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Inspector Gen'l. report: Major financial fraud, abuse of selective admissions

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 01/02/2015 - 17:30

Over the past five years, a CPS employee who worked at two struggling high schools milked them of almost $900,000 in a large, multi-faceted purchasing and reimbursement scam, according to today’s release of the Inspector General’s annual report.

Also, the inspector general report details incidents in which parents falsified their addresses to make it easier for their children to get into selective high schools; and cases in which two high schools mis-categorized dropouts to improve their graduation rates.

The employee accused of the fraud scheme resigned from CPS under investigation and is designated as "Do Not Hire." The inspector general’s office has been working with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, but no arrests have been made yet.

The report does not name the schools involved, but sources have identified them to Catalyst as Gage Park and Michele Clark.

While this is one of the largest, if not the largest single scheme in the district's recent history, just two years ago, Lakeview High School’s technology coordinator was found dead after being accused carrying out a similiar scheme. In both cases, the employees worked with associates to funnel money to companies for goods and services that the schools never received, and the scheme was carried for years without being noticed.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey says that CPS “continues to evaluate its procurement processes to increase safeguards and adopt best practices to prevent these occurrences.”

But for several years, the inspector general’s office has been encouraging CPS to provide more resources the internal audit and the inspector general’s office, noting that CPS contracts are lucrative and thousands of people in schools have the authority to request and approve payments to vendors.

This case was flagged during a financial audit, which led to the Inspector General’s report.

In the report, IG Nicholas Schuler notes that his office was able to investigate only 20 percent of the complaints received. The office is limited because it is often investigating big, complex issues and has a small staff of only 13 investigators, plus Schuler and his deputy, to scrutinize the $6 billion school district with 41,000-some employees.

By contrast, Houston Independent has 20 professionals to investigate a school district that is half the size of CPS. In 2011, the IG report noted that Chicago has one inspector for every 2,300 employees, while Cook County has one inspector for every 1,100 employees and the city's municipal government has an inspector for every 455 workers.

“The inability to investigate more complaints creates a substantial risk that instances of fraud and employee misconduct go undetected,” he writes.

In an interview, Schuler added: “We are undersized and understaffed compared to other IGs in the area.”

Fraud at two high schools

Employee records show that the administrator who orchestrated the fraud in question worked at Gage Park High from 2002 to 2012. In 2012, he made $104,000. In the 2013 employee roster, he shows up as a 0.5 (half-time) position at both Clark and Gage Park, with an annual salary of $109,168.

Gage Park High School has seen its enrollment drop by more than 70 percent in the past five years. This summer, when teachers got wind of the investigation, they were outraged.

“We are sinking and nobody cares,” Susan Steinmiller, a 23-year veteran teacher and a representative on the local school council, said this summer. “We have no newspaper, no library, no band, why would anyone want to be here?... I am just really upset because we really need the money.”

In September, however, Gage Park’s principal abruptly retired and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett hand-picked the principal’s replacement. Byrd- Bennett has said she is personally invested in the revitalization of the school.

According to the IG’s report, the principals of the two high schools did not seem aware of the scheme. But they did put a lot of trust in this one particular employee and one of them gave him their password to the district's IT system, which helped facilitate the fraud.
Still, questions remain about how so much money could be paid for such an extended period of time without coming to attention of school or district leadership.

The employee used a variety of methods to siphon money to himself. But the majority of the scheme was carried out by engineering payment to a number of companies for more than $700,000 in goods and services that were never delivered to the schools. The Inspector General’s report confirms that the CPS employee in question received at least $100,000 in kickbacks from one of the deals and indicates that the office suspects he received much more.

“In addition to the large cut that Business Owner 4 was keeping, the OIG could not eliminate the possibility that Business Owner 3 or Business Owner 4 kicked back portions of the $581,947 to Employee A, who made over $122,000 in cash deposits—usually round amounts—during this scheme,” according to the inspector general report.

The employee also steered false reimbursements to three of his CPS colleagues and, in at least one case, had the bulk of money given back to him in cash.

The employee also participated in "stringing," meaning that purchases were distributed to several companies in order to avoid the non-competitive purchasing limits of $10,000.

Beyond the Gage Park case, several incidents of stringing were identified in the Inspector General report and it has been a consistent problem noted in previous reports. At another high school, the school operations manager strung together purchases for office supplies among four businesses and got kickbacks from the companies. The employee was laid off and is designated as Do Not hire.

In two other situations, companies tried to promote "stringing" to schools by getting multiple vendor numbers and advertising the fact that they have them to schools.

Schuler says CPS needs to do a better job of informing operations managers and clerks about stringing and the fact that it is illegal. Also, he acknowledges that some stringing may be done to avoid paperwork or to speed up purchasing.

The report also points to several individual incidents of fraud or ethics violations. One of them, in which two teachers also work as police officers, is not a violation. The IG is recommending that CPS look into making it one.

Dropouts, selective admissions

The inspector also honed in on two high schools, linked by a common administrator, that wrongly labeled a few hundred students as transfers, but without confirming them. The report concludes that these students should have been labeled as dropouts or “unable to locate.”

It is unclear whether correctly labeling these students, which as far as the IG knows never happened, would have lowered CPS’ graduation rate—which, at 69 percent, is regularly touted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a major accomplishment. Also, many more schools may be miscoding students, as the IG only focused on the two high schools where there were complaints.

None of the three school administrators in this case have been disciplined as recommended by the Inspector General, and one of them has been promoted.

Meanwhile, parents, including some who are CPS employees, got themselves into trouble this past year for falsifying their addresses in order to give their children an edge in getting into selective enrollment high schools--confirming suspicions  that parents would try to game the admissions system that now relies on neighborhood and family socioeconomic characteristics rather than primarily on race, as under the former desegregation decree.

According to CPS, last year, 16,000 students applied for 3,200 selective enrollment seats.

Schuler says his office has looked into individual cases of abuses in the past, but wanted to take a hard look at it this year.

“Everyone in the city is trying to get these seats,” he says. “They are highly sought after and we want to make sure the process is fair and honest.”

McCaffrey says that parents should be aware that district leaders are taking misrepresentation seriously and working to try to prevent it. “This may include future audits of students in selective enrollment schools,” he says.

His office found12 cases in which parents provided false addresses that would put them in a better position to land a seat; and, in half of those cases, the parents worked for CPS. Schuler says that this is by no means the full scope of the problem, but that his office looked for particular “red flags” and this was the result of that review. In addition, he says the fact that CPS employees tried to cheat the system is particularly egregious.

In two of the cases, the students would have gotten into the selective enrollment high school even if their parents had used their true address. Those students were allowed to continue attending the school and the parents weren’t subjected to any discipline.

However, eight students were dis-enrolled, one student withdrew on their own and another one was allowed to stay because she was going into her senior year. Four of the employees were either fired or resigned.

Categories: Urban School News

The eight stories that changed Colorado’s education landscape in 2014

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 12/23/2014 - 16:05

As 2014 year comes to a close, Chalkbeat Colorado looked back to identify the stories and themes that had the largest impact on classrooms across Colorado. Major themes included discontent about testing and school funding, school improvement efforts that are and in many cases aren’t working, and questions of leadership by principals and school board members.

Students take to the streets “The students of Jeffco are standing up for themselves, and for their friends, family, teachers and most importantly, their education. So are you with us?”
— Jessica Yan, Standley Lake High School student

Colorado students along the Front Range made sure their frustrations — on a variety of issues — were heard loud and clear this year.

Students in Jefferson County, Boulder, Denver, and Aurora left their desks for a string of protests against their school board, standardized testing, and two grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of black men in Missouri and New York.

While the issues were not connected, the series of student-led protests stretched from September through December. Adult reaction to the walkouts was mixed. Most school and civic leaders in Jefferson County and Boulder marveled at the walkouts. Others wondered out loud about the influence of adults on the student’s decisions to protest. And Denver Mayor Michael Hancock pleaded with students to return to class.

In Jeffco, students have vowed to keep an eye on the school board. Adults behind the opt-out movement plan to capitalize on the largest public demonstration against testing to date. And Denver school and city leaders are hosting conversations about race relations. But whether any systemic change comes from the protests is still unclear.

Testing backlash “Colorado still has to have that conversation — what is that we want from our state system. I think that conversation should be occurring.”
— Joyce Zurowski, executive director of assessment at CDE

Students in Boulder weren’t the only ones — and certainly not the first — upset about changes to Colorado’s testing system. Since the start of the 2014 legislative session, some Coloradans have been been engaged in a renewed debate about how many exams students should be asked to take, and for what purpose.

While the debate about standardizing testing is not new, it has become increasing charged due to two main factors. First, individuals and organizations who respectively oppose the Common Core State Standards, which the state had adopted, and standardized testing have found commonalities in their issues. In some instances, they’ve joined forces. Second, this is the first year of new computer-based assessments, which seem to be eating up more class time and causing logistical headaches, some school leaders claim.

A panel created by the Colorado General Assembly is expected to make recommendations to the legislature early next year on how the state’s testing system should change.

The fight over the negative factor “We have much ground to make up in school funding. We made some good progress this year, but we are nowhere close to making a proper investment in our public schools.”
— Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association

After voters soundly defeated a constitutional amendment that would have raised an additional billion dollars for schools in November 2013, the coalition of education interests behind that proposal found itself in disarray and split by deep disagreements over the path forward.

Want more?
Take a longer and deeper look back at 2014 with the Chalkbeat Colorado yearbook. Get yours today when you donate to our end of year campaign here.

At the heart of the disagreement was the negative factor, a mechanism that the legislature created during the recession to cut the state’s basic school funding. School superintendents and school boards argued that the legislature should focus on backfilling years of cuts driven by the negative factor, and that money should come with no strings attached so that they could restore whatever programs they’d been forced to trim.

But others, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, argued that new school funding could be used as a driver of educational improvement if used in very specific ways to support programs like early literacy and English language instruction.

The two main finance bills, the Student Success Act and the School Finance Act, were introduced in late February. But the arguments, negotiations, and amending continued until the last day of the session, when the House approved the final version of the finance act.

While it’s likely schools will get even more money next year, superintendents are lobbying lawmakers and the governor to ensure that money comes without conditions. And a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the negative factor is making its way through the court system now.

Jeffco interrupted “Organizations founder when there is instability. Like any corporation, where there is infighting and distraction among leadership, the organization loses direction.”
— David Bloomfield, Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center professor PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Standley Lake High School students rallied near their school Sept. 19 to raise awareness over a proposed curriculum panel that would report to the school district’s Board of Education. The rally was the same day as an apparent teacher “sick out.”

For many years, the Jefferson County school district was the epitome of a suburban school district in Colorado. Most of the 85,000 students in the district performed better than their peers across the state on standardized exams and the district was seeing rising graduation rates.

But in 2013, a new majority, with strong conservative ties, was elected to the school board.

Their message: we can do better. In little more than a year that board has hired a new superintendent; given more money to charter schools in order to close a past funding disparity; and developed a new compensation system for teachers that rewards teachers that earn the highest evaluation rating.

But along the way, critics of the board majority believe they rushed to half-baked decisions; the board chairman failed to comply with open records requests; and one member proposed a curriculum review committee to ensure U.S. history is patriotic which triggered weeks of acrimony and national headlines.

Rumors of a possible recall effort continue to swirl throughout the sprawling suburban county, which also serves as an election bellwether. But opponents to the board majority face an expensive uphill battle if they want to make that happen.

Denver’s new plan emphasizes racial equity, closing opportunity gap “I can’t worry about tomorrow. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure these kids get to high school. They deserve it.”
— Elza Guajardo, Kepner middle school principal PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Students at Kepner Middle School in southwest Denver pass between classes. Plans to open a new STRIVE charter school and district-run program in 2015 are on hold for a year.

In August, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education approved a new and slimmed-down strategic document. The aim: to increase the number of quality school options available to families and close stubborn racial achievement gaps. With the self-congratulating phase over, all eyes are on several big moves aimed at improving equity and access to top educational pr grams throughout the district.

The quality of schools in southwest Denver, which is home to some nearly a fourth of all Denver students, has for years been the subject of concern and discontent. But that’s starting to change, as the district has made reform in southwest Denver — particularly at the neighborhood’s struggling Kepner Middle School — a priority. But not everyone agrees on the best path forward for schools in the southwest. Possible fault lines in the debate include whether new schools that open in the neighborhood should be charter or district-run, and how those schools should best serve the neighborhood’s many students learning English.

And across town, the IB program at George Washington High School has for 30 years educated a small group of high-performing students and sent many of them off to some of the nation’s most elite colleges. The rigorous four-year program admits students based on grades, test scores, teacher recommendations and interviews. But in an effort to make the program more inclusive, district officials are opening up the pre-IB program to a much wider swath of students. The move caused an uproar among families at the school, many of whom worry that broadening the program will dilute its rigor.

A promise of improvement at Denver’s Manual High School flounders “A lot happened this year that we can’t get back. If we can get thought this year, next year will be good.”
— John Goe, Manual art teacher

Eight years after Denver Public Schools officials rebooted struggling Manual High School, promising to rebuild it as a world-class school for northeast Denver, the school had once again fallen away from the public eye and languished as the city’s lowest-performing high school.

PHOTO: Marc PiscottyEnglish teacher Olivia Jones works with students in a computer lab. Jones is the faculty adviser for an honors book club.

But that changed in 2014, after Chalkbeat reporters detailed the rise and fall of reform efforts at the school and Denver officials attempted a dramatic and at times controversial mid-year course correction.

Chalkbeat’s months-long reporting effort found many factors that hindered the school’s efforts to provide a high-quality education for its students, including a continuously tense relationship with the district that stretched through the tenure of three principals over seven years and mismanagement of the school’s budget, which forced staff to abandon key parts of the school’s instructional program.

A week after Chalkbeat’s series ran, Denver officials replaced the school’s principal.

New principal Don Roy made immediate changes to the school, some small and some more significant. He brought on more school security and implemented tighter disciplinary rules. He also backpedaled from some elements of the school’s model, including an extended school calendar that had left many students and staff burnt out. And in June, Roy announced that he would not renew the contract of the school’s assistant principal Vernon Jones, a decision that drew protests from many community members who felt Jones was their connection to and voice in the school.

DPS quietly and shortly considered merging Manual with its flagship high school, East. But community outrage from both campuses squashed that idea. The district is now searching for a new principal to lead Manual in the 2015-16 school year.

In DPS, principal turnover is highest where improvement intentions are most intense “The notion that great systems can exist without great principals is ridiculous.”
— Tom Boasberg, DPS superintendent

A key and very public strategy the Denver school district has touted has been its reform of how it hires, trains, and retains its school leaders. And while Denver’s overall principal turnover rate has fallen by almost half in recent years, churn of school leaders has not slowed at nearly a quarter of Denver schools, where three or more principals have come and gone since 2008.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Columbine Elementary School principal Jason Krause looks at a student’s hall pass. Krause is Columbine’s latest principal, the school’s fifth in seven years.

That turnover, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of state records, is concentrated in schools where the district has pushed its most intense improvement efforts, schools that researchers say are most in need of high quality and steady leadership. Principals have been thrust into struggling schools with little training, given support that feels more more burdensome than beneficial, and held to expectations that some describe as impossibly too high.

As schools lose principals to burnout or officials move them out, rocky transitions disrupt students’ classrooms and leave communities feeling isolated from their schools.

District leaders say that they are beginning to take steps to understand Denver’s principal churn in order to figure out what to fix. For example, most principals now have development coaches.

The struggles of Steel City’s turnaround “If the state has all the answers, why are they waiting for five years?”
— Rod Slyhoff, Pueblo Greater Chamber of Commerce PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Students at Roncalli Middle School in Pueblo worked on a robotics project in April. Pueblo City Schools is one of 10 school districts the state is monitoring for low performance.

It’s becoming increasingly likely the 18,000 student Pueblo school district will be the first big test of the state’s school accountability system, which gives struggling schools and districts five years to improve or face sanctions. Of the dozen or so school districts that are less than a year away from having a conversation with the state about its accreditation, Pueblo City Schools is the largest.

At risk is a loss of federal funding; students’ diplomas will likely be worthless; and the city’s reputation, which was once nationally recognized for teaching students of color how to read well, and its economic recovery is on the line.

The struggle to improve the city’s schools has been fought on many fronts. And to better understand how a school district with a large concentration of poor and Latino students works to improve itself, Chalkbeat spent the spring interviewing dozens of district officials, teachers, principals, students, and community members.

In one case, the city designed a socioeconomically diverse school where most students are succeeding. But in doing so, the district also unintentionally created the state’s lowest performing middle school that has struggled to keep a principal more than a year.

Categories: Urban School News

Denver pins high hopes on new leadership programs, incentives

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 12/23/2014 - 16:00

“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

That line from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” stuck out this year to Barbara O’Brien, a member of the Denver school board and the director of Catapult Leadership, a Denver-based leadership development organization that works with schools, as she listened to the audiobook that’s been playing in her car this winter.

Dickens was describing Mr. Fezziwig, a kind-hearted boss in late Victorian England (who stands, of course, in stark contrast to the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge).

It struck O’Brien that Mr. Fezziwig’s example also applies to school principals, who, she said, have significant power to shape the schools in which they work.

Principals manage everything from community relations to teacher evaluations to leading schools through changes in instruction that are accompanying new standards.

The demands of the job can take a toll: High principal turnover, especially in higher-poverty schools, has been a major challenge for Denver and for urban districts across the country.

While Denver has seen its overall principal turnover decline in recent years, the district still struggles to quell churn in its neediest schools.

Figuring out how to prepare, incentivize, and retain principals in all of the district’s schools has been a major focus of Denver Public Schools this year. Improving school leadership is one of the major focuses of the Denver Plan, the district’s five-year strategic roadmap.

The district is now running and partnering with a number of programs that train, certify, and support assistant principals, principals, and even the instructional superintendents who supervise school leaders. District officials are also proposing significant financial incentives for school leaders and new attention to the details of principal preparation, support, and placement.

That Denver is turning its attention to the particular challenges of principals puts the district at the forefront of a national and statewide shift in focus. “Denver’s ahead of the curve,” said Bob Farrace, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Across the country, it’s finally sinking in that principal leadership matters.”

Part of that shift comes as Denver principals are preparing to receive their first performance reviews under the district’s LEAD framework, which ties school leaders’ evaluations to measures of student learning.

“There’s been such a tremendous focus on teacher accountability,” O’Brien said. “Even though [principals] are included in S.B. 10-191 [a law that created accountability systems for teachers and principals] they were in a way sort of an afterthought because the focus was on classroom teaching.”

Now, she said, there’s an acknowledgment that “there’s a really serious role for principals.”


The district’s leadership strategy includes a proposal to increase financial incentives for principals that is similar to systems already in place for teachers.

“We are in the middle of developing an incentive system for school leaders that’s like our teacher incentive system through ProComp,” said Susana Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer, referring to the district’s taxpayer-sponsored incentive program for teachers.

She said principals would be able to earn incentives for performance and placement: Principals in turnaround schools and in high-growth schools, for instance, would both earn bonuses.

“We want our leaders to be well-compensated,” she said. “We see other districts competing…we want to make sure we are number one so we don’t lose the best people.”

Cordova said extra funds would help the district send principals where they’re most needed, attract potential leaders from within and outside of Denver, and retain successful principals. “It’s certainly not the only reason people take on hard positions,” she said of compensation, “but it’s a big part.”

In a recent draft of the incentive system, an elementary principal who is eligible for incentives could earn $103,000, a K-8 principal could earn $112,500, a middle school principal $106,700, and a high school principal $121,000, Cordova said. Right now, the minimum salary for an elementary principal is $80,500; K-8 is $84,000; middle school is $87,000; and high school is $96,000. (These are all the low ends of a range that extends up to $125,000 for high school leaders.)

That jump would represent an significant additional investment on the part of the district, superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a recent meeting of the district’s board. Most board members expressed support for the plan at that meeting.

“We want to create a value proposition for leaders to come here,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district’s chief academic officer.

New Leadership Programs

DPS is also building out a series of programs to train or license people within and out of the district who might be interested in becoming principals. As part of that effort, the district recently applied for and was awarded the ability to license principals.

DPS now advertises programs for people who are already certified to lead schools and for those who have some relevant experience but may not meet all the state’s requirements for traditional certification:

  • The Residency of Educational Development of DPS Intrapreneurs (REDDI) Program places aspiring school leaders into charter schools, where they observe the systems and school cultures in those schools.
  • AP Ascent, new this year, is a cohort-based program for assistant principals in which the participants execute a project focused on improving their school.
  • Learn to Lead, or the Denver Principal Residency, places full-time residents in schools. The candidates ideally become DPS principals the year after they finish their residency.
  • Denver Lead Today is an alternative licensing program for aspiring principals.
  • Catapult is an external program that also offers alternative licenses to principals, especially focused on turnaround and innovation schools. (O’Brien said Catapult would likely begin to shift its focus to work on helping current school principals evolve as leaders.)

The district also has partnerships with the University of Denver and the University of Colorado Denver’s programs that offer principal licenses. One of those programs, the Ritchie Program, was the district’s earliest foray into pairing with a university (the University of Denver) to ensure principals are prepared for the district’s and schools’ real needs.

The district also recently hired a firm to help with external recruiting.

Jonta Morris, an assistant principal at McGlone Elementary who is one of the first participants in AP Ascent, said she thought the variety of programs would allow anyone who was interested in being a school leader to find a path.

“With the district being so large, it’s easy for emerging leaders to fall through the cracks,” Morris said. “But they’re make it their priority to ensure candidates are exposed to a lot of leadership opportunities.

She said she had been looking for something like AP Ascent program, which would allow her to focus on her own leadership style and strengths while learning from a group of peers. “This allows the district to have people who understand the DPS core values.”

District officials point to a reduction in turnover from 20 percent three years ago to 13 percent last year as evidence that the focus on leadership is paying off. Shannon Hagerman, the director of talent preparation for the district, said that more teachers are rating their principals as effective than before. Just 3 percent of teachers have deemed their principals not effective.

But as far as the effect of the entire suite of training programs, especially newer efforts like AP Ascent and REDDI, “there’s no way to know if they’re making much of a difference yet,” O’Brien said. “They’re too new. New things take a whole lot of tender loving care to get them going.”

“The focus coming out of the senior team has been on the preparation of principals. That’s led to this proliferation of programs, which kind of worries me,” she said. “How do you do anything well when you have so many things?”

Looking Up and Looking Down

The district is also focusing on those who oversee principals and on potential principals-to-be.

For principals-to-be, Whitehead-Bust said the district is looking at improving  teacher leadership programs and career pathways in addition to its AP Ascent program. One district official described finding potential leaders a year before, two years before, and even three years before they’re prepared to be principals.

For the first time, the district held meeting of all its assistant principals to give them a glimpse of the district’s expectations for school leaders. A leadership framework outlines the basics.

For overseers, DPS sent a cadre of instructional superintendents and principals to a training run by the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York over the summer. The Relay Graduate School of Education, which initially garnered attention several years ago for creating a training program for teachers that is unattached to any college or university, is planning to expand to Denver.

DPS also reduced the number of principals any given Instructional Superintendents oversees to eight, and in some cases to just four. Principals will receive their first review under LEAD, the district’s new evaluation system, this January, and instructional superintendents are responsible for those evaluations.

Some of the district’s work on expanding its leadership programs is funded by the Wallace Foundation. Denver is one of six large school districts that received a grant focused on building principal pipelines — building the systems that identify, train, and retain school leaders. The NASSP’s Farrace said those funds help the district fund principal training programs that can be prohibitively expensive elsewhere.

As these efforts and others get off the ground, discussion has turned recently to nuances that were less talked-about in the past: How can potential school leaders be matched with schools that fit their particular skills? How can the district identify teachers with leadership potential early on? At a board work session, board president Happy Haynes encouraged the district to focus on diversity in school leadership.

Cordova, the district’s chief schools officer, said there is also a new focus on “succession planning” at schools to help make sure that gains made during one principal’s tenure aren’t lost if and when that principal moves on.

At a meeting of the district’s board, Cordova said she was most optimistic about the supervision and support for principals. “It matters what teachers do in the classroom, and the way you give them feedback also matters,” she said. “Principals have to get coached to be that presence in the classroom.”

Whitehead-Bust said the district would be proposing some tweaks to its existing leadership programs and career pathways and a more final version of the incentive systems early next year.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct acronym and timeline for the district’s school leader growth and performance system, LEAD.

Categories: Urban School News

What we talk about when we talk about ‘universal’ preschool

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 12/23/2014 - 10:50

Hellen Juarez was excited when she heard Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce that the city would introduce universal preschool.

“Universal means there will be open slots for those who need it,” said Juarez, a single mother of three whose youngest, a three year old, is not yet in school.

But that isn’t how things have turned out. Emanuel’s plan adds only about 1,500 seats, for low-income families only. Juarez’s local Chicago Public Schools program has a three-month wait to get in, and it provides only two and a half hours of instruction a day.

“It’s not universal,” said Juarez, who decided not to try to take advantage of the city program after realizing how much it would cost her in train fare and lost work time.

Juarez’s experience is not unusual as more school districts and states expand access to early childhood education in an attempt to add learning time at a crucial point in children’s development. Politicians and advocates alike have seized on research that says starting school young offers lasting dividends — as well as on the political expediency of promising a benefit to every voter. As they have, the meaning of “universal” preschool has become, well, not so universal.

“People end up using ‘universal’ to cover the notion that they want to serve more than just poor kids and maybe they want to open it up to all kids,” said Steve Barnett, the director of National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to serve everybody.”

In many places, including Chicago, promises of universal programs extend only to low-income families, but other cities have branded “universal” preschool as being accessible to families of all income levels. Some districts are picking up the full tab for preschool classes, but others, such as Denver, call their programs universal but don’t promise to cover all costs. And many other programs that are billed as universal fall far short of serving every student, at least right now. For example, West Virginia passed a universal preschool bill this year while emphasizing that not all children would be served for at least a decade.

Only a very few districts have attempted to do what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has done: provide free, full-day early childhood education for every child in the city whose family wants it, regardless of their income. (De Blasio’s program builds off of a decades-old city program, also called “universal,” that served only a fraction of eligible families.) And even there, where universal preschool is limited to prekindergarten, the city isn’t planning to be able to accommodate all families until next year.

That parents like Juarez can wind up perplexed about what “universal” means comes with the territory when securing preschool funding is a political feat, Barnett said.

“It’s undoubtedly confusing,” said Barnett. “If [politicians] started out trying to create a universal program and came up short, they don’t want to stop calling it universal.”

The confusion around the term doesn’t just stem from politicians and district leaders. In Denver, most news reports refer to the city’s program as “universal” preschool and many advocacy organizations have praised the city’s “universal” approach. But the word rarely appears in city-published materials, which instead say the program makes preschool “possible for all four-year olds.”

That may be because cities and states are still in the midst of figuring out what’s possible to do, right now. When it’s used, the term “universal” is often aspirational.

For example, in Denver, city officials gained support from more affluent voters by presenting a program that helps to cover at least a portion of every family’s preschool tuition, rather than fully subsidizing the poorest families.

“I could never have afforded it,” said Samantha Ruiz, a single parent in Denver whose four-year old daughter started preschool last spring. Without aid, she would have had to pay over $1,000 a month for her local preschool. Instead, she cobbles together state aid, federal Head Start funds, and money from the Denver Preschool Program to bring down the cost to just over $100 a month.

De Blasio in New York City largely repurposed what providers were already doing by funding them to extend their half-day programs to a full day. In Chicago, the mayor’s plan is intended to fill in the gaps between what the state and federal government already provide.

“In an ideal world, we’d have universal access for every child and family who needed or wanted services,” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the national policy director for Ounce of Prevention, which advocates for early learning initiatives. “That said, we are in a time of limited public dollars. The way that ‘universal’ has played out is individual communities are looking at what feasible steps are.”

But sticking to what is feasible has left some families disappointed — and unable to secure the early education that might change their children’s lives.

“My family is not the only one that needs it,” Juarez said. “When they said universal, it’s not what I thought.”

Because each state defines “universal” preschool in its own way, it’s difficult to come up with a comprehensive list of states that currently have or are working toward “universal pre-K” or “preschool for all.” Chalkbeat attempted to create that list by researching cities and states, and speaking with the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, Steven Barnett. If you see a city or state missing, let us know.

This story was produced as a collaboration among all news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: 2014 was a building year for Pueblo schools

EdNewsColorado - Tue, 12/23/2014 - 10:20

the lawmakers dilemma

Revenue forecasts are up again, but constitutional limitations mean that little of that new money is likely to be used for education funding without a fight. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

doe, a deer

Teachers develop more voice disorders than any other profession, but many teachers don't know that taking care of their voices is something they should do. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

pueblo's year in review

Pueblo school officials spent 2014 trying to boost student achievement, but will still enter next year on the final year of the accountability clock risking state intervention. ( Pueblo Chieftain )

Pueblo schools also saw the first phase of their construction bond projects completed in 2014, gaining new secured entrances, renovated sports fields and more classroom space. ( Pueblo Chieftain )

the downsides of the holiday

For low-income students in Colorado, winter break can mean time away from free school meals and thus a time to go hungry. ( Colorado Public Radio )

Spreading cheer

A Hanover School District 28 board member has opened her house to students at Prairie Heights Elementary School every December for the past seven years to make sure they all get a fun holiday experience. ( Gazette )

Categories: Urban School News

Revenue forecasts highlight state’s budget dilemma

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 12/22/2014 - 19:59

The improving economy continues to pump increased revenues into the state’s coffers, but constitutional limitations likely will reduce how much of that money lawmakers can spend during the 2015 session.

That could make it harder to whittle down the negative factor, the state’s $900 million shortfall in K-12 spending, and to provide more funding for programs like expanded preschool services and full-day kindergarten.

The latest quarterly revenue forecasts were presented to legislative leaders and Joint Budget Committee members Monday morning by economists from the governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting and the Legislative Council, the General Assembly’s research arm.

“We did increase our expectations for general fund revenue,” said Natalie Mullis, the legislature’s chief economist. In theory, she said, lawmakers could have $1.05 billion more to spend on the 2015-16 budget than what’s being spent in the current, 2014-15 budget.

“It’s not enough money to fund everything that every interest group is going to bring to you,” Mullis cautioned, to laughter from lawmakers. The basement Capitol hearing room was packed with lobbyists, the very people Mullis was referring to.

The challenge is created by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, commonly known as TABOR, which sets ceilings on the amounts of revenue the legislature can spend each year. The state hasn’t hit the so-called TABOR limit for several years, but now revenues are growing fast enough that Mullis’ team estimates the state will owe taxpayers $120.3 million out of the 2015-16 budget and $620.4 million in 2016-17.

Read the forecasts

The OSPB has similar but somewhat different forecasts, including a projection that a $196.8 million refund will be required from surplus revenues in the current budget, plus $186.5 million in 2015-16 and $269.2 million in 2016-17. (Refunds would be made through a variety of mechanisms, including earned income credits, sales tax rebates and a temporary reduction in income tax rates.)

“We should plan for exceeding the TABOR limit in fiscal year 2014-15,” OSPB director Henry Sobanet told lawmakers. He also warned that the combined budget demands and spending restraints “will combine for an extremely tight environment” in 2016-17 and that lawmakers may not be able to spend much more in that year than they do in 2015-16.

And, a different provision of TABOR also will require lawmakers next year to make a $58.7 million rebate of some marijuana revenues. The mechanism for doing that hasn’t been determined.

The prospect of TABOR refunds worries education advocates, who would like some surplus revenues diverted to further reduce the negative factor. The 2014 legislature made a $110 million dent in the shortfall and stipulated that the negative factor couldn’t grow in the 2015-16 budget. Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed that the negative factor be trimmed another $200 million in 2015-16 – but that cut would apply only for one year.

School district leaders say they’d be happy with the one-time cut but would be even happier if the negative factor were reduced permanently. A group of superintendents has proposed an additional $70 million in K-12 spending in 2015-16, $50 million focused on at-risk and $20 million for rural districts. Both the governor’s and the superintendents’ proposals have been received somewhat coolly by JBC members, even before Monday’s forecasts were issued.

The legislature can avoid making the TABOR refunds and keep excess revenues, but only by proposing a ballot measure seeking voter approval to do that. Putting a measure before voters requires passage in each chamber, something that might be a long shot, given split party control of the legislature. Hickenlooper also has indicated he supports the refunds, at least for now.

Districts may not get extra money in current year

Legislative economists also told lawmakers that it appears a mid-year adjustment in 2014-15 K-12 funding won’t be necessary because the enrollment projections made last spring were higher than actual enrollment this fall. Total enrollment was only 163 students fewer than expected, and the actual number of at-risk students was down about 4,560 (1.5 percent) from the projection made last spring.

Enrollment is the key variable in the school finance formula, and the actual student count regularly exceeds annual estimates, meaning lawmakers often give schools extra money in February or March.

That isn’t the case this year, and Legislative Council staff said that might give lawmakers the opportunity to make a $14 million mid-year reduction in the negative factor. (See the document at the bottom of this article for more details.

Forecast indicates past K-12 growth rates will continue

The December forecast from legislative staff always includes a two-year projection of K-12 student enrollment trends.

This year’s analysis found that enrollment grew 1.5 percent in the current school year and is expected to grow 1.4 percent in 2015-16 and 1.3 percent in 2016-17. Those rates are similar to the growth seen in recent years.

The largest rates of growth are expected in northern Colorado followed by the Denver metro area, with smaller increases in students elsewhere in the state and even slight declines in some regions.

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Categories: Urban School News

Why taking care of teachers’ (literal) voices matters for student learning

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 12/22/2014 - 16:14

For Rebecca Nicholson, a second grade teacher at Soda Creek Elementary in Steamboat Springs, the most glaring sign that something was wrong was a series of headaches.

“It was not a ‘these kids are driving me crazy’ headache,” she said. “I love my kids…There was just a strain. My voice would start to wane by the end of the day. ”

Nicholson had always had a raspy voice, but she thought it was normal—just a consequence of her natural chattiness.

“I’ve always been a talker,” she said. “I had a rattle that said ‘mighty mouth.’”

But when she went to the doctor for a check-up soon after giving birth, the doctor said she should investigate the raspiness.

It turned out Nicholson had a cyst on one of her vocal folds—part of the “voice box” that lets us speak.

Nicholson is not alone in her struggle with her voice, or in not knowing that there was a problem in the first place.

The most well-known examples of voice problems involve superstar singers. Think about the reaction when Julie Andrews announced that her famous singing range had been diminished, or when Adele canceled tours to avoid permanently hurting her voice.

But being a classroom teacher is responsible for more vocal injuries each year than professional singing.

It should come as no surprise. Teachers spend hours talking every day, often in a loud, projected voice. A teacher’s voice is, like a singer’s, his or her instrument and tool.

The difference is that while (most) professional singers know how to tend to their vocal cords and are on the look-out for the slightest irregularity or strain, most teachers have received no training at all in how to use their voices.

And very often, teachers assume that it is normal, and certainly not something to complain about, when their voices grow hoarse or tired.

“When you look at all the most common voice disorders, teachers have more voice problems than any other profession,” said Amanda Gillespie, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh.

“A lot of teachers think hoarseness is part of their job,” Gillespie said. “But hoarseness is never normal.”

Consequences for students

When a teacher’s voice is hoarse or injured, students suffer too.

Things teachers can do to take care of their voices:
• Do a vocal warm-up, like buzzing your lips, before you start teaching. See video below
• Hydrate: If your classroom or house is dry, use a humidifier. Drink lots of water.
• Don’t talk over students.
• Keep in mind that hoarseness is not normal. If you are regularly hoarse by the end of the week or the end of the day, see a doctor, ideally a laryngologist or voice specialist.
• Listen to your voice. If your voice is tired, figure out a way to give it a break. Don’t try to power through.
• Get lots of sleep.
• Do your best to stay healthy. (Wash your hands!)
• Watch for any sudden changes in voice. Sudden change can be a sign that there’s something seriously wrong.

One study showed that 20 percent of teachers had missed at least one work day due to vocal problems in the previous year, while no one from any other profession had missed work because of voice issues. That researcher deemed teachers at “high risk” for voice disorders.

Other research indicates that students actually find it harder to process information presented in a hoarse or raspy voice. A yet-unpublished study from a group of researchers at Towson University shows that it takes more processing time and cognitive work to understand a hoarse or injured voice.

“You’d hope it’d make teachers and administrators sit up and say, ‘Hey, we should really pay attention,’” said Gillespie.

Potential Triggers

Teachers’ intense day-to-day schedules are part of what puts them at risk. Speech therapists recommend vocal breaks—stretches of quiet—throughout the day. But teachers often use their voices even when they’re not giving instruction—while they’re on bus duty or lunch duty, for instance. Schools are also often dry, and it’s hard for teachers to get enough water over the course of the day.

Certain specialties and situations can exacerbate the challenge, said Juliana Litts, an instructor and vocal therapist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Teachers who work in louder environments, including music, drama, chemistry, or physical education teachers, are more likely to develop vocal problems.

Being stressed also doesn’t help. “Most people who come in will say, I get so much tension in my neck and shoulders,” Litts said. “Well, all those muscles are connected to systems that control the voice.”

Neither does struggling with student behavior. “A lot of vocal health has to do with classroom management,” she said. “I understand that you teach a bunch of first graders and they’re rowdy, but you can’t talk over them.”

Female teachers are also more likely to develop problems than men, due partly to physiology. (Women’s vocal cords hit each other twice as many times per second than men’s, which means they’re more likely to develop calluses or certain other problems).

Things schools can do to help teachers’ voices:
• Consider a short training on voice use for teachers.
• Provide amplification for teachers, especially in classrooms that have a lot of ambient noise (such as a music, chemistry, or gym class).
• Create schedules that allow teachers to have down time where they do not have to use their voice, ideally spread throughout the day.

But teachers receive very little training in how to use their voice.

“Nobody tells teachers, okay so this is a really good way to use your voice in your classroom. So teachers go by how they’ve always talked,” Litts said. “And a lot of times that gets them into trouble.”

“The teachers we see are usually to the point where they literally cannot function as a teacher anymore,” she said. She said some need surgery because they have waited so long. Others leave the profession or enter administration to avoid strain.

Under the Radar

Nicholson had one surgery to address vocal problems in 2012, and then another this fall with Matthew Clary, an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus. Each surgery required time off work and a period of rehabilitation.

Now, she uses an amplification system to teach. She said technology like smart boards and online lessons helped her keep kids’ attention, especially when her voice is hurting. When she knows she has long days, like during parent-teacher conferences, she plans for classes that require less talking.

“It’s definitely challenging, especially when your voice is waning,” she said. “I have core subjects at the end of the day and I don’t have a choice but to teach them.”

Nicholson has recently embarked on a new regime of vocal therapy with Litts, in which she’ll learn to use a healthy “resonant speaking voice” when delivering lessons and tips about “vocal hygiene”—how to keeping her voice rested and well.

“All teachers want to have different ways to get their kids’ attention. It’s about being creative and not using your voice as much,” she said.

“If your voice is waning or if you’re getting fatigued in your voice, it’s worth checking out,” she said. “You might have voice issues and not know it.”

Potential Solutions

But there are signs that even a little bit of knowledge and preparation can go a long way in helping teachers take care of their voices.

Below: Litts, a vocal therapist, demonstrates some exercises teachers can do in the morning to help warm their voices up for the day. (If you’re self-conscious, she says, just do them in the car or in another space where you can be alone.)

Amplification systems like the one Nicholson is using have been shown to have a positive effect on students’ learning and on teachers’ voices. A study by Nelson Roy, a professor of communication science and disorders at the University of Utah, found that when teachers used amplification, it had a marked positive impact on their voices. Teachers often use amplification systems to aid students with hearing challenges, but they can make it easier for all students to understand, Litts said.

Early results from a five-year study of teachers and voices led by Katherine Verdolini Abbott, a professor of communication science and disorders at the University of Pittsburgh, shows that a short training seemed to help teachers who had voice troubles.

In the University of Pittsburgh study, now in its fifth year, teachers who identified as having a voice problem were given a short “voice therapy boot camp,” Gillespie said.

Those who received the training showed more improvement in their vocal health than a control group that had not.

Gillespie said having such trainings early could help catch problems before they cause teachers to miss time in school or students to struggle to understand instruction.

“It might only take a one-day voice seminar to help the voices of teachers who are already starting to experience some voice problems,” she said. “Having a voice problem doesn’t mean they have to have a lot of medical visits.”

Litts said her Denver-based practice was hoping to conduct in-service trainings for teachers about healthy voice use.

She said that in the end, having a healthy voice means more than the ability to do a job.

“Ultimately what brings people in is that they feel like they can’t be person they are because their voice is limited,” Litts said. “Voice is so much part of your identity.”

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Mayor’s forum focuses on race, police and student voice

EdNewsColorado - Mon, 12/22/2014 - 09:17

let's move

A Colorado educator is trying to raise the money to build the state's first "kinesthetic classroom." ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

starting conversations

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock hosted a forum discussing race, police bias and student voice featuring students, school board members and police officers. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )


Manitou Springs High School students wore ribbons to school last week in remembrance and support for students murdered in Pakistan and their families. ( Gazette )


A group of Erie Middle School students won a national award for building an app that aims to boost brain function and help students with dyslexia and autism improve their math and language skills. ( Times-Call )

get well soon

School officials in Johnstown and Milliken saw absentee rates as high as 15 percent last week because of a flu outbreak. ( Denver Post )

Teacher pay

Three letter-writers to the Denver Post argue over whether teachers should be paid more at the expense of professional athletes. ( Denver Post )

Categories: Urban School News

Mayor’s forum on race touches on police bias, role of media, youth voice

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 12/19/2014 - 20:04

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock hosted the first in a planned series of conversations about race this afternoon at the History Colorado Center.

After Denver students across the city organized protests focusing on police brutality and race earlier this month, both the mayor and the Denver Public Schools announced plans to host conversations about the issues students raised. Students at more than 30 schools across the city walked out of class to contest two separate grand jury decisions that chose not to indict police officers who killed African-American citizens.

Today’s event touched on topics ranging from bias among police to the role of the media to how the city can improve race relations.

The mayor directed several questions at the panelists and audience and then invited the audience to make comments and ask questions. “Why has the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ protests turned into a movement? Has it turned into a movement?” “What’s the role of the media in conversations about race?” “What one lesson would you share with the academy class [of new police officers]?”

Police chief Robert White said that a lack of positive relationships between communities and the police underlies some of the current issues. “We have to come together and figure out, how do we do this together…and come through these healing processes together?”

DPS board president Happy Haynes said that during the protests, media too often focused on adults rather than what was on students’ minds and what prompted the protests.

Part of the mayor’s panel on race, held at History Colorado.

One panelist, a student at Denver School of the Arts who is a member of the mayor’s initiative on youth, said that she is now organizing a club focused on social injustices.

Another student panelist said that students want change, and that they would like more opportunities to interact with police.

Students wearing hoodies from KIPP, a charter school, asked the mayor what the intended goal and next steps would be.

“I hope the clarion call after today is that the entire community must lead,” Hancock said. “Denver has made a lot of progress but there is a long way to go.”

Hancock said there will be two more events in January and others later in the year, leading up to a citywide summit. 

Categories: Urban School News

Goodbye desks, hello pedal tables!

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 12/19/2014 - 17:40

C.J. Cain is a physical education teacher, not an architect or interior designer. Still, he has big plans for a classroom makeover at Denver’s Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment.

He wants to create the state’s first “kinesthetic classroom” there. The term may be a mouthful, but it’s really just another way of saying that the room would feature desks and tables with built-in bicycles, elliptical machines and other exercise equipment. The idea, which has been piloted at a handful of schools around the country, draws on neuroscience research showing how exercise facilitates learning and memory.

It’s the same research that’s behind trends such as brain breaks and school-wide movement sessions. The biggest difference is that students would be doing academic work in the kinesthetic classroom—reading while they pedal or taking notes while they swivel at a “kneel and spin” desk.

“[It’s] a creative way we can look at closing the achievement gap and overall greater achievement for all students,” said Cain.

Besides helping students stay focused in class and better retain what they learn, he believes a kinesthetic approach can improve mood and help kids get along better. While that remains to be seen at Montclair, students have shown lots of interest in the blue pedal desk on loan from the South Carolina company KidsFit.

“The feedback has been great,” said Cain. “They love it.”

As is often the case, lofty ambitions come with hefty price tags. It will take about $27,000 to outfit a classroom with enough equipment for 32 students. So far, Cain’s raised just $25 through a ColoradoGives donation page. He said there’s no specific time frame for raising the full amount.

“We’re reaching out certainly to the community and asking for their help in this,” he said. “I’m very patient.”

While Cain hopes to eventually raise enough money to buy a full classroom set of kinesthetic equipment, he said a stripped-down version of the model could make it cheaper and easier to scale down the road. For example, instead of a full kinesthetic classroom, several classrooms could have a two or three kinesthetic stations.

Parent Kelly Dwyer, a member of Montclair’s school wellness team, expects fund-raising to be the toughest part of implementing the kinesthetic classroom, but likes the concept.

“We’ve seen so much research about how movement stimulates the brain and focus…I think this could really help in that regard,” she said.

“Our biggest challenge as a health team is to really help our school get to a point where we look at the research and say more time in the seat is not necessarily translating to performance.”

Montclair, an innovation school, enrolls about 480 students. Two-thirds of them are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

Along with academic benefits, Dwyer believes the kinesthetic classroom may provide fitness benefits too.

“Today, we have so much that teachers need to cover…that specials of all sorts, from art and music to PE, have gotten squeezed…and I’m very concerned most students are lacking in exercise.”

Dwyer, who has two sons at Montclair, believes the kinesthetic classroom could be especially helpful for her energetic second-grader “because he is one of those guys who is constantly moving his body.”

Eric Larson, physical education coordinator for Denver Public Schools, said Cain’s kinesthetic classroom vision could eventually serve as a model for other district schools if it has an effect on things like behavior and attendance.

“I think everything is data-driven,” he said. “I think it would be something the district would look at if there’s data there.”


Categories: Urban School News

Weekend Reads: The ethical quandary of the turnaround administrator

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 12/19/2014 - 15:41
    • An administrator asks if it’s ethical to pull his children out of the low-performing schools he’s supposed to help. (Dear Prudence)
    • Taken together, two charts suggest that American students do a lot of homework that doesn’t pay off. (Vox)
    • AFT President Randi Weingarten shared her own sexual assault story as part of a union push to protect women. (Jezebel)
    • An education professor argues that teachers unions should agitate against police brutality. (Jacobin)
    • The upswing in school choice in Nashville leaves neighborhood schools with uncertain futures. (The Scene)
    • A teacher grapples with the best way to write about teaching and lands on some solid advice. (Rational Expressions)
    • A city ESL teacher says bilingual programs sound promising — as long as they’re done right. (NYC Educator)
    • A former teacher shares a tongue-in-cheek quiz to help colleagues figure out if they’re no good at their jobs. (Answer Sheet)
    • Two New York City educators see a school-to-prison pipeline for gifted students and want to change it. (Hechinger)
    • The latest episode of a podcast about careers profiles a KIPP principal from Houston. (Slate)
    • The Common Core State Standards could be on the precipice of widespread repeal. (Hechinger)
    • Idaho student journalists “plagiarized” a news story after their new state superintendent did the same thing. (Romenesko)
    • A recap of 2014’s biggest news in Los Angeles schools starts with the superintendent’s resignation. (L.A. School Report)
    • “The Colbert Report,” which ended this week, frequently featured education-related guests. (Russo)
    • Below, a college admissions video from Democracy Prep Charter High School that made some Chalkbeaters cry.


Post by Princeton University.
Categories: Urban School News

Gone for the holidays

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 12/19/2014 - 13:09

The crew at Catalyst is taking a break to celebrate with friends and family. We will return to work on Jan. 5.

In the meantime, our reporters will remain on alert and post briefs about any major news on Facebook and Twitter.  (If you haven’t already liked us on Facebook, now would be a great time to do that.)

Again, happy holidays to you all and the very best of wishes for 2015.

(And, yes, we are still accepting donations for 2014. We would love to see your name among them. Support from our readers is important for Catalyst’s health and well-being!)

Categories: Urban School News

CPS school ratings system doesn’t help parents

Catalyst Chicago - Fri, 12/19/2014 - 13:01

Earlier this month, Chicago Public Schools released its annual school ratings after several weeks delay.  The postponement has been chalked up to CPS refining a new system to determine scores, which includes more rating levels, a new formula to compute school performance data, and the ability for the CEO to change schools’ rating at her discretion.  Both the delay in publishing the scores and the controversy surrounding the new system point to a major problem with CPS’s approach: what the district needs to assess about schools is very different than what families want to know about their schools.

All school districts, especially large, complex ones like CPS, need sophisticated systems to evaluate school performance, and these systems need to be continually improved.  Yet, paradoxically, research over the past 20 years clearly shows that school systems undermine the public trust when they publicly emphasize these ratings as a way to inform parents.  This is because an individual school’s local reputation is far more influential on parents than district ratings.

This gap is made even wider when a school’s annual score fluctuates greatly year to year and when the formula used to calculate that score is too complicated and technical to be explained simply.  For instance, Wendell Phillips Academy High School earned the lowest possible rating this year after having earned the highest possible rating last year.  In the absence of clear reasons about how a school could go from top to bottom in one year, families grow increasingly skeptical about the district’s scoring system. 

Further, the CEO’s new power to change ratings at her discretion will only heighten suspicion about the ratings, not as a reflection on the CEO personally, but because it makes scores harder to explain and predict.

Yet evaluating schools is vital and should draw on the district’s specialized knowledge about schools, local politics, accountability policies, and data analysis.  Moreover, all the details of a rating system, from raw data to algorithms to final scores, should be published prominently on the CPS website for the public explore.

But what we especially need is to separate that work from what parents want to know about schools.  Families engage with the school system on the level of specific schools and individual teachers.  Parents seek for their children the most supportive, safe, and effective learning environments possible, with other complicating factors, such as the length of a daily commute to school, mixed in.  A better approach for CPS would be to publish annual school guides each spring, when families are most actively exploring their children’s options.  These guides should be short, easy to understand, and organized by grade level so that parents can better anticipate the year ahead.  Crucially, these guides should also link to online forums where parents and school staff can comment, exchange information, and discuss issues about the school.

By presenting meaningful information that speaks to families’ experiences and embracing public conversation about those data, CPS can begin to rebuild trust with its communities.  The necessary work of evaluating and rating schools should be separate and distinct because it speaks to the needs of administrators and policy makers, not families.

Charles Tocci is a clinical assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago. He works closely with CPS through the university's partnerships with neighborhood schools. His research focuses on teacher grading and school data use.

Categories: Urban School News

Rise & Shine: Debate over TABOR refunds begins to heat up

EdNewsColorado - Fri, 12/19/2014 - 09:01

looking ahead to the capitol 2015

The debate over whether to refund revenue collected above the limits set by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights or change the law and use it for things like education is heating up. ( AP via Durango Herald )

teaming up

A new nonprofit group aims to help improve outcomes for students in some of Jefferson County's lowest-performing schools by supplementing the work that the schools are doing. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

official business

The Denver Public Schools board approved a plan to temporarily place two charter schools in Kepner Middle School and signed off on Superintendent Tom Boasberg's evaluation. ( Chalkbeat Colorado, Denver Post )

a day to learn

Veterans Day will no longer be a school holiday for Denver students under a new calendar approved by the DPS school board. ( Chalkbeat Colorado )

lizards and hamsters and birds, oh my

Classroom pets, which used to be commonly kept in schools across the country but now are much more rare, are still a tradition in one Colorado Springs school. ( Gazette )

new faces

A former high school counselor and coach was appointed to the Woodland Park School District RE-2 board of education. ( Gazette )

Categories: Urban School News

DPS board approves plans for Kepner, superintendent evaluation at last meeting of 2014

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 23:06

At its last meeting of 2014, held at South High School, the Denver school board voted to finalize placement for several new schools and to approve its evaluation of superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The district confirmed its enrollment for the 2014-15 school year and laid out projections for the future. The district enrolls just over 90,000 preK-12 students, 83,938 in K-12.

District officials also presented this year’s “call for quality schools,” in which DPS lays out where it anticipates placing new charter or district schools.

According to the presentation, DPS will likely need additional elementary and middle school seats in Stapleton; elementary schools to replace Pioneer Charter School, in Near Northeast, which recently announced plans to close; a new elementary school and more middle school seats in the northwest section of Near Northeast; and a replacement elementary school in southwest Denver.

Board member Arturo Jimenez contested the goals of the district’s call for quality schools and several otherwise-unanimous votes, including a change to the district’s calendar.

[Check out our board tracker for a rundown of how board members voted on each item on tonight’s agenda.]

Chief academic officer Alyssa Whitehead-Bust told the board that the district is increasing opportunities for communities to weigh in about what new schools in their areas should look like.

Board member Jimenez asked how the district was ensuring that its charter schools were actually improving education for students and whether it was sacrificing resources better allotted to district schools. “Are we becoming more of an authorizer for outside entities rather than running our own schools?”

Whitehead-Bust said the district is focusing on improving its existing schools, and has a series of evaluators monitoring charter schools.

District chief schools officer Susana Cordova also rushed up to the mic to respond. She said that the district has specifically reached out to charter schools that have had successes with bilingual education, English learners and school turnaround.

Jimenez was also the sole vote against the board’s evaluation of superintendent Tom Boasberg. The evaluation commends the superintendent for, among other things, improving communications in the district, leadership, and for a number of academic and managerial achievements. It includes concerns about continued turnover in parts of the district and Common Core roll-out.

Jimenez said he is particularly concerned that the district has not yet adopted Common Core-aligned resources.

“We really should be having discussions about conditions of employment when we have such an important piece of district work that has gone unfulfilled at this time,” Jimenez said. “I’m going to take public issue with our evaluation process.”

“There’s a significant work we have to do,” Boasberg said. “This is a struggle all schools and school districts are working on.” He said the district is continuing its search for resources, and that a district task force chose deliberately not to adopt some resources that it deemed to be not worth the investment.

“We’re continuing to supply materials to bridge the gap,” he said.

Board president Haynes said the board would be setting new goals for the superintendent, aligned with Denver Plan.

Placing Schools

The board voted to approve plans to place Rocky Mountain Prep and Compass Academy in the Kepner Middle School building temporarily. Those plans had been put on hold in November so the district could determine how they fit with its obligations to English learners in southwest Denver. The district plans to ultimately place a new district-run school and a school run by charter operator Strive in 2015-16. The current program in the school is being phased out.

Still, Jimenez reiterated a concern that placing Compass and Rocky Mountain Prep in the school, even temporarily, represented the district skirting the requirements of a consent decree that governs how Denver Public Schools educates its English learners.

Board president Happy Haynes clarified that the two charter schools are not intended to fulfill the district’s requirement to offer a native language program for English learners in the Kepner building.

“It is our intent to work with [Compass and Rocky Mountain Prep] to find a permanent home,” said superintendent Boasberg. “It is not our intent that they would replace the district school.”

The board also voted to approve placing a new competency-based high school in the Byers building next year. The competency-based school will share a building with DSST:Byers for two years. In a competency-based school students move through grades based not on seat time but on their ability to demonstrate mastery of academic skills.

Two schools, High Tech Elementary and Denver Discovery Middle, had their innovation plans approved. The board heard lengthy presentations from school leaders, teachers, parents, and students at a work session earlier this week.

Board member Jimenez again raised concerns, saying that he was concerned that the innovation status removed work protections for teachers.

Board members Barbara O’Brien, Landri Taylor, and Mike Johnson all spoke in favor of the innovation schools. Johnson singled out the schools’ focus on finding time in the school day for teachers to work together.

Earlier in the meeting, the district singled out schools that were recognized by the Colorado Department of Education for outstanding results. More Denver schools were singled out by the department than schools from any other district.

Haynes said that the district will co-host a conversation about the issues raised by students in a series of protests against police brutality and discrimination, in conjunction with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, tomorrow, and that the district will host student-led conversations and a conference early in the new year.

Categories: Urban School News

Veterans Day will be a day on, not a day off, in Denver schools next year

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 21:29

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

The Denver school board voted tonight to approve a new school calendar that means Veterans Day will be a day in school rather than a holiday for students.

Board president Happy Haynes said that having school on Veterans Day will allow schools to acknowledge the country’s veterans more actively, potentially by partnering with veterans’ organization or having in-school events acknowledging and celebrating veterans.

“In the past it’s been a day off, and I think it was a day that was lost,” she said. “Many of our students and families had no idea why we had a day off in the middle of November…now it’s a day on.”

The district will provide guidance to schools about how to mark the holiday and has reached out to veterans’ groups in the city, Haynes said.

Board member Arturo Jimenez cast the lone vote against the calendar, saying that having the day in school does not guarantee that schools would mark or celebrate the holiday sufficiently. He suggested that the district have a day off on Monday to mark the holiday.

The calendar was developed by a district task force. The task force was aiming to attach days off to weekends rather than have having days floating in the middle of the week and to ensure that students are not in school during the hottest parts of the year, among other concerns.

The first day of school for students will be August 24 and the last day will be June 3. Students have full weeks off at Thanksgiving, Winter Holidays, and Spring Break.

Categories: Urban School News

To boost achievement in struggling Jeffco schools, nonprofit aims to bridge opportunity gap

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 17:27

For Joel Newton, the work to improve some of Jefferson County’s lowest-performing schools is personal.

His two daughters attend Lumberg Elementary, where only four out of every 10 third graders are reading at grade level.

But he doesn’t blame the teachers or Jeffco Public Schools.

“The irony of our schools is that we have great programming during the school day,” he said. “But those kids who are growing up in poverty, they need extra support on top of what our schools offer if they’re going to catch up and stay ahead.”

That’s the theory behind Newton’s organization, the Edgewater Collective, and the nonprofit’s first public project, the Jefferson Success Pathway.

Formed in 2013, but just now going public, the Edgewater Collective’s mission is to foster relationships between six schools in and around the city of Edgewater and nonprofit organizations that can offer services to the schools leaders, teachers, students and their families.

Schools in the Edgewater Collective
• Molholm Elementary
• Edgewater Elementary
• Lumberg Elementary
• Stevens Elementary
• Wheat Ridge 5-8
• Jefferson High

Those schools, run by Jeffco Public Schools, are not like most in the suburban — mostly white and middle class — county. Most of the students — at least 70 percent at each school — come from households that earn little enough to qualify for either free or reduced-lunch prices, a proxy of poverty, and are Latino. There is also a concentrated population of English language learners.

The students who attend those schools are also usually behind grade level in reading, writing, and math, and are less likely to go to college, let alone graduate.

Newton believes the adults inside the schools and the district leaders who support them are doing all they can to enrich those students lives — but they need help to overcome what many call the “opportunity gap.”  The opportunity gap is the barriers some students, usually poor students of color, face to access quality resources that support them before, during, and after school. Those barriers could include a lack of breakfast, after school programs, or a quiet place to study and use technology.

To close those gaps, Newton has partnered with more than two dozen organizations from the health, nonprofit, faith-based, and government sector.

It’s his role to connect those organizations to the schools.

Part of the reason why they haven’t already connected, Newton said, is because most confuse Edgewater, the tiniest community in Jefferson County, with Denver.

“I think people still feel Edgewater is Denver because the demographics align better with the students who attend Denver Public Schools,” he said. “And the test scores look more like the schools across the street in Denver.”

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia Joel Newton, left, chats with Edgewater City Councilman Kristian Adam Teegardin earlier this month after the Edgewater Collective announced its first public program the Jefferson Success Pathway.

As part of his work, Newton and a community board have put together a list of goals he hopes his organization can influence while working with Jeffco Public Schools. Those goals include increasing the number of families that are safe, healthy, and supported; preparing more students for kindergarten; increasing the number of students able to read and write at grade level by the third grade; and growing the  graduation rate.

The Edgewater Collective, which published its ambitions earlier this month, will spend the early part of 2015 gathering baseline data around those goals and then set targets.

“We don’t want to be another initiative that just looks good on paper,” Newton said at the public unveiling of the Jefferson Success Pathway project.

Newton already has the support of Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee.

“We all know what the challenges are,” McMinimee said at that meeting. “And we can spend a lot of time talking about past mistakes. Or we can rally around this shining light.”

The nonprofit’s announcement of the Jefferson Success Pathway program took place the same week as Jeffco officials announced their own intentions to speed up improvements at some of the schools the nonprofit works with.

Newton doesn’t see his work as a duplicated effort. Instead he wants to run alongside the field as a sort of water boy or cheerleader for the teachers inside the schools.

“We don’t want to lay blame, but say as a community, “how do we work together?” Jeffco schools can’t do this alone,” he said.

Newton hopes to share his organization’s work with the district’s fractured school board in the spring of 2015 and create an official partnership between the nonprofit and the school district via a board resolution. He’ll only do so if he knows he can get a rare 5-0 vote.

“We’re staying away from the big issues, the divisive debates, we’re going to keep asking how do we help all kids in this area to succeed,” Newton said. “The children and family in our area can’t sit by and watch a three year battle with the school board — they need help right now. They need the support right now. They need investment right now.”

Categories: Urban School News

Coming soon: exclusive new Capitol coverage

EdNewsColorado - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 12:00

During Colorado’s legislative session, it’s not uncommon to find Chalkbeat’s Capitol Editor Todd Engdahl tapping away on his laptop in one committee hearing, while keeping tabs on another by audio-streaming it through headphones. Some might say he’s a glutton for punishment, but his multitasking ability helps him deliver the best legislative education coverage in the state.

Starting in January, readers will have a chance to get more of Engdahl’s exclusive legislative coverage than ever before. It’s simple: Sign up for Chalkbeat’s new Capitol Membership. It includes a legislative preview on Jan. 5, Sunday e-newsletters previewing each week’s developments, breaking news e-mail alerts throughout the session and a comprehensive legislative wrap-up in May.

The Capitol Membership is perfect for readers who need to stay informed about state education policy, but don’t have time to wade through dense legislative documents and navigate the grueling law-making process. This new service will augment the comprehensive legislative coverage that Engdahl has always provided and will continue to provide to Chalkbeat readers daily.

The Capitol Membership is available for just $120, with discounts available to those who work for schools, school districts, or state or federal government. To sign up or learn more, click here.

Categories: Urban School News

Take 5: Dyett supporters ask for RFP to be halted; school ratings by race and TFA problems

Catalyst Chicago - Thu, 12/18/2014 - 10:30

Several members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School demanded Wednesday that board members adopt their plan for the school and reopen it in Fall of 2015, rather than follow the steps CPS officials already laid out: issue a Request for Proposals, pick an operator or a proposal, and then reopen in 2016.

Community activists who had been fighting to save Washington Park’s Dyett ever since its phase out was announced four years ago hailed the announcement by officials that it was going to be saved. But they do not like the idea that outside, private entities can bid to run it as a contract school. Nor do they like that it will sit dormant for a year.  

“Anytime black children have a need, it is sold to the highest bidder,” said Jeanette Taylor, who serves on the LSC of Mollison Elementary, which is near Dyett. She worries that Dyett might become a selective enrollment and that her autistic son won’t qualify for enrollment. She wants the reopened school to be able to serve him.

The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett wants the school to be reopened as a neighborhood school with a focus on “global leadership and green technology.” They said they do not understand why -- and feel it is disrespectful for -- the board to consider other proposals.

Veteran civil rights leader and historian Timuel Black, now 96 years old, told the board that he thinks schools do much better when they have community support. Joy Clendenning, who serves on the Kenwood LSC, said that people in the area ask her often what is happening with Dyett. “It is such a great building and location,” she said. She called the community’s plan “terrific.”

Board members did not respond to the coalition’s speakers.

The RFP for Dyett, as well as for other new schools to open in Fall 2016, is supposed to be released some time this month. CPS officials said that this year they are not considering proposals to open any new schools in Fall 2015, a move that many assume is political given that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is running for re-election and new schools are controversial.  

However, two charter schools were given conditional approval last year for openings in Fall 2015. One of them, a new entity called Moving Everest Charter School, was given final approval on Wednesday.

2. CPS’ new (old) inspector general… CPS finally has a new, permanent inspector general and, not surprisingly, it is the same guy who has been holding down the job for the five months since the last inspector general resigned. Wonder why it took so long to make him permanent? Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the official appointment of Nicholas J. Schuler earlier this month, and on Wednesday the Board of Education confirmed him in a procedural vote.

Schuler has been deputy CPS inspector general since 2010. Schuler is a former police officer and the son of a police officer. After getting a law degree and working in a private law firm, he went to work for the city’s inspector general’s office. He tells the Sun Times that he saw the move to CPS as a promotion.  

The news of his official appointment comes just as the office is about to release its annual report. In the past, the annual report has detailed relatively low-level corruption, including misuse of credit cards by school board presidents, clout admissions into selective enrollment schools and principals who fraudulently identified their children as qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

3. More on ratings… When CPS Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced school ratings earlier this month, she said she was surprised that quality schools were spread out throughout the city. Catalyst mapped the schools and, while we found this is true, it is also the case that the best schools are much more concentrated on the North and Northwest sides of the city. Forty percent of the top rated schools are on the North Side or centrally located, compared to 20 percent on the South Side and 15 percent on the West Side.

What’s more, of the lowest rated schools, 60 percent of them are on the South Side, though only 50 percent of all schools are on the South Side. The West Side is home to 22 percent of all schools, but 32 percent of the lowest rated schools.

Catalyst’s analysis also confirms that white students are most likely to attend the district’s Level 1-plus schools, the highest rating. Nearly all the schools with significant white populations are rated either 1-plus or 1. Meanwhile, all of the lowest rated schools, except for Kelvyn Park High School, which has a mostly Latino population, are more than two-thirds black.  To see maps of ratings by race click here.

4. Fewer recruits for TFA … As CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey noted during Wednesday’s board meeting, a recent Washington Post article pointed out that studies show that morale among teachers is super low. Teaching just isn’t as attractive as it used to be because of the “polarized public conversation around education” and districts’ shaky budgets, according to a note written by Teach For America leaders to the organization’s partner organizations and obtained by Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss.The article was about the trouble that the controversial teacher training organization is having trouble recruiting new candidates. 

As a result in the drop in recruits, TFA expects to “fall short” of its partners’ needs by 25 percent. Also, TFA leaders closed a training site in New York because of the decline, as reported by Chalkbeat last week.

The waning interest in teaching hasn’t only affected alternative educator prep programs like TFA. At traditional university teacher prep programs, enrollment fell by about 10 percent between 2004 and 2012, according to a recent story in Education Week. The numbers are even worse in Illinois, as Catalyst reported earlier this year. Enrollment at traditional undergraduate teaching programs dropped by about 23 percent in the decade leading up to 2012.

5. In other school news … Ald. John Arena of the 45th Ward asked the board Wednesday to prioritize hiring more full-time nurses at schools that cater to students with special needs. He shared concerns from teachers and staff at one such school, Beard Elementary, who have to administer medications to students. "They have concerns about the health of the child -- if they were to miss a dose or mistime the doses -- because the demands on them are more each day," Arena told the Tribune. Just 450 nurses serve the district’s 683 schools, according to the story. That adds up to a ratio of about one nurse for every 880 students in CPS. The district is currently seeking proposals from outside groups to deliver some $33 million in school nursing and health management services next school year.

Also, parents who want to see the implementation of the PARCC test delayed asked the board to adopt a policy allowing parents to opt their children out of the test. Rules around opting out became an issue last year when hundreds of parents, if not thousands, opted their children out of the ISAT, which was then a state-mandated test but one that CPS was not using for any accountability purposes. At the time, some schools followed the rule that they hand every student a test but then allow the student to refuse to take it. Parent Jennifer Biggs told the board that she had no problem opting her children out at their school but wants to make sure that in the future children aren't put in a position of having to refuse the test. 

Finally, it looks like progress has been made on choosing a site for the city’s new selective-enrollment high school that was initially going to be named after President Barack Obama. Ald. Walter Burnett of the 27th Ward says he favors a vacant riverfront parcel at Division and Halsted near Goose Island because it has room for parking, no conflicts with nearby schools or parks and won’t take away land needed for replacement public housing, according to a Sun-Times story. (A previous site in the middle of Stanton Park was scrapped because of concerns from Near North Side residents about lack of parking and the loss of park space.) Residents will also have an opportunity to weigh in on the new site.

Categories: Urban School News

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