors. That’s due largely to the proven track record of the project’s chosen preschool program, child-parent centers. In addition, investors gain good will and publicity in the deal.

The review of the documents found that:

--Nearly $1.3 million of the $16.6 million loan will never reach CPS. That money will go to pay a third-party project manager, audits, additional social services, and legal fees – including up to $250,000 for the investors’ own legal costs.

--In addition, the city must pay $319,000 for an outside group to evaluate the project in the third and fourth years.

--According to the city’s projections, CPS would pay about $21.5 million over the life of the 16-year program in payments for “savings” from fewer special ed services. However, if the program is more successful than expected, CPS will have to pay more, up to a maximum of $30 million.

--The city expects to kick in an additional $4.4 million in “success payments” based on children’s performance on kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy tests.

This means that if it's very successful, investors could get back more than double their money over the life of the progam.

City officials have not said how much– if anything – they expect to save. But Emanuel and his supporters have pointed to research on the benefits and long-term cost savings from good early childhood education.

“Each dollar invested is returned to society sevenfold,” said CPS board member Jesse Ruiz during a press conference announcing the project in October. “Because we can’t afford to wait for better fiscal climates, we’ve been searching for every possible dollar to expand high-quality early learning programs. This new initiative is an innovative public-partnership to bring the high-quality child-parent model to more children across Chicago.”

Low risk for high quality

Over four years, the money will pay for slots about 2,600 low-income 4-year-olds to attend child-parent centers that provide preschool, support services, and require strong parent engagement.

A 2002 cost-benefit analysis showed many long-term positive benefits to the centers -- ranging from a 41-percent reduction in special education placement and a 40-percent drop in retention. While child-parent centers serve children up to third grade, the research has found that the preschool participation alone saves taxpayers more than $7 for every $1 spent.

Experts who have tracked their success said it was easy to see why Chicago officials and the lenders zeroed in on the program.

“Most other [social impact bonds] that have been done are treatment programs that don’t have a record that the CPC program has. It’s already a renowned model, by far the most evidence-based program out there,” says Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied Chicago’s child-parent centers for nearly three decades and co-authored the 2002 cost-benefit analysis.

“The risk for investors to come in to fund it is much, much lower,” Reynolds added. “It’s a great way to take a creative financing mechanism and take advantage of the fact there needs to be a larger greater access to high-quality preschool expansion – and really fast-track the expansion of a very strong program that was showing strong evidence […] that things were working well.”

Even before Emanuel announced the expansion, CPCs were already growing in Chicago as a result of an Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Preschool enrollment has doubled since the 2011-2012 school year, Reynolds said, and many programs offer a full day of preschool. The social impact bond will only cover a half-day of services.

Reynolds said he’s been helping the mayor’s office on the proposal since last fall, when the city won technical assistance from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s Social Impact Bond Technical Assistance Lab. The lab provides pro bono full-time fellows to governments implementing “pay-for-success” contracts.

Understanding the loan

If approved by City Council, the bond program would become the fifth in the country.

As in the other programs, Chicago would not borrow the money directly from the lenders – which include the Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund, Northern Trust and the Pritzker Family Foundation. The foundation is serving as the subordinate lender, meaning it’ll take any financial hits before the banks -- which reduces the banks' risk. The Pritzker family has been a longtime advocate of early chidlhood education.

As an added bonus, banks can use the social-impact bonds to boost their ratings under the federal Community Reinvestment Act, which encourages lending in low-income communities.

The preschool loan money goes to an intermediary project coordinator, IFF Pay For Success I, LLC, a limited liability company set up by IFF, a lender and consultant to non-profits.

IFF then loans the money to the city, which will in turn disperses most of the funds to CPS.

However, a portion of the loan goes toward other costs. These include $470,000 for IFF’s services; $200,000 for Metropolitan Family Services for parent support and training; $170,000 in audit fees; $75,000 for IFF’s legal fees; and $100,000 for the city’s and CPS’s legal fees.

IFF is responsible for hiring an evaluator, whose fees are paid during the first two years by the Finnegan Family Foundation. The city must come up with $319,000 to pay its fees during the last two years of the loan disbursement.

As students in each cohort take kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy tests, IFF will take money out of the $4.4 million that the city must put into escrow to pay back the investors according to the evaluator’s findings.

In addition, next year CPS must begin to budget for its own projected payments for special education requirements; some years, CPS expects to set aside as much as $1.9 million to make the payments.

Those who are skeptical of social impact bonds have said that the escrow payments and administrative costs to government make them tough to justify on economic terms. At the end of the day, they say, governments are simply kicking the can down the road instead of paying to provide services up front.

In a 2013 report on a Massachusetts proposal to use SIBs for a prisoner re-entry program, Kyle McKay, who was then a policy analyst for the state’s Department of Legislative Services, said that a direct government investment was likely to have a greater impact and pose less risk than SIB financing.

“Given the difficulty of linking the evaluation of a social program to a highly complex contract centered on an outcome payment, the government may actually increase its operational risks in undertaking a SIB,” McKay wrote. “The government would also need to budget upfront for the contingent liabilities of outcome payments. As a result, a SIB program would increase both budgetary pressure and operational risks.”

Calculating “success” payments

Under the Chicago proposal, the loan will pay for 374 half-day slots in the first year; 782 slots in both the second and third years; and 680 slots in the fourth and final year. Six sites have already been chosen to receive funding this year: De Diego, Melody, Peck, Thomas, Wadsworth and Hanson Park elementary schools; two additional sites will be added next year.

According to the city’s evaluation plan, students in the “treatment group” will be compared to students from similar low-income neighborhoods who did not attend preschool at any CPS site or at any Head Start site that’s overseen by the city.

City officials did not explain how the control group of children would be identified, considering Emanuel’s goal of providing preschool to all low-income 4-year-olds by next year.

The biggest loan repayments come from the expectation that the children who attend preschool at child-parent centers will be less likely to use special education services for mild disabilities than those who never went to preschool at all -- a projection based on the earlier cost-benefit analyses.

“Without additional support, many of these children may end up being diagnosed with a mild learning disability, emotional disturbance, or developmental delay including speech and language impairment,” according to the evaluation plan. “For these children, additional support in the classroom and at home can help ensure that they stay on track developmentally with their peers, avoiding the need for years of special education purposes.”

Children with severe disabilities, including autism or deafness, will be excluded from the study group.

When the first cohort of students enters kindergarten, CPS will begin paying the lenders for each fewer child who needs special education services when compared to the control group. CPS will pay $9,100 per child annually, an amount that increases by 1 percent each year.

The city did not provide Catalyst with a breakdown of how it calculated the $9,100 figure, but said it was “based on the time that teachers spend with children with specific learning disability types and the cost associated with that time per student.”

Other measurements, PARCC concerns 

The evaluator will measure “kindergarten readiness” through an assessment that’s already used in CPS preschools. For each child in the “treatment group” who performs at or above the national average on at least five of the six sections of the assessment, the city will repay lenders $2,900. The city projects half of the children will score high enough to trigger the payments.

Meanwhile, third-grade literacy will be measured using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a new test to which CPS is transitioning this year. The new assessment is aligned to the controversial Common Core State Standards and is considered more rigorous than current state tests.

The projections indicate that half of third-graders will be at “grade level,” meaning they score at or above the 25th national percentile on reading portions of the PARCC. Under the agreement, the city will pay lenders $750 for each child that meets that benchmark.

But the city and lenders have agreed to reconsider using this test if CPS students don’t do as well as expected.

“At the time of drafting this analysis, the PARCC test has yet to be officially implemented in CPS schools,” according to the documents. “Given the uncertainty of performance on this test and how its outcomes will compare to past tests taken by CPS students, the evaluator may suggest amendments to the definition of reading ‘on grade level’ that could include utilizing a different test or metric.”

Parents who have been protesting the PARCC and the use of other high-stakes tests in CPS said they were surprised to know the scores wouldn’t necessarily be used to determine payment to investors.

“It’s really concerning to have financial deals based on test scores. You’re going to get paid back on how kids score, compounding the fact things are already too high stakes,” says Cassie Cresswell, of the group More Than A Score. “Why not gather some political will to really fund these programs that work?”

Take 5: ISAT scores stagnant, college disparities, consultants with clout

November 3, 2014 - 9:56am

CPS did not have a major announcement about this year's state test scores--and it turns out the scores remain exactly the same as last year's, with 52.5 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards. Whatever the caveats, the figures and the lack of upward movement don't look good, especially with the district about to move to a new, more difficult exam aligned to the tougher Common Core standards.Also, the achievement gap widened: average scores for black and Latino students fell slightly, while white and Asian students posted tiny gains.

With the state officially releasing report cards on Friday, CPS finally posted ISAT information on district and individual school performance on its website. Historically, CPS would release the scores some time over the summer.

Scores on the NWEA,  another test that CPS students must also take, have not been released by race.

2. Welcoming schools worse off... Catalyst’s analysis shows that 35 of 52 schools, or more than two-thirds of the official welcoming schools that took in children displaced by closings, posted decreases in ISAT scores. Perhaps the most disturbing part is that the highest-performing welcoming schools saw the biggest drops. The top 10 welcoming schools in 2012-2013--the year before the closings--saw an average of a 17 percentage point decrease on the ISAT. Only one--Hefferan--did not have a significant decrease.

For example, Leland, a small kindergarten through third-grade school in Austin, had nearly 80 percent of third-graders meeting or exceeding standards in 2012-2013. Last year, only 33 percent of third graders met or exceeded standards. Another school, Courtenay, was a small school where more than 70 percent of students met or exceeded standards. It was combined with Stockton, a poor-performing school. Many Courtenay parents were outraged and took their children out. The result was that Courtenay was no longer the same school--and scores dropped 20 percent in just one year.

The Chicago Sun-Times concludes that, when using ISAT data as a barometer,  the performance of welcoming schools was a mixed bag at best. Six of the eight CPS schools that saw the biggest decreases in meeting/exceeding on the ISAT were welcoming schools. However, some (about 10) official welcoming schools saw increases in ISAT scores.

The Sun-Times points out that one of Byrd-Bennett’s promises was that students would wind up in better schools. Confronted with the analysis, CPS officials just e-mailed a statement, saying  that the district “continues to work to offer all students a high-quality education.”

The results are especially disappointing considering the district spent $285 million at welcoming schools. This money paid for iPADs, computers, long-needed renovations and labs for schools that were designated as International Baccalaureate or STEM, as well as extra staff and resources to help with the transition.

3. Opt-out info… That students were forced to take the ISAT, even though it won't be used for accountability purposes, sparked a big, embarrassing opt-out push. CPS officials downplayed the number of students who opted out, but activist parents say they think about 2,000 students sat out the test.

This is important for the upcoming year when CPS students will again be forced to take two standardized tests in the spring. The state will be using the PARCC for accountability purposes and the district will use the NWEA. Byrd-Bennett says she wants to delay districtwide implementation of the PARCC, perhaps in hopes of avoiding another opt-out push.

Activists hoped to use the ISAT information posted Friday to prove their point that a lot of students opted out. Overall, about 5,000 fewer students took the ISAT in 2013 than did in 2014, while only 1,800 fewer third to eighth graders were enrolled in CPS schools. Yet there could be many reasons for the number of ISAT test takers to be low, such as more students taking the alternative test for disabled students. More Than A Score leader Cassie Creswell says she will submit a Freedom of Information Act to request for the actual numbers.

The numbers indicate that at some schools the push to have students opt-out was successful. At Saucedo, where teachers took a stand against the ISAT, the number of students who took the ISAT dropped from 765 to 247, though the school had more third to eighth grade students. Also at Drummond, a Montessori magnet school on the North Side, so few students took the ISAT that CPS did not post detailed information about performance following a policy that the district shields categories of less than 10 students. Though about 176 students were enrolled in third through eighth grade at Drummond, only 31 students took the ISAT.

4. College disconnect… The Chicago Tribune focused their coverage of the school report card release on the disconnect between the number of students who are college-ready. Statewide, within 16 months of graduating from high school, 70 percent of students enrolled in college. Yet only 25 percent of students were college-ready according to the ACT definition, and only 46 percent according to the state’s definition. The Tribune quotes Elaine Allensworth from the Consortium on Chicago School Research who notes that high-stakes tests are not the only factor that determine whether someone does well in college.  The report cards do not include information on college persistence, but studies have shown that grades, not test scores, are a better predictor of whether students stay in college.  

The Tribune also points out CPS had a below-average college-going rate of 67 percent, but that the selective enrollment schools had some of the highest rates in the state. On average,  only 27 percent of CPS students were deemed college- ready. The highest college-going rate was at Catlin High School in Vermilion County, east of Champaign. However,  most students are not "college ready" and go to the local community college. Glenbrook South is one of the few districts that doesn't have a disparity in college-readiness and college-going. 

5. Clout consultants… The Sun-Times reports this morning about dozens of high paid, politically connected consultants working as employees or subcontractors with CPS contracts to manage “small renovation projects” done by other contractors. Among two examples are former CPS COO Sean Murphy and former CTA Chief Operating Officer Richard Rodriguez. Murphy gets paid a whopping $388,000 as the subcontractor to URS Corporation. That is a good deal more than he made while working for CPS and more than Byrd-Bennett makes. Rodriquez, who currently serves as chairman for the UNO Charter School Network, works for Lend Lease, which has been paid $10.9 million by CPS since 2012.

While the fact that these guys are politically connected is worrisome, the story also begs the question of whether the district could get this work done for far less than it is paying. It also reminds us that CPS still only has an interim inspector general, even though it has four months since the former inspector general resigned.




Dyett supporters vow to fight for "green tech" plan

October 30, 2014 - 10:59am

The announcement last week that CPS reversed course and now plans to reopen Dyett High, set to close at the end of the school year, was a hard-won battle for community activists. But the war is not over.

Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School and Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization gathered this week at City Hall to issue a no-confidence vote – symbolized by slips of yellow paper – for the reelection of 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns. The Washington Park school is in Burns’ ward and has been a flashpoint in the alderman’s relationship with some in the community.

KOCO’s Jitu Brown said the demonstration was a result of Burns’ recent comments on WVON-AM Radio, which Brown called a “smack in the face” that would lead to Burns’ “political death.”

On WVON’s Matt McGill Show earlier this week, Burns discussed the recent developments regarding Dyett. He explained that the request-for-proposals CPS will issue for the school as it seeks a new operator for it will make it “very clear” that Dyett will not be a charter or alternative school and would be an open-enrollment, neighborhood high school.

“If there are groups in the community that have an idea and have the extra piece,” Burns said on the show, “it’s their opportunity to come forward with a plan to run Dyett and bring it to the Board of Education.”

Burns made no mention of the coalition’s existing plan to turn Dyett into a school whose curriculum would be based on teaching “global leadership and green technology.” The academic plan was developed over several years, Brown said, and has the partnership of several outside institutions as well as the input and support of more than 2,000 Bronzeville community members.

“Thousands of people in the ward have said what they want,” Brown said. “This is not some cockamamie plan. We’ve been dreaming about what should be happening in this community [since 2008], so we are not going to let some [private] contract operators go into these schools.”

Other speakers talked about mobilizing voters to elect a new alderman in the 4th Ward and pressuring CPS officials to skip the RFP process in favor of the full proposal from the coalition.

At the end of the press conference, the activists relocated to the City Council Chambers, calling out Ald. Burns in the middle of a budget hearing and chanting, before being escorted out by security.

Take 5: Preschool enrollment falls, union election spending, asbestos concerns

October 30, 2014 - 6:58am

Preschool enrollment in CPS is down again this year. The district’s 20th day enrollment data show a drop of about 800 children, with 4-year-olds accounting for the entire decline.The downward trend continues  even as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to expand access to high-quality preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds in the city. Early childhood education advocates and parents have blamed the drop on his administration’s decision to centralize the application process for preschool enrollment last year. (Enrollment fell by about 950 among 4-year-olds last year.) Parents say the new process is harder to navigate, and that their children often get placed at schools that are too far away.

The centralization process -- which was one component of the mayor’s Ready to Learn! initiative -- was meant  to ensure the neediest children got priority. In a statement, CPS officials acknowledged the drop but noted that enrollment is down across the district. And while that’s true, no grade level saw as big an enrollment drop as 4-year-olds in preschool, which is voluntary. (See Catalyst's analysis of CPS data here.)

In a statement, CPS officials said that this year “we have already received more applications for school-based programming compared with last year, and expect to receive further applications as enrollment remains open throughout the year.” The district also said that more than 86 percent of families that applied this year were offered seats in their first- or second-choice programs.

2. Union rethinks Chicago election spending  … The American Federation of Teacher’s commitment to contribute $1 million to CTU president Karen Lewis’ mayoral bid bolstered her chance of being a viable candidate. But now that she isn’t running, will the AFT -- a staunch critic of Emanuel’s education agenda --  be involved in the mayoral election at all? That has yet to be decided. On Tuesday, the AFT’s Randi Weingarten issued a statement saying the initial commitment was to Lewis as a “union sister.” “As Karen has decided not to run, we will have to re-evaluate based on many factors – as we do across the nation — starting with conversations with our local affiliates in Chicago," she says.

The AFT money could be a big factor in the viability of any mayoral candidate -- including Cook County Commission Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a progressive who threw his hat into the race this week but has less than $20,000 in his campaign account, the Chicago Tribune reports. Emanuel has already raised some $8.7 million for the election. 

3. Asbestos concerns… A week after parents complained about damaged lead paint at Gale School in Rogers Park, Little Village parents and teachers are raising concerns about asbestos and other problems at Saucedo, according to DNAinfo. The cancer deaths of at least two teachers have heightened concerns, but teachers and parents are not saying the condition of the school is responsible for the deaths. Also, CPS inspectors found that though asbestos is in the school, which was built in 1912, the levels are acceptable in all places where children are at.

According to DNAinfo, parents were told the school had conducted an asbestos test through a private investigator and that the school had passed. However, CPS would not provide parents full results.  Gale’s parents, along with activists, had to file a Freedom of Information Act and go to the Illinois Attorney General to force CPS to comply. The communications problems are mystifying, given that parents need to feel secure that their children at the very least are safe in school.

4. Closings and mergers … The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced this week it will shutter seven elementary schools and consolidate six more by next year, a move that will affect more than 1,200 students and 200 employees. Church officials assured that “unlike past shutdowns in which some schools got reprieves, all decisions this time are final,” according to a Tribune report.

Low enrollment due to a declining population of school-aged children is being blamed for the closings across Lake and Cook counties. This year, there are 82,000 children enrolled in the system’s 240 schools; at its peak in 1965, some 366,000 students were enrolled in 524 schools. As schools emptied and parish funds dried up, many schools relied on big subsides from the Archdiocese.

5. About that study … Remember that report that came out two weeks ago that concluded that charter schools in Chicago perform worse, on average, than traditional schools? Most of the local media covered its findings, although later pointed out that the CTU had helped pay for the study by the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota. In an opinion piece published in Crain’s Chicago Business this week, the reports’ authors defended their findings against criticism of their work by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

INCS' Andrew Broy had taken issue with the data quality, data sources and omission of “high-quality research” that has found positive outcomes at charter schools. In their Crain's piece, authors Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce dismiss Broy’s criticism and say they used statistical controls to compare student performance in charter schools versus those in nonselective traditional schools.

In this highly charged debate, it’s important to remember that studies on charter schools across the country have fallen in both camps, with the general consensus being that they perform about as well -- sometimes slightly better, sometimes slightly worse -- than traditional neighborhood schools.

One last note ... Waukegan school district officials and teachers reached a tentative agreement late Wednesday night, ending a month-long strike. Classes are set to resume on Monday.

I’m going to add one little line to the end of the Take 5 that says: One last note, Waukegan school district officials and teachers reached a tentative agreement late Wednesday night, ending a month-long strike. Classes are set to resume on Monday.

Take 5: Parents form PAC, Byrd-Bennett on testing, teacher tenure fight

October 27, 2014 - 7:33am

Frustrated parents from an overcrowded Southwest Side elementary school have taken the unusual step of forming a political action committee. Dore, in Clearing, has 673 students but was built for 400, and, as of last year, with mobile units was 127 percent over capacity,  according to CPS standards. It is a Level 1 school that is 60 percent Latino and 35 percent white. About 56 percent of students are low-income.  

The SWNewsHerald, an online newspaper, reports that the vice principal has to share the boiler room with the engineer. Parents also say that after fourth grade, special education students often leave the school because there’s no space for them. Board members seemed sympathetic to the cause of the parents, but political pressure might be the way to go. The North and South sides of the city have about the same number of overcrowded schools, with most of the overcrowding on the west sides, such as McKinley Park and Sauganash, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data for 2013-2014. But six of the eight schools that got annexes under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration were on the North Side.

2. Leading the way? Is CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett really another national figure standing up to over-testing and showing concerned about new Common Core tests? Ever since she announced last week that she planned to ask the state and federal government to delay districtwide implementation of the PARCC, the move was mentioned in Politico and the Washington Post as another signal that testing, and in particular the PARCC, are in trouble.

The Washington Post Answer Sheet features CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett 's pronouncement.  The blog’s author, Valerie Strauss says that the PARCC and another Common Core test developed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium were supposed to be revolutionary—that is, more sophisticated and better able to assess student skills. But the hesitation to move toward PARCC is a sign of concern that these tests will not be the “absolute game-changer in public education” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan touted in 2010. Duncan's administration has put $360 million into developing these tests.

The blog reports that 12 states will give the PARCC this year and 26 will give the SBAC.

The parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is certainly concerned with these larger questions about the PARCC, with parents complaining that the PARCC was too confusing and subjective. The group started an online petition urging the state to ask the federal government for a waiver.

But Byrd-Bennett’s recent stand raises questions. Her request to delay the PARCC was already turned down and she failed to mention it in her statement, and some are wondering whether it was merely a political maneuver. In her letter to ISBE, Byrd-Bennett in fact praises the test, saying the “pilot program” showed positive results. (Copies of the letter are now posted.)

According to the letter, Byrd-Bennett’s biggest concern is that, in addition to the PARCC, she also wants to administer the NWEA to elementary school students and the ACT to high school students.  That would leave students facing two batteries of tests—like last year, when parents and teachers staged a mutiny against the district’s plan to give both the NWEA and the ISAT, even though the ISAT was being phased out.

At the end of this week, ISAT scores will be available from the state (CPS has not released the results on their own as they usually do). It will be interesting to if the opt-out movement caused a dip at particular schools, providing yet another reason why Byrd-Bennett likely doesn’t want another opt-out movement on her hands.

3. Protesting a strike … As the teachers strike in Waukegan drags into its fourth week, frustrated parents say it’s time that the district and educators reach an agreement so that classes can resume. Some parents told Univision this weekend the impasse is hurting students -- and that they plan to send their children to school on Monday even though union and district officials will be back at the bargaining table.

The 17,000 students in the Waukegan public school system have been out of class since Oct. 2, when teachers walked off the job seeking better pay and benefits. The strike has caused a logistical nightmare for many parents who now have to worry about day care and keeping their children busy all day. Some have also expressed concerns about the impact a continued strike may have on graduating high school seniors. The Lake County News-Sun reports that parents have also been calling nearby private schools, asking if it’s too late to enroll their children. “It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, it’s really obvious who’s getting hurt,” says the president of Cristo Rey St. Martin Prep School in Waukegan.

4. Who wants to teach? ... Enrollment continues to decline at teacher-prep programs across the country, Education Week reports. “Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career,” the story reports. Federal data show that enrollment in university teacher-preparation programs dropped about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012. In California, enrollment fell by more than half between the 2008-2009 and 2012-2013 school years, leading state officials to worry about a teacher shortage.

The article features one would-be teacher who changed his mind about entering the profession because he felt “in the middle of an ideological war that surfaced in everything from state-level education policy on down to his course textbook, which had a distinct anti-standardized-testing bent.”

Catalyst looked into the decline in enrollment at teaching colleges across Illinois in April and found that enrollment fell most significantly among white students. Because of the state’s historic over-production of teachers, it’s unlikely that Illinois will have massive overall shortage of public school teachers.

5. Battle in California … The Los Angeles Times reports on this year’s tight, costly battle for what’s typically considered a sleepy race for the job of state schools chief. But as has been seen in races across the country -- and was expected, too, in the Windy City if Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis had run for mayor -- the California contest has drawn national attention and millions of dollars from unions on one side and billionaire education reformers on the other.

One reasons for all the excitement is how the candidates say they’ll respond to the recent Vergara v. California decision, which ruled that some teacher tenure rules violated the rights of poor and minority children who were stuck with bad teachers that were hard to fire. Incumbent Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson -- a former teacher and legislator -- has appealed the decision and has the backing of the unions. His challenger, Marshall Tuck, who has run charter schools and traditional public schools taken over by the former L.A. mayor, has promised to withdraw the state’s appeal if elected. He’s received millions of dollars in donations from business-minded reformers, including Eli Broad.

The results could have implications far beyond California. “Whichever side wins this relatively low-profile office gets a huge leg up in the broader debate over education policy,”one political scientist told the paper.  “The politics and symbolism are tremendous both for [the unions] and the reformers.”

CPS reverses course, says Dyett to reopen in 2016 as neighborhood high school

October 24, 2014 - 12:27pm

CPS officials made the surprise announcement Friday that they want proposals for a new, open enrollment neighborhood high school to be located at Dyett High, the Washington Park school that is in the last year of being phased out.

Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, who has been leading community activists, parents and students in an intense fight to keep Dyett open, declared it a victory. But with many questions still outstanding about the school’s program--and in particular, whether a private operator will be chosen to run the school--Brown said it’s not a complete victory and emphasized that the win didn’t come easily.

“None of this would have happened without the diligence of the community,” he says. “This is not an example of a responsive elected official or government.”

Over the past four years, numerous rallies and sit-ins were held and several people were arrested as they battled to keep Dyett a neighborhood school and to save it from the chopping block as dozens of other schools in black communities were closed. Brown and the coalition’s main concern was that Dyett’s closure would leave the surrounding neighborhood without its own high school and students would be assigned to Phillips, which is about two miles away.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a press release that she looks forward to working with the community. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the Dyett request-for-proposals to run the school will be separate from a request for new charter schools, which also will be issued in December. He said the Dyett site will not be open to charter operators, but contract schools will be considered. (Contract schools operate under much the same rules as charters.)

The new Dyett won’t be opened until the 2016-2017 school year, which means the site will sit vacant for a year.

Dyett’s potential closure became the focus of a federal civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education by activists in Chicago and in other cities where school closings hit African-American communities. Students accused CPS of using tactics to drive students out and alleged that keeping resources from their school violated their rights.

A plan for teaching global leadership

Brown questioned why the district is even putting out an RFP and said the community does not want a private operator running the school.

“We want this to be a CPS school and we want them to use our tax dollars to run it,” he says. “Just like they do in Lake View, we want a CPS neighborhood school with high expectations.”

Also, Brown says he sees no reason that the high school can’t be open next school year. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett has already been having regular meetings and will have a second retreat on Saturday.

The coalition has a plan already developed to turn Dyett into a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” The plan was developed over a two-year period by various groups, including the Chicago Teachers Union, Teachers for Social Justice and the well-regarded Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The coalition got more than 2,000 signatures in support of the plan and it has the backing of the Kenwood and Bronzeville Community Action Councils, as well as DuSable Museum and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Activists have also complained about conditions at Dyett as it is being phased out and students fanned out to other schools; this year, only 13 students enrolled in the school. For example, activists complained about students having to use the back door for entrance and as the numbers decreased, an increasing number of classes were taught online.

Earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with activists and students and agreed to let the students enter through the front door, have a gym teacher and host a prom.

Heated debate about last year's school closings

October 24, 2014 - 11:30am

Catalyst publisher Linda Lenz moderated a heated panel discussion on Thursday about the impacts of last year's massive school closings. The event was organized by City Club of Chicago and took place at Maggiano's Banquets in downtown Chicago.Panelists included CPS Board of Education members Carlos Azcoitia and Andrea Zopp; Chicago Teachers Union researcher Carol Caref; community activist and writer Valerie Leonard; and CPS chief operating officer Tom Tyrell, who oversaw the district's transition team during the closings.

The event was live-tweeted by several reporters and community activists. Check out a Storified version of the tweets below.

[View the story "School closings in Chicago" on Storify]

Take 5: Hancock change OK'd, closed school sold, lead paint problems

October 23, 2014 - 7:57am

CPS board members approved on Wednesday the selling of 125 S. Clark and the first of 50-some schools shuttered during the 2013 mass school closings.The district’s headquarters was sold for about $28 million to Blue Star Properties, which plans to keep it offices and retail, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report. Central office workers will be spread out, some at 42 W. Madison and others in two closed schools, one in Humboldt Park and the other in Bridgeport.

Also, the shuttered Peabody Elementary on the Northwest Side will be sold for $3.5 million. Some of the space will be used as a community center, while the rest will become residential. CPS has found uses for about 10 of the other 52 emptied buildings. Chief Administrative Officer Tom Tyrrell said that despite having 41 empty buildings on the books, the district will still save $43 million in annual cost savings promised at the time of school closings. CPS has never provided an itemized list of how the district will save so much money.

2. Done deal... Board members gave the go-ahead to designate Hancock High School as the city’s 11th selective enrollment high school. Just a month ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel surprised community members and announced the plan. However, there was never any doubt that it would be approved, given that students were already being allowed to apply for the school.

Like several of the selective schools, Hancock will have a program for academically gifted students and a pre-engineering/pre-law program that will also have a competitive admissions process. Hancock teacher and blogger Ray Salazar told board members that it is unfair for students on the Southwest Side to get an old, renovated school building while students on the North and Northwest Side get a shiny new facility. School Board President David Vitale said he has been out to visit Hancock and it is “perfectly adequate.”

3. Lead paint allegations… Parents and activists from Gale Elementary school in Rogers Park say they are relieved that CPS is removing lead paint from the school and repainting it, but they are frustrated that the district knew for at least five years about the problem and didn’t fix it, according to DNAinfo. In 2009, a consultant found damaged lead paint in the boys' and girls' bathrooms, according to documents obtained by The Chicago Light Brigade through a Freedom of Information Act request (The Illinois Attorney Genera'sl Office had to force CPS to comply with the FOIA). Then, in September 2013, the same consultant found lead paint in the classrooms.

Lead paint can severely affect mental and physical development. It is especially dangerous when it is chipped. Because of its sweet taste, children have been known to eat lead paint chips or dust. District standards call on it to assume that all buildings constructed in 1978 or earlier have lead-based paint, and that it needs to be removed or repaired in areas occupied by students and staff.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey told DNAinfo that staff is “continuously monitors buildings for any unsafe conditions, which includes preventing any buildings with lead-based paints from posing a health threat."

But in 2012, when the district was trying to convince the public that it needed to close schools, officials admitted that a lot of old buildings were going without needed repairs. In a presentation to the Space Utilization Commission, CPS reported that the average age of buildings was 74 years and that the district had $6.5 billion in unfunded capital needs, not counting anything to relieve overcrowding.

4. Arts fund-raising... Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Board President David Vitale announced Tuesday “Be Creative: The Campaign for Creative Schools.” So far, members of the business, cultural, and philanthropic communities have raised $11 million, they announced.

The Arts Education Plan was initiated in 2012, with the goal of every student in CPS receiving “ongoing high quality arts education both in and out of the classroom.” Over the last two years, CPS has placed arts liaisons in close to 600 schools, broadened high school graduation requirements in art to include dance and theatre, and labeled the arts as a core subject, which requires two hours of dedicated instruction per week. CPS also used $11.5 million in tax-increment financing money to hire 84 arts teachers this year. 

“The arts are a key part to your education and your development,” said Emanuel, who shared that he did ballet in high school. “It’s a collaborative process, and those skills are going to be essential for the rest of your life, whether you choose to pursue a career in art or not.”

5. Profiting from shoddy schools … In a provocative article, the Chicago Reader questions Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s commitment to a “high-quality education for all” by examining his investments in for-profit education companies that have been accused of fraud.

Rauner’s former private equity firm set up one such company, ForeFront Education, back in 1999 to offer college degrees and training for jobs including medical assistants, paralegals, and office administrators. According to the story, a ForeFront school with campuses in the Loop falsely billed itself as "institutionally accredited" and later had to admit its graduates weren't qualified to take state exams to become certified nursing assistants. After students sued for fraud, the company settled in 2013 for about $1.2 million.

The Reader goes on to point out that Rauner is also a stockholder in another company sued for “widespread fraud while collecting $11 billion in federal student aid between 2003 and 2011,” this time by the federal government, the state of Illinois, and 10 other states. That case remains under litigation.

The Reader article comes out just two weeks before a tight gubernatorial race. Polls show Rauner neck and neck with Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat.