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Take 5: Former CPS official's credentials in question, progressive politics, summer school

July 24, 2014 - 8:54am

Terrence Carter, who went from principal at Barton Elementary School to chief academic officer at Academy for Urban School Leadership, is having trouble getting his contract approved as superintendent of New London School District in Connecticut. At issue is whether he overstated his credentials by claiming he holds a doctorate, not only on his resume, but for years among colleagues in CPS and on professional documents. He is scheduled to get his doctorate from Lesley University on Aug. 25, but previously he listed a PhD on his resume and in professional documents from an unaccredited university in London with a questionable reputation. The Hartford Courant reports that in conversations he seemed to misstate what the degree was for and which university issued it.

2. Bound to happen…  DNAinfo reports that Kenwood’s Academic Center is moving into Canter Middle School, which was being phased out. Kenwood is overcrowded and the two schools are only separated by a parking lot, so logistically it makes sense. But Kenwood’s local school council said they were never presented with the plan, though Ald. Will Burns told CPS Board President David Vitale that it had broad community support. Canter was created to serve seventh and eighth grade students from Hyde Park elementary schools, but it never got the promised resources and neighborhood parents never bought into the school. Slowly, but surely, several schools closed last year are getting repurposed in moves like this.

3. We missed… This Sun-Times story from last week about a progressive movement called the Working Families Party coming to Chicago. The movement, which propelled New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio into office, has already been working in New York; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Jersey City, New Jersey; Oregon; and Seattle. According to the article, the Working Families Party has been working with Grassroots Illinois Action and the groups are looking to run a slate of candidates in upcoming elections. It is not clear if this coincides with the political work that CTU has already been doing. But it seems like the values of the Chicago Teachers Union align with the WFP, and already the head of that group is saying that Karen Lewis, should she run for mayor, is the type of candidate they would like to support.

4. Two-generation learning… A mother’s level of education has a strong impact on children’s school achievement, but few programs aim to increase learning for both moms and kids. Yet a new report  from the Foundation for Child Development says that these “dual-generation” strategies offer great promise for helping kids do better in school and raise families’ economic status. Based on an analysis of 13 economic, education and health indicators, the report found that children whose mothers had a college degree or some college fared far better than children whose mothers didn’t finish high school. That’s not surprising, but the disparities between the two groups are striking. One example: only four percent of families in which the mother had a college degree were living at the official federal poverty level, compared to 53 percent of families in which the mother didn’t have a high school diploma. (The report doesn’t include an analysis based on race or ethnicity, or distinguish between single mothers and those who are married.) Catalyst recently reported on a pilot two-generation program in Evanston.

5. Summer school--at a cost... Nonprofit foundations in California are stepping in to fill a gap left by public school districts that cannot afford to provide summer school--that is, if families have the money to pay, according to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times. Classes in history, Spanish and creative writing are among those offered, at price tags of $600 to $800. Critics say the courses contribute to inequity. Foundations get around a state law that prohibits charging for educational activities by staying independent of the district and leasing space in high schools.

CPS this year scaled back the number of students it serves in summer school, though mandatory summer school is one of the few ways that students are able to go to summer school for free. As every parent in Chicago knows, quality summer programs with an academic component are super-expensive. Another example of how children whose parents have money are at an advantage.

$5.8 billion schools budget gets final stamp of approval

July 23, 2014 - 4:24pm

Criticism from watchdog groups aside, School Board members on Wednesday unanimously approved a $5.8 billion budget while conceding that it was problematic to use a one-time accounting maneuver to erase a deficit.

The Civic Federation and Access Living, two groups that analyze the budget, did not support the budget's approval and slammed the maneuver, which allows the district to include property tax revenue that typically would count for the 2016 fiscal year in 2015 instead. 

Using this maneuver and adding in reserve cash gives CPS about $916 million in one-time money to balance the budget and funnel an additional $250 per student to schools.

Board member Henry Bienen said that he and his colleagues realize that the 2015 budget is a “stop gap budget. …It is being done in the absence of real [funding] reform." Board President David Vitale said the board moved forward because it couldn't justify not using the maneuver and then cutting school budgets, citing the possibility of something happening to change the district's fiscal situation next year. “We all approach it with the interest of our children in mind,” he said.

District leaders and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have been accused of using the maneuver to avoid making difficult financial decisions in an election year.

Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro admitted that the maneuver does little to solve the problem long-term, with state funding down and pension payments due after a pension "holiday" expired.

Access Living’s Rod Estvan told the board it should pursue a property tax cap increase.  “This is not a popular issue,” he said, noting his neighbors want to lynch him for bringing it up. “We need to begin to have that discussion.”

Simeon's electrician program and other cuts

Despite the additional money given to schools, speakers at the meeting reiterated complaints about budget cuts. Under student-based budgeting, schools that lose enrollment lose money, and principals and local school councils, instead of district officials, must make decisions about what programs and positions to keep and which to drop. 

One example is the electrician program at Simeon High, reportedly the last electrician program in the city. Chief of Networks Denise Little said it was cut because there was little interest in the program and few students earned credentials, prompting an angry response from Ald. Howard Brookins (21st Ward) and Michael Brunson, Chicago Teachers Union recording secretary. They said that there should be some comprehensive central decision making process when it comes to cutting or putting in place vocational programs.

“These decisions should not be made on the school level,” said Brookins. He noted that Simeon still has two barber classes and that electricians have the potential to earn far more money than barbers.

Brunson added that he believes that the city’s violence is connected to poverty and joblessness, noting that electrician jobs pay well and that getting young people into such jobs could help solve the problem.

Vitale said he plans to ask for a briefing on the district’s career and technical education programs.

Another recurring theme was charter funding vs. funding for traditional schools. Board member Andrea Zopp asked Ostro to explain that money follows students and that much of the issue has to do with enrollment. (Yet charters are getting other increases, in addition to the $250 per student, Catalyst found, with the district's goal of making charter funding equitable with funding to district schools.)

Roberta Salas, whose children attend Murphy Elementary, said that this year’s increase didn’t make up for the money the school lost last year. Enrollment has been stable in the past three years, yet Murphy lost $600,000 last year while receiving only a $150,000 increase this year. She said her school is still struggling to come up for money for fine arts teachers.

“We don’t have money to fund our wonderful and vibrant neighborhood school,” she said.

But INCS executive director Andrew Broy said that it makes complete sense that charter schools, which are getting more students, are also getting more money.

“This is not about disinvesting in one school over the other,” Broy said. “This is not about pitting one school against the other. We think the policy prioritizes parent demand. Student based budgeting puts decision making where it should be."

Charter school funding changes budget landscape

July 22, 2014 - 3:45pm

In the past, charter school parents were a regular presence at CPS board meetings, carrying signs demanding that their schools get equal funding. But lately, these parents are nowhere to be found.

One reason for their absence is likely the negative publicity generated by the UNO Charter School Network, which sent busloads of parents but is now under federal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. But another probable reason is the fact that charter school funding has increased substantially over the past three years.  Even leaders in the charter sector acknowledge that Chicago’s funding is close to equitable with the money given to district-run schools.

“We are substantially better off on the operating side,” says Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Broy and others, however, still believe that money for charter facilities remains inequitable.

Yet charter funding remains hotly contested, with advocates for neighborhood schools pointing out that district schools lost $67 million in budget cuts—a figure that is close to the $62 million increase for charter schools, which are expected to get thousands more students. On Wednesday, the School Board is expected to approve a $5.7 billion budget.  

While the Chicago Teachers Union and the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand angrily accuse CPS of disinvesting in traditional schools, charter supporters insist they get no funding advantage and have gotten far less money in the past.  

“In the last two years, we have taken great steps forward,” says Beth Purvis, chief executive officer of Chicago International Charter School.

More or less?

Since fiscal year 2012, per-pupil funding for elementary charter schools has jumped 22 percent, to $7,166 from $5,873; and has risen 8 percent for charter high schools, to $8,194 from $7,188.

This year, all schools—traditional and charter alike—will receive $250 more per student. (Traditional schools say their budgets have been cut, though CPS maintains that custodians and building engineers now work under a centralized system and are no longer part of school-level budgets.) In addition to that $250, charter schools will receive another $250 for each elementary student and $50 more per high school student. 

CPS spokesman Joel Hood acknowledges that the district made budget adjustments that benefit charters above and beyond the $250 per student increase. Some charter schools are getting miscellaneous extra funding, such as for summer school, that charter schools have never been given before. 

Plus, one of the biggest “adjustments” is the additional federal grant money that will now be funneled to charters. District officials say it is the same share of federal grant money as district-run schools receive.

The federal money will include not just money for this year, but retroactive funding: Officials calculated an amount they believe charters should have been given last year and added it on to this year’s amount.

“We are really excited that charter students are now receiving their fair share of [federal] money,” Purvis says.

Finally, CPS officials made a change in how the district reports an administrative fee charged to charters. In previous years, the published per-pupil amount did not include that fee. This year, officials say they will publish the entire gross per-pupil figure, but will stipulate that the district will subtract a 3 percent administrative fee from that.

“This had the result of simplifying and making the fee more transparent, but also reduced the fee amount,” Hood says.

State funding task force convinced

CPS faced pressure to make adjustments to charter budgets from the state’s Charter School Funding Task Force. Made up of lawmakers, charter school operators and a representative from INCS, the task force was charged with making sure that district and charter schools are funded equally. Originally, the task force was focused on the provision in the Illinois law that calls for charter schools to be funded at 75 percent to 125 percent of the district’s per capita tuition, which is the amount a district would charge a non-resident to attend a school.    

Chicago’s per-capita tuition is $13,790, and the district has never come close to providing even 75 percent of that to charter schools.

After much discussion, CPS officials were able to convince the task force that per capita tuition was the wrong measure.

The task force’s final report recommended that student-based, or per-pupil, budgeting be used instead, with the range between 97 percent and 103 percent. (Districts that do not use per-pupil budgeting would use a different formula called the Charter Funding Calculation).

Though none of the task force’s recommendations have been incorporated into law, CPS officials write in the budget book that they had to make adjustments to satisfy the task force. As a result, CPS convinced the task force that its model “provides equity for operating funds," according to the budget book.

Purvis says that while charter schools are grateful for the additional money, they, like district-run schools, suffer because Illinois continues to under-fund education. The lack of money prevents some higher-performing charter networks from opening schools in Chicago, she says..

Purvis says that she and other operators are concerned about next year. It’s estimated that the district will once again have a big budget deficit, but that Mayor Rahm Emanuel (should he win re-election) and district leaders won’t be as quick to use one-time accounting tricks to close a budget hole, as happened this year.  

“It is a scary time,” Purvis says.  


YMCA child care workers back at negotiating table on pay, health care

July 21, 2014 - 10:31am

More than a year and a half after voting to unionize, YMCA child care workers in Chicago have yet to agree on a contract with the large, not-for-profit organization.

Workers and management went back to the bargaining table two weeks ago, but have not yet reached an agreement on issues such as pay increases or reduced health insurance costs.

Now, organizers say they are seriously considering a strike vote, which could temporarily cripple early childhood programs at the 12 YMCA of Metro Chicago sites, with about 160 workers who joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in November 2012.

“The pay is really, really low,” said Aurora Cavazos, who holds a master’s degree in early childhood education yet makes just $15 per hour as an Early Head Start teacher at the North Lawndale YMCA. “Some of the people who work there have gotten degrees and have gone elsewhere. I believe children need quality education, but they’re not paying me quality wages.”

YMCA spokeswoman Sherrie Medina said she couldn’t comment publicly on ongoing union negotiations.

“We’ve exchanged proposals, and have had thoughtful and energetic conversations,” she said. “We respect the collective bargaining process and can’t comment further.”

SEIU organizers say they empathize with smaller community agencies that administer Chicago’s Head Start and other early childhood programs, and whose budgets rely mostly on government funds. Instead of taking an antagonistic approach with management, workers at three other unionized sites in Chicago advocate for increased government resources alongside their bosses.

But it’s another story with the YMCA of Metro Chicago, which in 2012 reported annual revenues of more than $100 million plus some $276 million in assets, according to public records. There, workers have taken a more aggressive tone in their campaign for higher wages and lower health care costs.  SEIU organizers said workers want the YMCA to supplement Head Start and preschool workers’ pay with funding from donations to the YMCA and gym membership fees.

Low wages are a long-standing problem for Illinois’ childcare workers, even as the educational requirements for the job have steadily increased in recent years. A 2013 salary and staffing survey prepared on behalf of the Illinois Department of Human Services found that the median hourly wage for Chicago’s early child care teachers was $14.27; that is, just under $30,000 per year. Assistant teachers, on average, make just $10 per hour.

Other unionized child care workers

Workers at the other three unionized Chicago child care sites -- Ada S. McKinley Community Services, Centers for New Horizons, and Mary Crane Center – do not have contracts either. A fourth unionized child care site, Marcy Newberry Association, closed last year.

SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana also represents some 28,000 home-based workers who provide care to children from needy families through the state’s Child Care Assistance Program. In exchange for dues, SEIU represents these workers in negotiations with the State of Illinois.

It’s unclear whether that representation would be affected by this month’s Supreme Court decision that ended mandatory union dues for Illinois’ home-based health care workers who are also paid by the state. The decision could open the door to challenges to union requirements for other categories of home-based workers, including those in child care. No such challenges have been filed.

Illinois is one of 14 states where home-based child care workers that receive state funding have the right to unionize, according to a recent study by the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center.

Take 5: Noble Charter changes, TIFs and teacher turnover

July 21, 2014 - 9:17am

Noble Street Charter School Network often boasts that its schools are the highest-achieving non-selective schools in the city. And, while it is true, Noble does not have students test in, critics have charged that its admissions and discipline policy keeps out unmotivated students and pushes out unruly students. But this year, under pressure, Noble has abandoned big parts of both policies. In its renewed contract with CPS, Noble agreed to stop requiring students to go to an “information session” before applying. Also, they have to make clear that the essay is optional. State law states charter school admission should be decided through lottery. This comes on the heels of Noble announcing in April that it will stop charging students $5 for a detention. Noble founder Mike Milkie defended the discipline policy, which is still stricter than CPS, in a Catalyst Chicago op-ed. It will be interesting to see if the charter school operator can maintain its academic status without these policies.

Will we find out more?….We’ve heard repeatedly that charter schools push out problem students. We reported in 2010 that one in ten charter school students transfers out, even though there is supposedly a waiting list for the coveted seats. An upcoming report from a researcher who worked on the well-known CREDO (Center for Research on Educational Outcomees) charter studies out of Stanford University will take a look at push-outs from charters in dozens of cities, according to Chalkbeat New York. The researcher says there’s no evidence New York City’s charters are guilty of the practice, but that other districts are. No word in this article on whether Chicago will be part of the new report, but previous CREDO studies have included Illinois and Chicago.

On its way… DNAinfo reports that the city's planning commission has approved Walter Payton’s annex. The annex will expand enrollment by between 300 and 400 students. Currently, the school has about 940 students. The project will be paid for with $17 million in tax incremement financing money. The TIF money was one of the justifications Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave for building the addition, even as other schools are overcrowded and desperately could use the addition. 

It is worth repeating that deciding which capital projects will get the go-ahead based on how much they can collect is a losing proposition for poor neighborhoods. In a nutshell, TIFS allows cities to to use new tax dollars in specific geographic areas to fund economic development (as property values -- and taxes -- rise after the TIF district is created) .

So how much is being collected in TIFS? ... Cook County Clerk David Orr has made it easier for the public to see how much tax money is being collected in these controversial entities.   Orr says that  “”it’s very hard to find the necessary information to make a good judgment about what’s the purpose of this enormous expansion. Clearly there’s still a lot of work to be done to make it easier to follow the TIF money trail.” Orr has a primer on TIFs here  and a video here. When talking about schools, TIFs are important because tax money that otherwise would have gone into the public coffers instead is diverted into these special pots. As a result, TIFs have many critics, including the CTU and the Chicago Reader columnist Ben Joravsky. 

The high cost of losing teachers... Illinois spends up to $71.7 million per year replacing teachers who quit, according to a new analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education that pegs the national cost at $2.2 billion a year and reiterates the well-known and distressing fact that poor students of color are most likely to attend schools with the worst turnover. That’s about the same price tag for replacing the 4000 Chicago Public Schools teachers who left in 2011 and 2012, according to cost estimates from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future that we reported In our spring issue of Catalyst In Depth on teacher turnover.  Turnaround schools posted the highest attrition, even after the initial firings that are part of the turnaround model. In other words, the teachers who were brought in to be part of the turnaround--most of whom were rookies--swiftly quit, often citing the long hours, tough environment and the pressure to quickly raise test scores.

Budget critics air laundry list of school cuts

July 17, 2014 - 9:57am

With a new mandate that students have daily gym class and a policy calling for more arts instruction, school librarians are becoming increasingly rare, speakers charged at hearings on the district’s budget. At the Kennedy-King College hearing, one of three held late Wednesday, speakers also criticized cuts to Simeon High’s career education programs, cuts to welcoming schools that took in students displaced by closings, the additional money being funneled to charters and a plan to save $6 million by reorganizing bus aides for disabled students.

Rhonda McLeod worries that aides will be shuffled around and children won’t get to know them. “They need to feel safe,” said McLeod, who noted that there is already a long delay in getting bus routes set up and that she has had children get lost.

In previous years CPS officials sat stone-faced at hearings, but this year, they tried to answer questions when they could. In regard to charters, Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro told the audience that money follows students and CPS is funding charters because students are choosing to go to them.

Asean Johnson, the student who was featured in CNN’s “Chicagoland” speaking out against the closure of his South Side school, asked the panel whether the continued opening of charter schools puts CPS on the right side of history or on the wrong side.

“That is a question,” he said.

“We will have to reflect on that,” Ostro answered.

A number of speakers were upset that district officials blamed a big pension payment for budget problems and one CTU member pointed out previous long pension holidays, even in good years when the district could have afforded to make their entire contribution.

“Saying you don’t have money is like a gambler saying that they went to Horseshoe [casino] and then telling the landlord they have no money to pay the rent,” she said. 

More librarians lost

CPS schools are getting a $250 per pupil increase, but must pay teachers raises and are pressed to make difficult decisions—including, the speakers pointed out, to librarian positions.

Megan Cusick, who leads the CTU’s librarian task force, said last year, 140 schools lost their librarians and another 60 schools laid off their librarians this year. That means that more than half of CPS schools do not have librarians. Yet CPS promised that schools would be better resourced after the closing of 50 schools last year, she said.

Cusick was followed by Marie Szyman, president of the Chicago Teacher-Librarians, who took issue with a claim that CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made at the last board meeting that there was a shortage of available librarians. She said she knows of 200 of them ready to go work today.  

“With the Common Core emphasis on literacy, I am mystified that libraries are closing,” she said. “How can our students become “college ready” without adequate instruction in research and exposure to literature which librarians provide?”

Figuring out exactly how many librarians are budgeted for next year is difficult. The budget only lists 21 librarians, though there are likely more. Under student-based budgeting, in which schools are given money for each student, not for specific positions, there is no money provided specifically for a librarian. Principals, along with LSCs, must decide if they want a librarian and weigh the decision against other positions they might need or want—and now the district has new policies calling for daily gym class and 120 hours of arts instruction per week.

Under the old system, schools were given one physical education teacher or librarian for every 600 students. Schools with fewer students got money for half-time positions.

“I stand before you today to ask you to prevent principals from having to make the dreaded decision ‘Do I need to close the library to hire another PE teacher?’” Syzman said.

Simeon’s career education loses out

Another principal decision that came under fire was the decision to close the electrician program at Simeon Vocational High School. Latisa Kindred said she was laid off after the principal and the network office decided the school could no longer afford the program, and that an automotive teacher was laid off as well.

Simeon’s enrollment is projected to drop by about 60 students and its budget is down by about $200,000.

Kindred told the budget panel that she had been able to get students certified as well as into a union. “Working with their hands gives students hope,” she said. “I want to know how [career education] decisions are made? What guidelines are principals given when they make these autonomous decisions?”

Asean Johnson’s mother Shoneice Reynolds said she was at a meeting at Simeon about these cuts on Tuesday night and many students came out to speak about the importance of the programs. “It was a beautiful meeting and we invited CPS and the fact that you did not come shows you do not care about our children,” she said.

Also, an older gentleman spoke about being able to make a living based on his participation with the electrician program at Simeon.

International Baccalaureate threat?

The schools that were designated to receive students from closed schools were also dealt big budget blows this year as they lost the extra transition funds and got less than the expected number of students.

Ald. Pat Dowell said two welcoming schools—Mollison and Wells Prep--are supposed to become International Baccalaureate schools, but will struggle to meet the requirements because of the cuts. Other schools have higher than average rates of homeless and special education students, she said.

“Teachers, parents and myself are worried that the loss of these resources will be another disruption for these students,” she said.

Given these cuts, parents and teachers struggled to understand why CPS keeps opening charter schools. Concept Charter School came under particular fire. Concept, which has more than a dozen campuses throughout the Midwest including three in Chicago and two more planned, was recently raided by the federal government’s Securities and Exchange Commission and is under investigation by the state board in Ohio.

One of the planned new campuses is supposed to be located in Chatham in a megachurch development, but the church’s spokeswoman has reportedly said they are not going forward until Concept works out its problems. Concept officials said 250 students have registered for the school and they are now looking for a new location.

CPS Chief Innovation Officer Jack Easley, who was part of the panel at the South Side hearing, said the district is monitoring the situation closely and will soon reveal how the situation will be handled.

Take 5: Academic tracking and choice, selective enrollment, Concept Schools

July 17, 2014 - 9:31am

WBEZ releases a big package this morning that proves what many have long charged: The opening of new charter high schools and selective enrollment schools--becoming a district focused on school choice or a “portfolio” district--has resulted in pronounced academic tracking between schools. Nearly all the high performers are in a select few schools, while charters attract average achievers and neighborhood schools now almost exclusively serve low-performers. Very few schools serve students with a wide range of academic abilities.

Education Reporter Linda Lutton looked at more than 26,000 incoming test scores for freshmen from the fall of 2012. That year and only that year, the district mandated that every high school give students an “EXPLORE” exam about a month into the school year. Check out the cool interactive graphic that allows you to check out what type of student each school attracted.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she was troubled by the findings, but did not think they made the argument that choice should be abandoned. Instead, the emphasis needs to be on improving neighborhood schools so they can attract a wider range of students, she said.

But is Byrd-Bennett’s vision realistic? One consequence of this academic sorting is that neighborhood schools have little reason to offer honors classes. Not only does the lack of accelerated classes make the school less attractive, but it also means that students have little to aspire to and might not be challenged in particular subjects they do well in. A 2011 Catalyst In Depth looked at Marshall High School on the West Side, which faced this challenge as the school had a difficult time offering honors classes, a big disappointment for the few students who qualified for them. 

Not to mention the budget… The parent advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, this week put out an analysis that they say shows CPS is spreading itself too thin by opening charter schools, while taking money from CPS-run schools. The biggest losers: Those very neighborhood high schools that are only attracting the lowest performers.

The dichotomy between charter schools and neighborhood schools was one of the many issues brought up by speakers at three budget hearings held Wednesday night. The Chicago Sun Times reported from the hearing at Malcolm X where the closings of 50 neighborhood schools hung over the discussion.  Catalyst went to the one at the South Side’s Kennedy-King College

Race is also an issue… This week, Ald. Latasha Harris, chairwoman of the City Council’s Education Committee, held a hearing on the dwindling number of black students at selective enrollment high schools, the Sun-Times reports. After the announcement of the planned Obama Prep on the Near North Side, attention was called to the increasing white enrollment at the top North Side selective schools and the dwindling black enrollment. CPS officials told the aldermen that when looking at all 10 selective enrollment high schools, including those on the South and West sides, the number of black students is actually rising. CPS officials also said they were having lawyers look at whether the district can legally insert race back into the admissions’ process. 

A little-known fact is that CPS does give extra help to some black and Latino students from the worst-performing elementary schools. CEO Ron Huberman used a provision of No Child Left Behind to open up 100 seats in the top performing schools to students from the worst performing elementary schools. As far as we know, this provision is still being used and Catalyst reported on the students who got into top schools under this program, many of whom struggled at first but eventually did well. 

WBEZ’s freshman test score analysis adds a wrinkle to this discussion. Of the 40 most academically narrow schools in Chicago, 34 of them are predominantly black.

And a pink slip goes to … the computer teacher at Benito Juarez High School who alleged that attendance records and grades were altered in order to boost the school’s ratings. DNAinfo Chicago reported that veteran teacher Manuel Bermudez got the boot, and that he believes it was done in retaliation.

CPS officials say the layoff was connected to budget cuts. Juarez is projected to get 100 fewer students next year and its budget is down by about $1 million. The principal is laying off 11 teachers, according to CPS’ proposed budget. Across the district, 550 teachers are being laid off. Meanwhile, CPS’s inspector general,is investigating the allegations into that high school administrators were cooking the books.

Troubles continue at Concept … This week, Ohio’s State Board of Education ordered an investigation into the Des Plaines-based charter school chain in response to allegations that range from attendance tampering and cheating on tests to a failure to tell parents about sexual acts performed by students in front of their classmates at a Dayton school.

Federal authorities, are conducting their own white-collar investigation into the chain of 30 schools in the Midwest, including three in Chicago. In addition, one recent news report recently detailed how the charter school chain obtained hundreds of visas for Turkish citizens to teach, while also providing trips to Turkey to state, local and federal lawmakers. The Sun-Times wrote about the chain’s political connections in December.

Finding solutions to curb chronic truancy, absenteeism in earliest grades

July 16, 2014 - 12:43pm

One of the most important factors that's keeping many of Chicago's youngest children from learning is poor attendance. On Wednesday, educators, parents and community organizers talked about how to address the problem during a special forum that's part of our Catalyst Conversations series.

Speakers included: Stacy Ehrlich, the lead author of a recent pre-school attendance study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research; Cecelia Leong, deputy director of the nonprofit Attendance Works, which promotes better policy and practices around school attendance; and Janet Vargas, Rosazlia Griller and Adela Pedroza, who are parents and organizers from COFI / Power PAC, a local non-profit that has worked on this issue for years. Catalyst Editor in Chief Lorraine Forte moderated the discussion.

Catalyst Conversations are a benefit of membership in Catalyst. Become a member to join in on discussions like this one, and to support our journalism and analysis of Chicago school policy.

See a storified version of the tweets from this morning's forum below.


[View the story "Finding solutions for chronic truancy and absenteeism" on Storify]

Summer school enrollment down under new promotion policy

July 14, 2014 - 4:38pm

CPS students scored better than predicted this past year on the new and tougher statewide tests used to decide promotion, schools officials said.

But that news, coupled with a revised district promotion policy, means that far fewer students are in now summer school than last year.

“This is interesting in a good way,” said Annette Gurley, CPS’s chief of teaching and learning, in a phone interview Wednesday. “The NWEA is a much more rigorous assessment than the ISAT […]. We actually thought we’d have fewer students scoring at or above the 24th percentile.”

With that predicted decline in mind, last fall CPS officials unveiled a new system that uses test cut scores and grades to determine promotions for third-, sixth- and eighth-grade students. They expected that enrollment in the district’s Summer Bridge program wouldn’t change much under the redesigned promotion policy.

Instead, enrollment fell from some 14,000 last summer to about 10,000 today – a nearly 29-percent drop from one year to the next.

The enrollment drop also means big savings for CPS. Last year the district spent about $12.3 million on Summer Bridge. This year, it’ll spend an estimated $10.7 million.

Gurley credited schools’ use of web-based assessment programs for the better-than-expected scores. Most schools have purchased at least one a variety of expensive data-driven programs that allow teachers to monitor students’ grasp of content in real time – and focus attention on those who most need the help.

Catalyst Chicago learned of the decline in summer school enrollment from principals, teachers and counselors who said they were surprised by the low number of students required to attend summer school. One educator even said that for the first time in at least six years, none of her school’s students went to summer school.

The drop in enrollment caused some concern that students are missing out on extra help they need, although district officials assure that targeted supports are on the way for students who would have gone to summer school under last year’s policy.

Meanwhile, opponents of high-stakes testing criticized the new policy for depending too much on the results of a single test to decide something as critical as promotion.

“The exact numbers of how many kids they sent off to summer school isn’t the big issue,” says Cassie Cresswell, who leads the anti-testing group, More Than a Score. “Our issue is with using a test score to determine everything. We’re concerned with how they make the decision about whether a kid should or shouldn’t go to summer school.”

Shift to new tests aligned to Common Core

Last fall, the Board of Education changed its promotion policy as part of the district’s shift from the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) to the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessments, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Charter schools are not required to follow the district's promotion policy, unlike neighborhood and contract schools, officials said.

Previously, students needed to score at or above the 24th national percentile on the portion of the ISAT known as the SAT10, in addition to getting a C or above in reading and math, in order to get promoted. Last year, Gurley said, 80.1 percent of students met both requirements and moved onto the next grade without going to the district’s Summer Bridge program. Students who were chronically truant -- that is, missed at least nine school days without a valid excuse -- were also sent to summer school.

Under the new policy, students who score at the 24th national percentile or higher on the NWEA are promoted automatically – unless they’re outright failing reading or math. This means students who got Ds in those subject areas but fared well enough on the test can move on to the next grade without summer school. This year, 80.1 percent of students fell into this category – exactly the same as last year despite the different test and lower grade requirements. CPS also dropped the attendance requirement under the new policy.

On Wednesday afternoon, district officials could not provide Catalyst with the percentage of students who scored at or above the 24th national percentile on the NWEA this year, regardless of their grades, or comparable statistics from last year.

One eighth-grade math teacher who asked not to be identified told Catalyst she had a handful of students who earned Ds in her class but scored just above the 24th percentile cut score.

 “I told them they should consider themselves very lucky because they tested well,” she said. “Even though they got Ds they are now going to high school, though in previous years these same students would have had to go to summer school.”

Meanwhile, students who scored between the 11th and 23rd percentile on the test avoid summer school if they have a C or higher in reading and math. Gurley said an additional 5.6 percent of students were in this group.

The only students automatically sent to summer school, regardless of their grades, are those who score at or below the 10th percentile on the NWEA.

One principal who asked not to be identified said he was not expecting the drop in summer school enrollment he saw this year and worries about some of his struggling students. Part of the reason is because he didn’t realize that students’ scores on the NWEA from the 2012-13 school year – which Gurley said students took even though the test wasn’t used for promoting purposes that year -- could also be used to determine promotion this year. Under both the new and old promotion policies, CPS uses students’ best test scores from the previous two years in determining whether they move on to the next grade.

“Are they missing out? Yeah, I think so,” the principal said. “All of our kids need the extra support.”

Gurley said targeted help is on the way for students who, for different reasons, avoided summer school under the new district policy. This summer, CPS will send letters to principals that identify both the students who got Ds but scored at or above the 24th percentile on the NWEA – and those with good grades but lower scores.

Principals will be asked to provide social-emotional support for those in the first group, such as special one-on-one attention from an adult. Those in the second group might get more traditional academic support, such as tutoring, Gurley explained.

Summer school on the decline nationally

Enrollment in the Summer Bridge program has been falling steadily since 1996, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley instituted a tough promotion policy as a way to end social promotion. (Catalyst reported on the topic of social promotion in 2011).

At first, the district sent more than 20,000 students to required summer school each year. But due to outside pressure, including a major 2004 study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research that showed the harmful effects of retention, CPS began adjusting the policy to make it easier for students to pass through to the next grade.

Chicago isn’t the only city that saw a significant drop in summer school enrollment due to a change in the promotion policy. In New York City, some 25 percent fewer students were sent to summer school this year after the district banned the use of state test scores as a major factor in promotion decisions, according to a recent Chalkbeat New York report. The new policy gives principals more discretion about who should go to summer school.

At the time the city changed its promotion policy, NYC officials said they didn’t think enrollment figures would change. Their projections, it turned out, were simply wrong.

Cresswell and other anti-testing advocates say they wish the district had also placed less emphasis on tests when developing the promotion policy last year. Instead, said Julie Woestethoff, who heads the organization Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), they want CPS to better identify struggling students during the school year to give them the additional support they need, rather than telling them at year’s end that they must go to summer school or else be held back.

“Our proposal has been to go back to using the report card,” Woestehoff said. “If we continue to not trust teachers’ grades, then why do we continue to waste people’s time with report cards?” 

Comings and Goings: new principals

July 14, 2014 - 12:48pm

These interim principals have become contract principals at their schools:  David Narain, King High School; Carlos Patino, New Field Elementary; Frederick Williams, Chopin Elementary.

The following also have become principals: Stephen Fabiyi, Metcalfe Community Academy, formerly assistant principal at Bass Elementary;  John Fitzpatrick, Locke Elementary, formerly acting principal at Locke; and Eric Steinmiller, Sutherland Elementary, formerly resident principal in CPS’ Talent Office.

Take 5: Budget matters, teacher licensing clout, bad help for student loans

July 14, 2014 - 10:44am

Budget matters. The Chicago Tribune’s school budget analysis shows that the143 charter and contract schools are getting a funding increase of $72 million---exactly the same amount as the cuts for the 504 traditional schools. The story does not say how this breaks down per student, but CPS officials say most of the increase has to do with the fact that they are predicting 3,400 more students in charter schools and 4,000 fewer students in district-run schools. Note, however, that more than half of traditional schools are either getting more money or staying level, while schools that are losing money are either "welcoming schools" that took in students displaced by closings, or neighborhood high schools. 

The principal of welcoming school Mollison Elementary made a personal appeal to Mayor Rahm Emanuel to increase funding for all welcoming schools, saying it’ll take more than a year of extra help “to heal from these wounds."

CPS will hold three simultaneous public hearings on next year’s proposed $5.7 billion budget on Wednesday. The hearings begin at 6 p.m. at the theaters of Wright College, 4300 N. Narraganset Ave.; Kennedy-King College, 740 W. 63 Street; and Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren Street. On-site registration begins an hour earlier. The budget is available in an interactive format online and will be up for a vote on July 23. Because all that data is a bit tricky to navigate, the parent group, Raise Your Hand Illinois, will offer a two-hour training at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Eckhart Park, 1330 W. Chicago Ave.

2. Teacher licensing clout. A Chicago Tribune investigation found that lawmakers are stepping in to help constituents get teacher licenses, which have traditionally not been used as a clout bargaining chip. In some cases, lawmakers just helped speed up the process, including one young woman who was helped by House Speaker Mike Madigan. But in others, teachers with troubled pasts were helped. One lawmaker who couldn’t get a requirement waived got the law changed, so that some of his constituents would qualify to as administrators.

3. Librarian “shortage.” The Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky knows where CPS could find some. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett indicated that one reason so many CPS schools with libraries didn’t have librarians is that there’s a shortage of certified librarians. An official with the Chicago-based American Library Association, however, says she has plenty of resumes from certified librarians that she can send CPS. Joravsky also points out that some certified librarians in CPS are working at other jobs because their schools don’t have librarian positions. 

The U.S. Department of Education reports a nationwide shortage of certified librarians. Because of the shortage, CPS considers certified librarians as a “special needs position” and waives the residency requirement. However, usually when principals are asked why they don’t have a librarian, they cite lack of money rather than a lack of candidates.

4. Mayor Lewis?  CTU President Karen Lewis could take on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, if she ever decided to throw her hat in the race. That’s according to a new Chicago Sun-Times poll, which shows that 45 percent of voters would side with the teachers union boss -- and only 36 percent with the incumbent mayor. The remaining 18 percent of likely voters are undecided. =Emanuel would face an even tougher opponent if Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle decided to give it a go, with some 55 percent of voters favoring her over the mayor.  Asked about the poll results, Emanuel’s people told the Sun-Times said they were “laughable.”

5. Getting help with student loans. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is reportedly going to sue companies that promise to help lower student loan payments. These are the same type of debt settlement companies that offer to help with credit card debt and mortgages. According to the New York Times, Madigan contends that some people paid hundreds of dollars upfront for debt assistance that that could have gotten for free from the Education Department. Also, in some cases, the companies said they had relationships with federal relief programs when they didn’t.

Take 5: Avoiding budget reality, discipline disparities, problems with choice

July 10, 2014 - 9:49am

1. The Chicago Tribune blasts CPS in an editorial today for the plan to spend 14 months of revenue in the next 12 months in order to balance the 2015 budget. Now that it is increasingly clear that CPS won’t get pension relief, the Tribune says CPS should just deal with reality, instead of borrowing against the future. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has readily admitted that this was a one-time fix that does not solve structural budget problems. And officials admit that for at least five years, they have used one-time fixes to close budget gaps--which makes it harder to believe their claims that next year they will really be in trouble. Yet Byrd-Bennett said she doesn’t see any other one-time fixes showing up  to save CPS next time. One thing that the Tribune mentions is the underlying--and yes, cynical --reason most people assume the district won't tackle the problem this year: Mayor Emanuel is up for reelection.

2. We’ve said it before, but … the teaching workforce here in Chicago and the rest of the country is disproportionately white when compared to the student body. The left-leaning Center for American Progress issued a report last month on how districts must do a better job of getting teachers of color in front of students. 

Nationally, students of color make up nearly half of the public school population, while only about 18 percent of teachers are of color. In Chicago, 86 percent of students are of color, but less than half of all teachers are minorities. The report stresses the fact it’s a matter not just of recruitment, but of retention as new teachers leave the profession at disproportionately high rates.

Catalyst wrote about the shifting demographics of Chicago’s teaching force, and school closings and turnarounds in black communities have likely shifted the demographics even more, especially given the lack of black students in teaching programs and entering the teaching profession in Illinois--though Latinos are making progress on this front. 

3. Disciplining children of color… Minorities are underrepresented as teachers, but overrepresented when it comes to suspensions and expulsions in schools across the country.  Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University, says schools are giving up on black children “by expelling those who are considered not ready to learn. While zero-tolerance expulsions myopically help the school and the majority of students in it, they destroy the student — and, ultimately, the community, too.”

School officials in Chicago recently rewrote the student code of conduct policy. Byrd-Bennett says she made this a priority because she is personally disturbed by disparity in CPS. (For example, about 75 percent of suspended CPS students are black, though they make up only about 40 percent of the student body.) While advocates of restorative justice practices applauded CPS, many are cautious and still worry about skewed statistics that cloud the truth about discipline. You may recall last week’s public celebration by Mayor Rahm Emanuel of a drastic drop in expulsions that turned out not to be true.

4. Choice is great, but… More parents in cities are getting the chance to choose their children’s schools, but they report some substantial difficulties, according to a survey from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle, Washington-based group that supports choice. Among the problems: parents understanding options, getting students to schools and making sure children with special needs get the right services.

Parents in CPS have complained about similar problems. Most charter schools don’t offer bus service, putting parents without cars at a significant disadvantage. Also, charter schools in Chicago serve way fewer students with more significant special needs and parents say they don’t choose charters because of problems they’ve had with getting needed services.The report calls on city and state leaders to try to solve these problems, instead of continuing to be tangled in the charter vs. district debate.

5. A summer reading reminder … As part of former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s “Too Small to Fail” campaign, parents are being urged to read, talk and even sing to their babies to develop literacy habits early on. As part of that effort, the Illinois-based American Academy of Pediatrics has asked its members to talk with parents about the benefits of reading on early brain development and even to incorporate reading into office checkups. Dr. Pamela High, who wrote the Academy’s new policy, told the Hechinger Report that reading is so powerful because “ it’s often a one-on-one experience between parents and children where children have your full attention.” It can also be a language-enriching experience and a reassuring routine that nurtures the relationship between parents and children.

Some classrooms in Chicago, including Cardenas Elementary in Little Village,  got special federal funding starting in 2010 to improve literacy in the earliest grades. This is important because poor readers from poor families face among the worst educational outcomes. Overall, CPS officials have been working on a district-wide literacy initiative that has yet to be rolled out.

On a related note, the New York Times' Opinion section has dedicated a "Room for Debate" to whether children's books should address politics, race, gender, sexual orientation and other potentially controversial issues. What do you think?


Teachers need a “road test” to ensure good teaching

July 9, 2014 - 11:22am

The preparation of new teachers is receiving a lot of attention these days. Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released a review of educator preparation programs. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration recently announced its plan to renew efforts to develop a rating system for these programs.

As a nation, we need to be confident that new teachers are ready to take over a classroom, will have an impact on student learning and that their higher education programs prepared them well. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We want to have a national conversation” about quality teacher preparation and teaching effectiveness.

Missing from both the NCTQ report and Duncan’s overture, however, is acknowledgement that teacher educators are already taking charge of improving teacher preparation. Illinois teacher educators and institutions, such as Illinois State University, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Illinois College, St. Francis University and National Louis University, among others, are leading the way. Illinois faculty and administrators have been essential contributors in designing and field testing a nationally available performance assessment that breaks new and essential ground: It requires aspiring teachers to demonstrate for independent review that have the skills that define effective beginning teaching.

This assessment, called the edTPA, is now producing telling data about how well our programs are performing. As a result, we are in a better position than ever to dispute this area of weakness cited by Secretary Duncan.

The focus on performance assessment represented by edTPA (which Illinois is phasing in statewide ) is significant and promising for teacher education here and nationally. Traditionally, our field used multiple-choice tests to measure a prospective teacher’s understanding of how to teach, subject matter, key legal requirements, etc. By contrast, a performance assessment uses materials from actual teaching practice, including lesson plans, student work and an unedited video of a teacher leading instruction. Think of it as the difference between a multiple-choice driver’s license test and the actual road test an aspiring driver must pass. Teaching needs this “road test.”

Defining effective classroom teaching

EdTPA helps determine if a candidate can perform at a professional level in 15 essential areas that contribute to effective instruction. Candidates demonstrate their skills in a portfolio they prepare for independent scoring. To pass, candidates must show they can plan classes, deliver instruction, assess student learning and analyze their own teaching effectiveness. It focuses on what is fundamentally necessary—competence in practices that will improve student learning.

With more states making edTPA a requirement for program completion or licensure, a growing network of teacher educators – led by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity and the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education – is supporting educators and teacher candidates as they go through this challenging yet rewarding process of preparing to be classroom teachers.

The recent skepticism about teacher preparation will continue. The positive impact is that teacher education is focusing on the need to state clearly and precisely the essential features of effective instruction. Whether one completes a comprehensive teacher preparation program or an alternative route to licensure, we are converging on a common language that describes our expectations of beginning teachers. They must be able to demonstrate they can:

-        Teach toward a meaningful learning objective;

-        Plan instruction based on students’ strengths and needs;

-        Help students engage in and understand content; and

-        Assess if students are learning and include student feedback and results to plan further instruction.

The edTPA is one example of how the profession is defining effective classroom teaching. Educators from Illinois and nationwide are gaining unprecedented clarity on our expectations for professional practice. As in all professions, our aim is almost always truer when we have a clear sight of the target. Today, our aim is to make sure that beginning teachers are prepared to help all students learn from the first day they take over a classroom.

We extend an offer to the Department of Education and other skeptics to learn what we are learning about our candidates, their preparation, and our opportunities to improve.

Amee Adkins is associate dean of the College of Education at Illinois State University.



Arts education report: More teachers and programs, but inequity remains

July 9, 2014 - 6:35am

Two years ago, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled an arts plan for schools, it was unclear how much arts instruction was already being offered to students – either by certified teachers or through partnerships with community organizations.

Now, schools and arts leaders know the answer: There are more teachers than many would have guessed, but they are inequitably distributed across the city and the total is far below the goals.

“There are a lot of assumptions that people make about what is out there and what isn’t out there,” said Paul Sznewajs, executive director of the arts nonprofit organization, Ingenuity Inc. “What we found is that there are a lot of resources out there, maybe more than we anticipated, but there are still many gaps in the system. More teachers than we assumed there to be in the system, but underneath is the challenge of student access to those teachers and whether those teachers are distributed equitably across the system.”

Today, Ingenuity released a first-of-its kind analysis of arts offerings, staffing, partnerships and funding in CPS during the 2012-13 school year, when the Chicago Cultural Plan was unveiled. Among the findings in the report:

-- On average, elementary students received 99 minutes of arts instruction per week. As part of the district’s arts guidelines, elementary schools should provide at least 120 minutes per week of arts instruction. But, according to the self-reported data, only 40 percent of CPS elementary schools offered that much arts education during the 2012-13 school year.

-- The number of arts programs provided by partner organizations varied wildly from neighborhood to neighborhood. A striking map in the report shows how wealthier neighborhoods such as  Lincoln Park and Lake View have more than 50 arts partnerships in schools, while some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in the South and West side have 10 or fewer.

-- More than 400 arts organizations had active partnerships to offer programming in CPS schools. Sznewajs said he thought the number was about half as many.

-- 95 percent of elementary/middle schools, and 88 percent of high schools, had at least one part- or full-time arts instructor. Most schools with arts instructors – 82 percent – also had community arts partners.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, CPS leaders said it wasn’t surprising that the district hadn’t met its goals during the 2012-13 school year; after all, that’s when they were created.

 "Are we anywhere near where we need to be? Of course not,” said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. “This is a snapshot in the past that has now informed us.”

One way the information has already done so, she explained, was in the placement of 84 certified arts teachers who will be hired with $10.5 million in tax increment financing (TIF) dollars.  The vast majority, Byrd-Bennett said, will work in schools in the South and West sides “where there is the greatest need.” (Here's a list of where all the arts teachers will be heading next fall. Separately, CPS will hire an equal number of high school gym teachers with TIF dollars to comply with another mandate. Also, read a CPS fact sheet in response to the arts report.*)

The TIF money for new art teachers won’t be permanent, nor is it complete. Next year, schools must pay 25 percent of the cost of the teachers, and the district will pick up the remainder with the TIF money. The following year, schools must pay 50 percent of the cost.

And that, say CPS critics, is a problem.  Last year, a reported 100 arts teachers lost their jobs in budget cuts across the district.

“We’re either going to make a commitment to arts education or we’re not,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. “Relying on vanishing ways of paying things puts us in the same position we’re already in […]. I don’t think this is a sustainable plan.”

Too much attention to partnerships?

Ingenuity’s “State of the Arts” report was based on a variety of sources including the CPS Creative Schools Certification survey, which only 57 percent of schools completed. This fall, Ingenuity will publish a follow-up report using 2013-14 data, which is just now being analyzed.  The report promises to include better data, as this time around, 89 percent of schools completed the CPS survey.

“That’s a really positive sign to show both participation and movement forward,” said CPS arts director Mario Rossero.

Charter and contract schools, however, were the least likely to return surveys than traditional neighborhood schools both years.  Sznewajs said he expects that will change over the years, as all schools become more familiar with the annual survey.

The report provides data on a district-wide level, but not on individual schools. However, school-level data will be made available online later this year in a revamped version of Ingenuity’s interactive map of school arts offerings.

Ingenuity also issued a series of recommendations, starting with hiring more arts instructors. At a bare minimum, the report asks for at least one certified arts instructor per school; Rossero said he hoped the 84 additional arts teachers would ensure that all schools in Chicago had at least one arts teacher on staff but could not confirm whether that would be the case next fall. Other recommendations include increased training opportunities for principals and teachers; the creation of a system to measure arts instruction; and locating new public and private funding for the arts.

One key finding in the report is on the wide range in programs offered by arts partners that work in schools.  The majority of these programs are one-time field trips or performances that, “while valuable and may address an identified school need, signal little consistent or ongoing student access to partner programs,” according to the report.

Ingenuity points to art residency programs in schools as an alternative which provides “a deep arts learning opportunity” for students. Just over a quarter of schools reported having an art residency in 2012-13.

Sznewajs said outside arts partnerships make sense for schools in a city like Chicago, with its vast wealth of “cultural resources” that schools could tap into. He stressed that his group’s focus on schools partnering with outside arts organizations is in no ways meant to undermine the role of certified arts instructors in the classroom.

“If you want to grow the arts, it starts with having a certified arts instructor on staff. They’re the anchor of everything,” he said.

Still, the attention to partnerships has caused some concern among arts instructors in CPS. In late April, the CTU’s arts committee filed a grievance alleging that some schools were using outside arts partners to replace instruction by certified teachers, even though that instruction isn’t supposed to count toward the 120 minutes per week requirement.

John Perryman, who chairs the CTU arts committee, said some principals were leaving students alone with outside arts partners. CPS officials did not respond to questions about the grievance.

*This story was updated on July 10, 2014, to include a CPS-provided list of which schools will receive arts teachers next fall.

Take 5: Victims of violence, “transparency” stats, Ventra misstep

July 7, 2014 - 10:18am

Connecting CPS to violence
Apparently hoping to impress U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Mayor Rahm Emanuel last week announced that 49 fewer CPS students were shot and 12 percent fewer were victims of homicide. Up until the announcement, Chicago media had veered away from the previous common practice of identifying every young person killed by whether they went to Chicago Public Schools, a connection that led some folks to observe that the connection made it appear as though CPS were somehow responsible for the violence.

With Emanuel making the connection again, the media followed suit. The Chicago Sun Times headlined a weekend story “3 CPS students accused of robbing, raping girl, 16, on the South Side.”

But take note: Chicago police over the weekend police shot five people, including a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy. Neither Emanuel, nor the media, mentioned whether the two young victims were CPS students.

 Along the same lines…
As Emanuel announced the “safest year since the city began tracking student safety data,” another “good news” statistic emerged: A drop in expulsions of 1300 students over the last three years. That didn’t sound right, as CPS typically expels only a few hundred students a year. Now CPS, which had repeated the number in its own documents, says that what the mayor meant to say is that expulsion referrals are down. But what does the decline mean? Not much, since most students never make it to hearings and even fewer are expelled.

A good high school…?
…. Or maybe just a high school that attracts top students. In a short piece for The Chicago Reader, Steve Bogira makes the point that all the schools highly ranked by U.S. News and World Report are those that enroll high-achieving students--either through testing or by virtue of being located in a wealthy suburb. The two highest ranked Chicago high schools are Northside and Payton.

In Chicago, the path to these and other selective enrollment high schools starts well before eighth grade. A 2012 Catalyst Chicago analysis found that children living in high-income census tracts were four times more likely to take the test for gifted and classical schools than children in low-income areas—even though research has found that intellectually gifted children are no more likely to be rich than poor. By the time students go to high school, more lower-income students apply for selective schools—and there are more seats available—but the disparity continues: 31 of 77 community areas with low application and acceptance rates for selective enrollment elementary schools continued to have low rates for high schools.

Like pulling teeth…
Getting information out of CPS isn’t always easy. We here at Catalyst -- as well as other reporters in Chicago -- can attest to that, anecdotally. Now there’s official proof from the Illinois Office of the Attorney General.

The IAG’s public access counselor reviews complaints by citizens and reporters that a public body has violated the Freedom of Information or Open Meetings acts. As of late June, Chicago Public Schools ranked fourth among all public bodies for which the IAG received complaints—higher than last year, when CPS finished in fifth place.

So far this year, there have been 43 requests for review on CPS, including one from Catalyst that was eventually closed out when the district turned over school-level data on absences and truancy--more than two months after the initial request was made.

Top of the list: The Illinois Department of Corrections, which so far this year has received 246 requests for review (including hundreds from prisoners), followed by the Chicago Police Department (178) and the Illinois State Police (115).

No other school districts were in the top 10, and neither was the Illinois State Board of Education. One educational institution did stand out though: Chicago State University, with 41 requests for review.

A costly “Oops” for students…
In the transition to the new Ventra cards, many young people participating in summer school or programs are being forced to pay full fares, WBEZ’s Linda Lutton reports. Reduced fare is 75 cents, compared to the full fare, which is $2.25. In the past, special summer reduced fare cards could be purchased for these students. Now, the student transit card ID number needs to be submitted to Ventra in order for the reduced fare to take affect.

One last note: Next school year all students, even rich kids, will get free lunch as CPS takes advantage of a federal program, WBEZ reports. Under the program, the feds reimburse based on the percentage of low-income students, not on the specific number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. By making lunch free for everyone, CPS doesn’t have to deal with all the collecting of loose change every day and the worry that a clerk’s hands might be a little sticky.

Early childhood quality rating system comes online

July 3, 2014 - 12:55pm

Need help finding a quality early learning provider for your child? This week, a new web site based off the state’s updated quality rating system came online to do just that.

ExceleRate Illinois, which replaces the former Quality Counts rating system, separates licensed early care and education programs into four categories, or “circles,”  that range in quality from merely licensed to bronze, silver and gold. The higher ratings indicate that programs are moving toward improvement, including trainings for staff and use of research-based curriculum that’s aligned with state guidelines on early learning.

“It’s about engaging people in continuous improvement and giving them a road map to get there, rather than being any kind of punitive system at all,” said Theresa Hawley, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development.

All licensed programs in the state are included in the system, although not all are required to participate in the process of trying to improve their quality ratings. However, there is a benefit to those programs that earn silver or gold ratings: higher payments for those that benefit from the state’s child care assistance program.

“We recognize that it’s more expensive to provide these services,” Hawley said.

The online rating database allows users to type in a city or zip code to find licensed care in specific geographic areas. Apart from the rating description, users can also see program hours, ages served, a map and contact information.

The goal is to help parents think about quality -- and not just location and cost- - when deciding on early childhood programs.

Rated programs include school-based preschool, Head Start and center-based Early Head Start, child care centers, and private licensed preschool programs. Hawley explained that not all ratings are yet in the system, including many of Chicago’s school-based programs. It could take another six months to a year for it to be a “solid database,” she said.

Next year, ExceleRate Illinois will also include ratings for licensed family child care homes; a quality rating system for that category is currently being developed.

The new criteria used to rate early childhood programs was developed through a 16-month process with stakeholders from across the state. (For more on the standards, see this presentation.)

The Illinois Network of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies administers the site, under the direction of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois State Board of Education. The state updated its quality rating system in response to receiving federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants.

The ExceleRate Illinois site is separate from the City of Chicago’s own Early Learning site, which will be updated to include ExceleRate ratings.

Big budget cuts hit high schools, welcoming schools

July 3, 2014 - 10:09am

Last school year drew to a somber close as thousands of children said goodbye to familiar teachers and schools and looked toward a fall in an unfamiliar place.

Now, many of these students are facing uncertainty once again as their new schools grapple with steep budget cuts. Along with schools designated to take in students from closed schools—so-called “welcoming schools”--neighborhood high schools are also facing cuts, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of the district’s just-released budget for 2014-2015.

Here are the major points:

  • Once again, neighborhood high schools saw the biggest losses, driven by enrollment decline. On average, these schools experienced a 10 percent decrease in their budgets. A third lost more than $1 million. Though the cuts hit neighborhood high schools all over the city, nearly every such school on the South Side and Far South Side took a substantial hit.
  • Designated welcoming schools experienced an average 5 percent decrease in their budgets. And 80 percent of these schools lost more than $70,000—the average salary for one teacher. Only 20 percent of other neighborhood elementary schools did.
  • The district is expecting 3,400 more students in charter schools and to spend about $42 million more on charter schools next year. Nine new charter schools are expected to open in the fall and one is going to close.


Overall, school budgets last year were cut by about $100 million, generating a wave of complaints from parents and school leaders. This year, there was an increase of about $140 million, bringing funding to about the same level as the previous year, 2012-2013. But there’s a caveat: The increase might not feel like much to schools, which have to pay teachers a 2 percent raise this year.

Welcoming schools making adjustments

De Diego Elementary and other schools that took in children displaced by closings got an abundance of money and resources, like iPads, as the district sought to make good on its promise that children would be sent to better schools than the ones that shut down. Early on, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made it clear that receiving schools would no longer receive the money that was given to them for extra staff and social-emotional programs. Welcoming schools were given between $80,000 and $326,000, depending on the size of the school. Now these welcoming schools will have to make adjustments, endangering any efforts to make academic gains.

De Diego Local School Council member Alyx Pattison said the extra money last year was critical for the school to have small class sizes that allowed teachers to pay more attention to students who might be struggling with the transition. Now, with a $1.2 million budget cut, the school will have to do with six fewer teachers. Of all the welcoming schools, De Diego lost the most money.

Pattison says she understands that the school budget had to be brought back down to a more normal level, but thinks the cuts should have been done gradually, not all at once.

“A school’s culture is a fragile thing, especially a school in a neighborhood where there are gang lines,” she says. Also, on Tuesday, CPS officials removed De Diego’s principal and assistant principal without explanation.

Mollison Principal Kim Henderson says her school’s budget is down by $248,000 from last year, forcing the layoffs of some supplemental teachers.  “I think our budget now is more realistic,” she says.

Another welcoming school principal says that he will have to reconfigure his staff and lay off a security guard to deal with his losses. “I think that it will destabilize the school,” says the principal, who did not want to be identified because CPS communications didn’t give him permission to speak.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of class size data shows that welcoming schools had an average of 23.5 students in each class, compared to 26.5 in other elementary schools. And while principals from welcoming schools say they will still try to keep their class sizes small, it will be more of a challenge as extra money dries up.

Welcoming school enrollment projections way off

Stripping the extra resources from welcoming schools goes against one of the recommendations of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which said in a report that welcoming schools should get extra support for a longer period.  “CPS should be required to provide 5 years of sustained, intensive academic and financial supports to current (and any future) non-Charter Designated Welcoming Schools and non-designated welcoming schools to benefit all impacted students,” according to the report.

Though welcoming schools were expected to get significant influxes of students, most received fewer students than expected and were in danger of losing money under the district’s new per-pupil budgeting strategy. Overall, projections were way off, with only 52 percent of students, or about 5,800 of 11,000 displaced students, went to their welcoming school, according to enrollment figures.

But last year, Byrd-Bennett held all schools harmless, allowing welcoming schools and neighborhood high schools to keep money even if fewer students showed up.

One example is De Diego, which got $392,000 in extra funds and was projected to get 1,120 students. Instead, just 934 showed up. This year, the school is projected to only get 856.

In some cases, students already in the welcoming school didn’t stay, especially those instances in which the district closed the building of the welcoming school and moved the students and staff into a closing school’s building that was renamed.

Take Stockton and Courtenay. According to the district, nearly 90 percent of Stockton students enrolled in the new Courtenay. However, on the 20th day, which is the day CPS audits enrollment, about 100 fewer students were in the school.

Katie Reed, whose children attended Courtenay last year, says that she and other parents pulled their children because they thought combining the two schools would deplete what made Courtenay special. Courtenay was a small, high-achieving, open enrollment school, while Stockton was a low-performing neighborhood school in Uptown.

While she says she and other parents found other good options for their children, the combining of Courtenay with Stockton has left them bitter.

Juggling extra resources

On top of the extra pot of cash, welcoming schools were renovated with new labs and libraries. They were also given iPads and computers for each student from third through eighth grade.

Wells Prep Principal Jeffrey White says he demanded that CPS give the school everything that was promised. When school opened, it was still missing four security cameras. But he e-mailed the chief and “raised hell” and those cameras showed up.

Overall, Wells’ budget is down by $368,000. White insists he will be able to make cuts that don’t impact the classroom and won’t make class sizes go up. He did not explain how, but the Wells budget shows the school will spend less money on support services and virtually nothing on community services, including parental involvement and after- school programs.

White says the school has more than enough computers and a media specialist. The school also has Promethean boards, which are interactive white boards, in every classroom.

But a report from the Chicago Teachers Union took CPS to task for not providing adequate training on the technology. Also, it said many of the schools did not have librarians or media specialists that would make the technology more useful.

Some principals say that even without staffing these positions, they have been able to make use of these spaces. Teachers bring multiple classes into libraries so they can co-teach and have students work on projects and check out books.

It remains to be seen what will happen with these spaces as time goes on and staff shrinks even more.

Further, budget cuts could threaten the specialty programs in receiving schools. Seventeen of the receiving schools were given money to launch STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or International Baccalaureate programs. They will continue to get two positions to support these programs.

Originally, district officials wanted these schools to bring in new, already-trained teachers to get the specialty programs off the ground. But now principals are being told to keep their existing teachers in place and to have them participate in training programs over the summer.

To Henderson, that is a good decision because she doesn’t think her school needs any more upheaval. “After such a year of change what the staff needs now is consistency.”  In the meantime, Henderson says the school has focused on being an international school. The school’s Spanish teacher often uses the library, which does not have a librarian.

Staff and budget won’t be the only factors that will test the impact of school closings. The schools have spent the year trying to meld children and families.

Wells Prep took in students from Mayo, which was literally 50 yards away. White says his staff did a great job of putting aside difference and getting the students to not bicker or fight with each other. The fact that the schools were in such close proximity meant that the students knew each other. “They live next door to one another,” he says.

But Angelique Harris, a Local School Council member at Wells, says at the beginning, it was tough and tense. “After the first week everything calmed down,” she says.

Still, Harris says getting parents from Mayo to come to meetings is hard. “Parents were invested in Mayo,” she says. “They have had a hands-off approach with Wells. We need to work on getting their trust back. We need to make sure they feel welcome.”

Henderson has also had trouble getting parents of Overton students to adjust to the new reality.  She says that anything bad that has happened in the school year was attributed to the fact that the school is a receiving school.

She says she’s glad the first year is over. She is ready for Mollison to become “just a regular school” rather than a “welcoming school.”

Budget details still in short supply

July 2, 2014 - 5:44pm

CPS officials provided some details—though little new information--about next year’s budget on Wednesday afternoon, but have yet to release it. Sometime this evening, they say, it will be posted online.

The Board of Education will vote on the budget at its July 23 meeting, but officials did not announce any dates for public hearings on it. Once the actual budget is released, it will become clearer which schools will experience budget cuts and which departments the district will invest in most heavily. The $5.76 billion budget is slightly higher than last year's $5.69 billion budget.

Most of the new spending touted by officials on Wednesday has already been announced, such as $250 more in per-pupil spending for each student, the hiring of 84 art teachers and 84 gym teachers (with surpluse TIF funds in a district with more than 500 schools) and five new International Baccalaureate programs. The district also announced that it will spend $1 million to expand the Safe Passage program, but did not give details on where workers will be stationed and why the decision was made.

CPS is cutting $55 million from administration and operations, the smallest cut in at least five years. Central office will lose 20 staff positions, and the other cuts will be made by such moves as reducing “training vendors.”

Officials had warned that a pending $634 million required contribution to the teacher’s pension fund would mean a $1 billion deficit. (On June 27, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund posted an announcement online that CPS had made a more than $585 million payment to the fund, completing its 2014 payment on time.)

Last year, CPS officials insisted that they were draining their reserves to zero and that they desperately needed pension reform in order to continue funding schools.

Technically, CPS’ expenditures next year are $870 million more than its revenues.

As previously announced, the district is avoiding making major budget cuts by using a budget maneuver that will extend the "revenue recognition period" for a property tax payment for 60 days, moving it from July 30 to September 1. Because the first installment of the property taxes usually arrives in August, this will allow the school district to count $650 million scheduled to come in August 2015 in the 2015 budget, rather than the 2016 budget.

In addition to the $650 million, Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro says that the district has some money in reserves to fill the $120 million hole and have another $150 million to put in savings.  “We have been fortunate in recent years that we got some extra money that there was no knowing we would get so we could not count it.”

Ostro said that this maneuver will only work once and that the district still has a structural deficit. She said the only way out is for pension reform. However, Ostro and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett admitted that the district has a history of finding one-time funding to save the day.

“We should worry about next time,” Byrd-Bennett said. “There isn’t another one-time thing that we can think of.”

Meanwhile, the Illinois State Board of Education released its own budget this week, after Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on the Legislature’s $33.7 billion spending plan.

 The state schools budget of nearly $10 billion – of which some $6.8 billion comes from the general fund – changes little from last year. Earlier this year, ISBE had asked the Legislature consider increasing the state’s appropriation by an additional $1 billion, but lawmakers kept spending on schools flat. 

 The budget includes an additional $17.2 million for assessments and $13.1 million for district interventions. ISBE had asked for increases in several categories, including early childhood, bilingual, and homeless education, but the state maintained spending at last year’s levels.


Coming July 7: Our take on the news

June 30, 2014 - 2:50pm

Next Monday, July 7, Catalyst Chicago will debut a renamed, revamped version of our daily “In the News” roundup. We’re calling it “Take 5,” and our goal is to give you a concise recap and analysis of the five news stories, opinion writing or other media coverage we think you will find most engaging, thought-provoking and useful. Check it out next week. Over the summer, we will publish on Monday and Thursday.; as the school year gets underway, we will publish daily. Meanwhile, follow us on Facebook and Twitter for news updates.

Comings and Goings: Easton, Fuller

June 30, 2014 - 2:06pm

John Q. Easton, director of the Institute of Education Sciences in Washington, D.C., will return to Chicago to take a position as Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Spencer Foundation. Easton, the former executive director and one of the founders of the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research, was nominated to head IES by President Barack Obama in 2009. At Spencer, Easton will play a lead role with the board and staff in developing a program of work on research-practice partnerships in education (similar to the Consortium, which works with Chicago Public Schools and is one of the nation’s leading research-practice partnerships). Easton will also serve as a collaborator in and advisor to various Spencer projects and activities. Easton has a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

Jerry Fuller, Executive Director of the Associated Colleges of Illinois, will join the James S. Kemper Foundation as its Executive Director on November 3. The Kemper Foundation promotes liberal arts education coupled with workplace experience as the basis for career preparation. Fuller served as head of ACI, a network of private colleges and universities that focuses on helping low-income, minority and first-generation students complete college, since 1995.