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Rise & Shine: Denver’s top boss defends standards, tests, reforms

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 10/10/2014 - 08:58

getting to know you

Candidates in the generally quiet state board of education races discuss their views on testing, standards, and finance — oh, and Jeffco controversies. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

back to the drawing board

Denver Public Schools will not pursue a merger between two of its most historic neighborhood high schools. Meanwhile, the hunt is on for a new principal at one of those high schools, Manual. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post, 9News )

Top boss

In a broad interview with The Denver Post, Denver's top boss Tom Boasberg defends the Common Core State Standards, PARCC assessments, and his reforms. ( Denver Post )

Job hunt

A new citywide job shadowing program aims to help Denver students understand the fields of healthcare, engineering, manufacturing, information technology, and energy. ( 9News )

Breaking the fever

Thousands of Poudre School District parents told the school district they want to see universal air conditioner and a later start date in order to beat the heat during the start of the school year. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Fort Collins Coloradoan )

In his own words

A southwest Denver middle school principal shares how he improved student achievement by including one extra hour a day. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Election 2014

Some Westminster voters will be asked to approve a mill and bond tax issue this fall. ( Westminster Window )

A former state Representative is campaigning against a constitutional amendment that would allow for casino gambling to expand. Supporters claim the expansion will increase funding for education, but so far not a single school board has endorsed the proposal. ( Denver Post )

The Pueblo Chieftain has endorsed a native for the state school board. ( Pueblo Chieftain )

New Heights

A Monarch High School senior has been appointed to a national program for her poem writing. ( Daily Camera )

Meanwhile, students at Centaurus High School experimented with a weather balloon. ( Daily Camera )

College matters

It's College Application Month. And to spread awareness, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia made a visit to Westminster High School. ( Arvada Press )

Human Resources

Douglas County School District's top spin master has left to pursue new opportunities. ( Douglas County News-Press )

Categories: Urban School News

September start date and universal AC among top options in Poudre survey

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/09/2014 - 23:37

The top three suggestions from Poudre School District residents asked how the district should handle start-of-school heat include giving 48-hour notice for heat-related early release days, starting school in September and installing cooling systems in all buildings.

The results, posted on the district’s web site Thursday night, included nearly 6,000 responses from district staff and community members. The survey comes after a pilot “heat days” program in which the district’s elementary and middle school students were released two hours early for the first two weeks of school. Unlike in 2013, when there were several scorching days, the first two weeks this year weren’t particularly hot.

While some parents were frustrated with the two weeks of early release days because it was inconvenient, district officials noted that in previous surveys parents had clearly stated that last-minute school cancellations or early release days were unpopular because they wanted more time to plan.

Poudre isn’t the only district in the state to struggle with high temperatures at the start of school. Pueblo City Schools pushed back its start date to after Labor Day this year to help deal with sweltering temperatures. Many other districts, including Aurora and Adams 12, have air-conditioning in all schools. In Poudre, just nine of 50 buildings have cooling systems.

Danielle Clark, the district’s director of communications, said in an August interview that it would cost several hundred thousand dollars just to determine the cost of installing cooling systems in all district buildings.

”Air conditioning in northern Colorado is just not the norm,” she said.

The district will hold community meetings on Oct. 23 and 24 to discuss the top options.

Categories: Urban School News

Citing ‘feedback,’ Denver schools officials drop East-Manual merger plan

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/09/2014 - 17:04

Denver Public Schools officials are no longer considering a plan that would merge its lowest performing school, Manual High School, with its flagship campus, East High School.

But they are taking applications for yet another new principal for Manual, according to a pair of letters district officials sent to parents at both schools.

Last spring, the district and school officials contemplated creating a ninth grade academy at Manual High to serve incoming freshman for both schools. There’s plenty of room at Manual High, due to shrinking enrollment numbers. And East High, one of the city’s most popular schools, is overcrowded.

But vocal communities from both campuses protested the idea. The plan could have been implemented as early as this year, but because of the backlash, district officials put the plan on ice as last school year came to a close. Now, according to the Denver school leaders, the plan in permanently postponed.

CHALKBEAT SPECIAL REPORT: Manual High, a promise unfulfilled 

“We heard considerable feedback from both the Manual and East communities on this proposal, and we’re no longer considering this option,” said Susana Cordova, DPS’s chief of schools, in a letter to Manual parents. “We do believe there are still opportunities for a future partnership between the Manual and East communities and will continue to explore those through the Manual Thought Partner Group.”

East High School principal Andy Mendelsberg was more blunt in his letter to parents.

“Entering freshman will begin their high school career at East, and that will not change,” he said in his letter.

Mendelsberg went on to promise support for the Manual community.

Had the ninth grade academy come to fruition, it wouldn’t have been the first time the schools worked together. During the 1970s and 1980s, the two schools shared resources. Student who enrolled in the East-Manual Compact, as it was known, could take classes at either campus.

The compact ended around the same time a court lifted Denver’s mandated busing plan. Since then, academic achievement has plummeted at Manual. Despite several attempts at boosting the school’s performance — including some short-lived successes — Manual students continue to lag behind their district peers in most subject matters. In 2013, Manual also has the district’s lowest graduation rate.

Manual’s lackluster test scores, declining enrollment, and the mismanagement of funds led district officials to name Don Roy as principal in January. He replaced Brian Dale.

But Roy’s tenure at the school is coming to an end, according to Cordova’s letter.

“This fall we will also launch a local and nationwide search for a long-term leader for Manual, with the goal of having that individual in place by the start of the 2015-16 school year,” Cordova said.

District letter to Manual High School parents DV.load('http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1311710-manual-letter-_-no-merger-10-8-14.js', { width: 620, height: 600, sidebar: false, text: true, pdf: true, container: '#DV-viewer-1311710-manual-letter-_-no-merger-10-8-14' }); District letter to East High School parents DV.load('http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1311709-east-hs-letter-_-no-merger10-8-14.js', { width: 620, height: 600, sidebar: false, text: true, pdf: true, container: '#DV-viewer-1311709-east-hs-letter-_-no-merger10-8-14' });
Categories: Urban School News

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

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 10/09/2014 - 15:43

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

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

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

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

Categories: Urban School News

How I transformed my school with just five new hours a week

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/09/2014 - 15:18

It’s a midweek afternoon and all 450 of the students at our Denver middle school are staying an hour later. They’re not in detention. The buses aren’t late. Instead, students are participating in a range of activities, from a rocket-building class to one-on-one tutoring in math, and they’re excited to be here.

I’m the principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, an urban public school in southwest Denver. We have a diverse set of student needs and a student population comprised of 85 percent on free and reduced lunch, 20 percent receiving special education services and 30 percent are English language learners.

Just a few years ago, Grant Beacon looked very different than it does today. Our enrollment numbers were declining, our students weren’t reaching required academic levels and our school was “on watch” by the Denver Public Schools district. In short, we were facing possible closure.

We have since turned our school around by implementing an innovation plan based on expanded learning opportunities — practices intended to expand and deepen learning opportunities for all students. After only a few years, we have successfully improved our status from “on watch” to “meets expectations.” We’ve seen our attendance rates rise by 2 percent, and suspensions are down by 110 percent. We’re also seeing substantive gains in proficiency and growth. We even have an enrollment wait list.

Changing our approach wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the impact we’re having on all of our students today and toward helping close a district-wide achievement gap.

Grant Beacon hopes to serve as a model for other schools interested in implementing similar innovative strategies and we’ve opened our doors to numerous leaders, educators and teachers to observe and experience our approach in action.

To help others around the country learn from our experience, I’ll share some of the key changes made at our school as well as lessons learned.

At the heart of our new approach is an extended school day that added five hours each week. We are using that time to offer enrichment programming, advanced classes, student leadership development and interventions. We also increased time in some of our core subjects.

Enrichment for all students was a big driver for extending our day. In a predominantly low-income school like Grant Beacon, students aren’t often exposed to enrichment activities like their more affluent peers. We know for a fact when kids are engaged in activities such as clubs, after-school programs, music, and sports, they’re more likely to succeed, do well in high school and go to college. Before, only 10 percent of our students were taking part in such activities. Now it’s 100 percent.

Our students are thrilled as they line up for enrichment classes like hip-hop dance, athletics, cooking, resume-building and leadership development — extracurricular activities that these students might not otherwise be exposed to. The experiences are giving our kids incentive to want to come to school. They’re focused, they’re finding new passions, and they don’t want to miss a minute of it.

As for the teachers, the extended day has allowed for additional collaborative planning and professional time thanks to more than 20 community partners who teach many of the enrichment programs. They’re also now able to devote more time to students who are struggling and can spend one-on one time providing real interventions that are having a noticeable impact.

Our extended day model is further supported by a new blended-learning approach that utilizes technology to create learning environments with more individual and small-group activities, and a system of online interim assessments that teachers can use to measure real-time feedback on a student’s progress.

While implementing these new approaches wasn’t easy, I believe several elements played a key role in our success:

The first is buy-in. It’s important that everyone buys into it 100 percent — teachers, students and parents. By developing our innovation plan together with the community, we were able to get everyone on board from the beginning.

Our students have also helped us craft a catalog of enrichment programming that they want. And, extended day and enrichment programming are now part of the hiring process. We look for teachers who want to work in an extended day environment and who have unique enrichment ideas to offer to students.

The second is structure. We put clear structures in place from the beginning. Teachers know exactly what their schedule is and so do students. Students understand they can choose from the enrichment classes, but they also understand they need to be doing well in school to have those options.

It’s also important to have someone who’s committed to the program. Our dean of students has been committed to making sure the systems are in place and to reaching out to and training quality community providers of the enrichment programming.

Finally, it’s critical to support the funding. This approach is really good for kids and it’s making an impact. We need to figure out how to sustain and provide funding to schools that have found great success.

The question most often asked about our new approach is ‘what are the costs?’ Of course, with teachers working more hours, students staying longer, and added programming, our expenses have indeed gone up. Luckily we have been able to fund the added costs over the past two years with special grant funds available through Denver Public Schools specifically for Expanded Learning Opportunities.

We recognize those funds won’t be around forever and it’s a top priority to determine how to make this new approach sustainable – not just for us, but for schools around the country interested in this model. That’s why we’re working with a local funder, Rose Community Foundation, to create a long-term plan for sustainability of the extended day model. The organization is a leader in expanded learning opportunities in our community and provided us with a grant to plan for the future. The grant will also support efforts to incorporate Colorado academic standards into our extended day curriculum, and integrate the enrichment programming into our academic departments.

We as a school and community are confident in our approach. As I look around, our students are beaming, parent support is huge and teachers are energized. Our scores tell an equally encouraging story – our 2014 numbers show high gains in all subject areas. Our approach is allowing us not only to provide enriching opportunities to our students but also close the opportunity gap for them, and we’re committed to ensuring this impactful programming continues for years to come.

This piece originally appeared at the Hechinger Report.

Categories: Urban School News

Testing issue follows candidates on campaign trail

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/09/2014 - 14:29

Ask candidates running for the State Board of Education this year what voters want to talk about and you generally get a quick answer – testing.

The four candidates for two contested seats all expect that the question of how much and what kind of standardized tests should be given will be a major issue for the new board and legislature that take office in 2015. The candidates have differing but nuanced views on the issue, but most of them are open to considering changes in the state’s assessment system.

Chalkbeat Colorado interviewed each of the four about testing and other key education issues. See summaries of their responses below, but first here’s a brief look at who’s running.

The candidates

District 3 – Republican incumbent Marcia Neal of Grand Junction faces Democrat Henry Roman of Pueblo in this sprawling district that covers most of western Colorado and stretches east to Pueblo.

Neal is a former social studies teacher and Mesa 51 school board member who sometimes is a swing vote on the state board. She’s been a strong advocate of increasing the size of the school trust lands permanent fund, which earns revenues from state lands. Roman is a former Pueblo 60 superintendent, has worked recently as a charter school consultant and is making his first run for elected office.

District 7 – Democratic incumbent Jane Goff of Arvada is a former Jefferson County foreign language teacher and administrator who also served as president of the Jefferson County Education Association. She’s being challenged by Republican Laura Boggs of Lakewood, a former Jeffco school board member who was a one-woman conservative minority before the board changed hands in the 2013 election.

Issues in District 3

Testing

Marcia Neal

“I think there are a lot of concerns around the PARCC tests,” Neal said. “It’s sort of this gigantic issue.” She says Colorado faces “a real dilemma” in what to do about its testing system.

“So far I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of balancing” testing and classroom instruction, she said She hopes the task force that’s studying the issue can suggest and good balance on testing changes.

Roman said, “Right now I think we need to stay with” current plans for full PARCC testing next spring. He likes online testing because it promises quicker results for teachers to use. And he said he’s open to considering changes such as sampling, where every student is not tested every year, and reducing state tests to federal minimums. “We’ve burdened our teachers with too much testing.”

Academic standards

Neal voted against Colorado adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010 but said, “I’m very supportive of high academic standards.”

Roman said the state should stick with the current Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core for language arts and math. “These happen to be the ones that are in place, and I support them” but is open to changes in the future.

School finance

Henry Roman

“I know we need more money,” Neal said, but she believes there isn’t a direct relationship between funding levels and student achievement. She’s opposed to raising school funding without detailed plans for how more money would be used.

“I think we need to address the negative factor,” Roman said, referring to the formula used by the legislature to set total district funding every year. “We need to find a way to get back the funding schools should have been receiving.”

School choice

“I’m very much in favor of choice,” Neal said, but she doubts tuition tax credits or vouchers are in the state’s future, saying, “I don’t think that’s something the courts are ready to do.”

“I’m not in support of vouchers,” Roman said. “I think our current school choice options are excellent,” adding that he feel’s it’s important that charters “accept all students and that their performance is as good or better” than traditional schools.

What voters are saying

Neal said, “90 percent of the time it’s, ‘Where do you stand on Common Core?’ It dominates the conversation.”

Roman said, “What I’m hearing a lot of is there’s too much testing, and for the most part there’s too much emphasis on the core academic subjects to the exclusion of other subjects.” He added, “I’m also hearing about lack of equitable funding.”

The State Board’s role

Asked about the board’s role relative to the governor and the legislature, Neal said, “It does have a role to play, but it doesn’t make policy decisions, and it probably shouldn’t. … People tend to ignore us and then when something happens they want us to fix it, and we can’t.”

Roman said, “I see it as a body that takes what the legislature has passed and puts it into policy and procedure.”

Both candidates are concerned about the volume of education legislation – “There’s no limit to what the state legislature passes,” Roman said. “I’ve gotten to that I sort of dread the legislative session,” Neal commented.

The Jeffco controversy

Neal said the situation has “gotten pretty muddled” with the combination of two issues, curriculum review and teacher-board differences over salaries. She said, “I understand the history concern” about AP U.S. History and said that as a teacher “I always tried to go down the middle.”

“A class should reflect history as objectively as possible,” Roman said, adding that he supports the new AP class.

Issues in District 7

Testing

Jane Goff

“I think it’s a dilemma for everybody,” Goff says of K-12 testing. “I’m not hearing very much at all of let’s throw the whole thing out,” and said she’s willing to look at changes in the system, including reducing state tests back to federal minimums. But, she added, “Accountability is the hard part, the sticky wicket.” She supports current plans to use the PARCC tests.

Boggs discusses testing in the context of her strong support for local control, criticizing what she calls “a one-size-fits-all system” and saying “districts need to have flexibility” in testing – “while absolutely still holding the system accountable.”

Academic standards

Goff said she “absolutely” supports the current Colorado Academic Standards, thinks changing them now would be disruptive for districts. “The challenge is getting people to understand what it’s all about.”

Boggs thinks “We need a robust conversation about what the actual standards need to be. … Parents and community members need confidence in our standards, and there’s clearly not that now.”

School finance

Laura Boggs

Goff said, “I’m not a tax fan” and that voters need better explanation of how new revenues would be spent. Referring to Amendment 66, the defeated 2013 K-12 tax increase, she said, “I don’t think people really understood how that could benefit their school district and the state as a whole.” While she supports reduction of the negative factor, she added, “I can’t see any great benefit in restoring more money to schools is that hurts, say, health programs.”

Boggs faults legislators for not spending more money on K-12 during the 2014 session, given a large balance in the State Education Fund. She sees general voter support for local school tax measures (as opposed to defeat on A66) as evidence that citizens “want local control back.”

School choice

Goff said she’s comfortable with the quality of state charter school law and feels progress has been made with online schools but that continued work is needed to improve student achievement at online schools and some charters. She said she generally opposes vouchers and tuition tax credits but would be willing to consider such mechanisms for some special education students.

Boggs calls herself “a huge supporter” of choice and charter schools but has concerns about vouchers and tax credits. “A great public education system is a great equalizer, so I’m not really wild about proposals that take money out of the public school system.” She also said a statewide tax credit law could be “a little dicey because you are infringing on local control.”

What the voters are saying

“Number 1 right now is testing. That’s hot, it’s very hot,” Goff said. “It’s probably right up there with what’s going on in Jeffco.”

Boggs said, “The voters are telling me that our child are over-tested … the teachers are telling me that they don’t have the flexibility. … a one-size-fits-all education system is not something they’re interested in.”

The State Board’s role

Goff acknowledges that the board often is subordinate to the governor and legislature but thinks SBE members should take a more visible role on education issues and should show “more leadership.”

Boggs said the board should “get more energized in the conversation” about largely flat student achievement levels but stressed again “my passion is for the local control piece” of education.

The Jeffco controversy

Jefferson County is a big part of the 7th District, and both Goff and Boggs have close personal tied to the district.

Chalkbeat asked the candidates how controversies over the board could affect their race.

“Right now education is so hot and people are so passionate about it,” Goff said, adding that it’s hard to tell how that might translate into the state board race. “I think it’s still early to tell.”

Boggs was critical of the new AP U.S. history program but also of the original wording of the Jeffco board’s curriculum review resolution. She said the impact in the broader electorate is hard judge. “I’m probably not the best person to ask about that,” she added, given that primarily talks to people who are involved with education.

Board campaigns are quiet

State Board candidates usually campaign in the shadow of statewide and congressional candidates, with their big television ad budgets, and of the better-funded legislative hopefuls, who can blanket their districts with yard signs, literature drops and phone calls.

The 3rd District has 29 counties – many mountainous and thinly populated – and is especially challenging for SBE candidates.

“It’s very difficult,” said Neal. “I have not traveled as much as I’d like to.” She sends literature and yard signs to county GOP offices for distribution, and she’s planning newspaper and maybe radio ads in Pueblo and Durango, two population centers where she’s not as well known as in the Grand Valley. “I do what I have with the money I have and the time I’ve got.”

Roman said he’s been traveling extensively on the Western Slope in order to raise his profile there, attending candidate forums, coffees, Democratic events and “a lot of parades.”

Neal has raised about $11,500, while Roman’s campaign war chest was nearly $17,000 at the end of September.

In the 7th District Goff has been attending candidate forums and Democratic events, getting yard signs placed and literature distributed and is sending postcards to targeted Adams and Jefferson county neighborhoods. She’s also advertising in weekly community newspapers.

Boggs said, “I’m going to everything I’m invited to,” but that mailings aren’t planned “unless there’s a whole lot of money coming in that I don’t know about.”

Goff has a wide fund-raising edge with about $23,000 compared to Boggs’ $3,800.

Other districts, other members Valentina Flores

The board’s 1st District seat, which primarily covers Denver, is also on the ballot this election. Retired educator Valentina Flores, who defeated a reform candidate in the June Democratic primary, is the only candidate on the ballot. (Learn more about her background and views in this earlier Chalkbeat Colorado story.) Flores will replace Democrat Elaine Gantz Berman, who chose not to run again.

Board chair Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is running unopposed for a seat in the state House. Once he’s elected a GOP vacancy committee will choose a replacement for his District 5 board seat.

Three board members are in the middle of terms and not on the ballot: Republican Pam Mazanec of Larkspur (4th District), Republican Debora Scheffel of Parker (6th) and Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder (2nd).

About the State Board of Education

Here are key facts about the board:

  • Seven members elected on a partisan basis
  • Board districts are the same as congressional districts
  • Term limits: Two six-year terms
  • Current board is four Republicans, three Democrats
  • Members are unpaid
  • Board generally meets monthly
  • Constitutional duty: “General supervision of the public schools”
  • Specific duties: Hiring education commissioner, issuing regulations to implement state education laws; revoking teacher licenses; granting waivers to education laws; approving teacher prep programs; adjudicating district-charter disputes; certifying multi-district online programs; overseeing reports, task forces and various other groups; adoption of state content standards and tests; deciding conversion plans for failed schools and districts; distribution of grants, among others
  • Board website
Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Dems leverage Jeffco board controversy

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 10/09/2014 - 09:10

Testing flex

Colorado has few options if policymakers want to create a more flexible state testing system, or one that lets districts make their own testing choices, according to a new federal memo. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Vox populi

Citizens who spoke at the State Board of Education’s monthly public comment session Wednesday gave members a taste of the passions that have roiled the Jefferson County Schools in recent weeks. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

Jeffco Interrupted

In a new television ad, Colorado Democrats attempt to draw a line between three conservative Jefferson County school board members and four Republican state Senate candidates looking to oust Democratic incumbents. ( KDVR )

Michelle Patterson, president of the Jeffco PTA, explains why her group "waded right into the muck" of that district's controversies. ( NY Times Motherlode blog )

Teacher qualifications

The firing of a charter school science teachers after a lab fire prompts a reporter to ask why charter teachers aren't licensed. ( 9News )

Simulated school

Parents and kids got an early look at Loveland's newest school - thanks to a 3-D computer tour. Ground hasn't even been broken for the planned High Plains school. ( Reporter-Herld )

Hit the track

About 1,000 younger students in the St. Vrain district are part of program to run a total of 100 miles by the end of the school year. ( Times-Call )

Slots for schools

Former state Rep. Ed Casso explains why he's supporting Amendment 68, an issue many of his former colleagues aren't touching. ( Denver Post )

Promoting college

The Department of Higher Education is tackling low go-to-college rates with a pair of campaigns meant to improve degree attainment. ( Denver Business Journal )

Endorsement

Henry Roman, Democratic candidate for the 3rd District State Board of Education seat, has received the endorsement of his home town newspaper. ( Chieftain )

Categories: Urban School News

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

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 10/09/2014 - 09:08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Urban School News

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