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The new-look SAT is here, ushering in more changes to how Colorado tests kids

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 04/07/2017 - 20:11

At STRIVE Excel, a northwest Denver charter high school, students Friday shuffled through the hallways in pajamas. Some wrapped themselves in cozy fleece blankets.

School leaders hoped this spirit day would send a message to juniors: Get plenty of rest this weekend. A big test is coming.

On Tuesday, 11th graders across Colorado for the first time will take the new-look SAT, which is replacing the ACT as the mandatory state test for that grade. The results, like those from the ACT in years past, will factor into the state’s accountability system for school and districts.

Following a nationwide trend in standardized testing, the updated SAT puts less emphasis on rote memorization — students won’t need to know the definition of “garrulous” or other infamous “SAT words” — and puts a greater emphasis on critical thinking. There are fewer questions and students will spend more time explaining their work.

The shift from the ACT to the SAT comes as the state continues to refine its testing system amid a public backlash against standardized tests. The results from those tests are used in part to rate the quality of each school.

“The SAT is really about college,” said Ben Lewis, the principal at STRIVE Excel principal. “It’s a much easier argument for kids than a complicated accountability system.”

Colorado’s adoption of the SAT is the byproduct of a 2015 legislative compromise forged during a months-long debate about testing.

The ACT had been a required test for 11th graders since 2011. In 2014, the state began requiring students in that grade to also take state PARCC tests in math and English.

The backlash — at least in some communities — was immediate. Thousands of students concentrated in high-performing, wealthy suburban districts and some rural areas skipped the PARCC tests in protest. That caused state lawmakers to reconsider how it tests in high school.

Legislation in 2015 eliminated PARCC for both 10th and 11th graders. After intense lobbying by The College Board, makers of the SAT, lawmakers also decided to open to competitive bidding the 10th and 11th grade testing that would remain.

A panel of educators commissioned by the state education department picked the PSAT for 10th graders and the SAT for 11th graders.

Those teachers and testing experts found the SAT better aligned to the state’s academic standards, which include the Common Core in math and English. The panel also felt the SAT offered more and cheaper resources to schools to help students prepare.

Some test prep materials are even free.

“We’ve never been able to budget a teacher to do test prep,” said Julie Knowles, assessment director for the Garfield School District in western Colorado, who was part of the panel that selected the SAT. “So the free resources have been a boon.”

Garfield’s two high schools have purchased additional SAT-aligned tests for lower grades to help track student progress. The two schools spent a combined $3,069, or $8.50 per student, for each test.

The decision to move to the PSAT and SAT in the spring of 2016 was announced just before Christmas in 2015. It sparked an outcry among school officials across the state.

School leaders, including Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Harry Bull, said the timing of the decision was unacceptable: Schools had already been preparing students to take the ACT that spring.

As a compromise, the department agreed to hold off on moving to the SAT until 2017.

Cherry Creek had other cause for concern: Like some other school districts, it was already using companion tests, known as Aspire, published by the ACT to track student learning through multiple grades — and, ideally, setting students up for success on the ACT.

The local use of the Aspire tests, which the suburban Denver school district decided to maintain despite the shift to the SAT, helps maintain a long-term dataset amid changes in testing at the state level, said Judy Skupa, an assistant superintendent in Cherry Creek.

“With the volatility of the state assessment system, it was difficult to monitor students,” she said. “That’s why we went to an internal system. Our data won’t be subject to political winds.”

Policymakers aren’t done tinkering with the state’s testing system.

Lawmakers want to continue expanding the SAT’s reach in high school. If a bipartisan compromise becomes law this year, ninth graders would stop taking the PARCC test this year and begin taking a version of the PSAT next spring.

And because the state’s contract with PARCC is up this year, the state education department is seeking bids to find a new test for the state’s elementary and middle schools.

“There’s a lot of flux coming in the next several years,” said Garfield’s Knowles, adding that her parents trust the SAT, and as a result testing is up at her schools. “We don’t have to sell it. They see it as a gateway for kids who want to go to college. Even if they want to go on a vocational path.”

Categories: Urban School News

Jeffco teachers would get pay raises under tentative agreement

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 04/07/2017 - 18:00

Officials from Jeffco Public Schools have agreed to $19.5 million in pay increases for teachers next year.

Under the plan, employees who have “demonstrated effective performance,” will receive a step increase. Step increases are salary raises given after completing a year of work, and dependent on years in the district. Teachers who are effective and have earned graduate-level credits will receive a “level increase.” Districts officials said they could not immediately answer whether teachers could get both.

And all employees covered under the contract will get a cost-of-living increase of 1 percent, or 2 percent if state funding permits.

The agreement, reached this week, still has to be ratified by the teacher’s union members and then the school board must vote to approve it.

The Jeffco school board directed staff months ago to find a way to increase competitive pay for teachers. A tax increase request from the district that voters turned down in November would have included $12 million for salary increases, but after that was defeated, staff proposed a series of budget cuts that would free up funding for the salary increases.

Board members ultimately voted on a scaled back proposal of cuts after the superintendent at the last minute said the district could, for now, use $9 million in retirement savings and $11 million in reductions from central staff to pay for salary increases.

“We are pleased at the collaborative efforts that went into this agreement,” Ron Mitchell, the school board president, said in a statement. “One of our board goals has been to make our salaries more competitive. Though we have limited resources, this agreement demonstrates our commitment to our teachers and should help us be more competitive in today’s market. We have had to tighten our belts, but we’ve been able to accomplish this without making serious cuts to programs that directly impact our students.”

Jeffco staff has told the school board that the district’s salaries are competitive in some cases, but not for mid-career teachers. Staff and principals detailed concerns that experienced teachers were leaving the district.

According to state turnover data, Jeffco’s teacher turnover rate this year is just over 14 percent. That was an increase over last year but but still well below turnover rates in districts such as Denver, Westminster, Aurora and Douglas County.

Also as part of the $19.5 million agreement, experienced teachers new to Jeffco will be compensated for up to six years of experience, up from a maximum of five years now.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Partisan showdown over school funding in House budget debate

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 04/07/2017 - 09:40

READ ACT A years-long controversy over what language Colorado schools should use to test the reading skills of young English language learners appears to be over. Chalkbeat Colorado

'SENSITIVE LOCATIONS' Leaders from Denver's city government, school district and court system are pressing Immigration and Customs Enforcement to back off enforcement actions at or near schools and courthouses. Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post, Denverite, Colorado Independent9News, CBS4, Channel 7

CONCURRENT ENROLLMENT More Colorado students are taking college courses while they’re in high school, continuing an upward trend, state data show. Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post

THAT'S SO LEGISLATURE After a marathon debate, the Colorado House delayed a vote on $26.8 billion state budget that would under-fund schools. Denver Post

SEEKING SOLUTIONS As Chalkbeat has previously reported, a bipartisan bill aims to tackle the state's teacher shortage. Aurora Sentinel

 

Categories: Urban School News

Did immigration agents get too close to a Denver school? City, district officials raise questions

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 04/06/2017 - 19:29

Leaders from Denver's city government, school district and court system have a message for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: back off our schools and courthouses.

In a letter Thursday to the acting chief of the local ICE field office, officials including Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg asked that the agency follow its own policy in respecting such "sensitive locations" while carrying out their duties.

The letter in part was triggered by a March 14 incident that rattled one Denver school community.

That morning, federal immigration agents dressed in black arrived at a residence directly adjacent to Colorado High School Charter in west Denver, a neighborhood that is home to many immigrant families, according to the letter. The enforcement action, which was planned, came during morning drop-off in plain view of students and families, it said.

"We believe this enforcement action, particularly because it was scheduled  to occur during the morning drop-off period, may have violated both the letter and the spirit of your sensitive location policy," the letter reads. "The hour and location of this action potentially put children, staff and parents in danger should your agents have encountered resistance, and clearly caused alarm to the principal and the community served by the school."

The 2011 "sensitive location" policy discourages ICE agents from arresting, interviewing, searching or surveilling targets of investigations while they are in schools, places of worship, hospitals or at public demonstrations like marches and rallies. Exceptions are allowed if "exigent circumstances exist," or other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location.

A memo laying out the policy also says ICE officers or agents should consult with supervisors if a planned enforcement operation "could reasonably be viewed as being at or near a sensitive location."

Another aspect of the March 14 incident bothered authors of the letter to ICE. According to the letter, video taken during the incident shows ICE  agents wearing black uniforms with "POLICE" in large white letters and "ICE" in much smaller type. This, the letter said, can lead people to mistakenly think that local police are involved in immigration enforcement.

A Denver-based ICE spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Denver Public Schools has taken several steps to reassure immigrant families in the wake of President Trump's election and his following through on campaign promises to adopt hard-line immigration policies.

The school board in February approved a resolution saying DPS will do everything “in its lawful power” in response to immigration enforcement to protect students’ confidential information and not disrupt learning. That includes continuing its policy of not collecting any information on students’ immigration status and involving DPS’s general counsel in any enforcement requests.

Alex Renteria, a DPS spokeswoman, said the principal of Colorado High School Charter contacted the City Council, not the school district. She said the district's legal department could not recall other examples of ICE detentions near schools.

The principal of Colorado High School Charter, Clark Callaham, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The school is an alternative high school serving at-risk students. As of last fall, it had 350 students, 62 percent of whom are Hispanic, DPS data show. Many are from outside the district's boundaries.

Boasberg said in a statement Thursday that the district is required by law “to ensure that our schools are safe spaces where a student’s race, ethnicity, religion and immigration status do not create any barriers to that child’s education."

"We urge ICE to continue to respect our schools as sensitive locations so that our students know they are safe," Boasberg said. "When they are confident in their safety, they will be more successful as students and their success as students is so vital to our shared success as a community.”

Categories: Urban School News

Colorado lawmakers reach compromise on reading test controversy

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 04/06/2017 - 17:49

A years-long controversy over what language Colorado schools should use to test the reading skills of young English language learners appears to be over.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 Thursday to advance an amended bill that would require schools to test the state’s youngest students in English if they’re partly proficient in the language. If they’re not, a district may choose to test their reading skills in either Spanish or English.

The legislation is a compromise, reflecting an agreement between the State Board of Education and school districts with large numbers of Spanish-speaking students, such as Denver Public Schools.

State Sens. Owen Hill and Tim Neville, both Republicans, opposed the bill.

For the changes to take effect, the state Senate must still sign off on the deal. And the state House of Representatives must agree to the change to a bill that chamber already has approved.

The original bill sponsored in the Senate by state Sens. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, and Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, would have allowed districts to choose which language to test students in regardless of their English skills.

A majority on the state board opposed the bill in that form and pushed for the amendment.

The debate over what language to use to catch reading deficiencies in elementary school students dates back to the creation of the READ Act.

The 2012 law requires schools to test students in kindergarten through third grade to gauge their reading skills. The goal is to make sure students are reading at grade level by third grade. Students that demonstrate a reading deficiency are put on a plan to provide them more support.

One year after the law went into effect, school districts raised concern that they were double-testing English language learners in Spanish and English. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency.

After the opinion was released, the state board changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But in 2016, a reconfigured state board added a new provision. If schools were going to test students in Spanish, they must also do it in English.

The board’s decision at the time was met with opposition led by by Denver school officials.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Categories: Urban School News

More high school students earning college credit through concurrent enrollment

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 04/06/2017 - 12:00

More Colorado students are taking college courses while they’re in high school, continuing an upward trend, according to a state report released Thursday.

There were 38,519 students in so-called concurrent enrollment programs in the 2015-16 school year, or more than 30 percent of all 11th-graders and 12th-graders in the state’s public high schools.

The programs allow high school students to take college courses while still enrolled in high school without having to pay college tuition. The programs have been growing in popularity across the country, as have early college high schools that promote enrolling all students in them.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education report states that students who participate are more likely to enroll and stay in college and less likely to need remedial courses in college.

The annual report tracks the number of credits students earn compared to the number that they attempted to earn. In the 2015-16 school year, students passed 93 percent of credit hours attempted. An increasing number of students also completed a postsecondary credential through the programs.

School district breakdowns show the Moffat Consolidated School District in northwest Colorado as enrolling 80 percent of its students in concurrent enrollment programs — the highest rate in the state. Large school districts have a larger number of students participating, but they represent only a fraction of their students.
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Other highlights from the report show:

  • Statewide, 94 percent of school districts and 82 percent of high schools offer concurrent enrollment programs
  • Among two-year institutions, Arapahoe Community College served the most students, with 4,403 enrolled. Among four-year schools, the University of Colorado Denver served the most students, with 5,297 enrolled.
  • Compared to the prior year, participation in concurrent enrollment programs increased among Asian students by 18 percent; Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students by 21 percent; Hispanic students by 7 percent, white, non-Hispanic students by 8 percent; and students identifying as more than one race by 12 percent.

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Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Bill asking for study recognizes complex issues for teacher shortage

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 04/06/2017 - 09:59

ACCOUNTABILITY Aurora Public Schools doesn't have a policy that deals with struggling charter schools and now that one has been identified for low performance, the district wants to draft changes. Chalkbeat Colorado

RURAL TEACHING The issues rural districts are having to find and keep teachers are complicated, and part of the reason some legislators want to direct officials to study the problem. KUNC

BACK ON TRACK Plans for a military style charter school in Colorado Springs are now being moved through the Charter School Institute. Gazette

CLASS OF 2021 The Montezuma-Cortez High School has new graduation requirements ready for this fall's incoming freshmen. The Journal

ON LEAVE Fort Collins charter school puts principal on leave. Coloradoan

Categories: Urban School News

Aurora district considering consequences for low-performing charter schools

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 20:04

In Aurora Public Schools, district-run schools must perform well enough academically or face repercussions, including possible closure, if they don’t shape up fast enough.

The same cannot be said for the district’s charter schools. Charter school contracts don’t have standard language spelling out performance standards, and the school district doesn’t have a policy for dealing with academically struggling charter schools.

All that could change soon. District officials are in the early stages of drafting a new policy that would set clear expectations and consequences for its charter schools.

The district is acting now because one Aurora charter, AXL Academy, earned a priority improvement rating from the state this year, the second lowest rating on the state’s system.

District officials are calling for a thorough review of AXL Academy and will be asking school leaders to create an improvement plan within 30 days. Having a new policy applying to all charter schools could set clear expectations and outline a process to close charters that fail to meet those expectations.

“The purpose is so we have a consistent way of holding schools accountable — a consistent and transparent process,” said Lamont Browne, the district’s executive director of autonomous schools.

Under what the district calls the CORE Framework, officials identify struggling schools using the state’s quality ratings. Schools earning the lowest two ratings get on the district’s radar. The framework outlines a timeline that requires an improvement plan and directs additional help for the school the first time it earns a low rating.

By the third year that a school is still earning low ratings, the district must recommend turnaround or a school improvement strategy.

The school then has one to two years to show improvement. The district used this framework to recommend a charter school take-over for one school last year.

So far, only district-run schools have faced consequences under the framework because a charter school hasn’t fit the definition for low-performing. Now that it’s happened, the district is trying to figure out what pieces can apply to charter schools, or whether other steps might be needed.

For charter schools, Browne says it’s too early to know exactly what a new policy might say. Officials are starting by researching best practices across the country, he said.

For now, the more thorough review that will be required for AXL Academy won’t necessarily lead to any consequences.

Browne told the school board in an update Tuesday night that in the future, if reviews show a concerning trend, officials could make a case for a charter school revocation or nonrenewal.

With AXL Academy, the Aurora district already has some flexibility to connect school performance to consequences. Because the school experienced financial problems in 2014, and the district gave the charter school a loan, language was added to that charter contract stating the school has to “maintain a school performance rating of 'Performance' as measured by state and school assessments,” and that failure to do so could be considered a breach of contract.

If the school board found a breach of contract, the district could shut down the school.

Similar contract language could be required in all future charter school contracts.

Dan Cohen, executive director for AXL Academy, said that he is confident the charter school will show improvement soon, but that he is worried the district is mounting evidence to recommend closure.

“I have no qualms that we will pull out of priority improvement,” Cohen said “We feel quite good about what we’ve been doing, but I don’t know what that will mean to the district.”

Cohen said that he is unsure why the district needs a separate assessment and timeline process for charter schools, and that it might make sense for the timeline and process to be similar to traditional district-run schools.

As far as the improvement process that Browne told the board Tuesday that AXL Academy will be required to submit, Cohen said it’s news to him. He said school leaders are already scrambling with a 10-day deadline to edit the school’s state improvement plan.

“Their behavior right now looks aggressive,” Cohen said of the school district.

District leaders expect to present a proposed policy to the board by June.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: DU professor creates app to help young students learn math

EdNewsColorado - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 07:40

RURAL ROADBLOCK Legislation that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for Colorado’s youngest students has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts. Chalkbeat

HUMAN RESOURCES Former Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Dan McMinimee has been named head of a growing charter school network catering to immigrant and at-risk students. Chalkbeat

MATH MATTERS A DU professor has created a downloadable app for children ages 2 to 8 to accelerate learning in mathematics. 9News

SPRING STORM The latest spring storm hit the Colorado Springs area with several inches of snow overnight, leaving several school districts closed or on delay, felled trees, power outages and slick roads. Gazette

FREE SPEECH Gov. John Hickenlooper Tuesday signed into law the abolition of free-speech zones on public college campuses. The areas have been used to confine public demonstrations to designated areas. Denver Post

 

Categories: Urban School News

It seemed like a sure thing. Now a Colorado bill limiting early childhood suspensions and expulsions is on life support.

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 19:45

Legislation that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for Colorado’s youngest students has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts.

While House Bill 1210 is still alive, it’s been assigned to a Republican-controlled Senate committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. The assignment to the Senate State Affairs Committee is a major setback for supporters who believe the legislation would put Colorado on the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Although advocates garnered substantial bipartisan support among lawmakers and worked for months gathering feedback from school districts and other groups, a late-breaking push by a coalition of rural school districts sidelined the effort.

The group had an opportunity to weigh in earlier, but did not. Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she knew about the bill and was included in supporters’ outreach efforts, but didn’t initially voice opposition on behalf of her members.

“I wouldn’t say we ever supported the bill, but we weren’t taking an active approach,” she said. “This was just one I didn’t vet well enough.”

Murphy said she and some lawmakers began hearing major concerns from rural superintendents as the bill wound through the legislative process, with many district leaders saying the new rules would tie educators’ hands.

“Sometimes we need to suspend or expel young students,” Murphy said. “It’s a tool that’s in our limited toolbox.”

On March 21, the same day the Democratic-controlled House approved the bill, the alliance’s board of directors voted unanimously to oppose it. Two days later, the bill was assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

“I learned a few lessons here,” Murphy said. “I somewhat regret the late nature of it all.”

Although rural school districts educate only about 20 percent of Colorado students, they hold sway at the state Capitol, especially among Republicans. This year, two Senate Republicans who represent rural areas were given leadership positions.

State Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said she was disappointed about the bill’s likely fate.

"I thought we had support with all the diverse stakeholders,” she said. "We sat down with (the Rural Alliance). We went through a draft of the bill and asked them what their concerns were and addressed them. I was frankly very surprised where the pushback was coming from.”

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hopes the bill could make it through the committee. He’s lobbying committee members and Senate leadership, he said.

“I think it’s good policy, there’s data there, and this is a good conversation for the Senate to have,” he said.

While some of his co-sponsors are open to amending the bill to meet the demands of the rural superintendents, Priola said he was hesitant to provide rural schools districts exceptions.

“It’s hard to cut out a section of the state on something that should be a no-brainer,” he said.

Murphy, the alliance’s executive director, said she doesn’t think the bill could be amended in a way that the alliance would support. Bill backers floated one possible change last week — involving the expulsion standard — but her board rejected it, she said.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, in a statement to Chalkbeat, said House Bill 1210 and a sister measure that would provide culturally appropriate discipline training for teachers would get a fair hearing.

"These bills include provisions that could have justified assignment to a number of committees, but we concluded that State Affairs, on balance, was the right place to send them,” he said. “People often jump to conclusions about what such committee assignments mean, but I trust the bills will get a fair hearing there and I believe stakeholder discussions continue to take place that could potentially improve their chance of success."

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, one of many groups that pushed for the bill, said one of the biggest concerns for school districts during the bill-drafting process was to ensure that suspensions would still be allowed if young students posed a safety risk.

While the bill addresses that concern, he said, “We have more work to do apparently than we thought.”

For supporters, the bill’s passage would be a milestone in the years-long discussion in Colorado and the nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

But some superintendents said the bill wasn’t a good fit for rural districts.

Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo district in northeastern Colorado, said he’s had young students flipping desks over or trying to stab other children in the eye with scissors. In such cases, especially when other parents are threatening to pull their children out of the school for safety reasons, suspension or expulsion can be necessary, he said.

The bill, however, would give districts the ability to suspend children behaving in the way Sanders described.

Sanders also said Bill 1210’s time limits on suspensions — from three to five days — are more rigid than what’s in the nation’s special education law.

A better solution would be more funding for schools, including for more school social workers, he said.

Chris Selle, superintendent of the Meeker district in northwestern Colorado and a member of the Rural Alliance’s board, said the overuse of suspensions and expulsions is not an issue in his district.

“Is it a situation where the Front Range has a cold and we have to take the medicine?” he said.

Selle said educators in Meeker think carefully before handing out suspensions, and that for kindergarten to second grade students, they rarely exceed one day.

In addition, he said, when suspensions are given, they often help lead to a productive partnership with parents.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Lifting charter cap, Dyett plans, youth programs cut

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 02/05/2015 - 10:35

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the only concrete education proposal Gov. Bruce Rauner announced in his first State of the State address was to lift the cap on charter schools. Rauner singled out a Roseland parent who sends her children to charters because they “offer longer school days, enhanced learning opportunities and variety for her kids.” The current statewide cap stands at 120 schools, including 75 in Chicago, some of which are replicating charters. The cap has been raised multiple times since 2003.

Without going into detail, Rauner repeated his commitment to increase K-12 funding with an eye toward improving “our most disadvantaged school districts” and promised to beef up funding for technical and vocational training programs in high schools and community colleges.

Rauner also gave a shoutout to anti-testing advocates. He said that students and teachers are “overwhelmed by too many tests” and called on policymakers to “ensure that the amount of time we test our students doesn’t get in the way of high-quality instruction.” He stopped short of mentioning the controversial PARCC exam, though, a topic on which he’s been silent since becoming a candidate.

2. Speaking of the PARCC… As promised, newly elected State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, introduced a bill last week to allow parents to opt their children out of taking state assessments -- such as the PARCC -- while protecting students, their teachers, schools and districts from any negative consequences in terms of grades or evaluations. So far, the bill has only attracted one co-sponsor: a fellow Democrat, Jaime Andrade, Jr., from Chicago.

Guzzardi told Catalyst he was meeting with Illinois State Board of Education officials this week to discuss the language in the bill and “to make sure they’re not concerned about risking federal dollars [...]. We shouldn’t be concerned about jeopardizing school funding because seven states already done it and have seen no loss of federal funds as results,” he added, referring to California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, Oregon, Nebraska and Utah.

But ISBE opposes the bill for just that reason. States are required to assess 95 percent of all students, and “we are concerned that if we allow an opt out we may fall below the federal requirement which could lead to some real consequences in terms of federal money and our ESEA/NCLB waiver,” says ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus. “This is not a risk we are willing to take.”

Similar legislation is being drafted elsewhere. Last week New Jersey assemblyman introduced a bill to require schools to develop opt-out procedures beginning next school year and provide students with an alternative learning opportunity if they refuse the test, while Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order allowing parents to opt-out of the PARCC, while urging that state’s education department to protect districts from consequences.

3. Taking over Dyett… The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett once again sounded the alarm outside of Ald. Will Burns (4th Ward) office to bring attention to the fact that the door has been opened for a private contractor to move into the school. In a statement, Coalition members were joined on a webinar about the pending request for proposals for Dyett by representatives of Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy High School. Little Black Pearl currently runs a contract school for dropouts and those at risk of dropping out. The district has said that whatever school goes into Dyett must be an open enrollment high school.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer for KOCO, and other coalition members are insistent that Dyett High School, which is being phased out, be reopened as a district-run high school. “We do not want to compete for this school,” said Brown. “We want a CPS school just like they have Lakeview or Lincoln Park.”

In a statement, Burns accused the action of being politically timed to undermine his reelection. Burns said he feels as though the RFP process being pursued by CPS insures that all proposals are “fairly and impartially evaluated.”

Though acquiescing to the community by committing to reopen Dyett, CPS officials refused to go along with the coalition’s plan to run it as a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” Representatives from five groups attended the required webinar, according to CPS. Among the participants was someone from Brinshore Development, which is building mixed income housing on the land once occupied by Robert Taylor Homes, and someone from the Digital Youth Network. These representatives could not be reached to find out if they are interested in starting a school or listened in for some other reason. Last week, letters of intent were due, but CPS Spokesman Bill McCaffrey said those are not public.

4. Austerity in IllinoisChicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown reports that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration sent word to organizations to halt job training, after school and other “youth development” programs. According to the e-mail reportedly received by organizations, Rauner blamed former Gov. Pat Quinn for signing an unbalanced budget.

But a group of African American and Latino state lawmakers called Rauner out on these cuts. “You tell us you want Illinois to become the most competitive and compassionate state in the nation,” said Jacqueline Y. Collins (D-Chicago) in a press release. She invited Rauner to her Southwest Side neighborhood to discuss the decision. “We are asking you – where is the compassion? And without mentoring, job training and a chance to work, how can the next generation of low-income minority youth hope to compete?”

Cutting the $8 million program may just be a sign of what is to come. Brown says that voters can’t be too upset because they voted for Rauner who promised to cut his way to a balanced budget.

Just last year a University of Chicago study found that a summer jobs program lowered violent crime arrests by 43 percent over a 16 month period. Also, youth in poor neighborhoods are the least likely to have jobs, according to a study released last week.

5. Learning to like math … A new individualized math tutoring service has brought unexpected benefits to students at low-income CPS high schools, according to a report released by Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. Doubling down on a pilot study conducted in 2013, researchers followed about 600 ninth and 10th graders enrolled in Chicago Match, a two-on-one math tutoring program folded into the curricula of many low-income schools across the city. Not only did the program significantly boost math scores, the report found, but it had a ripple effect on students’ confidence and academic well-being. A survey at the end of the study found that participants in Match were much more likely to say they enjoy math and think they’re good at it, and that they don’t think their friends study enough. Students in Match also registered a spike in non-math test scores.

“We think this pushes back on the prevailing belief that it’s too late to intervene with adolescents who have fallen behind, that we should focus more on early childhood education instead,” said Jonathan Guryan, a professor with Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy who contributed to the study. “What we’re seeing is that when you use individualized programs like [Chicago Match], it can be an effective--and cost-effective--investment in adolescents.”

It’s no secret that individualized attention leads to better outcomes for kids, but Guryan says the key distinction here is Match’s affordability to the district. At $3,800 per student, the report found that the program’s per-dollar effectiveness for raising math scores is more than quadruple that of Head Start. Chicago Match pays tutors part-time to teach specific subjects, and it can be offered as a substitution for an elective during the school day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a big fan of the program, announced last year that he’d work to expand it.

By the way, the Sun Times followed on Catalyst's story about CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett's claim that only seven students were accounted for after the school closings, when it was really several hundred.

Categories: Urban School News

Growing your own teachers worth the wait

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 02/04/2015 - 18:08

Grow Your Own Teachers helps low-income people of color who have the desire to become teachers earn a bachelor’s degree in Education—a goal that would otherwise be almost impossible for them to achieve. Yet a recent news article falls short by viewing the program as a conveyor belt, and failing to capture what I and many other graduates felt by becoming the first person in our family to graduate from a university and get a job as a CPS teacher.

It also fails to capture how important it is for children in my classroom to have a teacher who looks like them and who shares their life experience. (“Illinois falls short in $20 million effort to develop 1,000 teachers,” Jan. 16, Chicago Tribune.)

I am a Hispanic female, born to Mexican immigrant, working parents.  I was born and raised in Chicago, one of five siblings.  I attended four different CPS elementary schools and, given the bad timing of my parents’ divorce, graduated with a very low GPA from a low-performing, low-income high school on the Northwest Side.  I can count on one hand how many of my fellow high school graduates went on to complete a bachelor’s degree.  With a lot of struggle, I earned an associate’s degree from a community college, and at the age of 19, seven months before receiving that degree, I gave birth to my first child. 

While growing up, my parents constantly reminded me of the hardships and poverty they endured in their small village in Guerrero, Mexico.  My mom is the oldest of eight siblings and completed school through 6th grade. My father had to help my grandfather work the land and attended school only up to 3rd grade.  My parents would always tell me and my siblings how important it was for us to take advantage of the opportunities of this great country.  Unfortunately, I was missing two of the most important factors that impact college attendance:  financial support and, most importantly, informed guidance.  I knew I was going to graduate from a university one day but I had no idea how to make that a reality.

Crucial support to overcome hurdles

That’s where Grow Your Own Teachers comes into play.  By the age of 31, I had gone back to school at Northeastern Illinois University.  I was a part-time student and a stay-at-home mother of two, studying for a degree in elementary education. But it was a constant struggle, especially when it came to math. Pre-algebra, for instance, was one of three math courses that I had to pass before I was eligible to take college math--but it would not earn me any credits toward graduation. I also struggled to pay for books since my loan did not cover them and my husband’s income was barely enough to cover the family expenses. 

That same year, I was a parent volunteer at my son’s CPS preschool. An assistant preschool teacher there told me about a program called Grow Your Own Teachers that could help me. The program was for parent volunteers and school paraprofessionals who wanted to get a degree in elementary education at Northeastern Illinois, where I was already enrolled.  I applied and got in.

I became a full-time student, attending year-round.  During the summer, I took four classes—the maximum number of classes allowed.  That was difficult because my husband worked and my children were out of school.  On some occasions, my children would wait for me outside of my classroom in the study area.  The professor knew I was a mom and did not object to my frequent breaks to check on my children. Other times, Grow Your Own Teachers provided child care and I was able to focus in the classroom.

Another hurdle was passing the Basic Skills Test.  Now known as TAP or the Test of Academic Proficiency, it is one of three state tests that teachers have to pass before they can earn a teaching license.  Grow Your Own Teachers provided me with a math tutor and test workshops.  I finally passed the five-hour test on the second try. 

Those were just a few of the many hurdles that Grow Your Own Teachers helped me to overcome.

After three and a half years, I graduated with honors from Northeastern Illinois University. One of the best moments in my life was having my mom watch me walk across the stage to receive my degree. 

Understanding heritage, inspiring students

Today, I am proud to say that I am a kindergarten teacher at a low-income CPS school.  Every day I go to my classroom ready to inspire my students.  Most of them are amazed that my background is similar to theirs. For example, no one in our families has a college degree, our parents do not speak English and they were born in another country. The children get a kick out of the fact that I also secretly ate hot Cheetos for breakfast when I was young because my parents left early for work and they didn’t have time to make breakfast.   

During the 12 years that I attended CPS, I encountered very few minority teachers and no teachers with a Mexican background like me.  I always wished for one. I felt that a teacher who shared my background would understand my heritage and would inspire me.  Now, I can be that teacher who has a positive influence on the children I teach. Our common background provides me with tools and references that facilitate making connections. The other day, I read Gary Soto’s “Too Many Tamales” to my students and they were excited to learn that my family also makes tamales for Christmas.

The hurdles that I had to overcome to earn my degree were few compared to my fellow Grow Your Own members.  Some of them are working full-time or part-time and have been in the program and attending classes part-time for more than five years.  One woman told me how she had to leave school temporarily to take care of a sick, elderly parent.  Some have to cut back on their own studies so they can earn extra money to pay tuition for children who are starting college.  I admire their resilience. Most participants stick with the program, working and studying hard and knowing that they will achieve their goal one day.  To them I say, “Keep trying, because earning a college degree is worth it.”

So many people around me now see me as a role model—my children, my family, my fellow Grow Your Own members, my students, my students’ parents, my para-professional colleagues.  I am only one of the many graduates who can inspire others like me.

It reminds me of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”

Idalia Vasquez is a 2013 graduate of the Grow Your Own program and a CPS teacher.

Categories: Urban School News

For the Record: Tracking 434 missing students after closings

Catalyst Chicago - Tue, 02/03/2015 - 16:02

Last summer, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett penned an open letter in which she boasted that the district had determined where all but seven children affected by 2013’s mass closings had landed in school. More than 11,000 had been displaced, so it seemed a major accomplishment. 

The information had been verified through the Illinois State Board of Education, according to the letter, which also repeated “Seven” to underscore the point.

Byrd-Bennett’s letter also criticized outsiders who had speculated that children would fall through the cracks after the closings, with no one knowing where they landed in school—something that had happened in the past. “The horror stories about hundreds of children “lost” to the streets during this transition were simply misguided efforts to distract us from our mission to give every child in every neighborhood the great education they deserve,” she wrote in the letter that was published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

But Byrd-Bennett’s letter was not accurate. After five-and-a-half months of wrangling, Catalyst Chicago finally received information from CPS that shows officials were not certain about the whereabouts of at least 434 students at the time the letter was published. (Catalyst received the documents only after a lawyer threatened legal action if the district did not comply with a Freedom of Information Act request.)

These 434 students were not located in a search done by Illinois State Board of Education officials.

Officials now admit that 154 children of those children were either coded as “unable to locate” or “did not arrive,” or had absolutely no code attached to their record. After being out of school for a year or enrolled elsewhere, 39 of the 154 students showed up this school year, according to CPS.

Another 279 children were coded as transfers--to home school, a private school or an out-of-state school--though CPS could not verify whether these students were in fact enrolled in a new school. One student died.

While it might be unrealistic to expect CPS to track 11,000-plus students, critics note that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leaders devoted an unprecedented amount of resources to the task. They hired a former Marine colonel to oversee the process with a staff of 40 and hired retired principals to go to each closing school in part to make sure that students did not vanish in the transition.

After first standing by the claims in the letter, CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey acknowledged that the statement asserting that only seven students were unaccounted for was a mistake.  McCaffrey says that an internal data analysis this summer found only seven students with blank records and did not take into account other codes that indicated officials did not know where the students were.

“Chicago Public Schools takes the accuracy of its statements and the integrity of its data very seriously,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Paperwork problems and missteps?

Two former CPS data strategists told Catalyst that the district would not have any way to systemically track these students. One of them notes that the loss of these students probably is the result of a combination of poor data entry, lax bookkeeping and little accountability when a student transfers.

“All this is to say, I'm afraid we can only speculate about these missing students and likely will never know where they ended up,” said one of the employees.

King Elementary in East Garfield Park and Goodlow Elementary in West Englewood had the largest percentage of missing students. Parents at these schools fought vehemently against the closings and were very negative about the designated welcoming schools.

“The parents who were active in the fight placed their children in decent schools,” says community activist Carol Johnson. “A lot of the other children got lost in the shuffle.”

Melanie Goldman, whose granddaughter went to Goodlow, agrees that many parents found other options for their children. But some parents didn’t get their children into the schools they applied to, and didn’t feel safe sending their children to the designated welcoming school, which was Earle.

Initially, CPS called some parents to find out where the children were, especially because so few showed up at Earle, Goldman says.

“They [parents] know where they are, but they are not saying. They are still angry,” Goldman says. “I guess they are being low-key.” 

Looking for missing children

West Side activist Dwayne Truss says a member of the district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement came to Austin’s Community Action Council meetings and explained to the group that he had been charged with finding students from closed schools whose parents hadn’t requested transcripts for a new school.  

“This is how some kids fall through the cracks,” Truss says. “Students being lost are one of the unintended consequences.”

Lettrice Jamison’s children might be among the missing. After Emmet in Austin closed, she moved to Gary, Indiana for a host of reasons, including the fact that she was upset at the closing. Jamison says she didn’t tell anyone in CPS that she and her children were leaving the district.

With no records in hand, Jamison says she just walked into the Gary, Indiana school down the block from her house and told them she wanted to enroll her children. She gave them information about where her children went to school previously, but has no idea if they reached out to CPS for her children’s transcripts.

“Gary schools are messed up like Chicago schools,” she says. Jamison says she thinks her children’s new school is worse than Emmet.

Members of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force say the situation is proof that the district was not prepared to close so many schools at once. The state legislative task force includes a number of activists who have wrangled with CPS through the years. At the group’s meeting in September, CPS officials failed to show up and the district has since refused to provide any other documentation, says Jacqueline Leavy, former executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group who helped the task force in its work.

CPS was supposed to come up with individual transition plans for each school, but the first drafts were boiler-plate and made without community input, says task force member Valencia Rias-Winstead. Once the schools closed, more detailed plans were developed. Only by then, few parents at the schools knew about them.

No mass exodus

McCaffrey points out that, according to a recently released Consortium on Chicago School Research report, the number of students who left CPS after the 2013 closings is similar to the number who left those same schools in previous years. In other words, the closings did not precipitate a mass exodus.

The Consortium report also notes that twice as many students in closed schools were too old for their grade, making them far more likely to drop out. CPS recently acknowledged that some 900 6th, 7th and 8th graders are not in school, and the district is seeking operators to launch alternative schools for middle-grades students.

The issue of missing children came to the forefront when CPS released a detailed report on enrollment last year, prompting Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to publicly scold the board in March. At the time, Lewis said the numbers showed some 800 children were unaccounted for.

A CPS spokesman promised the district would release the results of its work with the Illinois State Board of Education to locate the students. Catalyst began regularly requesting the information but did not receive it. In July, the Sun-Times published the letter from Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Catalyst submitted a FOIA request on Aug. 8, with no results. On the heels of a Better Government Association FOIA lawsuit against the district, Catalyst reached out to BGA attorney Matt Topic of Loevy & Loevy.

Topic threatened legal action if Catalyst did not receive a response by Jan. 16. At 5:47 p.m. on Jan. 16, a heavily redacted report arrived via e-mail.

Categories: Urban School News

Latino parents vie for input on PARCC exam

Catalyst Chicago - Tue, 02/03/2015 - 12:55


Moments after the morning bell rings at Irma Ruiz Elementary in Pilsen, Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro asks the parents scattered across the cafeteria to draw closer and form a circle. Now that the students have lined up and made their way to class, the 20-or-so moms and dads are ready to be drilled on a topic they’ve been dreading for months.

“How many people here have heard of something called ‘Common Core?’ ” Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro asks in Spanish. A handful of parents raise their hands.

“OK. And how many have heard of a big change that’s going to make your kids’ classes a lot harder?” Every hand in the room shoots toward the low ceiling.

Across the country and in Chicago, parents have rallied against the new PARCC exam, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core Standards, citing ambiguous questions and saying it represents an unreasonable jump in academic expectations.

But for those whose kids are not native English speakers, the cloud of doubt surrounding the new test is doubly worrying. And national advocates say until the test has been proven effective, parents are right to be concerned.

“Because there’s been this politically-mandated rush to get Common Core on the books, it really hasn’t been sampled across diverse communities. They’re just being asked to take it at face value,” says Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a group that is critical of annual standardized testing. “A lot of parents, especially in non-English communities, are wondering whether this is ready for prime-time.”

Concerns reached all the way to city leaders, too. Recently, CPS officials announced they’ll only require 10 percent of schools in the district to give the PARCC, in what they are calling an “expanded pilot.” State education officials, however, are threatening to withhold federal funds under that scenario, and state law calls for all Illinois students to take the PARCC or some Common Core-aligned standardized test. English-learners are exempt from the English portion of standardized tests, but only in their first year after arriving in the U.S.

Vonderlack-Navarro says she is not convinced the state's PARCC consortium did all it could to include English-learners students in preparations for the PARCC. For example, the PARCC--like the ISAT before it--will offer a Spanish version of its math exam, but that version was never piloted in Illinois, an oversight she calls “unconscionable.”

“Hungry for information”

Vonderlack-Navarro’s presentation in Pilsen is her latest stop on a wide-scale information campaign launched by the Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago organization whose mission is to involve the city’s Hispanic population more directly in local government. Vonderlack-Navarro, a research associate for the Latino Policy Forum, has been bringing her presentation to groups of Latino parents all over the city who she says are “hungry for information” on their kids’ changing curricula. The presentations began in September and have already reached more than a thousand Latino parents.

The hour-and-a-half PowerPoint session provides reams of numbers and information on the history of Common Core. In the middle, Vonderlack-Navarro passes out two sheets of paper. On one are the familiar multiple-choice questions given on the state’s now-retired ISAT exam. On the other is a quintessential PARCC problem--a fractions quiz in three parts that asks students to drag numerical icons into boxes to complete an operation.

“I think the new test makes more sense--it makes you think more, not just [pick by] eenie- meenie-minie-moe,” said Luz Melesio, a mother of three CPS students, as she looked down at the two sheets after the presentation. Melesio said Vonderlack-Navarro’s walk-through made her feel, for the first time, as though she could be involved in the shift to the new test, which still makes her uneasy.

“I’m just not sure if teachers will have good strategies for helping kids with it, especially with taking the test on a computer,” she said.

Advocates of the PARCC say these parents shouldn’t worry that their children will be unfairly penalized or “left behind”--the new standards are a leap for sure, but it’s a leap the whole state will take at once. Take the 2014 ISAT scores: The test was more closely aligned to the new standards and the drop in scores was more-or-less even across the board, regardless of demographic or learning ability.

Not soon enough

For Barbara Radner, giving her own presentation to educators across town, the PARCC exam can’t come to Chicago soon enough.

Radner, a professor of education at DePaul University, spoke at a “PARCC Preview” workshop at the Chicago History Museum and praised the test for going beyond facts and numbers to test kids on their critical thinking skills. If children don’t develop these skills, Radner said, “they’ll be counting on their fingers their whole lives.”

 Radner is confident the test will pass muster for a diverse group of students.

“This test has gone to greater lengths to be fair to kids--and to accommodate kids who need extra help--than any test I’ve ever seen,” Radner said. She pointed to a manual published by PARCC administrators cataloguing special measures to be taken for students with special needs and extra resources that should be ready for English learners: extra time, extra proctors available to explain questions, test prompts adapted into Spanish and other languages, and more. Since the exam is computer-based, the description of extra help to be provided is more detailed.

Whether CPS can provide all these resources, however, is another question. After her stop in Pilsen, Vonderlack-Navarro hopes she’s convinced more parents to approach teachers and administrators with questions about CPS’s ability to put these accommodations into practice.

Many of them are from countries that set federal assessment standards, so the idea of Common Core isn’t beyond them.

 “In a lot of ways, immigrant communities could have been natural allies to the Common Core movement, but I don’t think advocates did a good job tapping into that,” Vonderlack-Navarro said. “Instead, a lot of these parents feel like no one is talking about them--they feel like they never had a seat at the table.”

Photo by William Camargo. It shows Margarita Avalos, a parent concerned about the new PARCC test, asking a question during a presentation by the Latino Policy Forum at Sandoval Elementary in Gage Park. So far, the group’s presentations have reached more than a thousand parents in heavily Latino areas.

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: PARCC threat, Rauner on early ed money, elected boards and debt

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 02/02/2015 - 09:42

When it comes to the new PARCC exam, it’s hard to know whether both sides -- the state and CPS -- are truly digging in their heels, or if this is all some strange sort of political theater. On Friday, state School Supt. Christopher Koch and newly appointed board chair James Meeks sent a letter to all district superintendents threatening that ISBE will definitely withhold funding from any district that does not administer the PARCC to all students. The letter was clearly directed toward CPS -- the only district that has publicly announced it won’t administer the new exam to every student.The district stands to lose $1.4 billion in combined state and federal funding if ISBE yanks the money, CPS officials told Crain’s.

Chicago has said it will defy ISBE by only giving the PARCC to 10 percent of schools. The move was hailed by parent groups who have been pushing for a delay and revision of the PARCC. Just last week, ISBE officials said they were confident they’d “get it all worked out” with CPS.  

So why the threat now? One theory is that ISBE officials suddenly got scared that suburban school districts would follow CPS. The Washington Post picked up on a letter about the PARCC concerns written by Winnetka’s superintendent. The other theory is that CPS plans to capitulate and will use ISBE’s threat as a cover because giving up the money is obviously not viable.

2. Testing Rauner on early ed ... State payments to child care providers across Illinois will be late this month, as the Department of Human Services says it’s short nearly $300 million to continue the subsidy program through June. The shortfall is one of many facing state departments since the January roll back of the income tax, the Chicago Tribune reports.

So far, Governor Bruce Rauner has blamed his predecessor for the problem and said he’s working on it, without providing any details. But some Republican legislators have suggested higher co-pay rates for parents or new income limits on eligibility for the Child Care Assistance Program, and last week a Rauner spokesman said that program costs have increased above the rate of inflation and that some “cost-saving measure may have to be implemented.”

While this wouldn’t be the first time the state delays payments to providers, any sort of cuts will be sure to anger those who provide day care to the 100,000 low-income families who rely on the subsidies. That’s especially the case as Rauner has promised to be a supporter of early education programs -- perhaps a given considering the fact that his wife runs the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early education group. SEIU members, who held a protest on Friday, called it “the  first real test of [Rauner’s] leadership and commitment to supporting working families and at-risk children.”

3. Appointed vs. elected boards ... As a non-binding referendum (in most wards) for an elected school board in Chicago approaches, Crain’s Paul Merrion decided to take a look at whether this type of governance could lead to improved finances for the cash-strapped district. His conclusion? Probably not.

Merrion compared the debt-to-revenue ratios of the 20 largest school districts in the nation and found that those with elected school boards tend to have bigger debt burdens than appointed ones. Using financial information compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for fiscal 2012 -- the most recent available -- Merrion ranked Chicago seventh in terms of biggest debt-to-revenue ratios. All but one of the districts with a bigger debt burden than Chicago’s had elected school boards; the only district with an appointed school board and more debt was Philadelphia.

Kenneth Wong, an education professor at Brown University and an expert on school board governance, told Crain’s that “an elected board can feel like the sky is the limit” when it comes to borrowing to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s debt problem has gotten worse since 2012 as CPS continues to fill its deficit with one-time fixes. The Crain’s piece includes some interesting infographics -- both to compare districts’ debt burden and a separate graphic on the growing CPS budget deficit.

4. Board properties sold… The CPS Board of Education approved the sale last week of nine properties that have lingered on the books for years, according to a CPS press release. Altogether the sales, which still need to be approved by the City Council and the Public Building Commission, will bring in about $1.87 million, but most of that money comes from two pieces of vacant land, one in Printer’s Row for $635,000 and the other in gentrifying Humboldt Park for $900,000. The rest of the properties are spread across the South Side and were sold for about $100,000 to $30,000. Two pieces of vacant land are being sold to the Washington Park Development Corporation. Both are close to the site of where the University of Chicago is proposing to put the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

Three former schools were sold: Dumas Child-Parent Center (shuttered in 2010), Cuffee Elementary (shuttered in 2009) and Washington School (shuttered in 2008).

But none of the schools shuttered in the 2013 mass closing were among those sold last week. Of three schools closed in 2013 that reached the bid stage, only one has been sold. That was Peabody Elementary in West Town. CPS is still trying to find qualified bidders for the other two, Wadsworth in Woodlawn and Marconi in West Garfield Park.

5. Charter schools and special education… In New York City, like in Chicago, one of the arguments against charter schools is that they don’t provide enough services to students with special needs. The New York Times writes that a new report shows that when looking at all students receiving special education services, they stayed in charter schools for four years more often than they stayed in traditional schools. However, a previous report found that those students in special education full-time left charter schools more often than traditional schools.

Chicago’s discussion around charter schools and special education students has focused on how many students they serve and whether the schools are being compensated fairly for serving them. Just last year, the state legislature passed a bill that explicitly stated that charter schools must serve special education students. An article in a 2012 Catalyst In Depth revealed that charter schools tended to serve students with less severe disabilities than traditional schools. Parents of children with more significant disabilities and advocates told Catalyst that they were often told by charter schools that they could not offer the appropriate services for their children.



Categories: Urban School News

Teen unemployment continues to rise in Chicago

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 01/30/2015 - 09:28

The economic recovery has done nothing to curb joblessness among Chicago teenagers, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University.

Instead, youth employment has plunged, especially among African American young men, and is now at its lowest level in years. And the poorest households are hardest hit: Only 11 percent of Chicago teens in households with an income below $20,000 annually were employed in 2013, compared to 30 percent of teens in households with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000.

The report, jointly prepared with the Alternative Schools Network, is being released today and will be the focus of a hearing on Friday at the Chicago Urban League. It’s the sixth report on the topic published in as many years.

Overall, teen employment has declined dramatically in the past 15 years, from 32 percent employment in 1998 to 13 percent in 2013, according to the report.

The study also links joblessness and lack of schooling, painting an even starker picture of the problem and its link to race: The percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds in Chicago who are both unemployed and out of school—what the report calls “disconnected”--is 28 percent for African Americans, 16 percent for Hispanics and just nine percent for whites.

“In the past year or two, the economy has been moving forward, pumping out more and more jobs, but somehow what we’re seeing is that these kids are moving backward,” says Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network. “What we’re seeing is that a lot of low-earning and part-time jobs that typically go to kids are now being taken by adults.”

Reversing the trend

In order for the trend to reverse, Wuest says, it’s critical that the government support efforts to expand job opportunities for adolescents at every level.

Yet government support could well be in jeopardy. In 2013 and 2014, Illinois spent $20 million each year on youth employment, with the money awarded to dozens of different organizations, including the Alternative Schools Network. But with new Gov. Bruce Rauner vowing to cut the state’s budget, it’s unclear whether such spending will continue.

Locally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is hoping to expand his signature One Summer jobs program, which last year created job opportunities for about 20,000 youth in low-income areas of the city.

And in recent years, Chicago Public Schools has sought to overhaul and improve its career education programs and tie them more directly to post-secondary schooling. (See our Catalyst In Depth on career education.) 

But the results have been mixed. The district has launched new programs in high-demand career areas. But overall, most students don’t finish a full sequence of career-related classes, only a small percentage of job credentials that students earn lead directly to a job and the district has a limited number of internships available to offer students.

Teen employment creates a ripple effect for the whole city, Wuest points out, and not just in the economic sector. A report by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab found that young people who participated in the One Summer program were 51 percent less likely to commit violent crimes, and slightly less likely to drop out of school. Beyond that, Wuest says, having a paying job teaches many of the skills necessary to live a successful life.

“Having a job teaches things like the importance of showing up on time, and how to work with other people, and builds self-confidence—these are the skills it takes to be a responsible adult,” Wuest said. “We’re just hoping the state and city continue the expansion, because in a lot of neighborhoods the jobs just aren’t there, and businesses aren’t hiring.”

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Quazzo defended, Urban Prep to DC, teacher pension woes

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 01/29/2015 - 10:14

Election season made for a relatively quiet, lightly attended CPS Board of Education meeting Wednesday, save for a touch of the lingering drama surrounding board member Deborah Quazzo’s business interests. A few speakers joined Chicago Teachers Union representatives to call for Quazzo’s resignation, following up on a rally held outside the board member’s office a day earlier. Last month the Sun-Times reported on central office and schools purchasing of software and other technology in which Quazzo’s company had invested.

Board members took turns defending their colleague and repudiating the accusations against her. Mahalia Hines may have gone the furthest of all of them, likening the calls for Quazzo’s resignation to a “character assassination” that activists are trying to “smear across the front pages.” Quazzo kept mum the entire time.

Another highlight was a cameo appearance by Cook County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy’ Garcia, who spoke out against CPS’s “self-defeating fight with the Department of Justice” over alleged discrimination against pregnant teachers at Scammon Elementary School.

2. Urban Prep to D.C. Chicago’s only all-male charter school network is expanding to the nation’s capital. The Washington Post reports on plans to open a new Urban Prep Academy campus as part of a $20 million investment in new support programs for black and Latino males.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson said the decision has “everything to do with ‘mathematics.’ Black and Latino boys make up 43 percent of the students enrolled in D.C. public schools. By almost any measure — reading and math scores, attendance and graduation rates — their performance is lagging.”

Urban Prep’s CEO and founder Tim King (a former classmate of Henderson from Georgetown University) had been weighing several possible cities to branch out to last year. In a statement, King said that “after an extensive national review process of school districts for Urban Prep to expand to, it's clear that DC is the right place.”

3. Growing pension woes … Debt amassed by teacher pension funds nationally has ballooned to nearly half a trillion dollars, according to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Illinois has amassed the second-largest debt, with nearly $56 billion liability owed. What’s more, only 41 percent of the Illinois’s pension system is funded, by far a lower rate than any other state in the union.

The report, titled “Doing the Math on Teacher Pensions: How to Protect Teachers and Taxpayers,” gave Illinois a C grade in its state-by-state pension report card. A big reason for the subpar rating was the fact that it takes 10 years on the job before Illinois teachers can start vesting for retirement. The report’s authors say teachers’ funds should begin to accrue after their third year on the job. Additionally, the report noted, a mind-boggling 76 percent of employers’ annual contribution to teacher pensions goes toward paying down the debt, instead of collecting in their retirement funds.

4. Not friendly to charters? A pro-charter school group ranks Illinois among in the bottom half of states when comparing which states have the most favorable laws for charter schools. It ranks 29th out of 43 states (including the District of Columbia) with charter school laws, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ sixth annual report. Eight states don’t have laws regarding charter schools so are not included in the rankings.

Todd Ziebarth, one of the report’s authors, says the Illinois rankings reflect a tumultuous year of charter legislation -- including failed proposals to eliminate the state’s independent charter school authorizer and to change the appeals process for charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards.

“In 2014 we saw an aggressive effort in the Illinois Legislature to go after charter schools and weaken charter laws, and they largely failed, but some improvements came out of the back-and-forth,” says Ziebarth. “We saw the state make some improvements to increase transparency around relationships between charter governing boards and charter providers, shining light on potential conflicts of interest.”

It’ll be interesting to see how charter school law changes under the leadership of Gov. Bruce Rauner, an ardent supporter of the publicly funded but privately run schools.

5. More money for STEM programming … Citizen Schools, a national not-for-profit organization that provides afterschool STEM programming to four middle schools in the South Side, announced a $1.5 million corporate donation that will help it boost its programs across the city and nationally. The 20-year-old organization operates programs in low-achieving public schools across the country, but this is only its third year running in Chicago. Bryce Bowman, executive director of Citizen Schools’ Illinois division, said he hopes to use the grant from the Biogen Idec Foundation to offer programs at an additional one or two schools in the city’s South or West Side.

The afterschool programs are mandatory for all enrolled students at schools hosting Citizen Schools, which invites technicians from corporations like Google and United Airlines to give hands-on lessons in STEM subjects. Bowman said the hosting schools boast NWEA improvement scores that were twice the district average, and that 92 percent of participating families report a positive impact on their child’s academic performance. CPS, Bowman said, has given the program tremendous feedback and “would like [them] to expand even faster than [they] already are.”

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Elected board controversy, more on testing and learning time

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 01/26/2015 - 12:10

One of the most divisive issues that came up at Saturday’s mayoral forum was the elected school board proposal. Voters in 37 wards will get the chance to vote on a non-binding resolution asking whether they want an elected school board instead of a mayoral-appointed board. (Here’s a quick take on the history behind the current selection process.)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is against the measure, suggested that it’s a moot point given that new Gov. Bruce Rauner isn’t in favor of the idea, while a bill to change how  board members are chosen hasn’t gained much traction in the Legislature. “I don't think we should actually convince (or) trick people by having a political campaign issue as a way to fixing our schools,” Emanuel said, according to a Tribune story.

The mayor’s challengers all support an elected board. During the forum in the Loop, hosted by the Chicago Women Take Action Alliance, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said an elected school board would bring needed accountability, while Ald. Bob Fioretti said conflict-of-interest issues were “running amok” within the current board. "We all ought to be embarrassed by what we see at CPS at this point,” the alderman said.

2. Major caveats on closing success: Chief Operating Officer Tom Tyrrell resigned his $180,000 position, effective Friday, in order to become the state’s Central Management Services director, according to the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune. A former Marine colonel, Tyrrell was hired in spring of 2012 to oversee the closing of 50-some elementary schools--the largest mass closure of schools ever. His job was not only to move the children, but to also move massive amounts of furniture and to try to sell off the buildings.  

District officials have declared success. However, only one-third of students enrolled in the new schools designated for them, far less than the 80 percent Tyrell predicted. Also, the district wound up spending $30 million to move materials from the schools and secure the buildings, three times the $8.9 million initial contract. Only one shuttered school building has been sold.

3. Social media law: CPS won’t compel students to give officials their passwords to Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram and any other social media platform, according to an article in DNAinfo. A new state law gives school districts the right to design their own cyber-bullying policies, which could include allowing school administrators to force students to provide their passwords. CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said that CPS’ policy calls on staff to monitor public items on social media, but not to try to access private pages. The district’s policy, she said, takes bullying of any type seriously.

But a downstate Belleville school district already used the new law and forced some students to give up passwords, which has led to numerous inquiries to the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois chapter spokesman Edwin Yohnka told DNAinfo. Yohnka said the ACLU is troubled by the new law and believes compelling students to give up their passwords crosses the line. In fact, Yohnka said that the ACLU is against any policy that give schools power to punish students for activity outside of school and would rather see that left to parents.

4. Testing, testing: The use--or overuse, in critic’s eyes--of standardized tests has become arguably the biggest controversy in education these days. Testing is one thing that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan refuses to budge on, despite a growing national backlash: Annual standardized tests should remain mandatory under any rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In an interview on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz breaks down why many teachers feel testing has distorted the learning process and what states and schools could do instead to assess learning. Kamenetz is the author of a recent book “The Test: Why our schools are obsessed with standardized testing--but you don’t have to be.”

5. More on learning time:  Children in high-poverty public schools don’t have access to the extra learning time that students in wealthier schools routinely take advantage of. The latest issue of Voices in Urban Education from The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tackles learning time from this perspective of equity.

A national cross-section of authors write about using learning time in new ways in schools in poor neighborhoods. Among the programs noted are the TIME Collaborative of the National Center on Time and Learning and the Ford Foundation, through which 39 schools are each adding 300 hours of time to the school year for all students (the equivalent of 50 days for a 6-hour school day).

The authors of one article make a critical point: Children in poor neighborhoods often experience considerable stress in their family life--unstable housing, lack of medical and dental care, community violence and so on--that impacts learning time by making it more likely they will miss class and more difficult for them to concentrate on academics.

In Illinois, education officials have asked for an additional $5 million in fiscal year 2016 for extended learning time activities. This year, the Illinois State Board of Education received 141 applications for learning time grants but only had money for 51 projects. The additional funds would allow ISBE to serve approximately 50 more sites--though sadly, given the state’s fiscal problems, the funds aren’t likely to materialize. Typically these programs are funded with federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers monies; last December programs in Chicago got about half of the state’s share of some $34 million in these federal funds.

The Center on Education Policy also came out with a report on expanded learning time last week.

Categories: Urban School News

Comings & Goings: Foley, Hilsabeck, DeClemente, Shah, Papineau

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 01/23/2015 - 17:08

Karen G. Foley has been appointed president and CEO of Juvenile Protective Association. JPA, founded in 1901 by Jane Addams, works with and on behalf of children and families in some of Chicago’s most challenging neighborhoods. Prior to joining JPA, Karen served as president and CEO for The Hope Institute, president of Chicago Scholars, and executive vice president and head of global marketing at CNA.

Alison Hilsabeck has been named provost of National Louis University with responsibility for the National College of Education and the college of professional studies and advancement, as well as all departments that support students’ academic, professional and personal goals. She previously served at NLU’s college of education as associate dean, dean, and executive dean, and was vice provost for academic programs.

CPS has created four manager positions for the Office of Student Health and Wellness. Tarrah DeClemente is the new manager of student wellness, Sujata Shah will serve as manager of student health, and Kenneth Papineau will be the manager of vision and screening. The manager of PE and health education position is yet to be filled.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones: vjones@catalyst-chicago.org

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: LEARN charter opposed, displaced students, NYC centralizing power

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 01/22/2015 - 09:22

More than a thousand people have signed a petition to keep a LEARN Charter School branch from opening in south suburban Chicago Heights, where the network has proposed to open a K-8 elementary school this September. It would be LEARN’s ninth campus, and its second suburban location. The Chicago-based network first expanded to North Chicago, a low-income suburb of Waukegan, in 2012.

“Until charter schools have a proven track record of being successful, I am not willing to support them,” commented one petitioner. LEARN’s website does boast higher ISAT scores than its peers. As you will remember, LEARN is the charter network that started in North Lawndale and, in 2010, won $1 million from Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network. The network is hoping for a victory after its bid to open a school in Waukegan was rejected earlier this month.

Opening in Chicago Heights would contribute to a national and statewide trend of charters expanding into suburban areas. Today Illinois is home to 148 charter schools, but the vast majority, 134, are in Chicago.

2. Speaking of charters.... An op-ed in Forbes magazine written by an economist for Moody Analytics argues that the prevalent narrative about charter schools is wrong. Adam Ozimek correctly says that most people summarize the studies on charter schools by saying that they are no better and no worse than nearby schools. Instead, he says the conventional wisdom should be that “some charter schools appear to do very well, and on average charters do better at educating poor students and black students.” Ozimek cites the 2013 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study that says: “Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their [traditional public school] counterparts. This shows the impact of charter schooling is especially beneficial for black students who in poverty.”

The debate isn't likely to die, however. Charter school critics question whether there are other factors that separate poor black students at charter schools from those in traditional schools, such as family involvement and ability to get them into the charter school. Further, they point out that many charter schools have highly disciplined environments that often push students out and perhaps leave those who are better performing.

3. More on displaced students… The Consortium on Chicago School Research’s big study on students displaced by last year's closings doesn’t say much that has not already been said about closings. Still, the study is a major deal because Mayor Emanuel is defending the closings as he runs to keep his job. Also, the decision is a defining part of his legacy and Chicago’s history. The Chicago Tribune dealt with it through an editorial. They note that as they interview aldermanic candidates for potential endorsements, many of them are still angry about the closings, something the editorial says is understandable. But according to their assessment, the study shows the results were mixed if not good. The best thing, according to the Tribune, is that one-fifth of students made it to top-rated schools--a "glass half-full" view. Yet they note one of the biggest problems pointed out by the study: Parents did not feel like they had enough time to do research and find the best school for their children.

Though the story is more nuanced, the Sun Times headline is a coup for Emanuel: “Most CPS students whose schools closed switched to better schools: report." In it, Todd Babbitz, one of the architects of the closings, said the findings were affirming “that we succeeded in sending the vast, vast majority of those students to schools that were more highly rated.”

Declaring success or failure based just on this study is premature, though. The Consortium has not had a chance to study how students fared once they got to their new schools. One early indication of problems is that six welcoming schools would have had their ratings plummet had CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett not used her authority to grant them higher ratings. One of them, Leland in Austin, would have gone from a top-rated schools to one of the lowest-rated in the district.

4. Retaking power in NYC… New York City Chancellor Carmen Farina is getting ready to re-establish the power of the central office, according to a New York Times story. By doing so, she will be reversing moves made by former chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sought to give principals more freedom and make the central office more of a service center for schools. According to the article, studies on Klein’s network system showed that it cut spending in central office by 22 percent, but also that some networks were less effective than others.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio and Farina say they believe this system left the struggling schools with too little supervision. Also, because all schools were doing their own thing, it was hard to get a quick answer to questions about schools.

Of course, under Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett, CPS’ power structure is fashioned more like Klein’s and Bloomberg’s. However, Chicago principals complain that they have little autonomy. As the New York Times article describes, New York, like other big urban school districts, has tried many structures as the pendulum of power swings from being centralized to being nested in the schools.

5. Student privacy concerns … Apart from remarking on improved high school graduation rates and test scores, President Barack Obama largely stayed away from issues related to K-12 education during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He did, however, reiterate an earlier call for legislation to protect students’ online information in order to ensure it’s not sold to schools or used for targeted ads. The issue has been gaining importance as school districts across the country -- including Chicago -- increasingly turn to online learning tools to supplement classroom learning.

In a story about how local parents and educators are dealing with student privacy concerns, the Chicago Tribune explains that because some of these tools require “teachers or students to enter all sorts of data — from names to grades to personality traits — thus raising questions that educators had not faced before: Will information a teacher or child shares stay available in cyberspace with the potential to be brought up years later by college admissions officers or employers?”

Education Week wrote about other educational issues touched on by the president, including  his proposals for free community college and tripling an existing $1,000 per child care tax credit for working families -- and the reaction from key lawmakers. Republican Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee, “noted the lack of attention to ‘fixing No Child Left Behind’ in the speech, and said that most of the education proposals had no chance of becoming law.”

 




Categories: Urban School News

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