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Take 5: Parents form PAC, Byrd-Bennett on testing, teacher tenure fight

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 10/27/2014 - 08:33

Frustrated parents from an overcrowded Southwest Side elementary school have taken the unusual step of forming a political action committee. Dore, in Clearing, has 673 students but was built for 400, and, as of last year, with mobile units was 127 percent over capacity,  according to CPS standards. It is a Level 1 school that is 60 percent Latino and 35 percent white. About 56 percent of students are low-income.  

The SWNewsHerald, an online newspaper, reports that the vice principal has to share the boiler room with the engineer. Parents also say that after fourth grade, special education students often leave the school because there’s no space for them. Board members seemed sympathetic to the cause of the parents, but political pressure might be the way to go. The North and South sides of the city have about the same number of overcrowded schools, with most of the overcrowding on the west sides, such as McKinley Park and Sauganash, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data for 2013-2014. But six of the eight schools that got annexes under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration were on the North Side.

2. Leading the way? Is CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett really another national figure standing up to over-testing and showing concerned about new Common Core tests? Ever since she announced last week that she planned to ask the state and federal government to delay districtwide implementation of the PARCC, the move was mentioned in Politico and the Washington Post as another signal that testing, and in particular the PARCC, are in trouble.

The Washington Post Answer Sheet features CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett 's pronouncement.  The blog’s author, Valerie Strauss says that the PARCC and another Common Core test developed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium were supposed to be revolutionary—that is, more sophisticated and better able to assess student skills. But the hesitation to move toward PARCC is a sign of concern that these tests will not be the “absolute game-changer in public education” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan touted in 2010. Duncan's administration has put $360 million into developing these tests.

The blog reports that 12 states will give the PARCC this year and 26 will give the SBAC.

The parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is certainly concerned with these larger questions about the PARCC, with parents complaining that the PARCC was too confusing and subjective. The group started an online petition urging the state to ask the federal government for a waiver.

But Byrd-Bennett’s recent stand raises questions. Her request to delay the PARCC was already turned down and she failed to mention it in her statement, and some are wondering whether it was merely a political maneuver. In her letter to ISBE, Byrd-Bennett in fact praises the test, saying the “pilot program” showed positive results. (Copies of the letter are now posted.)

According to the letter, Byrd-Bennett’s biggest concern is that, in addition to the PARCC, she also wants to administer the NWEA to elementary school students and the ACT to high school students.  That would leave students facing two batteries of tests—like last year, when parents and teachers staged a mutiny against the district’s plan to give both the NWEA and the ISAT, even though the ISAT was being phased out.

At the end of this week, ISAT scores will be available from the state (CPS has not released the results on their own as they usually do). It will be interesting to if the opt-out movement caused a dip at particular schools, providing yet another reason why Byrd-Bennett likely doesn’t want another opt-out movement on her hands.

3. Protesting a strike … As the teachers strike in Waukegan drags into its fourth week, frustrated parents say it’s time that the district and educators reach an agreement so that classes can resume. Some parents told Univision this weekend the impasse is hurting students -- and that they plan to send their children to school on Monday even though union and district officials will be back at the bargaining table.

The 17,000 students in the Waukegan public school system have been out of class since Oct. 2, when teachers walked off the job seeking better pay and benefits. The strike has caused a logistical nightmare for many parents who now have to worry about day care and keeping their children busy all day. Some have also expressed concerns about the impact a continued strike may have on graduating high school seniors. The Lake County News-Sun reports that parents have also been calling nearby private schools, asking if it’s too late to enroll their children. “It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, it’s really obvious who’s getting hurt,” says the president of Cristo Rey St. Martin Prep School in Waukegan.

4. Who wants to teach? ... Enrollment continues to decline at teacher-prep programs across the country, Education Week reports. “Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career,” the story reports. Federal data show that enrollment in university teacher-preparation programs dropped about 10 percent from 2004 to 2012. In California, enrollment fell by more than half between the 2008-2009 and 2012-2013 school years, leading state officials to worry about a teacher shortage.

The article features one would-be teacher who changed his mind about entering the profession because he felt “in the middle of an ideological war that surfaced in everything from state-level education policy on down to his course textbook, which had a distinct anti-standardized-testing bent.”

Catalyst looked into the decline in enrollment at teaching colleges across Illinois in April and found that enrollment fell most significantly among white students. Because of the state’s historic over-production of teachers, it’s unlikely that Illinois will have massive overall shortage of public school teachers.

5. Battle in California … The Los Angeles Times reports on this year’s tight, costly battle for what’s typically considered a sleepy race for the job of state schools chief. But as has been seen in races across the country -- and was expected, too, in the Windy City if Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis had run for mayor -- the California contest has drawn national attention and millions of dollars from unions on one side and billionaire education reformers on the other.

One reasons for all the excitement is how the candidates say they’ll respond to the recent Vergara v. California decision, which ruled that some teacher tenure rules violated the rights of poor and minority children who were stuck with bad teachers that were hard to fire. Incumbent Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson -- a former teacher and legislator -- has appealed the decision and has the backing of the unions. His challenger, Marshall Tuck, who has run charter schools and traditional public schools taken over by the former L.A. mayor, has promised to withdraw the state’s appeal if elected. He’s received millions of dollars in donations from business-minded reformers, including Eli Broad.

The results could have implications far beyond California. “Whichever side wins this relatively low-profile office gets a huge leg up in the broader debate over education policy,”one political scientist told the paper.  “The politics and symbolism are tremendous both for [the unions] and the reformers.”

Categories: Urban School News

CPS reverses course, says Dyett to reopen in 2016 as neighborhood high school

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 13:27

CPS officials made the surprise announcement Friday that they want proposals for a new, open enrollment neighborhood high school to be located at Dyett High, the Washington Park school that is in the last year of being phased out.

Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, who has been leading community activists, parents and students in an intense fight to keep Dyett open, declared it a victory. But with many questions still outstanding about the school’s program--and in particular, whether a private operator will be chosen to run the school--Brown said it’s not a complete victory and emphasized that the win didn’t come easily.

“None of this would have happened without the diligence of the community,” he says. “This is not an example of a responsive elected official or government.”

Over the past four years, numerous rallies and sit-ins were held and several people were arrested as they battled to keep Dyett a neighborhood school and to save it from the chopping block as dozens of other schools in black communities were closed. Brown and the coalition’s main concern was that Dyett’s closure would leave the surrounding neighborhood without its own high school and students would be assigned to Phillips, which is about two miles away.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a press release that she looks forward to working with the community. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the Dyett request-for-proposals to run the school will be separate from a request for new charter schools, which also will be issued in December. He said the Dyett site will not be open to charter operators, but contract schools will be considered. (Contract schools operate under much the same rules as charters.)

The new Dyett won’t be opened until the 2016-2017 school year, which means the site will sit vacant for a year.

Dyett’s potential closure became the focus of a federal civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education by activists in Chicago and in other cities where school closings hit African-American communities. Students accused CPS of using tactics to drive students out and alleged that keeping resources from their school violated their rights.

A plan for teaching global leadership

Brown questioned why the district is even putting out an RFP and said the community does not want a private operator running the school.

“We want this to be a CPS school and we want them to use our tax dollars to run it,” he says. “Just like they do in Lake View, we want a CPS neighborhood school with high expectations.”

Also, Brown says he sees no reason that the high school can’t be open next school year. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett has already been having regular meetings and will have a second retreat on Saturday.

The coalition has a plan already developed to turn Dyett into a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” The plan was developed over a two-year period by various groups, including the Chicago Teachers Union, Teachers for Social Justice and the well-regarded Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The coalition got more than 2,000 signatures in support of the plan and it has the backing of the Kenwood and Bronzeville Community Action Councils, as well as DuSable Museum and the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Activists have also complained about conditions at Dyett as it is being phased out and students fanned out to other schools; this year, only 13 students enrolled in the school. For example, activists complained about students having to use the back door for entrance and as the numbers decreased, an increasing number of classes were taught online.

Earlier this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with activists and students and agreed to let the students enter through the front door, have a gym teacher and host a prom.

Categories: Urban School News

Heated debate about last year's school closings

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 12:30

Catalyst publisher Linda Lenz moderated a heated panel discussion on Thursday about the impacts of last year's massive school closings. The event was organized by City Club of Chicago and took place at Maggiano's Banquets in downtown Chicago.Panelists included CPS Board of Education members Carlos Azcoitia and Andrea Zopp; Chicago Teachers Union researcher Carol Caref; community activist and writer Valerie Leonard; and CPS chief operating officer Tom Tyrell, who oversaw the district's transition team during the closings.

The event was live-tweeted by several reporters and community activists. Check out a Storified version of the tweets below.

[View the story "School closings in Chicago" on Storify]

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Hancock change OK'd, closed school sold, lead paint problems

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 08:57

CPS board members approved on Wednesday the selling of 125 S. Clark and the first of 50-some schools shuttered during the 2013 mass school closings.The district’s headquarters was sold for about $28 million to Blue Star Properties, which plans to keep it offices and retail, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report. Central office workers will be spread out, some at 42 W. Madison and others in two closed schools, one in Humboldt Park and the other in Bridgeport.

Also, the shuttered Peabody Elementary on the Northwest Side will be sold for $3.5 million. Some of the space will be used as a community center, while the rest will become residential. CPS has found uses for about 10 of the other 52 emptied buildings. Chief Administrative Officer Tom Tyrrell said that despite having 41 empty buildings on the books, the district will still save $43 million in annual cost savings promised at the time of school closings. CPS has never provided an itemized list of how the district will save so much money.

2. Done deal... Board members gave the go-ahead to designate Hancock High School as the city’s 11th selective enrollment high school. Just a month ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel surprised community members and announced the plan. However, there was never any doubt that it would be approved, given that students were already being allowed to apply for the school.

Like several of the selective schools, Hancock will have a program for academically gifted students and a pre-engineering/pre-law program that will also have a competitive admissions process. Hancock teacher and blogger Ray Salazar told board members that it is unfair for students on the Southwest Side to get an old, renovated school building while students on the North and Northwest Side get a shiny new facility. School Board President David Vitale said he has been out to visit Hancock and it is “perfectly adequate.”

3. Lead paint allegations… Parents and activists from Gale Elementary school in Rogers Park say they are relieved that CPS is removing lead paint from the school and repainting it, but they are frustrated that the district knew for at least five years about the problem and didn’t fix it, according to DNAinfo. In 2009, a consultant found damaged lead paint in the boys' and girls' bathrooms, according to documents obtained by The Chicago Light Brigade through a Freedom of Information Act request (The Illinois Attorney Genera'sl Office had to force CPS to comply with the FOIA). Then, in September 2013, the same consultant found lead paint in the classrooms.

Lead paint can severely affect mental and physical development. It is especially dangerous when it is chipped. Because of its sweet taste, children have been known to eat lead paint chips or dust. District standards call on it to assume that all buildings constructed in 1978 or earlier have lead-based paint, and that it needs to be removed or repaired in areas occupied by students and staff.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey told DNAinfo that staff is “continuously monitors buildings for any unsafe conditions, which includes preventing any buildings with lead-based paints from posing a health threat."

But in 2012, when the district was trying to convince the public that it needed to close schools, officials admitted that a lot of old buildings were going without needed repairs. In a presentation to the Space Utilization Commission, CPS reported that the average age of buildings was 74 years and that the district had $6.5 billion in unfunded capital needs, not counting anything to relieve overcrowding.

4. Arts fund-raising... Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Board President David Vitale announced Tuesday “Be Creative: The Campaign for Creative Schools.” So far, members of the business, cultural, and philanthropic communities have raised $11 million, they announced.

The Arts Education Plan was initiated in 2012, with the goal of every student in CPS receiving “ongoing high quality arts education both in and out of the classroom.” Over the last two years, CPS has placed arts liaisons in close to 600 schools, broadened high school graduation requirements in art to include dance and theatre, and labeled the arts as a core subject, which requires two hours of dedicated instruction per week. CPS also used $11.5 million in tax-increment financing money to hire 84 arts teachers this year. 

“The arts are a key part to your education and your development,” said Emanuel, who shared that he did ballet in high school. “It’s a collaborative process, and those skills are going to be essential for the rest of your life, whether you choose to pursue a career in art or not.”

5. Profiting from shoddy schools … In a provocative article, the Chicago Reader questions Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s commitment to a “high-quality education for all” by examining his investments in for-profit education companies that have been accused of fraud.

Rauner’s former private equity firm set up one such company, ForeFront Education, back in 1999 to offer college degrees and training for jobs including medical assistants, paralegals, and office administrators. According to the story, a ForeFront school with campuses in the Loop falsely billed itself as "institutionally accredited" and later had to admit its graduates weren't qualified to take state exams to become certified nursing assistants. After students sued for fraud, the company settled in 2013 for about $1.2 million.

The Reader goes on to point out that Rauner is also a stockholder in another company sued for “widespread fraud while collecting $11 billion in federal student aid between 2003 and 2011,” this time by the federal government, the state of Illinois, and 10 other states. That case remains under litigation.

The Reader article comes out just two weeks before a tight gubernatorial race. Polls show Rauner neck and neck with Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat.



Categories: Urban School News

CPS says it wants delay for new test, but was already denied in July

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 17:30

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made a big point at the board meeting today to say that she is asking the Illinois State Board of Education and the federal government to let the district delay the PARCC, the state’s new standardized test aligned with the more rigorous Common Core Standards.

But Byrd-Bennett did not include some critical information: She asked ISBE for the delay in a letter in June and, in July, ISBE sent back a letter denying her request. What’s more, the Department of Education does not decide which tests districts should use, so it is unclear what Byrd-Bennett would request from them. She told the board she wanted “concurrence from the federal government by Thanksgiving.”

Federal officials referred questions to the state department.

Even before it came to light that Byrd-Bennett’s request had already been denied, Robert Schaeffer from the National Center on Fair and Open Testing said he was skeptical of the move. “It is convenient because she probably expects Springfield to say no and then it will be an excuse,” Schaeffer said. “Testing has become part of the political process and this is a tactic to slow the criticism.”

The request to exclude CPS, while other school districts in the state will be forced to use the PARCC, was applauded by board members and, during the public commentary section, by a group of parents who were there to complain about the PARCC. The parent advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, started an online petition last week to urge ISBE to ask the Department of Education for a waiver and it already has more than 1200 signatures.

Byrd-Bennett said she was told by ISBE that they will not request such waiver. But asking ISBE to provide an exception for one school district from a state mandated test was highly unusually.

Byrd-Bennett pointed out a lot of state laws and policies are applied differently to CPS than other school districts. “We are the largest school district in the state and our administering the PARCC is more complicated because of the scale, we need to be cautious,” said Byrd-Bennett in explaining the argument she has made to state officials.

Byrd-Bennett suggested in her letter that ISBE use the NWEA for the state’s accountability system.

In a presser held during the board meeting (a first during her administration) Byrd-Bennett provided reporters with a long list of reasons she didn’t want to fully implement the PARCC this year. But in her letter to ISBE she says she is concerned mostly about scheduling.

On top of the PARCC, CPS plans to continue giving all elementary school students the NWEA and, all high school students, the ACT. Byrd-Bennett is continuing these other assessments because the district needs growth measures for teacher and principal evaluations, as well as school ratings.  

“The testing demands on students and the burdens on teachers and principals with the addition of the PARCC will be overwhelming,” she writes in her letter to ISBE.

Bryd-Bennett also told reporters that she had not received information back from the “pilot program” the district participated in this past Spring. She said the district should evaluate the results before full implementation.

But in her letter to ISBE, Byrd-Bennett says the pilot yielded “generally positive results from students, teachers and administrators.” But she adds that “our schools are simply not ready for full-scale implementation.”

In his response to Byrd-Bennett’s letter, State Superintendent Christopher Koch pointed out that “most of the time devoted to testing is a local decision.” He also argues that the state can’t allow CPS to use one test, while forcing all other school districts to use another test. “The state also has an obligation to implement an equitable system of accountability for all the student in Illinois.”

Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan has said he thinks the PARCC, as well as the other Common Core aligned assessment supported by his administration, will be an improvement over the old multiple choice tests. Some of the questions on the PARCC are multiple choice, but others require students to fill in the blank or highlight text.

Critics of the PARCC say the format and some of the sections are confusing. Also, many of the questions seem subjective. Of the 23 states originally signed up to administer the PARCC, only 9 are currently planning on having students take it this year,

Categories: Urban School News

Enrollment data reveal trends for neighborhood schools, charter schools

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:09

As the district released this year’s official school-by-school enrollment numbers, officials pointed out that the steep 3,800 drop in the student population wasn’t the most dramatic in recent years:  Four times during the past decade enrollment has fallen more sharply, by 5,000-plus students.

Still, it’s the first time in years that Chicago Public Schools have had fewer than 400,000--just 396,683 students, according to the 20th day enrollment data that CPS released late Tuesday. Though it’s been nearly four weeks since the tally was taken, officials didn’t say why it took so long to release the numbers.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of the data reveal some important enrollment trends:

IB, STEM impact

Neighborhood high schools continued to take a hit on enrollment. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiative to launch new International Baccalaureate and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in these schools seems to be having a mixed effect: All but one of the five new “wall-to-wall” IB schools saw an uptick in enrollment. Clemente, which had been losing students for at least the last five years, saw 32 more students enroll this year, even as district officials were projecting a decline. But overall, most of the high schools that have small IB programs within a larger comprehensive school experienced a drop in enrollment.

On the elementary level, a lot of the schools in which the district launched IB and STEM programs were designated to take in students from schools closed in 2013. In addition to extra teaching positions for the new programs, these so-called “welcoming schools” received iPads and had major renovations to their buildings. Yet welcoming schools experienced an average of 6 percent decline in enrollment.

Alternatives up, some charters down

Alternative schools for at-risk students or dropouts saw the biggest increase in students, with 9,137 students now attending these schools—a 20 percent increase since last year. CPS has said it plans to open more alternative schools, a number of them for-profit.

About 2,500 more students now attend charter schools, a five percent increase since last year. But about 30 percent of charter schools saw a decline in enrollment. Charter schools, like district-run schools, have to contend with the opening of new schools and community population drops.

Cecilia Benitez, director of recruitment and retention at ACE Tech Charter in Washington Park, says the school has had trouble meeting its goal of enrolling 500 students since the opening of Back of the Yards High School, one of the new wall-to-wall IB high schools; and UNO Charter High -- Soccer Academy.

“We are seeing a drop in Latinos,” she says. For the past two years, ACE has been about 18 students short of 500. But this year, the school fell to about 448 students.

As a recruiter, Benitez goes to every high school fair to try to beef up enrollment. One of the big selling points for the school is that it can offer students a chance to earn a certificate in building trades, which can help them land jobs.

Even this late in the school year, ACE Tech will accept transfer students (who need to bring in their progress report and discipline report. Prospective students also have to have a meeting with the principal, who decides if they can attend. 

Chicago Collegiate Charter, a fourth- through sixth-grade school that opened last year in Roseland, is also still taking applications for fourth-grade and is letting families join the waiting list for fifth- and sixth-grade.  Roseland’s traditional schools also have plenty of space for more students and the community ranks on the top 5 for enrollment decline.

Sarah Elizabeth Ippel , founder and director of the Academy for Global Citizenship, notes that her charter school might be unusual because it always fills its spots. In fact, it usually gets about 14 times the number of applications for the spots available.

Ippel points to unique characteristics that are selling points for the school: It has an elementary IB program and dual language curriculum, an 8-hour school day--and serves 100 percent organic food.

But filling the seats also has to do with the fact that the surrounding Garfield Ridge neighborhood has many overcrowded schools. “We intentially went into an area that needed additional public school seats,” Ippel says. “I imagine it would be hard to be in an area where there [already] is sufficient capacity.”

Categories: Urban School News

Comings and Goings: New Advisory Board members, Naselli, Lynn

Catalyst Chicago - Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:01

Catalyst welcomes the Class of 2017 to its editorial advisory board: Jana Fleming, Herr Research Center, Erikson Institute; Madelyn James, Voices for Illinois Children; Ignacio Lopez, National Louis University; Bronwyn McDaniel, Consortium on Chicago School Research; Tara Shelton, South Loop School; Anand Sukumaran, Peterson Elementary; Ilana Walden, UMOJA Student Development Corp.; Greg White, LEARN Charter Schools; Teresa White, Free Spirt Media. Carmen Rodriguez, a parent member of the Von Steuben LSC is the new board chair; Alan Mather, principal of Lindblom Math & Science Academy, is vice chair.Julianar Naselli has been named principal of Daniel Hale Williams Prep School of Medicine. Ms. Naselli was formerly assistant principal of George Westinghouse College Prep. W. Terrell Burgess has been named to replace Ms. Naselli as assistant principal.

Les Lynn has left the Chicago Debate League and started Argument-Centered Education, an organization that focuses on providing professional development, implementation coaching, and adapted curriculum materials for teachers, schools, and networks in order to bring argument-centered instruction into the regular classroom.

Be a part of Comings & Goings. Send items to Catalyst Community Editor Vicki Jones:

Categories: Urban School News

Documentary series tackles school reform issues

Catalyst Chicago - Tue, 10/21/2014 - 10:32

The first in a series of short documentary films on education issues in Chicago will premiere on WTTW Chicago Tonight and also at a public forum at the Chicago History Museum at 7 p.m. on Oct. 28, which will be live-streamed on CAN-TV27 and at

The forum panel will include Victor M. Montañez, who was policy co-director at Designs for Change, the leading research and advocacy organization behind the creation of local school councils; William A. Sampson, professor of public policy at DePaul University and former president of Chicago United; Penny Bender Sebring, co-founder of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, and Angela Rudolph, an education consultant and former program officer at The Joyce Foundation. Veteran broadcast and print journalist Carol Marin will moderate.

Entitled “The School Project,” the six-part film series is the work of a unique collaboration of five of Chicago’s top documentary production companies: Free Spirit Media, Kartemquin Films, Kindling Group, Media Process Group and Siskel/Jacobs Productions.

“After the decision to close 50 public schools in Chicago, we knew we had to look at the issue of public education, but we couldn’t cover it alone, said Jon Siskel of Siskel/Jacobs Productions. “We decided to ask other top companies to collaborate with us on the project.”

The first film, “Worst In The Nation?” centers on the contention by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett in 1987 that Chicago had the worst schools in the country.

Catalyst Chicago is one of several outreach partners that are keeping their audiences up to date. The others are WTTW/Channel 11, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago History Museum and

The School Project series will look at the recent mass school closings in Chicago, the expansion of charter schools, the controversy surrounding standardized testing, school discipline policies and the history of reforms and educational models.

An interactive website,, will allow visitors to watch the documentaries online and obtain data trends, demographics and, where available, stories on individual schools.

Stay tuned for updates not only about The School Project but also about a year-long community engagement campaign  Catalyst Chicago is planning to mark its 25th anniversary in 2015.

Categories: Urban School News

Jury still out on Emanuel preschool expansion plans

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 10/20/2014 - 16:54

Unlike any Chicago mayor before him, Rahm Emanuel has made the expansion of quality early childhood education programs a focal point of his agenda.

He lengthened the official kindergarten school day, centralized the preschool application process, diverted some city revenue to make up for a loss in state and federal funding,  and, earlier this month, announced that the city would borrow millions of dollars through a so-called “social impact bond” to temporarily increase the number of slots in the city’s heralded child-parent centers.

By next year, Emanuel says, the city will be able to offer at least a half-day of preschool to all low-income children.

“If you’re a child of a parent that is basically described as poor, or lower, you will have universal preschool for that 4-year-old,” Emanuel told a room full of bank executives last week. “So when it comes time for kindergarten, we are going to be able to make sure every child in the city of Chicago – not just our children – but every child in the city of Chicago at the age of 4 will have preschool education […]so that when they get to kindergarten and go to those seven-hour days, they are ready.”

More than three years into the mayor’s tenure, advocates for the city’s youngest children say that they’re glad Emanuel has brought increased public attention to the issue. But many – especially working parents and union activists who are pushing for full-day universal preschool – say they’re still on the fence about how much his policies will ultimately expand and broaden access to what’s long been a complex web of early childhood programs.

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, education director for the Latino Policy Forum, says it’s obvious that Emanuel “gets that we have to start early if we’re talking about closing the achievement gap. It’s a lot more in the discourse than it ever has been. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.”

“We still need to ensure the right folks are at the table so they’re enacting policy from the ground up,” she adds.

Recognizing a good investment

Emanuel is no stranger to the world of early learning. At press conferences and education events, he often tells audiences how he studied the subject as an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College before switching his area of concentration. (A spokeswoman for the liberal arts school confirmed that Emanuel studied early childhood education during his first two years, in addition to working at an early childhood center on campus for three semesters.)

Emanuel’s experience, coupled with his later work in politics and as an investment banker, convinced him that early education is a good long-term investment.

“From the evidence I’ve seen, he does care about this and it’s not just because it’s a nice thing to do for kids. I think he believes the research out there […] that for every dollar you invest, you’re going to save $7 later down the road,” says Ric Estrada, president and CEO of Metropolitan Family Services, an organization that provides early education and other services to low-income families in Cook and DuPage counties.

“You have to believe it, because he’s putting his money where his mouth is. He’s expanded programs especially in poor neighborhoods and when there is no money, he’s forced to be creative,” Estrada adds.

As evidence, he points to the social impact bonds, a new financing tool that Emanuel has turned to in order to pay for 2,600 new slots at six CPS child-parent centers over the next four years. In a plan unveiled last week, the city would borrow about $17 million from Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund, Northern Trust and the JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation with the understanding it will only pay the money back if it saves on expensive special education services for children later down the road. The city would make additional payments if students reach high achievement levels on kindergarten literacy and third-grade tests.

According to projections presented to the City Council last week, CPS will wind up paying the lenders nearly $21.5 million back by the time the children graduate from high school.

The mayor’s proposal contrasts drastically with how a coalition of community groups and unions has suggested the city pay for “truly universal” full-day preschool. The groups want the city to go after banks for so-called “toxic swaps,” redistribute money from tax-increment financing districts, or lobby the state to create new revenue from taxes on commuters or luxury services.

“What they’ve done is put a drop in the bucket to deal with the massive demand for preschool services, and not even begin to address the extent to which people desperately need childcare for infants and toddlers,” said Jackson Potter of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Instead of providing those services, we’ll have a much smaller version of that and we’re on the hook for creating a profitable situation for the banks that are financing this.”

Ready to Learn! focuses on the neediest

The mayor’s signature early learning initiative, Ready to Learn!, has sought to redistribute preschool spaces to the areas of the city with the highest needs. Among the changes:

-- A centralized bidding process for schools and community-based sites that are applying for state or federal money for preschool slots.

-- A centralized enrollment process to try and guarantee that the city’s poorest children get top priority. However, the change has sparked complaints from some parents who could no longer enroll their children directly at their neighborhood school, contributing to a drop in enrollment of nearly 1,000 4-year-olds in school-based preschools.  “If parents can’t get slots available to them in their neighborhood, they might get referred somewhere miles away,” says Brynn Seibert, director of child care and early learning for SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which represents child care workers. “Transportation is a big problem that could obscure some of the access issues.” CPS hasn’t published this year’s enrollment figures yet, so it’s unclear whether the problem remains.

-- For those families that do not qualify as low income, CPS began charging for half-day preschool on a sliding scale. District data obtained by SEIU Healthcare Illinois and provided to Catalyst Chicago indicates that about 6 percent of all children in school-based preschools had to pay last year.

Not surprisingly, schools on the North Side, such as Edison Park and Blaine, had the highest percentage of paying students. The money generated from the sliding-scale fees – about $164,000 per month – helps pay for other early education programs in the city.

Adding up the numbers

Over the past several months, Emanuel has used the term “universal” to describe plans to provide a free, half-day preschool to the 25,000 or so 4-year-olds in the city whose families’ incomes would qualify them for free or reduced-cost school lunches. The estimates are based on U.S. Census data, and are similar to last year’s actual figures on the number of kindergartners who qualified for the lunch program.

According to the mayor’s office, about 23,500 low-income 4-year-olds are already being served in city-run early education programs in school- or community site-based slots. (Though city officials have not provided Catalyst with an accounting of that figure, the numbers roughly added up last year when taking into account 4-year-olds in Head Start, Preschool for All and child-parent centers in the city, including Head Start programs administered by other agencies.)

Emanuel’s social impact bond proposal – which could come into fruition by next month – makes a dent at reaching those additional 1,500 children who are now not in any program. Additional slots would apparently be funded with revenue generated from the city’s controversial red-light cameras, as Emanuel has said he’d invest an additional $36 million over three years from those revenues.

Last year, some of those funds went toward start-up costs for new early learning centers, including one that opened in February in the annex of Libby Elementary School in the Englewood neighborhood. Metropolitan Family Services operates the center, which provides early learning and childcare services in addition to a variety of other health, legal aid and workforce programs.

Trying to help working parents

During the press conference earlier this month, Emanuel spoke about how last year’s decision to make all kindergarten classes a full day was critical not just for the children, but for their working parents. (Previously, some schools offered a half-day and others a full-day.)

“No parent, specifically a mother, can get a job if she says, ‘I have to leave at 11 o’clock to pick up my child,” Emanuel said. “If you’re on a two-hour schedule for kindergarten, you’re not only short-changing the child, you’re short-changing the parent.”

Working parents like Hellen Juarez agree wholeheartedly with Emanuel’s assessment. But they say that the situation doesn’t just apply to those with kindergartners.

Juarez is a single mother with three daughters who lives in Brighton Park, which was ranked the neighborhood most in need of childcare and preschool slots by IFF (previously known as the Illinois Facilities Fund). Two of her daughters are in elementary school; the youngest, who is 2, goes to daycare in another neighborhood because Juarez couldn’t find anything nearby. Juarez, a paralegal who is also taking college classes, pays about $700 out of pocket for a full day of care. She says she looks forward to when her youngest daughter is old enough to go to full-day kindergarten.

“Would a half day of pre-school be useful? Not really,” Juarez said. “I have to drop off my daughter by 6:45 a.m. at the daycare, go to class then I go to work, and pick her up at 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m. Half a day is not universal. It’s just a job half-done.”

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Interim IG investigates banned company, testing petition, school funding math

Catalyst Chicago - Mon, 10/20/2014 - 09:55

Banned by Mayor Rahm Emanuel from work for the city, Windy City Electric Company still managed to get $3.1 million in contracts from CPS, according to a Better Government Association story in the Chicago Sun Times. Windy City was accused of falsely claiming to be owned and operated by women. According to the article, CPS can terminate a contract with any company that is banned by another city agency. CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment on why CPS continued to work with the company, but said it was under investigation by the district’s interim Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

This brings up another point: When is Emanuel going to appoint a permanent inspector general? In June--more than three months ago--James Sullivan announced that he was leaving his post after 12 years. McCaffrey says the process is "moving forward. The candidates are being reviewed and we expect an appointment soon."

Schuler seems a shoo-in for the permanent job. He was a police officer for nine years before going to law school. He started in the city’s Inspector General department before transferring to CPS and was second in command. Being an interim seems like it has the potential to make the office less likely to take action. Wonder what CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel are waiting for?

2.  Putting off the PARCC… Raise Your Hand-Illinois has started an online petition to try to convince the Illinois State Board of Education to put off implementation of the new state standardized test for a year. The PARCC is aligned with Common Core standards, which are supposed to be more rigorous than the old state standards. But there are concerns that the test is not yet reliable, hasn’t been field tested sufficiently and that many schools don’t have adequate technology to administer the test, which is administered by computer. The petition is suggesting that the state use the NWEA or another national test for elementary students and continue to administer the ACT for high school students. The petition notes that several other states have delayed using the PARCC.

Parents in Chicago are also upset because their children are being hit with a double whammy of tests this year. Not only will elementary and high school students have to take the new PARCC, but elementary students will also take the NWEA and high school students will also take the ACT. As a result, several weeks in April, May or June will be engulfed by testing. What's more, many schools are having their students take the NWEA in the fall and winter to chart their progress.

So far, the petition has 818 online signatures.

3. Playing with numbers … With just a few weeks to go before the Nov. 4 elections, The Associated Press took a look at claims made by both Gov. Pat Quinn and his opponent Bruce Rauner on school spending. Rauner, a Republican, has attacked the incumbent for a $600 million decrease in school funding since he took office. Quinn, a Democrat, says he’s increased spending.

State school data provided to the AP shows that funding on preschool through 12th grade dropped from $7.4 billion in 2009 -- the year before Quinn replaced his predecessor -- to $6.8 billion this year. However, the federal government poured in hundreds of millions of additional dollars in 2009 and 2010 through the stimulus package, which according to Quinn shouldn’t be lumped in when discussing the state’s spending on schools. “Without the federal aid, education funding in fiscal 2009 drops to $6.4 billion, which means state support has increased $442 million, or 7 percent,” according to the story.

4. Still on strike … Schools in Waukegan remain closed today as talks between the district and teachers have stalled. Teachers have been on strike for 11 days over salary issues.

District officials blamed the union for suspending contract talks indefinitely, according to the Chicago Tribune. Meanwhile the Waukegan Teachers’ Council president says teachers are “giving them time to reflect and to look at their own numbers and come back with a serious offer.”

Teachers in Waukegan say they sacrificed during lean years and now the district has a surplus that they should be sharing with teachers. However, district officials say the union’s proposal of a 9 percent pay increase would bankrupt them. Waukegan has 17,000 students and 23 schools.

5. Sign-on bonus… The City of Milwaukee has officially banned public charter schools from offering cash incentives to those who refer students for enrollment. Last week’s decision came in response to a “well-advertised offer” from a charter school that would pay $100 in cash to anyone who referred a student who enrolled a student by the state’s official head count day for state enrollment purposes. “Enrollment is the lifeblood for schools that rely on public funding because it guarantees a certain amount of per-pupil dollars from the state,” says the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The school in question “called the campaign cost-effective because it rewarded parents for doing what they might do anyway: talk up the school with family and friends.” The teachers union, meanwhile, calls it bribery.

Though it has never been substaniated, here in Chicago we have heard of charters schools offering incentives of computers or iPads to enroll. 

Also... Latasha Thomas, head of the City Council’s Education Committee, announced this weekend that she is not going to run again.


Categories: Urban School News

As CPS irons out school budgets, charters will also get more cash

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 17:42

CPS is increasing the per-pupil funding provided to charter schools for this year in order to “equalize” funding between them and traditional schools.

Charter school operators say that even with the slight increase, some of them are down so many students that they have had to shift spending around to create a balanced budget.

CPS will spend an additional $7.8 million on charter schools, but spokesman Bill McCaffrey says he is not sure how much more per-pupil that amounts to. 

The decision is in response to the late September announcement that CPS would not cut traditional school budgets even if they had less than the projected number of students. Under student-based budgeting, schools get a stipend for each student, but ever since implementing the new strategy two years ago, officials have declined to take money away from schools that enroll fewer students than expected.

"We must be fair and equitable and charter school students are still CPS students," McCaffrey says. 

CPS will spend an additional $24 million to let traditional schools keep money even if they enrolled fewer students, and to provide more money for those schools that got more students.

Charter schools had been budgeted to get the same per-pupil rate as district-run schools, which is an average of $4,390. Charter schools also get an additional $1,973 per student to make up for the support that traditional schools get from the district.

State law stipulates that charter schools must receive funding per student, so the district would have had to take away extra money from charters that enrolled fewer students than expected. Also, unlike CPS-run schools, charters have a cap for how many students they can enroll and must get CPS board approval to increase that cap. If they take in more than that cap, they don’t get more money.

Last year, as many as 38 of 120-plus charter schools did not have as many students as they were projected to get, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data. Many of the charters that were short of students were new.

 Though CPS must take an official count of students for state funding purposes on the 20th day of school, which was September 30, the district has not yet released school-by-school numbers.

McCaffrey has already acknowledged that the overall projection of 400,445 students district-wide was off by at least 3,000 students, leaving the district with a total of 397,000.

Categories: Urban School News

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