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Updated: 1 hour 46 min ago

Comings and Goings: New CPS communications chief

June 26, 2014 - 4:59pm

Three months after the departure of CPS’s most recent communications chief, the Board of Education on Wednesday approved the hiring of a longtime communications executive from the corporate world to fill the high-pressure political job.

Ron Iori, who started his career in newspapers, says protecting “the brand and reputation of an organization is the hallmark of my work,” according to his LinkedIn profile. “My background in crisis management extends across a spectrum of short-term incidents (plane crashes, factory deaths, Firestone tire crisis) and perennial issues (prolonged financial distress, multiple executive departures over time, tax refund loans)."

His LinkedIn and company profiles indicate no previous experience working for government.

Iori was unavailable for comment on Thursday. He will be paid a yearly salary of $165,000, according to an index of board actions posted several days after the meeting.* His official title is "Chief Communications Marketing Officer."

Iori will oversee a department that is currently undergoing a reorganization but includes media relations, online, internal communications and speech writing components.

He replaces Becky Carroll, who was hired after the election of Mayor Rahm Emanual in 2011 and headed CPS communications during the tumultuous 2012 teacher strike and last year’s contentious school closures. Carroll left her post in March, after returning from maternity leave, and now heads a super PAC that intends to raise big bucks in support of Emanuel and his aldermanic allies, according to a recent report in Crain’s Chicago Business.

Iori was most recently the senior counselor of the Chicago-based communications firm, Iori Communications. He has worked in communications for a variety of companies, including Kaplan Higher Education and Ford Motor Co., according to his company profile.

His stints in journalism included the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Cincinnati Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ohio University. He also holds an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, as did former CPS schools chief Ron Huberman.

The proposal to hire Iori was not included in Wednesday’s agenda, but was voted on after the board’s closed-door session. State law allows public bodies to discuss personnel items behind closed doors, and to consider items that are not included on the agenda.

* This story was updated on June 30, 2014, to include Iori's salary, which CPS did not provide before this story was initially posted.

In the News: CPS librarians are a rare breed

June 26, 2014 - 8:20am

Staffing projections show more than half of Chicago Public School will lack a certified librarian next year, a CPS mom who's also a school librarian told the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday. But, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett told the board there’s a lack of qualified people to fill librarian jobs. She said the district is working with universities to determine who is on track to be certified (Sun-Times)

AN ODD ALLIANCE—FOR CHICAGO: In an odd and rarely seen alliance, Rainbow/PUSH joined with affluent North Side residents who oppose CPS’ planned $20-million expansion of Lincoln Elementary School.

DYETT PROTESTERS: In an extended display of protest at Wednesday's City Council meeting, a few dozen demonstrators stood up in four separate groups chanting about their displeasure over the closing of Dyett High School in Bronzeville. They chanted "Will Burns do your job" in demanding a hearing for the school with the alderman whose 4th Ward includes the school. (Tribune)

CHARTER CONVERSIONS LIFT CATHOLIC SCHOOLS: While conversions of Catholic schools to charters are rare, a number of schools have made the switch in recent years. A study this spring found enrollment grew dramatically following the change. (Education Week)

SEEKING AMENDMENT ON PUBLIC ED FUNDING: If Mississippi is going to move past its troubled history, it will take a renewed focus on education — and better funding of its public schools, advocates said Tuesday during  the Freedom Summer 50th anniversary conference. “Better Schools, Better Jobs: A Ballot Initiative” is seeking to pass an amendment to the state’s constitution that would require the state Legislature to fully fund K-12 public school education with no cost to taxpayers. (The Hechinger Report)

In the News: State task force report critical of CPS

June 25, 2014 - 7:40am

A highly critical report by a legislative task force said Chicago Public Schools’ 10-year facilities master plan was “deeply flawed, lacked broad public input, and wasn’t completed until after CPS closed 49 neighborhood public schools.” The report also criticized CPS for opening 33 new charter schools with more than 23,000 seats since 2011 even as it was closing publicly-run schools for underutilization. (Tribune)

On the positive side, the task force noted the steps CPS took last year to support student transitions during the closings.

READY FOR COURT: A Lincoln Park parents group plans to announce its intentions to go to court if the Chicago Zoning Department fails to block an expansion of Lincoln Elementary School. The parents say the plan is unsafe, wastes taxpayer money and violates city zoning laws and Chicago Public Schools guidelines. (Crain's/DNAinfo)

TEACHERS BACK ANTI-RAUNER PAC: An Illinois teachers group has given $325,000 to a group that opposes Republican Bruce Rauner's bid for governor. The Illinois Freedom PAC on Tuesday posted the sizable contribution from the Illinois Federation of Teachers COPE. (Sun-Times)

 EX-OBAMA AIDES VS. TEACHERS UNIONS: Two former aids to President Barack Obama will go up against teachers unions that are fighting to defend tenure laws against a coming blitz of lawsuits. The Incite Agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, will lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended ferociously. LaBolt and another former Obama aide, Jon Jones — the first digital strategist of the 2008 campaign — will take the lead in the public relations initiative. (Politico)

HBCUs IN JEOPARDY: Enrollment declines, cuts to government financial aid, leadership controversies and heightened oversight are working together to threaten some historically black colleges in new ways and perhaps even jeopardize their existence. (Inside Higher Education)

FREE LUNCH EXPANSION: Thousands more students could be eating school lunch completely free starting next fall, thanks to a four-year-old federal program that is finally expanding to all 50 states. (Pew Stateline)

In the News: Charter schools seen as good investments

June 24, 2014 - 7:52am

Despite the problems with  UNO Charter Schools, Crain's is reporting that the bond market is still interested in charter schools. Even UNO, which is the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission action, is seen as a stable investment. Chicago International Charter Schools have the most bonds, followed by UNO and then Noble Street.

FEWER SUSPENSIONS:  Catalyst, the Sun-Times and Tribune are reporting that first- and second-graders in Chicago Public Schools will be spared from school suspensions if proposed disciplinary changes are approved at this week’s Board of Education meeting. And so will students busted for chatting on cellphones in class.

LEAVING CPS: James Sullivan will resign as Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general at the end of this month, after 12 years of work. Sullivan, who earns $133,000 as IG, will join Sikich LLP, a professional services firm, to do fraud investigations. (Sun-Times)


The Detroit Free Press has published the first part of a yearlong investigation on corruption and lack of oversight in the Michigan charter school sector. Among the findings:

  • Charter schools spend $1billion per year in state taxpayer money, often with little transparency.
  • Some charter schools are innovative and have excellent academic outcomes — but those that don’t are allowed to stay open year after year.
  • A majority of the worst-ranked charter schools in Michigan have been open 10 years or more.
  • Charter schools as a whole fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty.
  • Michigan has substantially more for-profit companies running schools than any other state.
  • Some charter school board members were forced out after demanding financial details from management companies.
  • State law does not prevent insider dealing and self-enrichment by those who operate schools

CHANGES TO FOIA: Good government advocates are asking the governor to veto a bill that intends to reduce excessive records requests filed by the same person. The bill introduces a fee structure for electronic public records requests and does not apply to the press, non-profits or academia. (State Register-Journal)

REVIVING ART, MUSIC AND GYM: Milwaukee Public Schools is one of several school systems across the country — including Los Angeles, San Diego and Nashville, Tenn. — that are re-investing in subjects like art and physical education. The Milwaukee school district is hiring new specialty teachers with the hope of attracting more families and boosting academic achievement. (KERA News)

ELIMINATING FAFSA: Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Virginia) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) are co-sponsoring a bill to simplify the federal student aid system, eliminating the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. (Inside Higher Ed)

Student Code of Conduct set to change as district aims to curb discipline

June 23, 2014 - 5:46pm

Aiming to rein in one of the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the country, Chicago Public Schools is again set to revise its Student Code of Conduct with the goal of creating more uniformity in how schools handle discipline. 

Among the proposed changes:

--Elimination of the vaguely-defined “persistent defiance" as misbehavior for which students can be suspended or expelled. CPS officials say "persistent defiance" is used unevenly to justify harsh discipline, in some cases against students who shrugged their shoulders or threw pencils across desks.

--Children from pre-kindergarten to second grade could no longer be expelled without a network chief’s approval. In the past, only preschoolers and kindergarteners were excluded from expulsion, though records show they were still suspended.

--Another offense, "unintentional physical contract with school staff," would no longer warrant suspension. 

--Police would only need to be notified when students are found with drugs or guns on school grounds, or in emergency situations. The current policy lists 27 offenses for which police need to be notified, including participating in mob action and use of the CPS network to spread computer viruses.

--Unauthorized use of a cell phone would drop to the lowest category of offense.

 Activists and the Chicago Teachers Union said the changes are a step forward. But the real test will be whether the changes result in a fairer discipline process with fewer students being expelled or suspended, says Mariame Kaba, executive director of Project Nia, a community justice organization. She notes that there is still a lot discretion given to the principals.

Kaba points out CPS is not putting more money toward restorative justice practices or for interventions to prevent misbehavior. “For a number of years, I think there will be a tug and pull between the policy and the practice,” she says.

Since 2006, official CPS policy has called for schools to use restorative justice, but no extra money has been provided. Most of the work has been carried out by outside agencies and therefore comes and goes, Kaba says.

In a statement, the CTU applauded the changes but emphasized that CPS needs more social workers and counselors, as well as conflict resolution and restorative justice practices and a safe space for students to go within the school.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that principals will be required this summer to attend professional development on the new Student Code of Conduct and network chiefs will have to bring it up at each meeting. Further, she noted that principal evaluations hold them accountable for the climate of the school and the number of suspensions and expulsions speak to that climate.  

CPS has promised to release suspension and expulsion data for individual schools this year and has promised to continue to do so.  

Despite the fact that the Code of Conduct emphasizes restorative practices, Byrd-Bennett said that CPS had the strictest zero tolerance proposals she’s ever seen. Even when she was consulting with CPS as the chief education officer, she says was worried about it and started some internal discussions.

In 2009, Catalyst Chicago reported that CPS suspended 13 of every 100 students—a higher rate than all other big urban school districts, with black boys disproportionately the target. In 2012, CPS made some revisions to the student code of conduct.

Still, the number of suspensions went up to nearly 70,000 in the 2012-2013 school year, up from 67,512 in 2011-2012, with the biggest spike  among elementary school students. 

District officials say that preliminary data shows they are down this year to about 50,000 or about 14 of 100 students in district-run schools.

About 75 percent of students suspended are black, though they make up only about 40 percent of CPS students.

CPS only has expulsion data for charter schools, but not suspension data. The expulsion data show that charters expel three times the number of students as district-managed schools. Charter schools are allowed to have their own codes of conduct and most of the expelled charter school students would not be expelled by CPS. Therefore, they are allowed to enroll in a district-run school.

Byrd-Bennett says she is working with charter schools on collecting suspensions data and trying to get them to adopt the district’s code of conduct. So far, 10 of them have.  


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In the News: Ex-CPS communications chief takes new role

June 23, 2014 - 8:39am

Becky Carroll, who served as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's handpicked communications chief for Chicago Public Schools until a few months ago, has formed a Super PAC to support the re-election campaigns of the mayor and his City Council allies. (Sun-Times)

A play titled "Exit Strategy," set in a fictional Chicago high school that is slated for closure, got a rave review from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, after she saw it recently at the Jackalope Theatre. The show's been extended through June 29.

GREEN TEAMS: A New York City school composting program aims to help the environment, instill a sense of conservation in schoolchildren, and, critically, save some money. (The New York Times)

SUPPORTING GRADUATES: First lady Michelle Obama, who is leading a national push for more low-income students to attend college, addressed hundreds of D.C. high school graduates who participated in the D.C. College Access Program — an organization that dedicated to boosting the number of District students who go to and get through college.  (The Washington Post)

FLORIDA VOUCHER EXPANSION: Middle-income families in Florida will get a chance to receive a private-school voucher under a significant expansion of the state's existing program signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott. (Education Week)

In the News: D.C. suspends test-based teacher evals

June 20, 2014 - 7:06am

The District of Columbia public school system, one of the first in the country to evaluate teachers using student test scores, announced Thursday that it would suspend the practice while students adjust to new tests based on Common Core standards. (Associated Press)

UNAWARE OF COMMON CORE: A MSN/Wall Street Journal poll, released this week, shows that 47 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed have not heard of the Common Core Standards. Of those who have, only 22 percent said they'd heard a lot about it. The remaining 30 percent said they'd heard "some." (Education Week)

VOUCHER FOES: A wide range of parent groups, teachers' unions, and civil rights groups are mounting an all-out offensive to convince Florida Gov. Rick Scott to veto a bill that would broaden the reach of the state's school voucher program. The groups believe the legislation will siphon much-needed funds away from the state's financially struggling public schools. (Education Week)

SEEKING MONEY: The Philadelphia superintendent of schools made a last-minute plea for funding this week to city and state lawmakers, saying he needs at least an additional $96 million to offer students even a “wholly inadequate” education next year. (The New York Times)

MANDATORY KINDERGARTEN: All 5-year-olds in Buffalo, N.Y., will be required to attend kindergarten under legislation that received final approval from the State Legislature on Wednesday. The move, advocates say, will both boost early learning and eventually help improve high school graduation rates. (The Buffalo News)

State limits junk food sales for school fundraising

June 19, 2014 - 4:18pm

Starting next year, high schools across the state must sharply limit the sale of unhealthy snacks – such as candy bars and chips – during in-school fundraisers.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) approved new, phased-in limits on so-called “exempted fundraisers” during its meeting Wednesday. In the first year, high school fundraisers can sell unhealthy foods during school hours once per week. The frequency will drop to twice a month in the second year, and once a month in the third year and beyond.

The rules – which were approved on an emergency basis pending a public comment period – respond to new strict federal nutritional guidelines on all foods and beverages sold in schools.

Schools across the country have been bracing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, which kick into effect in July and apply to schools that participate in the federal school lunch or breakfast programs.

In Chicago, schools are already supposed to abide by strict rules on any snacks sold in school fundraisers, a la carte lines and vending machines. The rules, which were approved by the Board of Education in 2012, prohibit schools from holding more than two fundraisers per year with junk food sales. CPS also limits the number of classroom or school parties where unhealthy snacks are served to two per year. 

“We doubted we could be less strict than ISBE,” said Leslie Fowler, CPS executive director of nutrition support services. “ISBE has taken a very lenient stance. I almost think that [phasing in the reduction of exempted fundraisers] it makes it more difficult, instead of just ripping the Band-Aid off.”

Fowler said most principals, teachers and parents have bought into the strict CPS policy, but it has taken a lot of communication at the school level. And there are still challenges. When she learns of fundraisers or parties that involve unhealthy foods, Fowler tries to meet with the principals and remind them of the importance of establishing a healthy eating environment – without taking a punitive approach.

“We’re set up as an advocate and support system as opposed to an adversary,” she said. “But it can be challenging because this really puts us against a classic tradition that happens in schools every day, whether it’s a parent who wants to bring cupcakes for a party or a teacher who wants to reward their class with a pizza party.”

How ISBE drafted rules

The state’s new limits on “exempted fundraisers” will have a greater impact in districts outside of Chicago that haven’t established their own strict rules.

“This will mean different things to different schools,” said ISBE superintendent Chris Koch during Wednesday’s board meeting. “There are districts that do sales every day during the school year.”

Initially, ISBE had sought to allow districts to set their own limits on exempted fundraisers. But USDA officials told the state it could not delegate its authority to districts.

Staff at ISBE then drafted a proposal to phase in the reduction in fundraising days at high schools over a period of six years. But health advocates who spoke up during Wednesday’s meeting encouraged board members to either cut the number of exemptions or reduce the phase-in period.

“We understand that schools are stretched [for fundraising dollars],” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “Cold turkey is probably a difficult goal to achieve, but six years seems like a really long time.”

Mark Bishop, vice president of policy for the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, said no other state has set such a high limit on “unhealthy school fundraisers.”

“In a society where one of three of our children is obese or overweight,” he said, “we have a responsibility to put our children’s health first.”

In response, ISBE members agreed to shorten the phase-in period to three years.

Because the federal restrictions go into effect in a matter of weeks, ISBE approved the rule changes on an emergency basis. Board members, however, also sent forward a proposed permanent rule change into a public comment period. The proposal will return to ISBE for a final vote later this year.

In the News: Alderman agrees to meet Dyett supporters

June 19, 2014 - 7:50am

A coalition including the CTU and community members that has been fighting to keep Dyett Academic Center open ended three days and nights of camping out in front of Ald. Will Burns' 4th Ward office with a commitment from the alderman to host a meeting on the school's future. (DNAinfo)

SPECIAL ED AND MINORITY OVERREPRESENTATION: The U.S. Department of Education is considering creating a standard definition for what constitutes "significant disproportionality" in special education. The move comes in the wake of a recent Government Accountability Office report that said that even though states are required to monitor overrepresentation of minority students in special education in their districts, only a tiny fraction of school districts around the country have actually been deemed to have a problem. (Education Week)

CUTTING COMMON CORE TIES: Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Wednesday that he would seek to end his state’s enactment of the Common Core educational guidelines and plans to administer a test tied to them, but other officials immediately said that the governor had overstepped his authority and vowed to resist his moves. (The New York Times)

PRESCHOOL EXPANSION: California's general fund spending package that's headed to the governor includes $264 million for expanding education before kindergarten and would add 11,500 new preschool spots for low-income families. (Associated Press)

Comings & Goings: Carter, Knight

June 18, 2014 - 10:09am

Terrence Carter, currently the director and chief academic officer of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, has been named superintendent of the New London CT public schools.  Before joining AUSL, he was principal of Barton Elementary, which received an Illinois Academic Improvement Award for showing upward trends in test scores for three consecutive years.  Barton also served on Mayor Emanuel’s Early Childhood Education Task Force. 

This fall, Lloyd Knight will become the director of Lloyd Bond Charter School , which is in the Chicago International Charter School Network.   Previously, Knight was a teacher and the assistant director at the school.  Before coming to Bond, he founded the Boys Sports Mentoring Group in Newport News, VA, and the Helping Hands Mentoring Program in Raleigh, N.C.

Chicago Commons has won a $1 million Early Childhood Construction Grant from the Illinois Capital Development Board.  The grant will support the organization’s child development centers in Back of the Yards, West Humboldt Park and Pilsen with the expansion and renovation of classrooms, playgrounds, improved security and technology upgrades. 

In the News: Principal candidates drop out of running

June 18, 2014 - 8:59am

An argument among LSC members over the new principal for Ray Elementary School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., has resulted in neither candidate being selected and Chicago Public Schools naming a new interim principal Monday. (DNAinfo)

PLAN FOR SHUTTERED BUILDING: Chicago Public Schools will consider a South Side alderman’s proposal to move a special CPS academic program into a closed school building despite promises from CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett not to put schools in buildings that have been shuttered for being underused. (Sun-Times)

CELL TOWERS PROPOSED FOR SCHOOL: AT&T has asked Naperville Unit District 203 for permission to lease space at two junior high schools to install cell towers. The company would pay $5,500 a month and could net the district up to $2.25 million over 25 years. The proposal was met with concerns about health and safety from some parents and school board members. Superintendent Dan Bridges did not make a recommendation,but said officials "do have a responsibility … to consider alternative sources of revenue." (Tribune)


LIMITING TEACHER TENURE: A lawsuit brought Tuesday by public school teachers in Missouri seeks to block a statewide vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit their tenure protections.

TEACHER DISMISSAL MEASURE: A bill to hasten the dismissal of some public school teachers appears to be speeding into law, but it won't calm the furor unleashed when a judge threw out key job protections for California instructors. (Los Angeles Times)

In the News: Questioning CPS' budget manuever

June 17, 2014 - 9:19am

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey calls a manuever being proposed by CPS officials that will allow the district to increase school spending this year, but will lead to a major shortfall next year, "completely nuts." The budget has not yet been posted, but officials said they plan to take 14 months of revenue for the coming 12-month school fiscal year--essentially, borrowing money from the 2015-2016 school budget. Sharkey says it is election-year trick. Even Board President David Vitale admits that the manuever will lead to a serious problem next year as the district could face a $1 billion deficit. But he says it is justifiable because it allows CPS to maintain "quality" this year. (NBC-Chicago)

CAMPING OUT: Parents and activists set up a tent city outside Ald. Will Burns office, demanding that he sign onto their plan to revitalize Dyett High School, which is in the process of being phased out and scheduled to close at the end of next year. Without Dyett, there will be no open enrollment high school in Bronzeville, activists say. Burns says he supports having an open enrollment high school, but that he won't put his support behind the one being pushed by activists because he isn't convinced it has community support. (NBC-Chicago) 


CUTTING SUSPENSIONS: Amid growing calls nationwide to find more effective ways to correct student misbehavior, school districts in four of five Southern California counties outperformed the state average in reducing suspensions last year. (Los Angeles Times)

FRAUD AND CHARTERS: The recent fraud allegations against leaders at two D.C. public charter schools have illuminated what city officials are calling a gap in their ability to effectively oversee the financial dealings of the fast-growing charter school sector. (The Washington Post)

THREAT TO INNOVATION: The tentative flourishing of innovation taking place in some Philadelphia schools is at risk of being overwhelmed by a massive funding shortfall, casting doubt on the superintendent's ability to safely open schools in September, let alone spread promising new models across the 131,000-student system. (Education Week)

LITTLE FRUIT BORNE: Five years ago, the Obama administration began private-public partnerships to encourage students to pursue studies in science and technology, but that goal has proved to be an elusive one. (The New York Times)

For the Record: Steep rise in chronic absences, truancy

June 16, 2014 - 4:23pm

More children were chronically truant or absent at three of every four elementary schools in the 2012-2013 school year, compared to just two years earlier, according to district data obtained by Catalyst Chicago.

Click here to see our analysis of the data.

Overall, chronic absenteeism rose at 80 percent of elementary schools during the three-year time period.

Last month, Catalyst reported on internal Chicago Public Schools data showing that chronic absenteeism and chronic truancy were up overall in the elementary grades. But officials did not provide the data on a school-by-school level until June 3, after Catalyst asked the Office of the Illinois Attorney General to review the district’s stalled response to a Freedom of Information Act public records request first made in March. 

The increase was especially evident at nearly three dozen schools that saw chronic absences increase by 10 percentage points or more in the three-year period. These include some of the schools that closed last year, such as Paderewski (from 18 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2013) and Attucks (from 8 percent to 28 percent). At the same time, some of the schools that closed last year saw a decline in chronic absenteeism, including Songhai and Lawrence.

Chronic truancy, meanwhile, went up at 74 percent of elementary schools. Most of these schools saw increases of more than 10 percentage points, but several experienced increases higher than 30 percentage points. These include Woodson South, O’Keeffe, Caldwell and Paderewski.

Students are considered "chronically truant" after missing at least nine days in a school year without a valid excuse. “Chronically absent” students, meanwhile, have missed at least 18 school days, either excused or unexcused.

On the flip side, fewer high school students skipped class or were absent in the 2012-2013 school year, when compared with two years earlier.

Catalyst’s analysis did not show any clear trend or strong correlation between high truancy or absenteeism, and other factors such as the number of homeless students, suspension and expulsion rates, or school closures. Still, family problems, illness, school discipline and other circumstances may contribute to students missing school.

CPS officials said they were still trying to get a handle on why so many more children were chronically absent and truant at elementary schools.

In a statement, CPS officials said their new strategies for reducing chronic truancy and absenteeism attempt “to respond to the root causes of why students are absent (e.g., unclear school expectations, punitive school discipline practices, academic struggles, health concerns, challenges at home, etc.)”

The CPS statement also explains that the strategy “is a shift from years past when there was a heavier focus on truancy officers who could knock on doors and bring students back to school, but were unable to adequately address the root causes of students’ absences.” Coincidentally, WBEZ’s Curious City recently reported on the history of truancy officers in CPS.

CPS officials say that new data tools will help schools monitor absence trends, while the district will provide additional funding support – including mentors and after-school programing—for schools with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism and truancy.

A state-appointed task force is now looking at the problem of chronic truancy in Chicago Public Schools. The group, which was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation on chronic truancy, next meets at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 19, in Room 2-025 of the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph Street.

In the News: Baltimore County superintendent nailed for SUPES involvement

June 16, 2014 - 12:30pm

Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance violated ethics rules by taking a consulting gig with the SUPES Academy to coach CPS principals just months after his district signed a $875,000 contract with the company, according to a ruling last week by an ethics panel. Dance’s relationship with SUPES came to light in a Catalyst article in October. Dance, who is 33 years old, has agreed that he won't take on anymore consulting jobs. (Baltimore Sun)

Dance was one of several school leaders getting paid to be coaches or master teachers for the SUPES Academy in Chicago and whose school districts also have contracts with SUPES or one of three other businesses run by the owners of the company. One of the selling points of SUPES is that the owners have relationships with school leaders and can bring them in to provide training. But—as the Dance ethics violation reveals—that relationship can be dicey because the company’s owners also look to school districts for contracts to provide training, search for administrators and do school turnarounds.

Because the companies are private, for-profit businesses, they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act so it is unclear how many school leaders are involved or how much they are getting paid. A log of meetings and sessions obtained by Catalyst in the fall listed the last names of the school leaders serving as coaches and master teachers in Chicago. In addition to Dance, Catalyst was able to identify the school leaders of the school districts that serve Atlanta, St. Louis and Minneapolis—school districts that are also listed as clients on the SUPES Academy website or related businesses.  

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s relationship with SUPES also has come into question. Up until the time she was hired by CPS, she worked as a consultant for SUPES. She says she has not gotten paid by the company since. However, as recently as this November, she answered questions at a SUPES session for aspiring superintendents. She says she had just “stopped by” the training in Chicago and informally took some questions. CPS principals have said the $20 million training was not valuable, but CPS has made no move to exercise an option to cancel the contract. (Catalyst)

School closing success: CPS officials and board president David Vitale are declaring victory in the transition of students from closed schools. In articles in the Tribune and in a piece on CBS, CPS officials said that during the first full school year after the historic closings, the fears many had were unrealized. The Safe Passage program performed as promised, and CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett on Friday noted an uptick in mid-year performance at schools designated to take in students whose buildings were closed. (CBS and Tribune)

Common Core testing delayed: Many states are moving to delay or alter test-based accountability for schools and teachers, as tests associated with the Common Core State Standards head for their debut nationwide in the coming school year. (Education Week)

Charter expansion: The Success Academy charter network’s plan to double in size could reignite a war over classroom space in New York City. A new state law passed in April gives the city just two options to meet the demands of the Success Academy network: It can hand over free space in public or private buildings, or give the schools money to find their own space. (The New York Times)

Talking With Principals, Part 4: Money matters

June 13, 2014 - 2:35pm

CPS has yet to release its official budget for next fiscal year, but principals have been grappling with their school-level allocations since April. In the last of four excerpts from a roundtable discussion hosted by Catalyst Chicago, Blaine Elementary Principal Troy LaRaviere, outgoing Peterson Elementary Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer and Sullivan High Principal Chad Adams share their views on the district’s per-pupil budgeting system, now in its second year, and the district’s claim that the system gives principals more “autonomy” in spending decisions.

Gresham Elementary Principal Diedrus Brown also participated in the roundtable but did not have much to share: Gresham is slated to become a turnaround school and she will not be at the helm next year.

The vote on next year's budget was supposed to be held at the June board meeting, but has been delayed for unspecified reasons. According to state law, the budget must be published 30 days before the required public hearing. CPS’ fiscal year ends on June 31, but it is not unusual for the board to approve the budget in July or August.

Last year, officials made a dramatic shift in its system for allocating money and resources to schools: Instead of allowing schools to have a certain number of teachers based on enrollment, schools now receive a specific amount of money for each student. In addition, the overall amount allocated to schools was cut by $80 million.

CPS officials said that the new scheme would give principals more freedom that would offset the pain of budget cuts. But many principals said that, with scarce resources, the new system merely shifted the responsibility for bad decisions onto their plate, such as cutting an art teacher in order to afford a recess monitor. Plus, new requirements such as daily physical education are a drain on budgets.

For next year, officials announced a $250 increase per student, raising the per-pupil stipend to an average of about $4,390 from $4,140.

Catalyst: Are you being asked to buy specific books or specific programs?

Parrott-Sheffer: I’m not, but I have colleagues who had to meet with their network person and they were handed a list. I got to see it and it said, what level of Achieve 3000 are you buying? They’re being told how to spend their budget, whether they have the funds or resources.

Catalyst: What side of town does that principal work on?

Parrott-Sheffer: West-ish.

Catalyst: Some principals have said they are also being forced to get Compass Learning (Compass Learning and Achieve 300 are online education programs.)

LaRaviere: Compass Learning is the big company, and they have a program called Odyssey. We have Odyssey. It’s a big initial price, $25,000, and it’s like $4,000 a year. Nobody made me get it. My old principal, who I respect a lot, was using it. I went and saw a demo of it. I liked it. I still like it. It is not some miracle-working program. It has some good content that otherwise kids might not be exposed to. You can get an additional opportunity at home to expose them to some content and skills and practice. It is actually decently-designed instruction, not just practicing what you already learned. You can be introduced to new content through the program.

Parrott-Sheffer: it’s a good fit for you, but you made that decision. There’s other places where that decision is being made for you. If you’ve got a small school with 200 kids, that’s [taking all] your money.

The other issue is that you can’t buy [on your own]. Math curriculum, reading curriculum, are all on hold. It’s quite a maneuver to purchase anything, because in theory we’re moving to district-wide curriculum. It is unclear where they are in the process of that right now. [Not being able to purchase books] puts you behind the eight ball, unless you use non-school funds.

Adams: And we need to be careful of going down the district curriculum road. We went down this road a while back with [High School] Transformation. (High School Transformation was a 2010 initiative to have low-achieving high schools choose between a vetted list of curriculum.)

Catalyst: How are your projections for enrollment for next year?

Adams: Mine are way down. I think there was an over-projection when I started, so I think what I’m looking at now is probably the reality of what’s going to happen.

(Like most neighborhood high schools, Sullivan’s enrollment has fallen in recent years. Last year, Sullivan was projected to get 858 students but had enrolled only 708 by the 20th day audit of enrollment. Technically, schools that were underenrolled were supposed to be stripped of the money they received for students that did not show up. But CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett—perhaps sensing the mayhem such an action would cause—let the schools keep the extra money.)

LaRaviere: We will know in the fall, but it is about what we expected. We keep growing on one end, but we have to keep cutting on the other end because we don’t have space. So every time our kindergarten numbers rise, and they rise every year, we have to cut a preschool class. So we had seven preschools, and we’re down to three.

Catalyst: Chad, you come from a charter school. Tell us how the schools are different.

Adams: I thought I had a good shot at a charter, and could really make it happen. That charter is actually being closed – Chicago Talent Development. I went back to [traditional] public education because the charter world was hard in so many ways. The way that charters and neighborhood schools that are near each other interact is something that definitely needs to be looked at.

I have an UNO charter that is drawing students from [Sullivan]. Slowly but surely throughout the year, I got more and more kids from UNO because they didn’t want to have to wrap their arms around those families and work with those kids, despite their needs. That can be said about some other charters that are near me: Chicago Math and Science Academy. We don’t have the liberty of just kicking students out of school and having them never coming back. I do fear what some of the long-term effects on those children could be. I worry about the amount of trauma they’re being exposed to because of [being pushed out], and then landing at my school. I probably think about it more than anything because I was a part of it. I did the same damn thing that is being done to me.

LaRaviere: Wow …

Adams: But I quit, in the middle of the year. I couldn’t take the social injustice behind it.

In the News: Cheers for the end of teacher tenure

June 13, 2014 - 9:23am

A Tribune editorial applauds a California judge's decision earlier this week on teacher tenure, saying it hopes the ruling and reform efforts across the country, eventually lead to the end of tenure.

RAIDING SCHOOLS: FBI raids last week targeting Concept Schools included the charter-school operator’s Des Plaines headquarters and a school in Rogers Park. (Sun-Times)

GRADING TEACHERS: The Ohio legislature decided that grades and ratings of Ohio's teachers shouldn't depend as much on student test scores. (The Plain Dealer)

DISMISSING TEACHERS: A bill making it easier to fire abusive educators heads to Gov. Jerry Brown two days after a judge found California's teacher tenure laws unconstitutional.

Talking With Principals, Part 3: Evaluating educators

June 12, 2014 - 3:03pm

Our third installment of a conversation between principals focuses on how educators are being evaluated, an issue that has taken on greater importance because state law now requires that test scores be part of these evaluations.

Participants in the roundtable Catalyst Chicago recently hosted included principals Troy LaRaviere of Blaine Elementary, Adam Parrott-Sheffer of Peterson Elementary, Deidrus Brown, of Gresham Elementary and Chad Adams from Sullivan High. Our first two stories covered why principals speak out publicly—or don’t— about school district policies and the controversial SUPES Academy.

Last year CPS changed the way it evaluates principals in order to meet new state standards that hold them accountable for student academic growth. 

In addition to data that show students’ academic growth, principals are also to be graded on ”practice criteria” that include less easily measured indicators, such as whether they champion teacher and staff excellence through continuous improvement, build a school culture focused on college and career readiness and “create powerful systems of professional learning.”  Network chiefs conduct two formal observations of each principal annually, and provide feedback to discuss the observations, the data and the school’s goals.

Most principals were graded as “proficient”—squarely in the middle--last year. 

Principals at Catalyst’s roundtable discussion expressed dissatisfaction with the evaluation system, comparing it to the similarly data-driven teacher evaluation system, Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago Students (REACH). In both cases, principals said the evaluation process was bogged down by paperwork and gave limited opportunities for detailed feedback that could help them – and their teachers – grow.

Catalyst Chicago: What has the principal evaluation process been like so far ? What has the interaction been like between you and your network chiefs?

 Troy LaRaviere: The time and energy put into it is as much a waste as the time and energy put into REACH. Getting in and observing teachers and giving feedback is important. REACH is not designed to do that. It’s designed to collect evidence to justify a number you give a teacher, a 1, 2, 3, or 4 -- an unsatisfactory, a satisfactory, a proficient or a distinguished. All of the feedback you give them is designed to justify that label, not improve their practice. It would be as if I’m coaching a baseball team, and I decided we’re going to improve a team by creating a rating system, and the feedback is to justify the rating. I’ve put so much time in creating the system to justify the rating, that I’ve taken away 80 percent of the time that I had previously used to actually coach them to help them become better players. That is what’s happening with CPS, on the teacher level and with the principal evaluation. You pull this mountain of documentation together, spend a lot of time doing it, and you take away that time from your responsibilities at the school. I told my chief that, frankly, of all the things I did last year to improve my students’ performance, the work I put into that evaluation contributed to it the least. So I decided I would not put any more effort than I had to in this year’s evaluation--you can give me whatever mark you want.

 Chad Adams: My school has been on [academic] probation for a number of years, and probation basically strips the power from the Local School Council (LSC). My LSC rating was pretty good, I was really happy with it, and I liked the feedback they gave me. I’m not so sure the size of the network allows the chiefs to spend the amount of time they need in schools to really help a first-year principal, or principals in general. So I was putting more stock in my LSC, because they live and breathe the school a little more than the chief. At the same time, my chief’s rating of me, at this point, carries more weight as far as me having employment and me being able to feed my child than the LSC rating. So I have to put some time into it, because that allows me to have a livelihood.

Catalyst: Did your chief give you good feedback on your evaluation?

Adams: I got air time, where they came and did walk-throughs in classrooms with me and talked about what we were seeing, what my next moves were going to be, and after that they had a conversation with me, saying “These are the things you need to think about.” My chiefs are former principals, I don’t have the experience they have, so I listen to them. I was happy they were able to give me that. But I don’t think they have enough time to give me the time you really need as a first-year principal.

 Adam Parrott-Sheffer: That’s where you get the sense that it’s a design flaw. If you take it from the abstract, we definitely need a common language around what effective instruction and effective leadership looks like. All good organizations do. When I think about REACH, that’s a positive thing to have – a common vocabulary around what we say good instruction looks like. We might disagree around the edges, around certain pieces of it, but to have a common language? Good thing. To have feedback? Really good thing. But we’re talking about networks that have 50-some schools in them. You could probably get somebody in to observe your school every two months, if that’s all that they did. My evaluator is phenomenal, she’s brilliant, and then I have to wait six months before I get that sort of feedback again. And by then we’ve moved all sorts of ways with it.

 Deidrus Brown: I would have loved to have a person evaluating me that had some experience with elementary schools, and would have visited my school more than two times, and knew the culture of elementary schools. My chief did not have that experience, so I took the evaluations with a grain of salt.

In the News: A new day for CPS principals?

June 12, 2014 - 7:38am

Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary in Lakeview whose op-ed in the Sun-Times a month ago sparked a citywide conversation on how Chicago Public Schools are run, says he's one of some 35 CPS principals organizing, in his words, "to speak directly to the public on matters of concern regarding education policy."  (Chicago Reader)

CAUSE FOR INVESTIGATION: The apparent identity thefts of more than 40 former and current New Trier High School employees have prompted the school district to ask local and state law enforcement authorities for help with the investigation, New Trier officials confirmed this week. (Tribune)

WISH FULFILLED. NOW WHAT?: When the Los Angeles school district was rocked by the largest abuse scandal in its history two years ago, Supt. John Deasy wanted one thing from the Legislature: the ability to quickly fire offending teachers. He didn't get it from lawmakers. He got it this week from an L.A. County Superior Court judge who ruled that school districts should have more authority over who they hire and fire. Now, the question is: Will this victory pay off in the classroom? (Los Angeles Times)

LAUNCH DELAYED: The state has backed away from its planned July start date for a new mandatory quality rating system for early childhood education and officials now say they are aiming for a November launch. (Chalkbeat Colorado)

SHORT-LIVED UNION VICTORY: A Detroit charter school joined a small group of charters in Michigan where the staff have voted to unionize. But it could be a short-lived victory for the staff, because a new management company is taking over the school July 1 and just a small number of the existing staff will remain at the school. (Detroit Free Press)

Talking With Principals, Part 2: SUPES Academy

June 11, 2014 - 1:26pm

CPS officials seem to be forging ahead with the second year of a principal professional development contract with the SUPES Academy, despite lingering questions about the quality of the training  and the relationship between CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the founders of the for-profit business, for whom she previously worked as a consultant.

The Inspector General’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding the award of the $20 million contract is ongoing. At last year’s June board meeting, members approved the no-bid contract, the largest such contract in at least three years. Some Board of Education members have said they want to review the three-year contract annually. Yet they don’t need to wait: According to the board report, they can terminate the contract anytime with 30 days written notice.

Responding to complaints by principals that the training has been too elementary for leaders of struggling urban schools, and that the Saturday sessions forced them to give up weekend time, principals have twice been given the chance to opt-out of the sessions (the most recent opt-out form was due June 9). Yet some principals say the form’s language is intimidating. It reads: “I understand … I will still be held accountable for the content of the sessions and will be expected to demonstrate professional growth in the same fashion as my colleagues who attend CELA.”

CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman says few principals have officially opted out and the district has no plans to redesign the program. On its website, SUPES highlights the academy, called CELA for Chicago Executive Leadership Academy, as one of its success stories. Principals, however, say they are showing their discontent by simply not attending.

One principal told Catalyst that at the last training in early May, 75 name-tags were made for principals. In the morning, 45 principals attended. By lunch, fewer than 35 principals remained.

Principals also say they were frustrated to learn that the state has not yet approved the training, which means they cannot receive credit with the Illinois Administrator Academy for attending. Principals must obtain at least one IAA credit per year to stay certified.  

Meanwhile, as recently as November, Byrd-Bennett apparently participated in the 2014 National SUPES Academy. A Facebook picture from Nov. 16, 2013 has this caption: “Chicago Public Schools CEO - Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett fields questions from our 2013 Cohort about her tenure as superintendent in Chicago and former districts.” CPS spokesman Joel Hood says Byrd-Bennett “sometimes informally stops by SUPES Academy trainings for aspiring superintendents around the country and will talk to participants. She is not paid for these visits.”

A Catalyst investigation showed that several of the superintendents who were being paid to act as speakers and mentors for CELA ran school districts that also had contracts with SUPES. One of them S. Dallas Dance, the superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, was forced to give up the consulting gig after Catalyst revealed his participation. Dance failed to disclose the job to his school board.

During Catalyst’s recent principal roundtable, the subject of SUPES emerged as Deputy Editor Sarah Karp, Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez and the principals discussed why some school leaders speak out about policies they disapprove of and other principals stay silent. (Read Speaking out from the trenches, Part 1 of our series.)

The roundtable included Adam Parrott-Sheffer, principal of Peterson School (who is leaving CPS for the suburbs); Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine; Chad Adams, a new principal from Sullivan High; and Diedrus Brown, whose school, Gresham, has been slated for turnaround. Of the 10 SUPES sessions, Parrott-Sheffer did not attend any; LaRaviere and Brown each attended one; and Adams went to seven.

Catalyst:  How do you get principals who are maybe on probation, in a much more vulnerable position, to speak out?

Parrott-Sheffer: If you design the job in a certain way and create systems and culture around it, you end up starting to attract a certain type of person. So have we created a system where the type of people going through the eligibility process, who are being appointed to interim contracts--are they the type of people who are willing to stand up? I don’t have an answer to that. … When you talk about the people at SUPES [sessions] it’s people who are afraid of speaking up. We are talking about being able to say, “The professional development you’re providing is not very good. It’s on a Saturday for 10 hours, and that’s somewhat disrespectful because you did not ask or include me in the process.” You should feel comfortable saying that. We have people who are not even willing to bring it up and go under duress. I wonder can we change it unless we intentionally decide, who are the leaders we want in our schools, and how are we supporting local school councils or giving LSCs that power again to make those sorts of decisions?

Catalyst: How were the sessions?

LaRaviere: At the first one, I sat around for about an hour being encouraged to tell other people how great they were, and hearing them be encouraged to tell me how great I was. I left feeling like I wasted my time. It did not get any better as the weeks progressed. The second was about marketing your school. A very polished gentleman led the workshop – Dallas Dance from Baltimore. He made the statement that perception is reality. You have to alter people’s perception of your school. I told him and everyone gathered that I altered the perception of my school by doing what it takes to increase our student achievement. I told him it seems to me that CPS is more interested in changing people’s perception of CPS than with changing CPS itself. And the fact they paid you $20 million to come in and took money from my students and gave it to you to tell me how to market my school is evidence of that fact. That, I believed, was going to be my last training. [He was then switched to another cohort.] The new one was the best one I had been to. Principals were talking to each other, getting ideas from each other. I’ll never forget, at the end, the guy who ran it said “I know I went off script and let you guys talk.” I realized the reason it went so well was he decided to stop and not do the SUPES curriculum and actually just let us talk to each other. CPS didn’t have to pay SUPES $20 million to put principals in a room together and let us talk to each other.

Adams: That was the best part, being in the same room and talking to each other. .. I’m a New Leader [New Leaders is a principal training program in Chicago and 11 other cities and metro areas]. So I was able to retain my mentor. A lot of the curriculum was the stuff I’d learned through the leadership program. There might have been some misalignment.… The hardest part for me was I got my principal contract on June 30, and July 1 became a principal. Within the first or second day [I was told to be in SUPES]. I hadn’t even been in my building yet.

Parrott-Sheffer: The email was sent at 4:58 p.m. by [Chief of Talent Development] Alicia Winckler on the Thursday before the Fourth of July weekend. You were expected to be there at 7:30 a.m. the next Monday, which is why I never went.  I thought it was so disrespectful that two minutes before a long weekend, you expect me to be somewhere the following Monday. If you want to get on my summer calendar, you better start scheduling things in February. Because we are planning professional development with teachers, we are planning interviews if we have to do any hiring, and all these others sorts of things. To expect people to be able to clear everything is dismissive of the job and the role and the profession.

Catalyst: CPS told us just one person opted out.

LaRaviere: I don’t know if that one was me. I gave it to my clerk to email in.

Parrott-Sheffer: The language [on the opt-out form] was intimidating. Anyone who can read between the lines can see--if you don’t go and your school doesn’t perform as well as we expect, we are coming after you. ..  If you’re spending $20 million, we should have the best people here. We should have Grant Wiggins [a nationally-recognized assessment expert] here for a week teaching people how to do unit planning and lesson design. If you gave him a million dollars, I bet you could get him for half the year, and then some.

LaRaviere: Bring in [Stanford University education professor] Linda Darling-Hammond.  

Adams: Customize it for principals.

Parrott-Sheffer: Do it from the best, not some wackadoo person you found in Wisconsin. I mean, come on. CPS doesn’t do anything based on who is the best person doing the work.

Illinois Humanities Council will host panel discussion on school closings coverage

June 11, 2014 - 11:25am

On June 19, the Illinois Humanities Council will host The (Untold) Stories Behind the Story, a public forum on how the media have covered Chicago’s school closings.

Co-sponsored by Catalyst Chicago and Free Spirit Media, the forum will feature Sarah Schulte of ABC 7 News, Sarah Karp of Catalyst, Linda Lutton of WBEZ, Sidney Trotter of Free Spirit Media, and Charles Whitaker of the Medill School of Journalism. Catalyst publisher Linda Lenz will moderate.

Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed School Board voted to close 49 elementary schools and the high school that shared space with Mason elementary and middle schools, the largest school closing in Chicago’s history. The closings rocked the city and have been a focal point of Chicago news coverage.

Whitaker, a magazine journalist and professor at Medill, will present a content analysis of selected media, documenting the kinds of stories that have been written and broadcast.

Clips from “Chicagoland,” the CNN documentary that features Fenger High School, and “The School Project,” a multi-platform documentary on school issues now under development by four local companies, will serve as prompts for discussion, as will a variety of school closing stories aired on WBEZ.

The forum is part of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s three-year, $6 million “Why News Matters Initiative,” a grant-making program designed to increase media literacy and help people become better informed and more engaged in their communities.

“This is a great opportunity for people to hear what reporters are learning and thinking about the issue, and engage in informed discussion,” said Mark Hallett, senior program officer for the McCormick Foundation.

The free open forum will take place in the Wells High School auditorium, 936 N. Ashland, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 19. Registration is required