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PURE, UNO, David and Goliath

Ben Joravsky gives deserved kudos to Dan Mihalopoulos for his work exposing financial shenanigans at UNO Charter Schools (though after a decent interval, the state dollars are again flowing).

The Sun-Times has also taken credit for a state probe of UNO finances.

But we shouldn’t forget what got this ball rolling — a demand back in January by Parents United for Responsible Education, joined by parents in Pilsen, that the state inspector general investigate UNO finances.  (Here’s the press release.)

PURE emphasized UNO’s reliance on financing by tax-exempt bonds — and the growing debt-per-student costs that resulted.  It looks a bit like a pyramid scheme, like a house of cards that would collapse if UNO failed to keep expanding.

Which is a question that should be considered — if one of these operators goes belly-up, who picks up the pieces?

PURE is a small, scrappy advocacy group with a long history.  In the last couple years it’s taken on the two most politically connected charter schools with impressive results.  Last year, a report by PURE and Voices of Youth in Chicago Education got the Noble Network on the front pages for harsh discipline policies involving extensive fines and pushing students out.

Charter waiting list inflation

The Chicago Tribune isn’t going to admit error with their claim that 19,000 students are languishing on charter school waiting lists, “yearning” to be free of CPS. But they may not throw the number around with the same panache after WBEZ’s expose.

As Becky Vevea showed, the 19,000 number counts applications, not students — and students typically apply for multiple schools — and it also includes over 3,0000 students who’ve dropped out and are seeking admission to alternative schools.

The Tribune now cites Andrew Broy of the Illinois Charter Schools for the “estimate” (though as Michael Miner points out, they claimed the number as fact in their editorials) , and Broy has regrouped quite nicely.

Wednesday he was saying the real number was probably “around 65 percent” of 19,000, based on his own “spot checks.” Thursday he insisted that 19,000 is a “conservative estimate” — the real number probably higher than that, he now says — since it excludes non-reporting charters and new charters that are just ramping up.

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Alternatives to standardized tests

As opposition to overuse of standardized tests grows here and across the county, a public forum Thursday on Alternatives to Standardized Tests is being sponsored by a new local coalition.

It takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 24, at Hartzell Methodist Church, 3330 S. King Drive.

The forum features Dr. Monty Neil of FairTest, who advocates for dramatically reducing the use of standardized tests and incorporating a wider range of assessments reflecting classroom evidence of learning.

“Those of us who are concerned about too much standardized testing are often accused of wanting no accountability at all, and that’s just not the case,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education, which is co-sponsoring the event.

The new coalition, More Than A Score, includes parents and teachers and a number of local organizations.  They’re calling for eliminating standardized testing for pre-school through second grade and greatly reducing it for older children, Woestehoff said.

An initial focus will be on tests designated as optional by the CPS central office but required by network officers, she said.

The group wants an end to evaluating student and teachers and closing schools based on test scores, and will push for “full disclosure of the cost, schedule, and nature of all standardized tests” used by CPS.

A whole lot of tests

The use of “bubble tests” is not like you might remember from your childhood, writes CPS high school teacher Adam Heenan at ClasssroomSooth.  His students start the year with a week of standardized testing, which is repeated midyear and again at the end of the year.  And that’s just one of several tests.

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On school closings, a political ploy

The promise of a five-year “moratorium” on school closings – “announced” by new CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and “endorsed” by Mayor Emanuel – has all the fingerprints of a master at political gamesmanship.

The Tribune is certainly right that the offer is intended “to help sell drastic school closings this year.”  And CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle is certainly right that it’s intended to push the closings as far as possible from the 2015 mayoral election, as she tells the Sun Times.

It would also seem to take away a major issue that drives the grassroots school reform movement here, which is the biggest challenge to Emanuel’s domination.  It even co-opts their call for a moratorium.

But for all its political oomph, it’s lacking in other areas – including basic logic, as Julie Woestehoff of PURE points out.

***

If “chaotic, disorganized closings are such a bad idea,” as Emanuel said in backing the idea, why demand yet one more round of them before you agree to stop, she asks at PURE’s blog.  “It sounds as if the mayor is saying, ‘I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches.'”

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School closings: what ‘everyone knows’

“Everyone knows schools must be closed in large numbers,” according to a Chicago Sun-Times editorial published Thursday.

The editorial questions the savings involved in school closings and calls on CPS to be “more open and inclusive,” and to release a new facilities master plan required by state law before more closings are announced.

But does “everyone” really know schools must be closed?  At hearings on proposed closings in recent years, there’s been consistent opposition – until paid protestors, later connected to Mayor Emanuel’s political operatives, began showing up.

We asked around, and here are some responses:

 

Laurene Heybach, Director, The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless:

The notion that “everyone knows [Chicago public] schools must be closed in large numbers” is a remarkably un-researched assertion. As a member of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, I can say unequivocally that such is not the case. And CPS has never been able to make such a case.

Parents want quality neighborhood schools, not experiments (charters) which drain resources from their neighborhood school and don’t deliver. We hear this again and again, and parents are getting increasingly frustrated with a city that can help decorate the Willis Tower but tells neighborhood schools “no” for every request, from a math teacher to a working heating system to an air conditioner. Indeed, one parent spoke directly to the CPS representative on our task force to say precisely that: the Board of Education’s answer to just about anything our parents want is “no.”

It’s top-down and political people who push closures.  This is why we need to return facility planning to our communities and stakeholders — parents, teachers, students and principals — and take it out of the hands of politicians.

 

J. Brian Malone, Executive Director, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization:

Everyone knows there has been population loss on the South and West Sides of the city. The issue with underutilization, at this stage, is largely the result of CPS cramming charter and contract schools down the throats of communities of color, while also:

(1) raiding the coffers to fund these schools that do very little (if anything) to improve educational outcomes, but do a great deal to create wealth for the private operators and investors; and

(2) siphoning the human capital, material, and financial resources from neighborhood schools, which make them look unattractive when compared to the “new” school with the great marketing budget.

Disinvesting in neighborhood schools has done more to reduce the appeal, and by default the enrollment, of neighborhood schools, creating this manufactured need to close schools, which was orchestrated by the Renaissance 2010 plan and continued forward.

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Perspectives on the teachers contract talks

As everyone gears up for a new school year (or maybe not), here are a few extra-credit readings that illuminate issues in Chicago’s drive for school reform – and in contract talks under way with Chicago’s teachers.

In the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick looks in depth at the success of Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, a high-poverty, neighborhood school in Austin, a community beset by unemployment and violence.

The school is trending up under the inspiring leadership of a home-grown principal, Shawn Jackson, who’s focused on involving parents with his own version of a community school: “parent scholars” who volunteer in classes along with a parent center featuring GED and computer classes and job search help for parents.  There’s a strong sense of teamwork here, and “teachers are trusted” and given autonomy to find the best ways to get material across.

While it has a ways to go, the school fits the profile of 33 high-poverty elementary schools performing above the citywide average identified in a report by Designs for Change earlier this year (more here).

High-poverty, high-achieving

These schools have school-based democracy – local school councils selecting principals and approving school plans and budgets – and supportive teamwork involving parents, teachers, and the community.  They out-perform all of the city’s “turnaround” schools, even those in place now for four and five years – and they do so without the millions of extra dollars each turnaround gets.  (Spencer, which lacks an art program and a decent gym, does better than all but three turnarounds.)

While turnarounds have gotten extensive media coverage,  high-poverty, high-achieving schools have been largely ignored, according to Designs; thus the Sun-Times is due special commendation for this report.

Designs proposes the extra money now going to turnarounds be shifted to allow these high-performing neighborhood schools become resources for other schools.

There’s the hypocrisy of the claim by Mayor Emanuel and his CPS minions that they have to close neighborhood schools and open charters because “we can’t wait” to offer a high-quality education to every child in the district.

It’s a non sequitur: they’re opening twenty charters and ten turnarounds a year, and diverting resources from the neighborhood schools that the vast majority of students actually attend in order to do so.   These students’ education is being sacrificed to fund experiments which increasingly appear to be unsuccessful.

According to the New York Times Magazine‘s look at extreme poverty this weekend, Austin is the kind of neighborhood where repeated school reform initiatives have utterly failed.  (The article looks at the work in Roseland of Youth Advocate Programs, which CPS is now defunding, another turn in the administration’s revolving door of new strategies.)

A kindergarten teacher knows

The number of children living in extreme poverty has grown dramatically in recent decades, and children in areas where it’s concentrated face major challenges, often including community and family dysfunction.  Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists study the way early stress and trauma and family difficulties inhibit brain development and cognitive skills.

But “you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty,” writes Paul Tough. “Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions.

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Time for a ‘high-class debate’?

Mayor Emanuel may now regret ever proposing a longer day as a silver bullet for Chicago schools. The issue’s gotten away from him, and he’s scurrying to catch up.

On Tuesday Emanuel was forced to make two concessions: a small one, reducing his proposed seven-and-a-half-hour day by thirty minutes, and a large one, opening the door to discussions of what that day will actually look like.

Last August, Emanuel said, “I cannot wait for a high-class debate and discussion about, ‘Is it more math? Is it more history?'”

But on Tuesday he said, “I would hope now that we’d stop debating about the time and start having a real discussion” about “how do you use” that time.

Chicago Parents for Quality Education, including parent and community groups who’ve been pressing for “a real discussion,” will be at the mayor’s office Friday, April 13 at 4 p.m. to present him with a petition calling for a richer curriculum, better social supports, early education, smaller class sizes, facilities upgrades, and a reduction of test prep and over-testing.

Emanuel “brought this on himself, and he’s painted himself into a corner,” said Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education. “He’s trying to capture the high ground, and now he has to put his money where his mouth is.”

“He thought any kind of longer day would be better and parents don’t care what happens during the school day,” said Wendy Katten of the Raise Your Hand Coalition. “But parents do care.”

School planning impasse

She said schools have been meeting to plan for next year’s extended day, but CPS has repeatedly missed its own deadlines for providing them with budgets. Schools “were told to make wish lists, but nobody is being told what can be funded,” she said. “Everybody’s confused and frustrated.”

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Is CPS abusing probation?

The lawsuit filed last week against CPS closings and turnarounds highlights two central issues – the charge that the district is systematically neglecting neighborhood schools, and the longstanding contention that CPS uses probation to undermine local school councils.

According to the lawsuit, filed by nine LSC members with backing from the teachers union, CPS has failed to follow requirements in school code that LSCs at schools on probation be provided with plans that specify deficiencies to be corrected and with budgets targetting resources to carry out the plans. (This issue was first discussed here in November.)

According to the Tribune, CPS says they’ve “provided support to these low-performing schools over multiple years to boost student improvement.” Have they?

Tilden High, now slated for a”turnaround” by CPS, has been on probation for eight years. During that time there have been “drastic budget cuts,” amounting to a half-million dollars or more each year, according to LSC member Matthew Johnson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Drastic cuts

The school has lost English teachers, math teachers, a computer lab teacher, a librarian. It’s lost funding for its auto shop and its woodshop – leading some kids to drop out, he said.

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