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Stories and items from the Catalyst Chicago Front Page
Updated: 4 hours 32 min ago

Peace march closes out the school year

June 8, 2014 - 11:35pm

As the school year draws to an end and with violence
traditionally getting worse during summer, more than 1,000 students took to the
streets last week. They chanted: "Hands up. Guns down. Stand up

The Peace March was organized by two Perspectives Charter
Schools students, Razia Hutchinson and Janeya Cunningham.

Hutchinson, a junior at the Rodney D. Joslin campus, was
reacting to the response by her peers to the shooting deaths of 17-year-old
Tyrone Lawson in January 2013 and 14-year-old Endia Martin this April.
"What do you expect?" was her classmates' response. She became
concerned that they were so used to violence that they stood by passively,
leading to more unnecessary student deaths.

In response, she and Cunningham planned the march. Fellow
Perspectives students filmed the march and hope to add it to a documentary
they're filming about how to combat violence in their neighborhoods with peace
practices. The students have started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project,
but are still about $13,000 short as the deadline approaches.

The march began at Perspectives' Rodney D. Joslin campus and
ended with a "Peace Jam" at Perspectives/IIT Math & Science
Academy campus at 3663 S Wabash Ave. Tony Schofield from WGCI radio emceed the
event, which included short speeches by the Rev. James Meeks and Ald. Pat
Dowell and a performance by rapper FM Supreme.

Photos by Jonathan Gibby 

In the News: New teacher union dissidents try to turn the tide

June 6, 2014 - 7:44am

The Boston Globe looks the "new face of teachers unions" as opposition candidates in local unions across the country prevail over union insiders, pointing to the union revitalization model championed by reformers that has been on display in Chicago since the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, took over the leadership of the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union. (The Boston Globe)

TURNAROUND COULD LEAD TO LAWSUIT: The president of the South Side branch of the NAACP said her group might file a civil rights lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools for its decision to make Walter Gresham Elementary School a ''turnaround.'' (DNAinfo)

NO GRAUDATION PARTICIPATION: Facing backlash from parents, Ogden International School decided that eighth-grade students accused of bullying a classmate because he was Jewish will not be allowed to walk across the stage at their graduation Saturday, a Chicago Board of Education member said. (DNAinfo)

WHAT TEACHERS THINK: Adam Heenan, a social studies teacher at Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago, kicks off the new Sun-Times Summer School teacher essay series in which Chicago-area teachers weigh in on the big challenges facing education.  His topic? The new Common Core learning standards, which he believes are threatening his ability to prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to his students. (Sun-Times)


ANOTHER ASSESSMENT: Indiana will have to impose a new statewide standardized test on K-12 students next year if it wants to maintain control over $200 million a year in federal education funding. (State Impact)

Early childhood providers awarded capital funds

June 5, 2014 - 11:10am

CPS recently awarded nearly $4.6 million in grants to 10 early childhood learning providers that are seeking to expand or enhance their facilities and serve more children, from birth to age 5.

The non-profit organizations received between $64,000 and nearly $1 million in the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) early childhood construction grant program, which each year sets aside a portion to be redistributed by CPS. The state’s Capital Development Board distributes the funds and monitors the programs on behalf of CPS. 

"We know that the early years are critical to a child's future success, which is why we are committed to ensuring that all students are prepared for a 21st century education before they walk through our doors,” said CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in a statement. “Through partnerships with community based organizations and city agencies, along with this grant from ISBE, CPS will expand seats to serve more of our youngest learners, putting them on a path for success at an earlier age so that one day they will graduate 100 percent college ready and 100 percent college bound."

A total of 19 agencies – including licensed and license-exempted private nonprofit childcare centers – applied for the grants in a competitive grant process. The 10 awardees include:

  • Chicago Commons, for its Paulo Freire and West Humboldt Park centers, which serve Humboldt Park, the Lower West Side and New City. Award: $999,994.
  • El Hogar del Niño, which serves the Lower West Side. Award: $855,000.
  • Metropolitan Family Services, for its Learning and Wellness Center that serves New City. Award: $731,712.
  • Asian Human Services, for the expansion of its Leaf Program that serves Uptown. Award: $603,900.
  • Chicago Child Care Society, for its Best Beginnings Learning Academy I, that serves Englewood. Award:  $563,089.
  • Mary Crane Center, serving Rogers Park. Award: $464,105.
  • Concordia Place, for its Seeley Center, serving North Center. Award: $127,100.
  • Northwestern University Settlement Association, serving West Town. Award: $116,649.
  • Southeast Asia Center, serving immigrant and refugee families in Uptown. Award: $78,097.
  • Children’s Place Association, for its Arthur E. Jones Early Childhood Care and Learning Center, serving families citywide affected by HIV and AIDS. Award: $64,231.

The grant is intended to support the early childhood programs and may be used for the construction of new additions or facilities; purchase of equipment; safety improvements; or classroom conversions.

In addition, CPS also awarded funding to Camras, Hanson Park, J. Locke and McCormick elementary schools to expand opportunities for children, a CPS spokeswoman said.

In the News: CPS shares in $1 million STEM grant

June 5, 2014 - 7:23am

Chicago Public Schools is one of seven nationwide school districts that will share a $1 million competitive grant through the US2020 City Competition. The competition challenges school districts across the country to develop innovative models that will increase the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals working with students and STEM education opportunities for girls, minority students and children from low-income families. Cisco Systems sponsors the competition. (Northwestern News)

WHAT HAPPENED TO TRAUNCY OFFICERS?: Prompted by a listener's question, WBEZ's Curious City project looked in to why Chicago no longer employs truancy officers, the men and women once employed by Chicago Public Schools to track down students who did not turn up for class.

COMPOSTING COMES TO CPS: Blaine Elementary School in Lakeview is partners in a pilot program with the Chicago Community Trust, Loyola University, Seven Generations Ahead to compost food scraps. (WBEZ)

PARENTS, OFFICIALS MEET: CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Board of Education President David Vitale met Tuesday night with Gresham Elementary School parents, who say they implored the school officials to rethink their decision to replace the school’s staff. (Sun-Times)

GIFTED EDUCATION: New York City’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, recently by downplayed the importance of the city’s “gifted and talented” program and wants neighborhood schools to offer “gifted practices” for all students. Two policy leaders and two economists weigh in on gifted programs—which in most cases enroll a disproportionately high number of white, middle-income students and too few minority and lower-income children. (The New York Times)

To solve truancy and absenteeism, put aldermen in charge of community outreach

June 4, 2014 - 12:40pm

When students don't show up for school, it is not only a student problem: It’s also a school and a community problem. Poor attendance has a ripple effect on students. Research has shown the long-term connection between poor attendance in the early grades and low achievement later on. Moreover, low attendance means CPS ends up leaving money on the table, which hurts schools:  Every student that is not counted for state funding based on attendance costs the district thousands.

Despite a new focus by the administration, Catalyst Chicago reported recently that attendance and truancy have worsened in the elementary years instead of improving.

Though attendance has been in the news, the problem is long-standing. CPS has not had “truant officers” for years, since the 1990s when budget cuts axed those positions.  But other school systems in the U.S. have upgraded that job to include duties other than just tracking down missing students. Such jobs are often called “community outreach workers.”  The positive impact in these schools system is instructive, and so is the related research.  

When calling at the homes of absentee children, researchers discover a great many children who are absent for health-related reasons—57 percent, according to the results of research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research in a report on preschool absence.

But there are also significant family problems that result in student absence.  Family problems include a parent’s illness, absence of other adults to get children to school, dependence on time-consuming emergency room visits for medical care and problems with child care – an entire litany of the effects of concentrated poverty. 

In short, low-income children and families cope up with a host of problems that schools have neither the staff, money, time nor partnerships with outside organizations to adequately address.

Working alone individual schools cannot solve the problems that lead to poor attendance. Doing so will require establishing connections between schools, the home and city and community services.  

Aldermen know schools, communities, services

The city has a stake in improving education as well as a responsibility to heal broken communities. For those reasons, I am proposing that the locus and hiring responsibility for community outreach workers should be the alderman’s office.  Aldermen know their communities.  They know their schools -- both traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools -- and their local community organizations.  They also know what city services are available.

These outreach workers, once trained and armed with attendance information from the schools, would visit the homes of students with chronic absence problems, making connections for the students and their parents with the social workers or psychologists in schools where these support staff exist and have time to take on extra students.  More likely, the outreach workers would connect families with public services, such as health clinics and sites for Medicaid applications.

Most neighborhoods have community organizations that serve their residents in a variety of ways, including job training and literacy programs.  There may be community organizations that could be major partners for the aldermen in helping to organize a comprehensive effort.    

Another reason to locate outreach workers at the alderman’s office is that a single home or apartment building may have chronically absent students who attend multiple schools at more than one level--preschool, elementary or high school.  Outreach workers could make sure that efforts to help these children are coordinated, even if students are in different schools.

Dropouts could be put in touch with some of the city’s nearly-empty high schools, which have plenty of space and would surely welcome more students – and the money that comes with them.  

This arrangement could be the beginning of a meaningful partnership between the city, the schools, and their communities.  Everyone wins, and if attendance improves, educational outcomes will improve. 

Nancy Brandt is retired and previously worked for the Continental Bank/Bank of America Foundation, managing its grants to education and youth programs. She is a board member of the Community Renewal Society, which publishes Catalyst Chicago and The Chicago Reporter.

In the News: Strict reporting on discipline targets racial disparities

June 4, 2014 - 7:47am

Students from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, known as VOYCE, gathered Tuesday with other activists to celebrate passage of a bill that for the first time requires all schools, including charters, to publicly report school discipline data and requires districts that are in the top 20 percent in the use of suspensions and expulsion to submit an improvement plan to the state.

The discipline data will be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, age, grade level, limited English proficiency, type of incident and the duration of the suspension or expulsion, making it easier to track racial disparities. Senate Bill 2793 was passed May 30 and by this fall, the Illinois State Board of Education must prepare a report on discipline in all Illinois school districts. The bill was intended to curb the use of harsh discipline that disproportionately affects African-American young men. “We shouldn’t be pushed out of schools for minor offenses, and this is a big first step in fixing our broken system – showing how students are treated in schools,” said Roosevelt High sophomore and VOYCE member Jamie Adams. VOYCE students helped draft the bill in partnership with other members of the Campaign for Common Sense Discipline.  The bill is the first of its kind in the country to address an issue that has drawn national attention. (Sarah Blau, Catalyst Chicago)

BOOK BET: Mayor Rahm Emanuel put the city's schoolchildren on the hook to read a couple of million more books this summer, part of a bet on national TV to get late-night host Jimmy Fallon to visit Chicago again. (Tribune)


CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM: Teachers in the nation's 40 largest school districts came to school 94 percent of the time in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the report released Tuesday by the National Council on Teacher Quality. On average, the urban teachers missed about 11 school days out of 186, and used slightly less than their allotment of short-term leave. But the National Council on Teacher Quality classifies 16 percent of teachers in those cities as "chronically absent," meaning they missed 18 or more days per school year.  Districts in which more than 50 percent of teachers were frequently absent were Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; New Orleans; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Antonio, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn. (Huffington Post/USA Today)

COMMUNITY AND CHOICE: Sam Chaltain, a former educator and writer, has written a new book, "Our School," in which he turns his attention to two big themes: community and choice. He follows two public schools in Washington, D.C. over the course of a year—one a brand-new progressive charter school, and the other a hundred-year-old neighborhood school now experiencing the early stages of gentrification. Through the stories of these two schools he addresses the meaning of community in multicultural America, the pros and cons of school choice, and what this all means for today’s big education policy debates. (Education Next)

IMPROPER DIVERSION OF CHARTER FUNDS ALLEGED: The founder of one of the oldest and largest D.C. charter school networks, allegedly funneled millions of school dollars to a for-profit management company he owns, according to a legal complaint filed Monday by D.C. attorney general. (The Washington Post)

LABOR CONTRACT APPROVED: New York City teachers have approved a nine-year labor contract, their union announced on Tuesday, a deal that raises pay by 18 percent but leaves questions about the future of their health benefits. (The New York Times)

Community collaboratives to test new models for early childhood programs

June 3, 2014 - 11:29am

From opening “pop-up” preschools in Cicero to building new partnerships with existing service agencies, teams of parents, educators and health care providers are developing locally-based projects to improve access to early childhood education in the communities that most need it.

With the help of some Race to the Top Early Childhood federal grant money, the teams will begin testing their strategies this fall – and fine-tuning the projects as data comes in about enrollment. All of this, advocates say, will help the state analyze what works best in building local community systems around early childhood education.

“This can help us figure out which of the strategies we’d been thinking about might be the most useful in the end,” explains Theresa Hawley, director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, which is overseeing the initiative.  “The best way for us to look at this problem is to zero in on the local level.”

Last month, the state approved the so-called “Innovation Zone” projects and will provide each team between $100,000 and $250,000, in addition to in-kind and technical services, next fiscal year so that they can put the plans into action. Funding for the Innovation Zones will continue through 2016. The Illinois Action for Children partnered with the state to convene the teams in Aurora, Cicero, Thornton Township, Greater East St. Louis, and Williamson County, as well as the Pilsen/Little Village and North Lawndale areas of Chicago.

The Innovation Zones funding model flips the script on the traditional government funding method, where organizations tailor their applications to fit parameters drafted by the state, says Leah Pouw, director of program innovations at Illinois Action for Children. Instead, the state guided the teams as thought about and researched their own communities, identified high-needs groups, and proposed projects to get more children into early childhood education.

“It’s a bottom-up approach, not top-down,” Pouw said. “Each community has unique characteristics. We’re trying to see it from their point of view.”

Children of immigrants, children with special needs

Early in the process, the teams honed in on outreach, screening and follow-up; transportation; program quality; and pipelines – or connecting families who are in contact with one organization to other services – as key issues. High-need groups included teen parents, homeless families, children with disabilities, children living in deep poverty, children in license-exempt child care, children of migrant workers and families that are unable to access services because they do not speak English.

In Cicero, for example, the team found that language and cultural barriers were keeping immigrant parents from enrolling their children in preschool programs. Many immigrants were unfamiliar with the concept of preschool simply because these state-funded programs don’t exist in their home countries. To target this specific group, the team will create “pop-up” structured play groups close to where families live that simulate the preschool experience.

“Maybe they need to try it out in a less threatening environment than dropping off your kids every day,” says Hawley.

The team will then analyze whether any of the parents who take their 2- or 3-year-olds to the “pop-up” preschools enroll those same children in traditional preschools later down the line.

Meanwhile, in both the North Lawndale and the Pilsen/Little Village communities, the teams are building a “pipeline” between families in deep poverty to early childhood education options. They’re doing this by identifying and partnering with a variety of partners that already provide some needed service to families – including neighborhood clinics and the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) office – and can agree to share the same message about the importance of early childhood education.

 “When parents take their children in for their immunizations, when they’re in the health clinics, are we talking about how those children can gain access to the early care and education?” asks Cerathal Burnett, CEO of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning and a core member of the planning teams in both Innovation Zones. “We want to make sure we’re all connected across the different service points, to make sure whoever touched the family was talking about the same thing.”

One area of focus in the North Lawndale community has been homeless families, who struggle to get the official required paperwork together in order to enroll their children in pre-school programs. Documents such as birth certificates and proof of income, for example, sometimes disappear when families are evicted from their homes and become transient or move into shelters.

“The documentation can be a barrier to them having everything ready for the applications,” Pouw says.

The team in Little Village and Pilsen, meanwhile, aims to increase the number of children with special needs, ages 3 to 5, in early childhood education programs.

“You want to get them screened as early as possible,” Burnett said. “The earlier you can catch and diagnose them, in many cases you can resolve the issues before going forward in their education.”

Teams in both Chicago communities plan to offer training to parents to be ambassadors in their own communities and talk with other parents about the benefits of early childhood education.

For Burnett, who has been working in the early childhood education field for 18 years, participating in the Innovation Zones has also really nailed down the understand the importance of collaboration—and making time for it.

Former Catalyst Chicago Associate Editor Rebecca Harris contributed to this report.

In the News: U.S. government says UNO defrauded investors

June 3, 2014 - 8:48am

The Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday announced it had charged charter school operator UNO with defrauding investors in a $37.5 million bond offering for school construction work by failing to disclose conflicts of interest, according to the Sun-Times. Read the SEC complaint here.

COMPLAINT FILED: Several  advocates for students with disabilities, including Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for Access Living of Chicago, have filed a compliant with the Illinois State Board of Education regarding violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at Moses Montefiore Academy in the Chicago Public Schools. The complaint alleges "that Montefiore staff are violating student confidentiality, that many staff members are not prepared to do their jobs, and that the Chicago Public Schools has either failed to monitor and identify the problems at Montefiore, and/or it has failed to effectively correct the problems at Montefiore." (Release)

OBAMA HIGH SCHOOL LOOKING FOR A LOCATION: Mayor Rahm Emanuel will change the site of a new, $60 million selective enrollment high school named after President Barack Obama in the wake of pressure from Near North Side residents concerned about a shortage of parking and the loss of precious park land, the local alderman predicted Friday. Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said seven alternative sites on the Near North Side have been identified, most of them owned by the Chicago Housing Authority. A few of the sites are controlled by the city, the Chicago Park District or private owners. (Sun-Times)

MIXED STEM RESULTS: In 2010, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called for 1,000 STEM-focused schools to open in the next decade. But the results of several new studies raise questions about the overall efficacy of this approach. (Education Week)

TRAGEDY HIGHLIGHTS ROLE OF SCHOOL NURSES: The death last month of a Philadelphia elementary student who fell ill at a school that did not have a full-time nurse on duty has reignited debate in the city and nationwide over the importance of school nurses and the reasons why they are among the first to go when money becomes scarce. (Education Week)

In the News: The new kindergarten focused on 3 Rs

June 2, 2014 - 7:55am

Kindergarten schedules are now dominated by reading, writing and arithmetic — and a slew of tests on reading, writing and arithmetic, writes The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss. Because there's so much pressure on teachers to get kids in kindergarten  academically oriented, some have stopped offering a snack because there just isn’t any time. Recess? That’s gone in some places, too. (The Washington Post)

GUARD CHARGED: A Chicago Public Schools security officer sexually abused students at the Southwest Side high school where he works, prosecutors said. Walter Wells, 34, is accused of grabbing female students' breasts and buttocks over a period of several years at Hubbard High School, 6200 S. Hamlin Ave. Many of the incidents occurred when Wells would hug the students in the hallways and inappropriately touch them, prosecutors said. (Tribune)

AGREEMENT REACHED: With the motivation of a June 1 deadline for state pension reforms to kick-in, teachers, school board members and the superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School ratified a new four-year teacher contract at a special Friday evening May 30 board meeting. (

OVER-TESTING OPPONENT: Famed poet and author Maya Angelou passed away this week at age 86 was among 120 authors and illustrators who co-signed a letter to Obama in October 2013, criticizing his administration's education initiatives for placing too much emphasis on standardized testing. (Huffington Post)

In the News: New Orleans now an all-charter district

May 30, 2014 - 7:48am

Nine years after Louisiana education officials swept most of New Orleans' chronically under-performing schools into a state-controlled district after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Recovery School District—which at one time operated nearly 35 schools—has converted fully to an all-charter school system. (Education Week)

Hundreds of RSD teachers and other employees will lose their jobs as the district evolves to manage issues such as citywide truancy, special education, and the common application system for charter schools.

ALLEGATIONS OF ANTI-SEMITIC BULLYING: Chicago Public Schools officials say they’re investigating allegations of anti-Semitic bullying by Ogden International School eighth-grade students, suspending the ringleaders and hosting two forums for parents at the West Town school. (Sun-Times)

CASE FOR KEEPING DYETT ALIVE: Supporters hoping to keep Dyett Academic Center open rallied at the school Tuesday after presenting a plan to revive the school to David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education. The plan calls for keeping the high school open and building on its existing partnership with the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which runs an urban agriculture and farm stand program at the school. The new focus on green technology would be paired with the school’s program of restorative justice, in which students help negotiate and resolve conflict among their peers. (DNAinfo)

A RUN FOR RAVITCH?: New York newspapers, including The New York Times, are reporting that the Working Families Party is considering making Diane Ravitch its candidate for govenor in this November’s election if it decides not to endorse incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (The Washington Post)

WHITE HOUSE NUTRITION RULES REBUFFED: The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday passed an agriculture budget bill that included nearly $21 billion for child nutrition that would allow schools to opt out of White House nutritional guidelines passed in 2012. The vote was 31 to 18. (The New York Times)

In the News: Parents say principal applies 'iron fist'

May 29, 2014 - 7:25am

Two dozen or so parents gathered outside Joseph Brennemann Elementary School Wednesday to say they want discipline in their Uptown school — just not the “iron fist” approach they say Principal Sarah Abedelal employs, the Sun-Times reports.

PRIVATE CONTROL GRANTED: The Chicago Board of Education voted Wednesday to give more control to private operators through expanded “options” schools for at-risk students and to renew charter school contracts. The vote came as the district claimed success with a homegrown program that boosted three dozen neighborhood schools this year. The board also voted 6-0 to approve two new charter schools, Great Lakes Academy and Foundations College Prep; to renew four others; and to spend a little more than $5 million to open spots at six new schools for students who’ve dropped out or are at risk to not graduate. (Sun-Times)

CHARTER AGREEMENT WITHDRAWN: Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett asked board members to withdraw an item to renew an agreement with Alain Locke Charter School because the East Garfield Park operation has not consented to the School Quality Rating Policy adopted by CPS last year. Locke students have test scores well above the CPS average, but Byrd-Bennett said the district needs a common metric to evaluate charters alongside other schools. (Tribune)

SCHOOL FUNDING OVERHAUL CLEARS SENATE: The Illinois Senate passed a measure on Tuesday that would drive resources away from wealthier suburban districts and toward poorer districts downstate. It also ends the Chicago Block Grant, an off-the-top lump grant Chicago Public Schools can choose to distribute as they see fit. (State Journal-Register)

STUDENT TRAINING: A new law passed by the Illinois legislature this spring requires schools to train all students in how to properly use automated external defibrillators or AED. Gov. Pat Quinn says he will sign it into law. Schools are already required by law to have AEDs on hand. (Tri States Radio)

INCREASED SPENDING, BETTER OUTCOMES: Low-income children in school districts that boosted spending after court-ordered changes were more likely to graduate from high school and have other positive outcomes, according to a new study.

Charters delay opening while new alternative schools forge ahead

May 28, 2014 - 4:33pm

CPS is forging headfirst into the opening of new alternative schools, while a few of the charter schools that were supposed to open in September got more time to get ready.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, CPS members approved the opening of seven alternative schools for dropouts and expanded four of those already in existence.  The new and expanded alternative schools – most of which are operated by for-profit companies – are expected to serve an additional 2,400 dropouts or students at risk of not graduating.

One of them, Camelot-Woodlawn, will be housed in Fiske Elementary School’s old building, despite a promise from CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett that closed schools will not be occupied by charter schools. Fiske closed last year and has been recently used by the non-profit Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community to house community programs.

Camelot is technically a contract school, but there’s little difference between a charter and a contract school. Another Camelot School is already operating in the old Guggenheim Elementary, which was closed in 2012. Camelot is looking to open up an additional alternative school this fall, but is still looking for a location.

Byrd-Bennett said there are an estimated 56,000 school-aged youth in Chicago who are not enrolled in school, and has pushed to increase the number of alternative schools – which have been rebranded as “option” schools.

“A one-size approach is not only ineffective but it’s counterproductive,” she said. “Transitioning from a patchwork of alternative schools to a coordinated, comprehensive option school strategy is the only way to reengage our lost children and to get them back on the path to success.”

During the past school year, about 12,000 students attended one of the city’s 40 alternative schools for at least part of the year. Board members did not ask any questions about the major expansion of alternative schools.

While advocates for dropouts applaud more seats to re-enroll students, some are worried about who the contracts are going to. Alternative Schools Network Executive Director Jack Wuest says that he is concerned that long-time operators of these schools---Youth Connection Charter School and Prologue--were passed over for new unproven outfits.  YCCS is a charter operator that runs 20 campuses, most of them at community organizations that had alternative schools before charters came into existence.

Wuest notes that each of these new schools are given about $160,000 in startup money, which YCCS and Prologue will not get.

“We need to be careful to look at these new operators’ track record and program design to make sure they can be effective,” he says.

Charter openings moved back

Meanwhile, of the 11 regular charters approved for opening in the fall 2014, at least five will not. The board granted requests from the operators to push back the start dates of four to fall 2015. In addition, the developers of Orange Charter, which was supposed to be an arts-focused elementary school, already said they are not going forward with plans.

Two planned United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) schools, the Aspira Business and Finance High School and a LEARN campus, all approved in 2013, will not be ready for September. Neither the leadership of Aspira or UNO responded to questions about why they were delaying the opening.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says that UNO is in the process of restructuring the organization. UNO’s founder and executive director Juan Rangel resigned last year after months of questions about the charter operator’s use of a $98 million state school construction grant.

Learn Charter President and Executive Director Greg White says he and the board decided that they should take a break from opening more new schools. “We opened seven schools in the last six years,” he says. “Our thought is to get better, not bigger.”

The charter schools still slated to open this fall are two Concept schools, two Noble Street schools, a Foundations School and Great Lakes Academy. Great Lakes Academy is moving into the building that once housed Las Casas Occupational High School, which was closed in 2009.  

Quality rating policy

Meanwhile, one of Chicago's top-performing charter schools won't be renewed this month as scheduled because its administrators refuse to sign on to the district's new quality rating policy. Byrd-Bennett said she would continue to withhold an item to renew Alain Locke Charter Elementary School's charter from the board until it agreed to the policy.

"We remain in contract negotiations with the school at the present time and I do not want to advance this item forward until they agree to the school quality rating policy just as several other charter schools have already done so," Byrd-Bennett said. "Moving forward, schools that do not sign on to the school quality rating policy will not be advanced to the board for consideration."

The quality rating policy was updated last fall and puts a premium on student attendance and achievement growth of minority, special education and English Language Learner students. 

No representatives from Alain Locke, a Level One school that opened more than a decade ago, spoke during the meeting, nor did they return calls on Wednesday. But Stacy McAuliffe, chief operating officer of the INCS, told the board that Locke is "100 percent behind the notion of strong accountability for all charter schools" without explaining why the school was unwilling to sign onto the policy.

“It’s an important balancing act to balance both strict accountability and consistence as well as charter autonomy,” McAuliffe said.

Teach for America questioned

Also on Wednesday, the Board of Education voted to extend its contract with Teach for America to recruit and support new teachers to work in CPS through its alternative certification program. The district will pay TFA $1.3 million to refer and support up to 570 first- and second-year teachers next school year.

CPS also contracts with Golden Apple and The New Teacher Project to recruit teachers to work in the district. The decision to extend the TFA contract for one additional year was made in order to align all three contracts and issue a new request for proposals next year for teacher recruitment, said CPS Chief Talent Officer Alicia Winckler.

Responding to board members’ questions, Winckler said that TFA fellows represent 6 percent of new hires in the district, and that more than 40 percent are minorities. Just over half of TFA fellows remain as teachers in CPS for longer than three years, she added. 

As usual during Board of Education meetings, dozens of parents and community activists turned out to blast CPS for a variety of issues, ranging from the decision earlier this year to “turn around” three schools to plans to build a selective enrollment high school named after the president in the city’s northeast side.

Parents of students at Walter Gresham Elementary School, which is slated to undergo a “turnaround” next year, told board members they’d filed a complaint over the matter with the NAACP Chicago Southside branch.

Attorney Rose Joshua, the branch president, said she’ll spend the next 15 days investigating their concerns about the decision to turn around the school and asked board members to help her obtain financial information from CPS quickly – and without having to wait for the snail-paced responses that typify the CPS Freedom of Information Act process. Board members ignored her request.

Board members also ignored a community activist who asked the board why the proposed Barack Obama College Prep High School won’t be located in the South Side, where the president once worked as a community activist. After that, another activist, Rosemary Vega took the opportunity to scream at Board President David Vitale for “falling asleep” during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Vega also criticized CPS for using a potentially offensive question on tests given to seventh-graders about illegal immigration.  Later in the meeting, Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz said he, too, was “personally offended” by the question and called it a “huge failure from the top down that we would allow this ignorant language to be put forward.”

Teaching moms, teaching kids with two-generation learning

May 28, 2014 - 1:25pm

Sandra Barnes, a mother of six, was trapped in a dead-end retail job because she needed to provide for her family.

Barnes had earned her high school diploma and had become a Certified Nursing Assistant in 2002, but didn’t follow through with finding a job in that field. In 2011, she earned a certificate for medical billing and coding but found herself stuck career-wise.

“I felt lost,” says Barnes. “Going into the program, I didn’t have a really clear goal. I thought I might want to own my own medical billing company, but I would get sidetracked.”

Barnes had worked for a large retailer on and off since 1996 and had earned promotions, but wasn’t happy and wanted to leave. Fear of unemployment sent her back to the job.

“Not being able to get hired [somewhere else] made me think, ‘Oh my gosh, my family still has to eat, I think I have to go back,’ ” she says. Then, Barnes became part of the Evanston Community Foundation’s Two-Generation Learning Initiative, a pilot program launched earlier this year to provide educational, financial and career guidance for parents--plus high-quality early education for their children.

Now, Barnes is one of 13 women who recently graduated from the 13-week program, and says the counseling and resources it provided helped her solidify her career goals and examine her career from all angles--from desired salary to how much more education she may need to whether she’d want to work from home. Barnes is currently working an “externship” for a medical billing and coding company and hopes to be hired full-time.  

“I know there are things I have to do before I can own my own business,” Barnes says. “I have to learn how to operate budgets and manage staff, but at least now I’m not lost.”

The Two-Generation program is the product of a partnership between the Evanston Community Foundation, Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, and Ascend at the Aspen Institute (which provided a $100,000 grant for it). 

The pilot is designed to give parents a setting to explore their education and career options, and give them tools and resources to achieve their career goals and become financially self-sufficient, says Artishia Hunter, the program’s director.

Children benefit from having access to preschool. Plus, education research has shown that higher parental income and educational attainment strongly correlate to school success and achievement. 

The Evanston Community Foundation worked with three early childhood learning centers--the Child Care Center of Evanston, the District 65 Early Childhood Programs and Family Center, and the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston--to gather a pool of potential participants.  

The women were required to have their high school diploma or GED, and have a child age 6 or younger receiving services from one of these programs. Hunter says the requirements allowed the program to recruit mothers who had basic levels of financial and career literacy and were invested in their children--both considered essential traits.

“These women really want to pursue and persist [in their education and careers], but they lack access to the services and information they need to do that,” says Hunter. “Giving them access to the early childhood programs, and then working with them to set goals and get some concrete steps in place for achieving them, is a two-sided approach that we think will be really effective.”

Participants met once a week as a group, usually at the Evanston Public Library, where Hunter led sessions on career exploration, finance management, finding and using support, and setting goals. Hunter also met individually with participants for one-on-one counseling.

An Evanston resident and mother of two, Hunter identifies with the women because she, too, has juggled raising a family while pursuing her education. She had her first child at 17, then went back to high school shortly thereafter. Eventually, she and her husband continued their educations while raising two children. Hunter was an Illinois Early Childhood Fellow from 2011-2013.

“I had two children by the time I entered undergrad, and I know this experience very well,” Hunter says. “Going back to school opened my eyes to a world that I hadn’t been privy to, and whether it’s going back for more education or solidifying a career path, I know how difficult that can be.” 

Perfecting a model 

Developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and senior research scientist Teresa Eckrich Sommer are leading an Institute for Policy Research team that is studying the impact of two-generation initiatives and using the research to guide the Evanston program. The initial pilot is based on CareerAdvance, an experimental program in Tulsa, Oklahoma that gives low-income mothers access to good early childhood education for their children, coupled with life coaching, financial incentives, and job training in in-demand fields.

“There isn’t much research on the impact of these programs,” says Chase-Lansdale. “There is good theoretical and anecdotal evidence, but this opens up an exciting learning opportunity where we can analyze how beneficial these programs are for the children and parents alike.”

Chase-Lansdale says the team hopes to follow the participants over time--at least two to three years--to see how they fare compared to another group of parents who also had children in early-childhood education centers but did not participate in the program. 

“Our hypothesis is that as parents proceed more in their education or in their careers, their children’s expectations will be higher or more realistic, and the parents will be better equipped with knowledge on how to guide or mentor them,” says Chase-Lansdale. 

Another goal is to offer the program to two more groups of parents in fall 2014 and winter 2015, and follow-up with graduates after six months. 

Barnes and Hunter both say that the support the women provided for each other was a crucial component of the program. They shared resources and information, encouraged each other, and bonded over shared experiences.

 “We’re building these relationships too, helping us work toward our goals,” says Barnes. “You have someone calling you to ask how applications or courses are going, or telling you about something new they think would work for you. We’re all mothers, so we all can relate.”

In the News: Obama Prep to make room for neighborhood kids

May 28, 2014 - 7:25am

When Barack Obama College Prep opens in the fall of 2017, some 70 percent of the students, picked from around the city, will be admitted through a selective-enrollment process. The other 30 percent will be from what school officials call the neighborhood around the school. The exact area that will be considered the "neighborhood" for enrollment purposes is the great question, with many highly anticipating the answer. Chicago Public Schools officials haven't defined the area. (DNAinfo)

SCHOOL BUDGET CUTS TO STAND: School officials and parents now say the increased per-pupil funding for the 2014-15 school year mostly covers teacher raises and rising costs, and that cuts to programs and staff this year will not be restored, according to the Chicago Tribune.

HIGH TECH HEIST: Burglars stole 123 iPads from the computer lab inside Charles Hughes Elementary School in Lawndale around 1 a.m. Monday. Hughes is the welcoming school for Henson Elementary School, one of the 50 schools closed by the Chicago Public Schools last year, and received the iPads as part of the district’s pledge to provide the devices for every welcoming school. (CBS Chicago)

MUSIC TEACHER RECOGNIZED: Steven Sanders — a fifth-year music teacher at UIC College Prep — has been awarded the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, a $25,000 prize given to four teachers who work in high-poverty public schools across the United States. (DNAinfo)

WANTS LESS TESTING: Texas Democrat Wendy Davis, one of the two main candidates for that states’ governorship this fall, says she wants less weight on standardized testing and more local control over accountability in education. (Education News)

LINKING TENURE AND EVALUATIONS: More states are using controversial teacher evaluations to determine which teachers earn and hold onto tenure, says a report released Thursday by the Education Commission of the States. Sixteen states have now mandated that the results of the evaluations be used in making tenure decisions, a jump from 10 states in 2011. And three states — Florida, North Carolina and Kansas — have voted to eliminate tenure altogether. (NBC News)

Summer programs facing cuts in federal dollars

May 27, 2014 - 3:23pm

Some community organizations that depend on state money to provide after-school and summer programs for thousands of low-income children in Chicago say they’re upset with how long it’s taken the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to issue a request for proposals for millions of dollars in 21st  Century Community Learning Centers funding.

As a result of the continued uncertainty, they say they’re scaling back or cutting their offerings in the coming months.

“I’ve been talking with people every day, sitting down with principals, families, who don’t know what they’ll do this summer,” says Melissa Mitchell, executive director of the state’s Federation for Community Schools. “I’m just not clear on how this isn’t something that gets priority when it’s money that could go out to communities that need it. These are federal dollars that aren’t part of the machinations in Springfield.”

ISBE, meanwhile, says the organizations knew since Day One there was no guarantee their funding would be renewed, and should have used the initial award to implement plans that would wean them off the grants. The funding comes from a federal program aimed at providing academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for students, particularly those from high-poverty and low-performing schools. 

“Each grantee was required to submit a sustainability plan which detailed how the organization would continue to provide services to students when the funding was no longer available,” says Mary Fergus, an ISBE spokeswoman. “There are no surprises here -- the programs ending have known they were ending this year since the day they applied.”

Fergus said the RFP is not delayed, but that the process has been impacted by the state’s receipt of a waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind Law, which gives ISBE additional flexibility with how the 21st Century grants can be used. She said ISBE is now evaluating how to incorporate this flexibility – which includes the option of using funds during the school day – into the new RFP.

ISBE expects to release the RFP for next year’s grant cycle sometime in early- to mid-June, and to announce awards three months later.

In 2012, when ISBE last issued an RFP for the 21st Century funding, the state awarded five-year grants to 37 organizations, for a total of nearly $14.5 million in funding during the first year. The annual amount decreases in the latter part of the funding period. Organizations that have been awarded the grant in the past also qualify for less money the second time around and cannot reapply for a third round of funding. Many organizations that already received two rounds of funding are lobbying ISBE to eliminate that limit.

No alternative sources of money

Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, says the overarching problem is the lack of outside funding for organizations like his to develop the infrastructure to work with schools and provide programming for children and their families. The 21st Century funding makes it possible for organizations to hire full-time resource coordinators who can establish the partnerships and programs and leverage additional dollars.

“There’s a huge disconnect here,” says Brosnan. “The funders don’t exist. This is also coming at a time when CPS is cutting budgets again, when there are no after-school services funded in any other way, and you also have programs ending like the state potentially cutting a bunch of other programs, Teen REACH dollars.”

Brosnan says his organization, which works with four schools through 21st Century grants, plans to let go of 27 full- and part-time employees this summer as he scrambles to look for additional money. This year, the organization received about $480,000 to partner with schools and provide a range of programs for children and adults, including tutoring, art classes, soccer, martial arts, and GED classes.

“We’re trying to figure out how at this moment were going to be able to sustain some baseline level of services for the kids and families,” he says. “It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. We saw this coming and have been having meetings with ISBE, trying to get them to understand the importance of getting the RFP [Request for Proposals] out in a timely matter.”

In the News: CPS test question called 'racist,' inaccurate

May 27, 2014 - 8:29am

A test question for Chicago Public Schools seventh graders is being called “offensive,” “racist,” and factually inaccurate by groups as disparate as the Illinois GOP and the Chicago Teachers Union. (WBEZ)

Although the district temporarily yanked the controversial question—part of a new battery of tests meant to determine the effectiveness of teachers—it has quietly put the question back in its testing database with an “addendum” for teachers to read aloud to students before they take the exam.

PEACE CAMPAIGN: A Chicago Public Schools student has launched a campaign to stop the violence and promote peace across Chicago. Razia Hutchins, a junior at Perspectives Charter High School, started the "I Am for Peace" initiative. Her anti-violence campaign is being filmed by two former producers of The Oprah Winfrey Show for a documentary. (ABC7)

UNLIKELY ALLIES: With tensions running high over issues surrounding academic benchmarks, standardized testing and performance evaluations for educators, unlikely coalitions of teachers, lawmakers and parents from the left and right are increasingly banding together to push back against what they see as onerous changes in education policy. Some have Tea Party Republicans and teachers unions on the same side. (The New York Times)

PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE: Public schools achieve the same or better mathematics results as private schools with demographically similar students, concludes "The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools," published in November by the University of Chicago Press. The authors are Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, a husband-and-wife team of education professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Education Week)

SELECTIVE SCHOOL ADMISSIONS REOPENED: The School Without Walls, a selective D.C. public high school consistently ranked among the nation’s best, failed to fill its incoming freshman class despite receiving a record number of applications this year. (The Washington Post)

Seven more alternative schools, 2,500 more seats for dropouts planned

May 23, 2014 - 5:37pm

Less than a year after expanding the number of alternative schools run by outside groups, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett proposed opening another seven campuses and increasing enrollment at four existing schools to serve a total of 2,500 more dropouts.

The proposal, which will go to the Board of Education on Wednesday, comes despite the fact the district doesn’t even know whether the schools are meeting accountability standards.

When asked why she was pushing to give contracts to new, untested groups, Byrd-Bennett said: “Kids don’t have time for us to wait […]. If the quality doesn’t exist, I’ll stop the contract.”

“It’s a very unique population with incredibly unique needs,” she added. “Very often our schools’ [staff] are not trained, are not equipped to deal with that specific population.”

News of the proposed expansion hit Sheila Venson like a punch in the gut. Venson is the executive director of Youth Connection Charter Schools (YCCS), an umbrella organization for non-profit community groups that run 20 alternative schools in the city. YCCS was formed 15 years ago, although many of the individual alternative schools have been around for decades longer.

“This was a deliberate attempt to cut us out and I don’t know why,” said Venson, whose organization submitted a proposal to CPS earlier this year to expand enrollment and add three campuses. “We’ve been waiting 15 years for it to happen and when it does happen we don’t get it. Here you have these new groups – and I don’t know anything about them – but they’ve only been around for a year or two and some of our schools have been around for 40.”

In response, CPS spokesman Joel Hood said the district "has had and will continue to have ongoing conversations with YCCS about the work they do serving some of the city's most at-risk youth. They remain the district's largest partner in this work."

Under the proposed recommendations, CPS wants to open three new Magic Johnson Bridgescape campuses, two new Pathways in Education in Illinois campuses, and one campus each for Camelot SAFE Schools and Ombudsman North. CPS also wants to increase the enrollment cap at Magic Johnson Bridgescape’s North Lawndale and Roseland schools, as well as the Ombudsman 3 and Banner West schools.

Except for Pathways and Banner, all of the operators are for-profit. The district gives operators millions of dollars, using the per-pupil funding model, to teach these students. CPS, however, did not provide specific figures on monies paid to alternative schools, which in recent years have been rebranded as “option” schools.

Opposition to the proposed expansion

A staggering 56,000 school-aged youth in Chicago who could be in school are not enrolled, according to CPS estimates. Byrd-Bennett said she has made reaching out to these “lost children” one of her top priorities. The district currently has 8,900 total seats in some 40 schools that serve these students. However, the schools say they actually served 12,246 this past school year – which is possible because many students come and go during the year.

Some critics raised questions about the proposed expansion, calling the plan a way to privatize public education. Although YCCS schools have been working with dropouts for years in Chicago, under Byrd-Bennett’s tenure the district has opened the gates to outside groups – both for profit and not-for-profit. 

Pauline Lipman, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who researches privatization of schools, said that students who drop out “have been failed by Chicago’s education.”

“And now CPS is treating them as commodities, to be sold off to these for-profit operators,” she added.

In a statement, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said it was “unfortunate that the district, with no real educational or facilities plans, cannot find a way to utilize well-educated, certified teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals to provide high-quality, publicly funded public education to these young people.”

Meanwhile, longtime advocates for dropouts also worry about the foray of for-profits into the alternative school market. One advocate who asked not to be identified said that students could struggle with online learning, which is part of the curriculum at some of these newer alternative schools. He also said that CPS needs to monitor how these organizations spend their money; specifically, how much is going into classrooms and how much into owners’ pockets.

About the schools

Jack Elsey, CPS’s chief innovation and incubation officer, said the district is tracking data on the performance of alternative contract schools, but that it’s too soon to tell how well they’re doing. Under the new performance policy, alternative schools are graded using a different set of metrics than traditional high schools.

CPS officials described attendance– which is tied to funding – at the alternative schools as “volatile.” Many students don’t show up to class until much later on in the semester. 

Alternative school operators are supposed to do their own outreach to find youth who could be in school. Last year, the district also opened outreach centers in Garfield Park, Roseland and Little Village, each staffed with six workers. Overall, the district’s outreach program has a $2.5 million budget.

“We’re trying to get all of these students back in school,” Elsey said. “We’re all learning how to do this better, how to better find kids and get them into school.”’

Staff at traditional schools also identify students who are not on track to graduate and counsel them about the option of enrolling in an alternative school, where they may benefit from different models of teaching. 

Students who drop out of traditional schools sometimes find their own way back to an alternative school. That’s what happened to Raynard Gillespie, who dropped out of Crane Tech as a freshman in 2011 after getting shot in the leg not far from the school. He worked a little and sat around for two years before his aunt convinced him to check out Camelot Excel Academy of Englewood.

“I love this school,” said Gillespie, who expects to graduate next year. “I’ve been places I’d never been to before. I get good grades. There’s a good staff, good directors. […] They have methods that actually work.”

Catalyst wrote about Camelot’s model last year. 

Kevin Sweetland, executive director of Excel Camelot of Englewood, credits the school’s structured model, smaller classes and smaller population for its ability to “provide individualized supports for students.”

 “In our Camelot accelerated programs. students also have the opportunity to earn up to 5 credits per semester, or 10 credits per school year,” he said in a written statement. “Students have an extended day. This allows students to either catch up and be able to graduate on time or graduate closer to their original graduating class.”

Catalyst Chicago Deputy Editor Sarah Karp contributed to this report.

In the News: Gresham principal locked out

May 22, 2014 - 9:40pm

At a Local School Council meeting this week at Walter Gresham Elementary School Principal Diedrus Brown told parents Chicago Public Schools officials changed the door locks and did not give her keys. (DNAInfo)

FUNDING TO FOLLOW STUDENTS: State Senator Jacqueline Y. Collins (D-Chicago 16th) secured passage Wednesday of legislation ensuring that when a student transfers from a charter school to a traditional public school — or vice versa — the funding needed to educate the child moves with the child. (Press release)

WAITING FOR ANSWERS: Parents and officials at a Bucktown Montessori school failed to pass a budget this week, saying that in order to do so, they need Chicago Public Schools to answer questions about enrollment numbers. (DNAinfo)

TABLETS AND OTHER TECHNOLOGY: The rush for schools to buy tablets and other computers comes ahead of a deadline for new online standardized tests, scheduled to be introduced next year in 45 states and the District that signed on to the new national Common Core learning standards. But many advocates for education reform, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, see the scaling up of classroom technology as a much bigger opportunity to rethink schools, to untether them from a calendar designed in an agrarian era, a bell schedule that tells students when and where to go, and a teacher in the middle of the classroom who is considered the source of all knowledge. (The Washington Post)

TEXTING A NEW STRATEGY: To keep seniors on track for college and to avoid the "summer melt" that leads some astray after graduation, some educators are texting them reminders and information. (Education Week)

UNSAFE STADIUM: After opening a $60 million high school football stadium in  Allen, Texas, less than two years ago, the facility closed indefinitely because of "extensive the concrete of the stadium's concourse." (Education Week)

In the News: Apartments proposed for old CPS headquarters

May 22, 2014 - 6:57am

A Chicago developer has emerged as the buyer of the Chicago Public Schools' former Loop headquarters, with plans to covert the vintage building into apartments. (Crain's)

PRINCIPALLY SPEAKING: Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky looks at Mayor Rahm Emanuel's treatment of Chicago Public Schools principals and that now widely read letter to the editor written by Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary, and the insurrection that may be brewing.

GRESHMAN FIGHT GOES ON: At a Walter Q. Gresham Elementary Local School Council meeting this week, community members, parents and others pledged to keep the fight alive to save the Chicago public school from having its entire staff fired and replaced. (Progress Illinois)

SPRINGFIELD PROPOSES CHANGES: Legislation that would allow schools to opt out of teaching mandatory topics like drivers' education, anti-bullying and black history has received backing from an Illinois Senate Education Committee, according to the Sun-Times.

FIGHT AGAINST CHARTER: Woodland Elementary District 50's board president says potential financial gain will outweigh legal bills from a lawsuit challenging a state agency's recent decision allowing Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake to stay open for another five years. (Daily Herald)

UNDERSTANDING SCHOOL PROGRESS: Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature made numerous changes to the state's public school evaluation system and should make it easier for parents to see how their children's schools and districts are doing compared to others in Florida, experts say. New standardized tests will align with the education standards known as the Common Core. (Associated Press)

A COURT RULING'S LEGACY: As the nation recognized last week the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Education Week asked teachers across the nation to weigh in on the landmark ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. " How can it be that segregated schools were a reality 15 years ago—and remain a reality 60 years after the Brown decision?," one teacher writes.

For the Record: Turnarounds and no-bid contracts

May 21, 2014 - 2:57pm

Concerns about conflicts of interest with the Academy for Urban School Leadership and CPS were raised once again in recent letters to the inspectors general of CPS and the U.S. Department of Education. But one point raised by critics has not been explored much, even though it is central to the question of potential conflicts.

“Why are these [contracts] put out on a no-bid basis?” asked Austin community activist Dwayne Truss at a Monday press conference held in front of the building that houses the regional offices of the U.S. Department of Education. “AUSL has an exclusive, no-bid contract with CPS. Competing organizations are not taken seriously.”

This year, three schools are slated to be turned around, a process that entails firing the entire staff and replacing them. AUSL, which will handle the turnarounds, is a non-profit teacher training program and receives $300,000 in upfront funding as well as an additional $420 a year per student for five years.

AUSL is awarded turnarounds through a “School Management Consulting Agreement.” Such an agreement is unique and CPS officials say they are not legally compelled to put out a Request for Proposals (nor does anything prevent them from seeking multiple proposals).

Board member Jesse Ruiz says CPS “should always critically review all of our contracts… We should always be reviewing alternatives to make sure we provide the best for children and the City of Chicago.”

No way to benefit financially 

According to district officials, AUSL’s big selling point this year was that 13 of the 16 turnarounds that the organization has managed for more than a year posted higher-than-average academic growth. Yet Valerie Leonard, another West Side activist fighting against the turnarounds, notes that many non-turnaround schools have shown similar progress.

Further, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the ties between CPS and AUSL have become stronger, which may be another good reason to make sure the process of awarding the contract is competitive and fair. Emanuel appointed former top AUSL officials David Vitale as board president and hired Tim Cawley as chief administrative officer.

Hood notes that Vitale and Cawley have no way to financially benefit from the contract.   

The letters also say that board member Carlos Azcoitia might have the most to gain from CPS contracting with AUSL. He is a professor at National-Louis University, a college that trains teachers working in AUSL-managed schools. However, Azcoitia recused himself from the vote to give control of the three schools to AUSL, though he did vote separately in favor of the turnaround in general.

Truss also alleges that campaign contributions from AUSL board members and their partners totaling more than $60,000 might be influencing Emanuel. AUSL has 33 board members that range from a managing director of the Boston Consulting Group to the vice president of personal wealth management at Goldman Sachs.

Not the only group

Though it seems like a given these days, AUSL was not always seen as the preferred turnaround provider.

In 2006, AUSL was one of five vendors given pre-approved status to undertake “new school models.” Three of the vendors, including AUSL, were supposed to do a mix of turnarounds and “new starts,” while two were just to do “new starts.” AUSL was supposed to have 2,000 students in the schools it managed. Today, some 19,000 are in AUSL schools.

The other vendors were charter school operators. None of them ever took over schools. CPS tried in 2008 to get charter operators to handle turnarounds. But the operators were concerned that they couldn’t be successful without the autonomy of being a charter school, and the plans never went through.

The landscape has changed since then. Under the federal School Improvement Grant program, school districts had to find outside partners to work with to improve schools. More groups stepped up and Illinois now has 13 approved vendors.

One of the vendors, Atlantic Research Partners, might be open to doing turnarounds in CPS but has never been given a chance to bid, says Atlantic’s Todd Zoellick, who works with schools elsewhere in Illinois.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood says the district would have to look carefully at other groups that purport to be able to do turnarounds, and that CPS is happy with AUSL’s results.

Though he has been impressed with AUSL’s results at Marquette Elementary, Azcoitia says he would like for CPS to develop its internal capacity to overhaul struggling schools. He notes that with budget constraints, the district’s new Office of Strategic School Support Services, known as OS4, is less expensive than contracting out the service.

OS4, Strategic Learning Initiatives

Rather than firing an entire school staff and starting from scratch, OS4 offers professional development and training for existing employees and oversees school improvement funds at these “reinvestment schools.” It also oversees the implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant program.

Another alternative is Strategic Learning Initiatives, which also works with existing teachers and staff. SLI’s model costs less than $200,000 per year and includes a school leadership team and on-site coaching for teachers and principals.

Last week, parents, faculty and community members from four schools slated for turnaround assembled at AUSL headquarters to ask CPS to approve the SLI School Transformation Process instead. Faculties at Barton, Carter, Dewey and Louis elementary schools have voted overwhelmingly to use SLI instead.

“CPS has already invested in a transformation plan developed by Strategic Learning Initiatives,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, in a press release. “It is highly effective, already proven in CPS schools, and can save an enormous amount of money. We urge CPS to embrace this option.”

John Simmons, president of SLI, says his group wants to work with CPS but would resist doing turnarounds in which the entire staff are to be replaced. Turnarounds are “not a cost effective model for transforming a whole set of schools,” Simmons says.

He notes that across the country few school districts are using the turnaround model and instead are now pursuing the less-drastic transformation model, bringing in outside partners to help a school improve.