Catalyst Chicago

Syndicate content
Stories and items from the Catalyst Chicago Front Page
Updated: 1 hour 35 min ago

Take 5: Interim IG investigates banned company, testing petition, school funding math

October 20, 2014 - 9:55am

Banned by Mayor Rahm Emanuel from work for the city, Windy City Electric Company still managed to get $3.1 million in contracts from CPS, according to a Better Government Association story in the Chicago Sun Times. Windy City was accused of falsely claiming to be owned and operated by women. According to the article, CPS can terminate a contract with any company that is banned by another city agency. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment on why CPS continued to work with the company, but said it was under investigation by the district’s interim Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

This brings up another point: When is Emanuel going to appoint a permanent inspector general? In June--more than three months ago--James Sullivan announced that he was leaving his post after 12 years. McCaffrey says the process is "moving forward. The candidates are being reviewed and we expect an appointment soon."

Schuler seems a shoo-in for the permanent job. He was a police officer for nine years before going to law school. He started in the city’s Inspector General department before transferring to CPS and was second in command. Being an interim seems like it has the potential to make the office less likely to take action. Wonder what CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel are waiting for?

2.  Putting off the PARCC… Raise Your Hand-Illinois has started an online petition to try to convince the Illinois State Board of Education to put off implementation of the new state standardized test for a year. The PARCC is aligned with Common Core standards, which are supposed to be more rigorous than the old state standards. But there are concerns that the test is not yet reliable, hasn’t been field tested sufficiently and that many schools don’t have adequate technology to administer the test, which is administered by computer. The petition is suggesting that the state use the NWEA or another national test for elementary students and continue to administer the ACT for high school students. The petition notes that several other states have delayed using the PARCC.

Parents in Chicago are also upset because their children are being hit with a double whammy of tests this year. Not only will elementary and high school students have to take the new PARCC, but elementary students will also take the NWEA and high school students will also take the ACT. As a result, several weeks in April, May or June will be engulfed by testing. What's more, many schools are having their students take the NWEA in the fall and winter to chart their progress.

So far, the petition has 818 online signatures.

3. Playing with numbers … With just a few weeks to go before the Nov. 4 elections, The Associated Press took a look at claims made by both Gov. Pat Quinn and his opponent Bruce Rauner on school spending. Rauner, a Republican, has attacked the incumbent for a $600 million decrease in school funding since he took office. Quinn, a Democrat, says he’s increased spending.

State school data provided to the AP shows that funding on preschool through 12th grade dropped from $7.4 billion in 2009 -- the year before Quinn replaced his predecessor -- to $6.8 billion this year. However, the federal government poured in hundreds of millions of additional dollars in 2009 and 2010 through the stimulus package, which according to Quinn shouldn’t be lumped in when discussing the state’s spending on schools. “Without the federal aid, education funding in fiscal 2009 drops to $6.4 billion, which means state support has increased $442 million, or 7 percent,” according to the story.

4. Still on strike … Schools in Waukegan remain closed today as talks between the district and teachers have stalled. Teachers have been on strike for 11 days over salary issues.

District officials blamed the union for suspending contract talks indefinitely, according to the Chicago Tribune. Meanwhile the Waukegan Teachers’ Council president says teachers are “giving them time to reflect and to look at their own numbers and come back with a serious offer.”

Teachers in Waukegan say they sacrificed during lean years and now the district has a surplus that they should be sharing with teachers. However, district officials say the union’s proposal of a 9 percent pay increase would bankrupt them. Waukegan has 17,000 students and 23 schools.

5. Sign-on bonus… The City of Milwaukee has officially banned public charter schools from offering cash incentives to those who refer students for enrollment. Last week’s decision came in response to a “well-advertised offer” from a charter school that would pay $100 in cash to anyone who referred a student who enrolled a student by the state’s official head count day for state enrollment purposes. “Enrollment is the lifeblood for schools that rely on public funding because it guarantees a certain amount of per-pupil dollars from the state,” says the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The school in question “called the campaign cost-effective because it rewarded parents for doing what they might do anyway: talk up the school with family and friends.” The teachers union, meanwhile, calls it bribery.

Though it has never been substaniated, here in Chicago we have heard of charters schools offering incentives of computers or iPads to enroll. 

Also... Latasha Thomas, head of the City Council’s Education Committee, announced this weekend that she is not going to run again.


As CPS irons out school budgets, charters will also get more cash

October 16, 2014 - 5:42pm

CPS is increasing the per-pupil funding provided to charter schools for this year in order to “equalize” funding between them and traditional schools.

Charter school operators say that even with the slight increase, some of them are down so many students that they have had to shift spending around to create a balanced budget.

CPS will spend an additional $7.8 million on charter schools, but spokesman Bill McCaffrey says he is not sure how much more per-pupil that amounts to. 

The decision is in response to the late September announcement that CPS would not cut traditional school budgets even if they had less than the projected number of students. Under student-based budgeting, schools get a stipend for each student, but ever since implementing the new strategy two years ago, officials have declined to take money away from schools that enroll fewer students than expected.

"We must be fair and equitable and charter school students are still CPS students," McCaffrey says. 

CPS will spend an additional $24 million to let traditional schools keep money even if they enrolled fewer students, and to provide more money for those schools that got more students.

Charter schools had been budgeted to get the same per-pupil rate as district-run schools, which is an average of $4,390. Charter schools also get an additional $1,973 per student to make up for the support that traditional schools get from the district.

State law stipulates that charter schools must receive funding per student, so the district would have had to take away extra money from charters that enrolled fewer students than expected. Also, unlike CPS-run schools, charters have a cap for how many students they can enroll and must get CPS board approval to increase that cap. If they take in more than that cap, they don’t get more money.

Last year, as many as 38 of 120-plus charter schools did not have as many students as they were projected to get, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data. Many of the charters that were short of students were new.

 Though CPS must take an official count of students for state funding purposes on the 20th day of school, which was September 30, the district has not yet released school-by-school numbers.

McCaffrey has already acknowledged that the overall projection of 400,445 students district-wide was off by at least 3,000 students, leaving the district with a total of 397,000.

Seeking federal grant, Illinois promises huge investments in early childhood ed

October 16, 2014 - 9:37am

As part of an ambitious application for up to $80 million in new federal preschool expansion money, the State of Illinois says it can commit to increasing its own spending on early childhood education programs by $250 million annually by 2020.

That would mean a complete reversal of the state’s previous trend of cutting back allocations to the Early Childhood Block Grant, which stands at about $300 million this fiscal year – down from $342 million in 2010. Now the state says it could increase spending by $50 million during each of the next five years until it hits the $550 million mark in 2020.

The money would help fund nearly 14,000 full-day preschool slots for 4-year-olds, prioritizing children with the highest needs – including those with developmental disabilities, who are homeless, in foster care or living in poverty. In addition, the state is proposing major investments in its preschool programs for 3-year-olds as well as its Birth to Five Initiative, which includes increased funding for child care assistance, home visiting programs and outreach to pregnant women.

“Sometime the federal competitions come around and you have to twist and turn yourself around to fit what they’re looking for,” said Theresa Hawley, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, which submitted the federal proposal. “They came to us with what we were thinking we needed to do anyway and we’re planning to do […]. We think we put together a fabulous proposal.”

A massive infusion of state funds into early learning programs would give Illinois a competitive advantage over other states that applied for the four-year grant. But, given Illinois’ ongoing financial woes and the pending loss of income tax revenues in January (when a temporary tax increase is set to expire), it’s unclear where that additional money would come from. The budget is made even more uncertain with gubernatorial and state legislative elections coming up next month.

States that successfully obtain the grant but don’t make the investments they promised risk losing the federal dollars.

Galvanizing the early learning community

Hawley, whose office submitted the grant in collaboration with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), didn’t explain how the state should pay for the $250 million commitment but stressed that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is a strong advocate for expanding early education programs.

“The governor has repeatedly said the legislature left their work unfinished when they left” the spring session, said Hawley, who didn’t comment on what could happen to the grant proposal should Quinn lose.

The governor’s challenger, Republican Bruce Rauner, has promised to increase funding to the state’s early childhood programs if elected. His wife, Diana, heads the Ounce of Prevention Fund, one of the state’s biggest early childhood education organizations.

Some advocates told Catalyst that federal funding could be used as leverage with the State Legislature to ensure increased spending on early childhood education.

“I think this galvanizes the early learning community to really stand up and demand that state lawmakers stop pretending that this is not urgent,” said Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. “This is not speculative anymore. What we’re talking about is making a significant investment in making sure that the poorest, most at-risk children and their families have high-quality learning intervention that really will change their lives. If we as a state with a multi-billion dollar budget can’t come up with the money, then shame on us.”

In recent years, though, the Legislature has cut back spending on early childhood education. According to a report earlier this summer from Voices for Illinois Children, enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has “eroded” to levels not seen since 2005. The detailed report on the disparities in access to preschool across the state called for the Legislature to increase its investment.

Full-day classes, better teacher salaries

States had until Wednesday to apply for a piece of the federal Preschool Development Grants program, which was developed by the U.S Departments of Education and Health and Human Services earlier this year. The goal of the grants is to help states build and expand voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for children from low-income families.

Unlike the state’s existing Preschool for All program, the new federal initiative requires full-day preschool. Another key difference is eligibility: 3- and 4-year-olds who are considered “at-risk” of academic failure are eligible for Preschool for All slots, but the new federal initiative is only for 4-year-olds from low-income families. The federal initiative also requires instructional staff salaries to be comparable to local K-12 salaries.

The federal funding awards will be announced in December.

Last month (ISBE) unanimously voted to authorize the submission of the state’s grant application with no discussion on the feasibility of the spending plan.  (See summary on page 282 in ISBE agenda.)

State schools Superintendent Christopher Koch recognized it’s unusual to ask for permission from the board before applying for a grant, but that he wanted to be “up front” about it because of the spending commitment that’s part of the application.

“If you approve this, we would include that amount of $50 million annually, I wanted you to know that up front,” Koch told the board. “You may do that anyway, regardless of whether we receive the grant.”

Take 5: ISAT news, charter study and the corruption cure

October 16, 2014 - 9:33am

The Chicago Tribune reports that Illinois students showed improvement in math in almost every grade last year, although the passing rates for reading dropped slightly.

District superintendents told the Tribune the improvements in math make sense, as they’ve been revamping curricula for three years in order to meet the more rigorous Common Core standards. Last year’s ISATs used only questions that were aligned to the new, controversial standards.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has not officially released any of the data on the ISAT scores. But that information -- including school- and district- level data -- will be accessible to the public on October 31. CPS has traditionally released its ISAT information well before the state's official release, but officials have not said whether they plan to post it before October 31. This year, CPS will not be using the ISAT for its accountability system, leading a movement among parents to question why their children were forced to take it.

In addition to ISAT scores, a revamped state report card will include several new metrics and data, including information on post-secondary enrollment, freshman on-track rates and even rates of principal turnover and teacher retention. ISBE discussed some of the key, state-level findings from the report card during its meeting yesterday, including the fact that the percentage of white students has dropped below 50 percent for the first time

2. Looking forward…This week Chicago learned the grim details about the serious illness that has made CTU President Karen Lewis temporarily step down from her union position and back away from considering a mayoral run: Lewis, according to several media reports, suffers from a cancerous brain tumor. She had emergency surgery last week and is now recovering at home.

Her potential mayoral bid had excited many in Chicago’s progressive community who thought she’d be a formidable challenger to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Now, as Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes, progressives in Chicago are left without a standard-bearer, although a movement to elect progressive aldermanic candidates as well as put an elected school board to referendum in all 50 wards is underway.

The CTU, too, must now face contract negotiations without Lewis. The union has been in the process of forming its “big bargaining team” which will begin meeting with city officials in the coming weeks to discuss the teachers’ contract that expires next summer. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey admits he has big shoes to fill in a Crain’s article profiling the temporary new union boss. But even though Lewis isn’t running for mayor, the fight for equity in the city continues, Sharkey told a group of teachers Wednesday evening. So it was no surprise that shortly after Emanuel presented his proposed budget to City Council on Wednesday afternoon, the CTU was quick to issue its own response on how the budget “continues a top-down imposition of two distinct cities, one for the privileged and one for everyone else.”

3. More charter fodder… The Tribune, Sun-Times and Crain’s all covered the release of a report that concluded charter schools perform worse than traditional schools, even as the fact that families select them--and students are presumably more motivated--seemingly signals that they should be performing better. As the report’s author Myron Orfield points out, other more comprehensive studies have found mostly mixed results when comparing Chicago’s charters to traditional, non-selective schools. Orfield, however, only uses one year of data to conclude that, as a group, charters are worse.

Orfield’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota is mostly focused on how housing and school segregation is harmful. The report notes that Chicago’s charter schools are less likely to be diverse than other district schools. Orfield identifies schools as diverse if they have a mix of black and Latino students, as well as black, Latino and white students. But it is hard to blame school segregation on charter schools. With only 9 percent white students and neighborhood segregation pretty much the only traditional schools in the district that are truly diverse are some of the selective and magnet schools.

According to the Tribune, Andrew Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools quickly dismissed the report as a "policy piece masquerading as research."

4. Tangled web…There is growing concern about the way charter schools are allowed to do business. A ProPublica story looks at a North Carolina businessman named Baker Mitchell. Mitchell sat on the board of a charter school network and, at the same time, the companies he owns served as vendors for the charter, providing everything from the management to the buildings they rented to their desks and computers. North Carolina regulators eventually pressured him to step down from the board, but he still serves as the board’s secretary, taking notes at meetings.

Mitchell also played a political role, sitting on the state’s Charter School Advisory Committee and later pushing through a bill that loosened regulations over charters and get this, gave tax breaks to landlords, like Mitchell, who rent to charter schools.

ProPublica’s story says that the U.S. Department of Education is looking into such relationships and notes that the FBI sent out subpoenas to operators of at least three companies.

5. Cure for corruption?... Professor and researcher Dick Simpson told a state task force on Monday that the lack of “citizenship education” is the main reason that Illinois is one of the most corrupt states. He and others at the Monday hearing endorsed the recommendations in a preliminary task force report that calls for all students to take a civic learning class and for a revision of service learning requirements. If approved Illinois would join 20 other states that have standards related to civic education and engagement.

Barbara Cruz, a senior at Hancock High School, said that students in her community often don’t feel accurately represented by their elected officials, but don’t know what to do about it. “We are not apathetic, we are not hopeless, and we are not too stubborn to change. The truth is, we are going to be at the forefront, if you guys let us.”

Speaking of teaching service, over 100 schools in Illinois have already signed up to participate in this year’s We Day, an April event that celebrates students’ community service. The event was launched this week at Farragut High School where Martin Luther King III among others spoke. The initiative started in Toronto, Canada and has since expanded to 14 cities in three countries, including Seattle, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Take 5: Looking back at LSCs, elected school board tussle, bullying lawsuit, Sharkey takes over CTU

October 13, 2014 - 8:05am

Education Week marks the 25th anniversary of the first LSC election with an article that looks at where they are today. One big question the article asks is why the local school council concept hasn't spread to other cities, if they are so successful (as proponents argue). It also questions whether the experiment was uniquely "Chicago," while also pointing out that mayoral control diluted some of the power and enthusiasm around LSCs and that their most important power--choosing principals--has been limited by the district in recent years. Few people run or vote in council elections, the article notes, quoting a Catalyst article that found 86 LSCs had no candidates and that the filing deadline had to be extended.

Currently, 40 percent of CPS schools are on probation and therefore the LSCs only serve in advisory roles.  In addition, more than 100 schools are charters or contract schools and are not required to have any parent or community  boards.  

Chester E. Finn, Jr., the president emeritus of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, says LSCs are too locally focused to implement big reforms that really improve schools. However, the now-defunct Designs for Change found that schools with vigorous LSCs were more likely to improve while the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that a key component of a school improvement is strong community and parent involvement.

2. Another vote … Meeting at a school in Austin and then fanning out throughout the neighborhood, a coalition of parents and teachers on Monday are officially launching the push to get a referendum on an elected school board to voters on the ballot across the city. The coalition will meet at McNair Elementary School to start gathering petitions.

Though some precincts have had the question on the ballot in the past, the effort this year is to get it on in all 50 wards. Activists say part of their strategy is also to make the elected school board question a "litmus test" for incumbent aldemen and their challengers.

Collecting signatures is one of three ways to get a referendum to voters. The City Council could also place it on the ballot, but last week, an effort by a progressive group of aldermen was thwarted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies.

Ald. Bob Fioretti, who is running for mayor, says the Rules Committee last week violated state law by hastily approving two other proposed referenda that were never posted on the public agenda in order to avoid considering the school board item, according to DNAinfo . Fioretti says he’s filed a complaint with the state’s Attorney General to nullify the committee action.

3. Bully lawsuit.... The mother of a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide is suing CPS, according to DNAInfo. Last month, a CPS investigation found no "credible evidence" that McKenzie Philpots, a student at Pierce Elementary School, was bullied.  This finding stands in contrast to what her mother says and reportedly told the school before McKenzie killed herself. In addition, McKenzie talked about being bullied on social media.

This incredibly sad situation shines a light on the broader issue of how well CPS does in making sure staff know how to address bullying, especially in a big school system with few social workers or counselors who can focus on the social and emotional needs of students.

4. CTU without Karen... In a terse press conference on Thursday afternoon,  CTU's Vice President Jesse Sharkey announced that he will be taking over the reins of the union while President Karen Lewis deals with a  "serious health problem. " Such a role for Sharkey will not be new as he had been running the day-to-day operations as Lewis considered a run for mayor.  Sharkey said he had no news about whether Lewis is still contemplating a run for mayor.  

Even the Chicago Tribune editorial writers say they have been wondering if she will still run "though it is the wrong question for this moment. " While it seems hard to imagine that Lewis could muster a run in these circumstances,  the same Tribune editorial notes that Lewis promised her union would deliver a vigorous campaign against Mayor Rahm Emanuel: On a scale of 1 to 10, she said, a 15. The question however is who would the union get behind if not Lewis. Perhaps Fioretti?

5. Preparing teachers for the job … As the U.S. Department of Education focuses on improving the quality of teacher training programs, it has set aside millions of dollars in grants to districts with teacher residency programs that pair new teachers with experienced ones. The New York Times featured one such program, run by the Aspire charter system in California and Memphis, that helps its residents master the “seemingly unexciting — but actually quite complex — task of managing a classroom full of children.” The article describes the model’s lengthy and intense mentorship as “one of a number of such programs emerging across the country...a radical departure from traditional teacher training, which tends to favor theory over practice.”

A strong teacher training program isn’t always enough to keep new teachers from leaving the field. Earlier this year, Catalyst Chicago looked into the high rates of turnover at turnaround schools, most of which are managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which includes a highly regarded teacher residency component. Not all teachers at turnarounds were trained by AUSL, but many of them were. Catalyst found that more than half of teachers hired in the first year of a turnaround left by the third year, at 16 of the 17 schools that underwent a turnaround between 2007 and 2011.

Comings and Goings: Slavin, WITS/Boundless Readers, Mazany

October 9, 2014 - 3:43pm

Sarah Slavin is now the director of the New Teacher Center in Chicago. Previously she served as the education program officer at the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation and led Teach Plus as the executive director in Chicago. Slavin also serves on the board of directors of the Chicago Foundation for Education.

Working in the Schools (WITS) and Boundless Readers have joined forces to merge and combine their programming. WITS promotes literacy and a love of learning in CPS elementary students, and Boundless Readers helps children develop into lifelong leaders, readers, and thinkers. Their combined programming will focus on teacher development and volunteer activation to empower readers in the classrooms throughout the city.

Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, has been appointed board chair of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card. The board makes objective information on student performance available to policymakers and the public on national, state, and local levels. Mazany has served on the NAEP board since 2012.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones:

Take 5: UNO's shaky finances, 36 kids in a class, school lunches, NYC preschool for the rich

October 9, 2014 - 9:08am

The fiscal health of the UNO Charter School Network--the third largest network in Chicago serving more than 7,500 students--is mixed, a situation "that could impair long-term fiscal viability," according to a new report from the Civic Federation. UNO recently settled a case with the Securities and Exchange Commission and acknowledged that it was being audited by the IRS, according to the Sun Times.

A troubling finding is that the operator spent an average of 45 percent of its revenue on instruction between 2007 and 2011, less than the minimum standard average of 50 percent. The network is running a deficit and its reserves are shrinking, leaving it with less cash on hand for emergencies than recommended by the Illinois State Board of Education. On the positive side, though, its debt-to-worth ratio is low, which means the organization has the potential to borrow money should it need to.

The Civic Federation, generally supportive of charter schools, also found that LEARN and Namaste were in good financial shape, while UNO and North Lawndale Charter High School, a two-campus operator, were shakier. It examined 13 financial indicators, including instructional expenses, fund balance ratio and debt-to-worth ratio, of the four charter school networks. The federation also wanted to look at the capital, fundraising and strategic plans, but the authors note that the lack of cooperation from the charters made this impossible.  

Previous CPS administrations put out thick charter school annual reports that profiled each school’s academic and fiscal profile. Without that report, it is impossible to know to what degree CPS officials are monitoring the financial situation of charter schools. But it would be important to do so because, if a charter school goes out of business, the district will be left scrambling to figure out what to do with the children. North Lawndale College Prep’s two campuses are located in an area with underutilized neighborhood high schools likely able to absorb its 850 students. But UNO schools are mostly in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools.

2. A crowded class… A fifth-grade class at Oriole Park Elementary School on the far North Side got a nice little visit with Reader reporter Ben Joravsky. He was in the class to observe what it is like to be in a classroom with 36 fifth-graders, over the maximum of 31 set out in the Chicago Teachers Union contract. He says he learned--surprise--that it is crowded and noisy.

Before Joravsky wrote the story, Principal Tim Riff decided to hire an additional fifth-grade teacher. Riff tells Catalyst that he was able to swing a third teacher because the already overcrowded school got more students than expected. Schools get about $4,300 per student.

Last year, under the first year of student-based budgeting, 17 percent of elementary schools were over the class size limits set in the teachers contract (28 students in primary grades and 31 in intermediate and middle grades), shows a Catalyst analysis of CPS data. What is going on this year is still unknown. In fact, CPS has not yet released its 20th day enrollment count yet, though that tally was taken a week and a half ago.

3. Cafeteria Wars … New York Times political writer Nicholas Confessore tells the dramatic tale behind the national fight over healthier school lunches. On one side are school food service workers (or lunch ladies, as Confessore calls them) who struggle to maintain sales as students are turned off from the healthier, grainier and less salty foods; on the other, First Lady Michelle Obama and a cadre of health experts who support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. “The lunch ladies have become the shock troops in a sometimes absurdly complex battle to roll back the Obama’s administration’s anti-obesity agenda,” Confessore writes. “Some Democrats in Congress fear that if Republicans win control of the Senate this fall, Obama’s reform will be gutted within a year — and with it, the government’s single-best weapon against childhood obesity.”

The cafeteria wars are playing out here in Illinois, too. Just a few weeks ago, District 214 in Arlington Heights dropped out of the federally subsidized lunch program in order to avoid the new dietary standards. “The decision eliminated almost $1 million in federal reimbursements for the district, leading to a five-fold price increase for reduced-price lunches on a reduced food service budget,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

And now, Downer Grove’s high school district is also considering getting out of the program -- and giving up a half-million dollars in subsidies.

4. Learning another language… Get ready because next month CPS will announce its “plan for bi-literacy,” according a Chicago Tribune article, quoting district spokesman Joel Hood. A new state law allows school districts to indicate on high school diplomas and transcripts that a student knows English, as well as another language. This State Seal of Biliteracy is part of a statewide initiative to try get more students to show a high level of proficiency in one or more foreign languages. The state board of education is in the process of developing standards to get the seal. In other states, they have used the Advanced Placement Foreign Language exam to show proficiency.

The idea of such a designation started in California and has been spreading across the country. Having the seal could help students get scholarships or job opportunities. One interesting caveat is that students also have to show that they are highly proficient in English. District participation in the initiative is optional, but several suburban school districts, like Chicago, plan to offer it.

Experts say it will be hard for students to achieve a level of bi-literacy if they do not start learning in elementary school. This could be difficult to achieve in most Chicago elementary schools. According to the 2015 budget, less than 100 elementary schools are getting funding for foreign language teachers. Other schools could be paying for such teachers on their own, but with Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushing more art and daily gym, it is hard to see how many elementary schools will also afford a comprehensive foreign language program.  

5. Pre-school for the rich … New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio campaigned on the need to address income inequality, and his signature initiative to provide full-day, universal preschool was supposed to help close the achievement gap. But, one study says it’s children from the city’s wealthiest families who are benefitting the most from the preschool expansion.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkley found that preschool enrollment in zip codes where families earn more than the city’s average income grew at twice the rate than in the poorest 25 percent of zip codes. One reason, the researchers say, is that “schools in poorer communities appear to be less likely to find space for pre-k children, or lack the organizational slack to take on new programs.”

City hall refutes the study, noting that poor neighborhoods already had more seats prior to the expansion. According to Chalkbeat New York, “while lower-income neighborhoods may have seen less of a percentage increase in seats, the sheer number of new seats created in low-income areas offer a different picture. For example, 3,293 seats were added to the city’s 10 poorest ZIP codes, while 288 were added to the 10 wealthiest.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, is targeting the city’s poorest children with his plans to expand half-day preschool. Earlier this week, Emanuel said one way he’ll finance the expansion is through a $17 million loan from big financial institution that ties repayment to better academic outcomes.

One last note … Later Thursday at a press conference we will get some more information about CTU President Karen Lewis’ health, why she’s been hospitalized since Sunday night or whether this will have any impact on her expected mayoral run.  In the meantime, we just want to wish her a full and speedy recovery.

Student fees pump up budgets for wealthier schools, leave others out in the cold

October 8, 2014 - 4:03pm

 As one of the city's elite selective high schools, Whitney Young received more than $480,000 additional money from the district last year. But that wasn't its only financial advantage.

The school, on the Near West Side, also raked in more than $680,000 in fees. Each student was asked to pay  a general fee of $500, though students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch could apply for a waiver. In addition, there were extra costs to participate in sports teams and clubs, and with the financial support, Whitney Young--and other schools with similar fees and financial means--are more likely to offer these activities.

About two miles away in East Garfield Park, one of the city's poorest communities, Manley High School collected less than $8,000 last year in fees--about $17 per student. A few clubs and teams collected some money, but most only brought in a few hundred dollars.

Whitney Young’s football team collected more than $12,000. Manley’s team collected about $2,500.

The sharp difference in the amount of cash that schools collect from families through fees is not accounted for in the published budgets provided by the district. Nor is it documented elsewhere by individual schools. But the windfall reaped by schools with middle-class and wealthier students contributes to disparities among schools--in the number and quality of special programs, elective classes and other activities that are offered.

At the many schools, like Manley, where most of the students are low-income students of color, fees don’t make sense: Students who qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch get fee waivers. Plus, CPS policy maintains that there should be no consequences if parents don’t pay (though some schools will threaten to prevent students from graduating or going on field trips).

The disparity is not only true among city schools. Wealthy suburbs often have hefty fees in place that cover technology and supplies for classes. As in the city, fees at public suburban schools are often instituted in response to financial constraints—but poorer suburbs can’t generate the extra cash despite being stretched thin financially.

Working with the Better Government Association, Catalyst Chicago submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for documents showing internal financial accounts for all schools in Chicago. CPS denied the request, stating it would be too burdensome, but responded to a narrower request for information for 16 economically and geographically diverse schools.

The internal accounts reviewed by Catalyst showed that:

    •    Among six North Side elementary schools, including two magnet schools, the fees generated between $15,000 and $40,000 annually from parents. A survey of these elementary schools found that fees range from about $100 per student to $235.

    •    The three schools with large percentages of low-income students did not charge fees and brought in very little extra money. Bright Elementary School, a black and Latino school on the Southwest Side, and Langford in West Englewood, which is 98 percent black, collected no student fees and almost no additional revenue.

    •    Selective enrollment and magnet high schools, which have the fewest low-income and minority students, have the highest fees. Parents from the schools say that at the start of the school year, they often received bills of more than $500.  

"Unfair and inequitable"

Marguerite Roza, a national expert in school finance and a research associate professor at the University of Washington's College of Education, says the collection of fees at public schools is “unfair and inequitable.” The only way to make it fair is to put the money into one central pot, she maintains. “I am against the notion of fees,” she says.

Roza is especially critical of fees that students have to pay in order to take certain classes or to participate in activities.

While schools tell parents they are paying activity fees or technology fees, it is really a question of priorities, Roza says. Often, budgets become tight as school districts pay to give raises to teachers or to help support a special program.

“Parents will happily pay a supply fee because they want their children to keep having supplies,” she says. “But if you told them it was to keep a perk for teachers, they wouldn’t be so happy.”

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says the district does not monitor the collection of fees--though starting in the 2009-2010 school year, CPS forced schools to put all the money in a specific bank and report why the money was collected. McCaffrey also says it would not be right to put the money into one pot and distribute it equally to all schools, maintaining that doing so would constitute a tax on more well-to-do parents.

But even in schools with middle and upper-middle-class families, charging big fees can amount to a heavy burden.

When one mother got the letter this spring offering her daughter a spot at a magnet school on the Northwest Side, she was elated, not only for the opportunity, but also for the financial break of avoiding private school tuition.

But she was shocked to learn the list of items that she would have to spend money on—the school has four lists of supplies, plus she would have to pay for uniforms and the pricey after-school program. On top of those costs, the school charges a general student fee of about $235. Altogether, she estimated that she would have to spend almost $1,000 for her daughter at STEM Elementary in the West Loop.

“I was floored,” says the mother, who did not want to be identified because her daughter has had a hard time transitioning into the school. She was so surprised that she has since repeated her story to everyone she meets. Some of her friends in the south suburbs tell her they have fees of about $100, but none pay as much as she does.

STEM Magnet Principal Maria McManus says her school has a $100 fee for supplies, plus a $135 fee for field trips. She says that the students go on field trips once every four to six weeks, and the trips are costly; last year, she spent $18,000 just for buses. Some of the field trips are related to the school’s academic focus (on science, technology, engineering and math); some complement other areas in the curriculum. Last year, students went to Legoland and to the Google headquarters.

McManus says that between 90 and 95 percent of the parents pay the fees, and she very rarely hears a complaint.

“In order for us to do what we do for the kids, it costs,” she says. “I am very transparent.” Only half of her students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, so the school doesn’t get much money from federal grants for poor students.

“The parents really want a well-rounded school,” she says. “They are not paying [what they would have to pay] for the British School” (an expensive private school on the city's North Side).

Carolyn Brown, a teacher and member of the local school council at Kelly High School on the Southwest Side, has a daughter transferring from Whitney Young to Kelly this year. If she were to stay at Young, her fees would be more than $500 once all the costs for courses were included.

Brown says that at Kelly, school officials can’t charge as much because parents simply don’t have the money to pay. And even though low-income students can get waivers, sometimes they and their parents feel ashamed to ask for one. Every year, some lower-income students who owe the school hundreds of dollars have to pay in order to graduate because they never got waivers. It is hard to do back waivers, she says.

Brown doesn’t think that there should be more control from central office because setting fees is one of the small things that local school councils have the power to do. Also, parents trust local school councils more, she says.

“With the school fees, there is a level of responsibility being shifted,” she says. “With budgets being chipped away, the fees are being used to fill in the gaps and the schools with more resources have more of an ability to do so. It is another example of why schools are inequitable.”

Photo credit: check writing/

Preschool expansion via 'social impact' bonds

October 7, 2014 - 7:15pm

A group of investors is betting $17 million that getting more of Chicago’s children into quality early learning programs will generate bigger savings in the long term.

The investors will make a loan to the city so that 2,600 additional children can take part in half-day pre-school programs in the distirct's much-lauded child-parent centers over the next four years, city officials announced Tuesday.

The city expects to repay the investors – including the Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund, Northern Trust and the JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation –with interest from the cost savings generated down the road in reduced special education services. If CPS doesn’t save money, the lenders won’t get repaid.

“Too often we think of the bottom line in these companies in dollars and cents,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel during a press conference at the Velma Thomas Early Learning Center in McKinley Park. “The social impact bond changes that conversation […]. What happens in these rooms matters to the future of the city and that is all of our bottom line.”

City officials did not provide Catalyst with a copy of the contract for the so-called "social impact bond" on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said the city will introduce an ordinance to the City Council on Wednesday in order to help CPS implement the loan agreement.

Emanuel also announced on Tuesday that his proposed 2015-2016 budget will include $9.4 million in capital spending for 10 elementary schools to expand preschool offerings. In addition, the mayor said the state will kick in $4.5 million to support new community-based early learning programs. He said all of these programs will help meet his goal of providing preschool to an additional 1,500, low-income 4-year-olds by next year.

The mayor's critics and early learning advocates, meanwhile, are calling for truly "universal" and full-day preschool for all parents, including those with incomes above the poverty level.

New financing tool

The social impact bond program will launch in November with a cohort of 374 students in six schools – including Velma Thomas – in areas of high poverty and limited preschool offerings. The other elementary schools are: DeDiego in West Town; Melody in Garfield-Humboldt Park; Wadsworth in Woodlawn; Peck in West Eldon; and Hanson Park in Belmont-Cragin.

The cohort will increase to 782 children in the second and third years, and drop back to 680 in its final year. After that, it’ll be up to the city to decide whether it will continue funding the seats.

Chicago’s child-parent centers, which serve preschool to third grade and require parental participation, have been proven to have long-term academic benefits for children. Arthur Reynolds, who has studied the centers for three decades, told The Hechinger Report last month that the programs significantly reduce “remedial education and placement in special education was cut by about 40 percent.”

Social impact bonds – also called “Pay for Success” programs – are a relatively new tool first started in the United Kingdom to finance high-impact social programs. The first such loan in the U.S. was provided in New York City for a jail program; the State of Illinois is also working with a coalition of Chicago-area foster care agencies and other youth service providers on another social impact bond intended to reduce recidivism.

A similar initiative launched last year in Utah can shed some light on how Chicago’s program will work. Goldman Sachs and Pritzker loaned $7 million to the United Way of Salt Lake City to expand its preschool program. When they first start in the program, participating children take a picture vocabulary test which helps predict their likely future usage of special education and remedial services.

Then, “students that test below average and are therefore likely to use special education services will be tracked as they progress through sixth grade,” according a fact sheet. “Every year they do not use special education or remedial services will generate a Pay-for-Success payment.”

In Chicago, the city will pay back investors in several stages, beginning with $2,900 for each child that meets specific academic benchmarks in kindergarten. The city will also pay $750 for each student who scores above the national average on reading tests.

But the biggest cost savings will come from reduced special education services. “Payments for decreases in special education are $9,100 compounded at an annual rate of 1 percent for each child that avoids special education after attending the CPC program,” according to a press release from CPS.

Students will be evaluated through their senior years in high school. Chicago-based IFF, which works in community development finance, will serve as the project coordinator and hire an independent evaluator to analyse the program’s outcomes.

Andrea Phillips, vice president at the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs, said she was very impressed by the work of Chicago’s child-parent centers.

“We’ve taken a look at the prior performance of the CPC program […] and we’re very confident that kids who come through this program will get to kindergarten and be ready to go,” said Phillips, adding that investors can expect to earn interest “in the mid to high single-digits.”

Some concerns

CPS stresses that children will not be denied special education services because of the initiative, but some advocates expressed caution about the program.

Children with severe disabilities are usually identified as needing special education services before they reach preschool. Meanwhile, students with milder conditions such as learning disabilities or dyslexia tend to be identified after third grade, when they begin getting formally assessed in reading, says Rod Estvan of Access Living.

“Unless that disabling condition is identified that early and tackled in a specific manner it’s not clear how much of a reduction can be expected […] unless they’re going to change the curriculum and really move up the scale with these funds,” he said.

Estvan added that CPS should tread cautiously when it comes to children who need special education services.

“The danger is to make this happen by not identifying some kids, to make your markers,” he said.  “It’s not easy to get a kid identified who is in the learning disability category anymore for families, and many parents don’t want their kids identified to begin with, so you could see if this isn’t effective, it could have a very negative consequence for some of these kids because of reluctance to identify.”

Take 5: Charter slow down, striking teachers and public education in politics

October 6, 2014 - 10:30am

The Chicago Sun Times applauds Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS for not approving any new charter schools this year. The editorial says it is about time the district took a break. “Though we support quality charter options in Chicago, CPS’ breakneck pace of new charter openings at a time of tremendous financial stress has unfairly siphoned resources from traditional public schools. And crucially, not all charters perform well, leaving CPS in the odd position of taking money from successful traditional schools to give to inferior charters.”

Many hypothesized that Emanuel made the call to avoid what has become a contentious process during the election season. Since 2005, an average of nine charter schools have opened each year. In 2011, the year of the last mayoral election, six new charter schools opened and, in 2007, the election before that, nine opened.

Under Emanuel, the biggest year of charter school openings was in 2013, when the school board approved 12 new charter schools and the Illinois Charter School Commission approved two. Overall, 33 of the city's 130 charter schools, which includes multiple campuses of the Youth Connection network, have opened under Emanuel.

While it is likely that the election is a major factor in the stall in charter school approvals, other realities might also be in play. Consider that five of the charter schools were approved to open in the fall of 2014 did not. UNO and Concept were dealing with scandals that prevented them from pursuing openings. Other charters are having difficulty finding space.

2. Happy Hancock?… The Sun Times revisits Hancock High School, whose students and staff got the word last week that the school will be converted to a selective enrollment school. The article points out while some support the decision, many are miffed that CPS leaders did not first hold community meetings or get public input. Community groups and staff say they only found out about the announcement after the decision had been made. Interestingly, Ald. Marty Quinn, the area alderman who had been pushing for a selective school on his side of town, has yet to respond to questions about the decision, according to the Sun Times.

As she did in an earlier interivew with Catalyst, Sarah Duncan from the Network for College Success voices her dismay that a neighborhood school that just completed a $5.7 million grant program and has improved in almost every indicator is now going to be changed drastically. She and others are upset that that the school is only being renovated as a precursor to becoming a selective enrollment school.

Also last week, the Public Building Commission awarded a $13.46 million contract to Paschen Milhouse Joint Venture III to add 11 classrooms to Walter Payton High School on the North Side. With Hancock, the Walter Payton addition and the new selective enrollment school being built on the Near North Side, CPS will have nearly 2,000 more selective enrollment high school seats and a total of 5,300 by 2017.

3. Bring mommy to school day... Few school districts in Illinois are taking advantage of a law that designates the first Monday in October as “Bring Your Parents to School Day.” The law, which makes the visits optional, is meant to increase parent involvement, which studies have shown helps improve academic performance.

But school officials say allowing parents to follow their children into the classroom presents all sorts of additional challenges, including security, teachers union contract terms and actual classroom lessons, the Chicago Tribune reports. Chicago is one of the districts skipping the program. The original version of the law would have made it mandatory, but the Illinois Association of School Boards lobbied against it. "[Legislators) have an idea, and it's a fine idea, but when it comes to implementation, it's a different ballgame," says the group’s deputy executive director.

4. Striking … Teachers in Hinsdale Township High School District 86 have filed paperwork to strike after contract negotiations stalled last week. The 337-member union's previous contract expired in June. The district and teachers can't come to an agreement over the salary schedule and stipends, the Tribune reports. The earliest day teachers in this western surburban district can strike is Oct. 14.

Meanwhile, in Waukegan, teachers remain on strike this week, unable to reach a deal with the district over salary, health benefits and time in the classroom. The Lake County Federation of Teachers Local 504 went on strike last Thursday, a move that keeps about 17,000 students out of class. Teachers were expected to remain on strike into Monday, when negotiations are scheduled to continue. The last time teachers in this northern suburb held a strike was 30 years ago, ABC Channel 7 reports.

And just a few weeks ago, teachers in Highland -- a tiny Illinois school district outside of St. Louis, MO. -- ended their first-ever strike with a three-year contract that includes yearly salary increases.

5. A message to the Democratic Party … A poll commissioned by the newly formed Democrats for Public Education says that Democrats overwhelmingly want more funding for public schools. (Just 45 percent of Republicans feel the same way.) The poll also found that 43 percent of voters have positive views of charter schools, while nearly the same amount -- 40 percent -- don’t have an opinion or don’t know enough.

The poll comes just a month before midterm congressional elections.  As Politico reports, “candidates across the country have already been playing up education as a theme; the adequacy of school funding is a key issue in the gubernatorial races in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan and in the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina.” Education will be a critical issue in Chicago’s upcoming mayoral elections, especially if Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis decides to make a run for the gig. Mayor Rahm Emanuel already has already gotten strong backing from Democrats For Education Reform (DFER). 


Gay, transgender students seek more support

October 3, 2014 - 6:22pm

Katya Mazon had never been heavily involved with the LGBTQ community, until two and a half years ago, when she attended her first Illinois Safe Schools Alliance meeting. One of her friends, who self-identified as “queer," invited her and said there would be food.

“They were looking for newer members and my friend told me about it,” said Mazon, who graduated from Walter Payton High School in June and plans to attend the University of Illinois-Chicago. “He was like, ‘You’ve always been really supportive of me and you should just come. And there’s pizza.’”

Mazon, a straight ally, will be honored at the Alliance’s annual brunch at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center Yates Gallery (a one-person brunch ticket is $150) as Activist of the Year – it’s the first time a high school graduate has received the award – for her work with Chicago Public Schools and her leadership in the Alliance’s Youth Committee.

Fifty-six of more than 100 Chicago public high schools have registered Gay-Straight Alliances, but the Alliance’s program director David Fischer said there should be more. According to one national school climate survey, 98 percent of lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender/queer students in Illinois hear anti-LGBTQ comments in school. Across the country, only 22 percent of LGBTQ students report having a gay-straight alliance in their high school.

Studies estimate that between 4 and 10% of the general population is gay; in CPS, that translates to between 16,000 and 40,000 students.

“Schools are still struggling to not ‘out’ young people to other school personnel or their parents,” Fischer said. “Schools are not in a place where they’re truly working to accommodate transgender youth.”

Mazon has been working with CPS to set up guidelines to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students, because schools often don’t know guidelines when it comes to bathrooms, preferred gender pronouns, or recreational sports teams.

“The Alliance is youth-driven, so youth are really the decision makers,” Mazon said. “I love that because they’re the stakeholders, they’re the ones who are experiencing it, and so they’re the ones who should have a say in it.”

A lack of dialogue about diverse identities in school curricula is another challenge for LGBTQ youth. Mazon was never taught about gender identity at school, and many students can go through a decade of schooling without learning about significant historical or literary figures who identified as LGBTQ.

“That complete silence can have a serious negative impact,” Fischer said. “It’s very hard to perceive your own identity in any sort of positive light if it’s never shown to you.”

These issues are prevalent throughout Illinois, and across the nation, but young people in Chicago face unique difficulties, Fischer said, because “a lot of time and energy and effort and resources are put in a small percentage of schools”  that address the issue.

 “When we talk about equality, it’s not giving [students] the same things,” Mazon said. “It’s giving them the things to reach the same steps.”

According to research done by UIC College of Education, youth and their families want to have intergenerational conversations about sexuality and gender identity. Spaces for facilitated dialogue, where youth can ask authentic questions without feeling like they’re going to get in trouble, is not just for the people who identify as LGBTQ, said researcher Stacey Horn.

“Creating a safe environment is good for everyone in the schools,” she said. “It allows for a broader expression of identity for anybody.”

Elected school board to be litmus test for aldermanic candidates: grassroots groups

October 3, 2014 - 7:00am

As if Chicago’s upcoming mayoral election didn’t already promise to feature education as a prominent campaign issue, a coalition of community and labor groups are now trying to get a measure for an elected school board on February’s ballot in each of the city’s 50 wards.

Part of their strategy, organizers say, is to make the question of whether Chicago should have an elected school board a sort of litmus test for incumbent aldermen and their challengers.

“We’re going to raise this with aldermen in upcoming elections – and hopefully in time for the November elections – and ask, ‘Do you support this?’” said Jitu Brown, education organizer of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and a longtime proponent of a change from an appointed board. “Will these people go against the mayor’s wishes and advocate for the children of Chicago, or will they go lockstep with the mayor while our children are the collateral damage of these policies?”

Brown says he expects some current aldermen and other candidates for city seats – including Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is considering a mayoral run – to support the referendum and even circulate some petitions, but he says that the effort is not coordinated with those campaigns.

“If someone wants to champion this issue, that’s what our elected officials should be doing,” Brown added.

Even if the referendum gets on the ballot and passes, state legislators would have to rewrite state law--and go against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who now has control of the system--to allow for an elected board.

The effort is being led by the coalition of community groups called Grassroots Educational Movement, or GEM, of which KOCO is a member. In addition, the United Working Families independent political organization--which formed over the summer with the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Action Now, and Grassroots Illinois Action--is also supporting the campaign.

“Never any debate”

Among the groups gathering signatures is the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which will be leading volunteers to canvass in the 12th, 14th and 15th wards on the Southwest Side.

“This is a very popular issue in our community, and a lot of people support this,” says Patrick Brosnan, the group’s executive director. “There’s never any kind of debate going on at any of those board meetings, always just presentations and ‘everything is great.’ But things aren’t great. There’s a lot of problems […] Frankly, I don’t think an elected school board would be making most of the decisions this current board is making.”

Chicago’s school board has been made up of mayoral appointees since 1995, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley convinced the State Legislature to turn over control of the school district to City Hall. Chicago’s previous system for choosing school board members involved a messy nominating procedure in which community groups offered up names from which the mayor had to choose appointees.

To get the item on the ballot, the groups need to collect signatures from at least 8 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial race in each ward; that means some wards with a higher voter turnout will require more signatures. Petitions are due to the city’s Board of Elections on Nov. 24, the same day they’re due for aldermanic and mayoral candidates.

Previous efforts

This wouldn’t be the first time the issue goes to a referendum. In 2012, another coalition of community groups called Communities Organized for Democracy in Education (CODE) collected enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in 327 of the city’s more than 2,000 precincts.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the non-binding referendum, with an average of nearly 87 percent of votes in favor in each precinct.

“It’s pretty clear that the sentiment is there,” says Rico Gutstein, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who is part of Teachers For Justice, a member of CODE. “We were in 13 percent of precincts, in precincts that were entirely black, entirely white, entirely brown and entirely mixed […]. We were in the wealthiest and the poorest neighborhoods.”

Unlike the 2012 campaign, CODE is not actively taking part in this newest, ward-level effort to get a referendum on the ballot. (There are several ways to get a referendum item on the ballot, including at the precinct-, ward- and city-wide level.) Many of the groups who are part of CODE, however, are also members of GEM, which is behind the referendum. As a coalition, CODE is focusing on two other strategies for transforming the school board’s makeup, explains Roderick Wilson, who heads the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville and is a member of CODE.

“We’re seeing if we can file a state or federal lawsuit because this is voter suppression and taxation without representation,” Wilson said, adding that the group is currently fundraising for that possibility.

Separately, CODE has also been actively lobbying the State Legislature to push forward a bill to convert Chicago’s board into an elected body. The bill was introduced in the House in 2013 but has not advanced much since.

“This particular policy need to be changed in Springfield,” Wilson acknowledges. “What these referendums do is show more citywide support for an elected school board, which is definitely helpful in bringing the issue to move in our Legislature.”

CPS won't consider new charter proposals this year

October 2, 2014 - 4:12pm

In a first in at least a decade, this year Chicago Public Schools will not approve any new charter or contract schools to open in the coming fall.

Not having the process for approval play out over the winter months will certainly be seen as a political decision. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is running for re-election, has come under fire for opening charter schools after closing 50 neighborhood schools last year. CTU President Karen Lewis is considering a run for mayor. 

However, CPS officials emphasize that some charter schools will still open next fall. An Intrinsic Charter school and an elementary school operated by a new group called Chicago Educational Partnership already were given conditional approval through the last process to open in Fall of 2015. In addition, as many as five charter schools—the Concept school in Chatham, two UNO schools, one Learn school and an Aspira High School--that were originally slated to open in Fall of 2014 have asked the district if they could delay the opening. It is unclear what their plans are now.  

CPS has yet to post a request for proposals (RFP) this year—a document that usually comes out in the summer and outlines what types of schools and locations the district hopes to add to its portfolio. Spokesman Bill McCaffrey says the district plans to post an RFP in December, but that it will only ask for proposals for schools to be opened in the Fall of 2016.

McCaffrey says the delay is to allow potential charter and contract school operators time to go through the entire process, which includes being vetted by CPS and public hearings. “We want to ensure adequate time for the process,” he says.

Wendy Katten, director of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, welcomed the announcement, but said she would like to know what officials are thinking.

“You never know if they just didn’t want any noise during the election year or if they are thinking about the number of seats and considering whether they need to open up more schools,” she said.

Rebeca Nieves-Huffman, Illinois State Director for Democrats for Education Reform, said that there is an urgent need for “high quality charter schools, particularly in underserved communities.” She welcomed the next review process as an opportunity to “create more charter options that would address overwhelming parent demand."

 Also, it does not look like CPS will be doing much in the way of school actions this year. On Wednesday, as it must do by law, CPS posted it guidelines for school actions, which only featured criteria for co-locations and for changing the attendance boundaries of schools.

Take 5: Reaction to Hancock change, City Colleges free ride, feds issue equality guidelines

October 2, 2014 - 9:06am

So far, the reaction to the announcement on Wednesday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials want to convert Hancock High School in McKinley Park into a selective enrollment  school has not been entirely positive. Ray Salazar, an English teacher at Hancock and a columnist for ChicagoNow, was quick to post a blog questioning the decision to convert an old school, built in 1936, and into a selective school when more affluent areas of town are getting brand new annexes and buildings. He says that the $10 million investment that CPS plans will not completely fix Hancock’s faulty heat, inefficient air conditioning, outdated auditorium, and a long list of other problems.

“How do political and district leaders expect Southwest Side families and educators to accept this is a reasonable solution when other selective enrollment high schools get $115 million buildings and $17 million expansions?” Of course, he’s referring to the new Jones College Prep in the South Loop and the plans to build an annex to Payton College Prep on the Near North SIde, where the mayor also wants to build a new selective enrollment school.

Salazar is not the only one critical of the move. After using a $5.7 million federal grant to partner with the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago, Hancock is now a good Level 2 neighborhood school, says Sarah Duncan, co-director for the Network. In Catalyst’s story on the announcement, she wonders why CPS would dismantle the high school and the work that has been done there.

Another outstanding question is how neighborhood high schools will absorb the students who do not win one of the spots at Hancock. According to 2013-2014 data, most of the other high schools in the area--two UNO charter schools, Curie, Solorio, Kennedy and Kelly--are at more than 100 percent capacity and edging toward being overcrowded. The closest high school is Gage Park, but it is significantly lower-achieving compared to Hancock.

A public hearing has yet to be held and the board has yet to approve the move, but the district is already allowing students to apply for the school.   

Free college ride… CPS students with above a 3.0 GPA will not have to pay to attend Chicago’s city colleges, announced Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Sun-Times reports. Full-time tuition, school fees and books cost about $4,400. The scholarship being offered by the city will fill the gap after federal aid and Emanuel estimates that it will cost about $2 million a year. The Sun Times describes this as another “pre-election bone to black voters who helped put Emanuel in office but abandoned him in droves after he closed 50 public schools, most of them in impoverished neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.”

City Colleges have traditionally attracted the highest percentage of CPS graduates who enroll in college, although one study found that many graduates could get into better schools than the ones they landed in; plus, students are more likely to finish college at four-year institutions. More than 100,000 students took classes at City Colleges of Chicago in 2013, according to the Illinois Community College Board. But only about 10,000 received associates degrees or certificates. The City Colleges has launched a “reinvention” process to try to improve degree-completion and transfer to four year university rates.

A noble move… The Pritzker Foundation announced that it will award scholarships to undocumented immigrants who graduate from one of the Noble Street Charter School campuses. The $3 million that the Pritzkers are making available is intended to fill in the gap for the students who do not qualify for state or federal grants because of their status.

Seven of Noble Streets 13 campuses serve predominantly Latino populations.

It is unclear exactly how many undocumented immigrants graduate from CPS each year. The Urban Institute estimated that in 2010-2011, about 16,000 16-and-17-year-old non-citizens were living in the Chicagoland region. Some are in the United States legally, but those who are not often struggle to stay interested in school knowing that college will be difficult, if not impossible, to pay for.

However, some opportunities have opened up in recent years for undocumented immigrants. The federal Dream Act, initiated President Barack Obama in 2012, allows some to get federally-backed student loans, as well as temporary legal status and some benefits like health care. In 2011, a law created the Illinois Dream Fund, which provides scholarships for undocumented immigrants. On November 1, the fund will begin taking applications for scholarships. Also, Illinois is one of only a dozen states that offer in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.  

Backing off layoffs… Though it does not seem like this will solve some of the larger issues, Aramark said it will only lay off 290 custodians, not the 468 they had previously announced, according to WBEZ and the Sun-Times. In March, Aramark took over the management of custodians, promising to bring new technology to campuses and to take the onus off principals to monitor the work (though building engineers supervised custodians). The company promised that they could get building cleaner and save the district nearly $20 million a year.

But principals complained that schools were not being cleaned, and that Aramark was shuffling around custodians, hiring unfamiliar people and laying off workers who have been in schools for years.

Just as these complaints were reaching a fever pitch, CPS confirmed that Aramark was planning to reduce staffing. SEIU-Local 1 President Tom Balanoff tells WBEZ that he thinks Aramark can accomplish their task with the workers they are keeping on and the 2,000 others that are in place. But to make the principals happy, Aramark will also likely need to find some way to give principals control of the custodians. After all, when a classroom is dirty or a school gets bed bugs, it is the principal who hears about it.

Guidelines for equality… Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Wednesday new federal guidelines for reducing racial disparities in education, reports the New York Times. Among the issues the guidelines tackle are access to high-level classes such as calculus and Advanced Placement courses, as well as whether students go to facilities with air conditioning and computers. These guidelines follow discipline recommendations by the Department of Education, stating that schools should only call police as a last resort and work to reduce suspensions and expulsions.

These guidelines and recommendations are being called a “refreshing change” by civil rights advocates.

In CPS, disparities persist, according to the latest collection of data. Though CPS’ student population is about 12 percent white and Asian, they make up nearly 30 percent of students in programs for gifted and talented students. And while access to Algebra 1 in 7th and 8th grade is relatively equal, pass rates of black students pale in comparison to white, Asian and Latino students.



Hancock to become a selective admissions school

October 1, 2014 - 4:45pm

CPS wants to turn Hancock High School in McKinley Park into a selective enrollment and career and technical education (CTE) school, saying that families, elected officials and community leaders in the area want more selective admissions seats.

The decision, which still must go through public hearings, prompted criticism from one of the leaders of a well-regarded University of Chicago initiative that works with neighborhood high schools to improve academics and increase college-going.

“You can understand trying to shake up a school that is not performing, but shaking up something that is working really well, it looks like you’re trying to undo it or reduce its effect,” says Sarah Duncan, co-director of the Network for College Success at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. “The conspiracy theorists might say they’re undermining high-achieving neighborhood schools on purpose. It kind of looks like that.”

The Network for College Success has worked with Hancock since 2008. As it does with other schools in the city, the staff helps with Hancock’s organizational development and making improvements that are based on research and data. It also partnered with the school in its $5.7 million, three-year federal School Improvement Grant, which ended this past school year. The SIG program is a reform effort aimed at improving the worst schools in the country, without firing an entire staff, as in a turnaround.

Last year, Hancock was rated a Level 2 school. Its freshman on-track rate, a measure of whether freshmen are earning enough credits to graduate on time, was 91.2 percent, up nearly 10 percentage points from the previous year. Research by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research has shown that the on-track metric is a strong predictor of high school graduation.

“Hancock is a neighborhood school that while serving its neighborhood kids, has solved its dropout problem, its on-track rate is in the 90s, it’s really raising the bar on instruction and getting kids into better colleges,” Duncan says. “Why would we take half of that opportunity for successful neighborhood schools away from that community? Honestly, it is a model of a neighborhood school.”

Money for capital improvements

The new programs at Hancock will also entail $10 million in capital improvements, which CPS says the state will finance.

The district plans to phase in the selective enrollment slots one grade at a time starting next fall, with a freshmen class of 105 students. An equal number of slots will be available for the CTE program, focused on pre-law or engineering, and students from a wider area will get a preference for those seats. Still, students must apply for admission into both citywide programs.

“We are enthusiastic about the potential of a revitalized Hancock High School and look forward to establishing a new high-quality option in the far southwest side of Chicago,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in a statement.
CPS projects the school will serve about 840 students after four years, which is less than its current enrollment level of 920 students. Neighborhood students who don’t make it into either the selective-enrollment or CTE programs would get diverted into one of the area neighborhood high schools, whose attendance boundaries will be redrawn.

The two closest neighborhood high schools are Curie and Hubbard, both of which are also Level 2.

Even though the transformation has not yet been approved, CPS says it will start taking applications for seats in Hancock’s proposed selective enrollment and CTE programs today. The application process for all selective enrollment schools will close on Dec. 12.

Comings and Goings: new principals

September 29, 2014 - 10:50am

Mark Grishaber has been named principal of Taft High School. He was formerly assistant principal at Young High School.

New principal, Michael Herring, has been named principal of Jahn.

Former interim principal at Burnside, Kelly Thigpen has become contract principal.

Kelly Moore-Shelton has been rehired as principal at Attucks.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones:

Take 5: Fewer tenured teachers rehired, voucher rally, Elgin charter fight

September 29, 2014 - 9:13am

As promised, many of the educators who were laid off earlier this summer as a result of drops in enrollment were rehired, but rehire rates were different for tenured versus non-tenured teachers.

Of the 299 non-tenured teachers laid off this summer, 177 or 59 percent were brought back for full-time jobs, according to district data that the CTU shared with Catalyst. Meanwhile, of the 231 laid-off tenured teachers, 123 or 53 percent were rehired and more of them landed only substitute of part-time jobs.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey says the stats prove that the district’s new student-based budgeting model discourages principals from hiring more experienced teachers because they are paid more. Last week, CPS officials announced they wouldn’t cut school budgets if their enrollment numbers fell below projections. Sharkey says he’s glad principals won’t have to lay off more teachers, but that it’s too late to reverse some of the negative impacts already felt by experienced teachers because of the new budgeting formula.

2. Enrollment drain… Another revelation from Friday's announcement that CPS won't cut budgets based on enrollment is just how many fewer students are going to traditional schools. Just a decade ago, about 393,000 students went to district-run schools and only 12,000 students went to charter schools. On Friday, CPS officials said that 309,182 students were in traditional schools on the 10th day. CPS has yet to provide information on the count at charter schools.

Some of the enrollment drop at traditional schools is caused by students being lured away by charter and contract schools. But another part of it is that families are either moving out of Chicago or choosing to send their children to private schools. Overall, CPS officials said total enrollment was down by about 3,000 students. In a large school district, that is a small drop of less than 1 percent. But it bears keeping in mind that for at least the past decade CPS has been losing about 1 percent of students each year and now, for the first time perhaps ever, it will serve less than 400,000 students.

The Sun-Times applauded the move to let traditional schools keep the cash for students who did not show up. In an editorial, the Sun-Times says CPS should stop threatening to take money away from schools that don’t meet their enrollment projections. CPS is such a transient system with students who live transient lives and schools shouldn’t be penalized for their movements, the editorial argues.

3. Are vouchers on the horizon? Last week about 500 people--mostly affiliated with the Archdiocese of Chicago--gathered outside the State of Illinois Building to rally for school choice. They want state education money to follow children into private schools -- and expect to see a related bill in the State Legislature sometime this spring.

“The Bill Gates’ of the world don’t need school choice,” said Rebeca Nieves Huffman, state director of Democrats for Education Reform. “We would love to see something that prioritizes the lower-income families.”

Patrick Landry, the principal at Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Humboldt Park, says that “parents are the primary educators of their children and deserve the right to choose their child’s education.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Chicago’s new archbishop, Blase Cupich, will handle these issues. A Chicago Tribune article this weekend detailed how Cupich battled to keep inner-city Catholic schools open despite declining enrollment at his previous post in Spokane, Wash., where he oversaw just 16 schools; Chicago’s system is the nation’s largest with more than 83,000 students and 244 schools. The article notes that his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George -- who has cancer and will retire from his duties as archbishop --  was big on lobbying legislators for tax credits and private school vouchers.

4. Suburban fight… In July, School District U-46 board members rejected the proposal for the Elgin Math and Science Academy, saying they were worried that the approval would “open the floodgates” for charters in the town. Board members also said they would rather the local not-for-profit leaders work with the school district to improve math and science education for all students in the district.

 But now the charter school operators appealed to the State Charter School Commission and are in the process of drumming up support for the idea. Last week, they won a victory when the Elgin City Council passed a resolution endorsing the charter school. On Tuesday evening, the charter school commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal.

Outside of Chicago, charter schools are pretty rare with only 15 campuses serving about 5,000 students. This past Spring, there was a major effort to abolish the charter school commission, which can override local school board decisions to reject charters. Schools approved by the Illinois State Charter School Commission are funded directly through the state, which winds up costing school districts more. But after being passed by the Senate, the bill to scrap the Illinois State Charter School Commission was sent to the Rules Committee in the House and never left.

5. Money for STEM teachers … Two teacher training programs in Illinois will receive a total of some $18.5 million in federal funds to recruit, train and support more STEM teachers in high-needs districts over the next five years. One grant for $10.2 million will go to a project at Illinois State University run by Robert Lee, who is well known for the Chicago Teacher Pipeline program he oversees. The other, for $8.3 million, goes to National Louis University’s Science Excellence through Residency program, directed by Shaunti Knauth.

The grants, which were announced last week, are also supposed to increase the participation of underrepresented groups, including women, minorities and people with disabilities, in teaching STEM subjects.



CPS won't cut schools based on enrollment shortfalls

September 26, 2014 - 6:12pm

CPS officials on Friday said principals would not face budget cuts if student enrollment in their schools failed to meet projections. 

Schools  enrolling more than the number of students projected will receive additional student-based budgeting of about $4,390 per student, according to a letter sent out by CPS.

No reason was given for the decision.  About half of CPS schools would have lost a total of about $38 million, if these cuts had gone through, according to CPS. The number of students going to district-run schools dropped dramatically in the last year from about 320,000 to 309,000 with some going to charters or contract schools and others leaving CPS.

About 214 schools will get additional $24 million.  CPS officials said they will use money in contingency and an anticipated surplus of Tax Increment Financing money to offset the extra costs..

Last spring, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that the district was dramatically overhauling the way the district provided money to schools. Rather than providing teachers based on enrollment, the district now pays schools a stipend for each student under a system called student-based budgeting.

CPS also decided not to penalize schools last year—a move that cost the district about $20 million.

The principal of a Southwest Side school nervous about losing money this year put a banner on her website to recruit  25 more students. She eventually got four additional children.

That would have meant a $100,000 budget cut, equal to the cost of employing at least one teacher, she said.

“I can’t afford to cut teachers or staff,” said the principal, who asked not to be identified. “I had already drafted a letter … begging to keep the money.”

She says CPS needs to do a better job of helping principals deal with shifts in enrollment, which she doesn’t see how she can control.

Michael Beyer, a principal at Morrill Elementary School, also on the Southwest Side, applauded district officials for not cutting budgets until they get comfortable with student-based budgeting.  “I think they are trying to smooth out the bumps,” said Beyer, whose school received more than the expected number of students this fall.

A political issue

When Byrd-Bennett announced the move to a student-based budgeting system, she touted it as a way for principals to exert more control over their budgets, something should would have preferred when she was  a principal.

She also said it is a more equitable way to fund schools because each one is allotted a set amount per student, and the amount and rationale for the allocation is transparent.

Student-based budgeting also has been pushed by those promoteingmarket-based school reform. They prefer for the money to follow the student. High-performing schools would attract more students and the poor performers would lose them.  Charter schools have long been funded per pupil.

The decision to hold schools harmless met with skepticism from the Center for Reinventing Education, an organization that promotes choice in school districts. 

Larry Miller, an expert on student-based budgeting with the center, said that when a school gets to keep money for students they don’t have, they are effectively taking money away from students in other schools. He said too often school districts put off fully implementing student-based budgeting for the wrong reasons.

“There is often a lot of political support for the status quo,” he said. “They get overwhelmed by requests to keep things the way they are and they cave.”

But critics of student-based budgeting don’t like it because traditional schools are penalized when charter schools siphon students away.  Also, they worry that principals will be tempted to hire less experienced teachers so their money can be spread further.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the decision to hold schools harmless a "tacit admission that this is a fundamentally flawed way of doing the budget."

He said student based budgeting already has had a "devastating negative consequence" on schools, as principals have become motivated to hire less experienced, poorer paid teachers. Recent data on rehires after last year's layoffs, he said, showed that more untenured teachers were rehired than those with tenure.

 "Why would someone who is untenured be hired over a tenured teacher who's already proven to be an effective teacher at CPS? Because they're cheaper," he said.

Take 5: First-day attendance, Dyett concessions and school funding bill

September 25, 2014 - 9:00am

Continuing a kind of dubious tradition started by former CEO Arne Duncan, officials announced Wednesday that first-day attendance was better than ever this year. Accountability Chief John Barker  told board members at their monthly meeting that 93.7 percent of enrolled students showed up on the first day of class -- which is ever so slightly higher than last year’s 93.5 percent rate. In addition, he said the attendance rates were higher on each day of the first week of school.

Forget the fact that in 2009 Duncan announced first-day attendance was a record 94.1 percent. The method used to calculate first-day attendance has always been questionable. The first-day attendance rate is calculated by taking the number of enrolled or projected students, then dividing by the number who show up. The many thousands of inactive students or those who are not officially enrolled or projected are not counted in first-day attendance figures at all. In many schools, especially high schools, the number of students who eventually enroll is significantly more than those who are in attendance on the first day. Also, the first-day attendance figures do not include the 55,000-some students who attend charter schools. 

Duncan started reporting first-day attendance because he said it affected state funding. Later it was pointed out and he conceded that the first day doesn’t count any more than any other day. Funding is based on the average number of students in attendance over the three months with the best results. Yet Duncan insisted that first-day attendance was important as it set the stage for the rest of the school year.

 2. Outlawed… Wednesday’s board meeting was a rather civil affair, with some people complaining about the privatization of custodial services and others asking district offficials for help with overcrowding. Missing were some of the fiery speakers who regularly attend. DNAinfo reports that four of them had been banned, including Rosemary Vega and her husband Jesus Ramos. Vega and Ramos became incensed at the July board meeting when board member Jesse Ruiz left the meeting before they had a chance to speak.

The letter sent to Vega and others who were banned quoted public participation guidelines, which call for participants to be “courteous, respectful and civil.” CPS rules give Board President David Vitale the unilateral power to establish and publish guidelines.

The enforcing of such a rule is not the only way the board meetings have changed under this administration. The sign-up to speak at a board meeting starts a week and half before the actual meeting, and ends the Friday before. However, the board agenda does not get posted until the Monday before the meeting--effectively preventing anyone from speaking on the items on the agenda--something board members say they want.

 3. Small wins for Dyett... Police arrested 11 people who refused to leave City Hall Tuesday night after staging a sit-in to protest the pending closure of the Washington Park high school. The school is scheduled to close after this school year with its final class of seniors, although in the week before school began, CPS officials called them to encourage students to consider attending a different school.

Activists say Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staff made several concessions to the students, including a commitment to hire a physical education teacher so students wouldn't have to take an online gym class. They will also get to use the gym again, which had been closed soon after the school won a full overhaul of its facilities in an ESPN contest, DNAinfo reports. The mayor’s staff also agreed to provide ACT test prep and tutoring services to the students, in addition to allowing the school to hold prom.

4. Work in progress … Lawmakers and educational leaders continue to debate the merits Senate Bill 16, legislation aimed at transforming the way the state funds schools. But don’t expect it to get resolved anytime soon, according to comments in a recent Chicago Tribune article. "We're going to have hearings on Senate Bill 16 and continue discussions throughout the next year," said Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia during a recent meeting with suburban school district leaders. "We can't unravel 20 years of education inequity in just one year. That's highly unlikely.”

The state Senate passed SB16 last May, and House Democrats have been meeting regularly with Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) staff since June to discuss the new, simplified formula. SB16 would give more money to poorer districts, while including weights for need based on the number of students enrolled who are special education, gifted or English Language Learners.

The school funding bill has become a campaign issue in at least one House race, according  to a recent Daily Herald article. A Democrat running to represent Downers Grove says that while she opposes the bill as it’s written because suburban districts stand to lose millions, it’s a good “conversation starter.” Her opponent, an incumbent Republican, says the problem with the bill is that it tries to adjust how education funding is distributed without adding more money to the pot. Check out a model developed by ISBE on how the legislation would impact local school districts based on 2013 data here (the model will be updated this fall using more recent data).

5. And the winners are…. Of 40 school staffs that spent the summer dreaming up projects that could help their schools, 23 will share a total of $100,000 to implement a pilot version of their programs, The Chicago Public Education Fund announced Tuesday. The Summer Design Program projects range from teacher professional development to parent engagement to buying technology to help teach STEM. The schools, which include charters and traditional schools, also are eligible to win an additional $30,000 for ongoing support.

The highest award per school for the Summer Design Program is $7,500. Budlong Elementary in Lincoln Square was one of the top winners and will use its winnings to make its third- through fifth-grade classes more interdisciplinary. “The program we designed was to pair teachers who are strong in humanities with teachers who are strong in math and science,” says Budlong Principal Naomi Nakayama. “Typically, when teachers are working together, they are working with other people in the same grade level, or the same content area in the upper grades. This is a different model for us.”

Nakayama says the school plans to use the money toward giving the teachers planning time and buying equipment so students can have hands-on experiences.  

Comings and Goings: Chapman

September 24, 2014 - 12:12pm

Warren Chapman has been named Chief Advancement Officer at The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. In this position he will manage activities related to analysis, planning, and execution of fundraising/development goals.

Previously, Chapman has served as senior vice president and interim vice president for Institutional Development at Columbia College of Chicago; vice chancellor for external affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago; vice president and national philanthropic advisor at JPMorgan Chase; president at Bank One Foundation; and lead program officer at the Joyce Foundation. He has also served on numerous boards, including Catalyst Chicago’s.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones