State sets meaningless standard

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Under the Illinois criteria for designating a school as dangerous under No Child Left Behind, not one CPS building has ever received the label, even though numerous campuses have problems with violence year after year.

In fact, like most states, Illinois has never designated any school as dangerous under NCLB, which requires states to provide information on which schools have safety problems so parents can choose whether to send their children there. But rather than use incident reports—as the U.S. Department of Education suggests—Illinois education officials use expulsion data. The department criticized the use of such indirect criteria in a recent report.

Expulsions tell parents and the public only a small part of the story about what is going on in schools, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS expulsion and enrollment data for the last three school years.

Take, for example, Manley High School in East Garfield Park. Andres Durbak, director of the CPS Office of Safety and Security, pinpoints Manley as a school that struggles with safety. Indeed, for each of the past five years, Manley has had an average of 153 violent incidents—about 18 incidents per 100 students, far above the district average of 5.5 incidents.

But based on expulsion data, Manley didn’t come close to earning the label as an unsafe school. To be classified as unsafe under state guidelines, a school must expel at least 3 percent of its students for violent or weapons offenses for two consecutive years.

In 2005 and 2006, almost 3 percent of Manley’s students were sent to expulsion hearings, but less than 1 percent were actually expelled. Hearings do not automatically lead to expulsion. In some cases, the hearing officer decides there’s not enough evidence to warrant kicking a student out; in other cases, the student is sent to Project SMART, a nine-week alternative program that teaches decision-making and problem-solving skills.

Since 2004, five Chicago schools expelled at least 3 percent of their students, but none did it for two consecutive years, according to Catalyst’s analysis.

Too many definitions?

Illinois is not alone in having ineffective criteria. Last year, only 46 schools from five states were labeled dangerous under NCLB, a figure that doesn’t jibe with information on crimes and surveys of conditions at schools, according to an August report from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education. That report also warns against using disciplinary measures, such as expulsions or long-term suspensions, because schools often just send problem students to alternative programs.

Ronald Gidwitz, who was chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education in 2002, says he doesn’t remember much discussion about the NCLB criteria and maintains that parents know when schools are having problems.

“They know because their children tell them,” he says.

A committee that developed the criteria thought using expulsions was fairer than using incident reports, says Myron Mason, who chaired the committee and now is the state board’s interim division administrator for federal grants and programs.

Committee members reasoned that principals wouldn’t report accurately if they knew the numbers were going to be public. In contrast, state policy requires expulsions be approved by a superintendent, and a violence-related expulsion must be accompanied by a police report.

“They were afraid that there were too many definitions of an ‘incident,’ ” Mason says.

Nationally, education advocates are split on whether more should be done with NCLB’s unsafe school provision.

Jack Jennings, the executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, says threats and bullying are more of a problem than violent incidents in most schools. Instead of focusing on a label, schools should have anti-bullying policies and programs, he says.

Mary Fulton, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, notes that few advocacy organizations have paid much attention to the provision. That might be due to the concern that academically struggling schools are more likely to be designated as dangerous.

“That would be a double whammy,” she says.

Still, Fulton believes the criteria should be tightened up when NCLB is reauthorized so parents will know when a school is having problems. And rather than being punished, the schools should be given help.

“It really can’t be dismissed when a school is a tough place to be and a tough place to learn,” Fulton says.

In New York, the 27 schools identified as persistently dangerous each got $100,000 to improve school safety, as well as extra support.

According to the inspector general’s report, schools designated as dangerous or put on state watch lists “tend to show dramatic decreases in violent incidents the following year.”