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 schoolprojectfilm.com.
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 Ebony.com.
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, www.schoolprojectfilm.com, 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.
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.”
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.
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.