Board sets the stage for more school closings

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CPS’ new Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat made his first presentation before the Board of Education on Wednesday, laying the ground work for what is expected to be a slew of school closings this year.

Sicat showed board members two maps, one on the utilization of schools and the other on the performance. If one were laid over the other, they would be fairly similar, he said.

“This could mean that parents are voting with their feet,” Sicat said. However, he noted that school performance will trump utilization as he and other CPS leaders make school closing decisions.

Some 123,000 students attend schools at the lowest performance level, a designation that takes into account students who meet standards, students who exceed standards, the school’s value-added test scores and attendance rates. (Schools 2011-2012 performance levels, including those for charters, can be found by going to the CPS research and accountability website and searching by school name.)

Sicat didn’t say how many schools would be closed this year. Over the next two months, CPS leadership will be talking to community members, parents and staff about targeted schools. A state law requires that school actions be announced by early December.

Sicat said each student will be given a transition plan, specifying which school they will be assigned to and what their other options are.

“Students will be moved to schools that are dramatically better than the ones they were attending and they will continue to progress,” Sicat said.

Under this system, schools have one of three performance levels, and the students attending the worst schools will most likely go to schools in the middle tier, since the district does not have enough seats in top- tier schools to accommodate all the students from schools that close.

Only 22 percent of elementary schools and 10 percent of high schools are in the top performance level.

Much of Sicat’s presentation focused on making the case for school closings by offering a list of sobering statistics about Chicago Public Schools. The new administration has been frank about the current state of schools, noting that ISAT scores are misleading and, given a more rigorous test, way fewer students would meet standards.

At the November report card pickup day, parents will be given performance reports showing how many students would meet more rigorous standards. Sicat said it might be shocking for parents, but will give them a better idea of their school’s quality.

But the answers he presented are not that much different than the previous administrations. Sicat said his objective as chief portfolio officer, a new position for CPS, is to make sure that all students have access to quality schools, have good schools to choose from and that “networks, operators and schools” promote innovative solutions.

With innovate being a code word for charter schools, the plan sounds much like what was laid out at the onset of Renaissance 2010, i.e. close bad schools and open up new ones. Former Mayor Daley and then- CEO Arne Duncan, however, later stalled on closing poor-performing schools because of community opposition and parent concerns about safety.

Board member Rod Sierra told Sicat that he is stepping on “the third rail.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis pointed out that the poor academic achievement comes after a decade of school closings, openings and turnarounds. “You are scaring 100,000 parents,” she said. “You have to learn to support schools with appropriate resources.”

Another initiative that might have helped more than closing schools would have been lowering class sizes, Lewis said.

Yet there was strong support expressed for charter schools. Before the meeting, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools held a press conference in which pastors and parents from Englewood and Roseland called on CPS to open more charter schools in their neighborhoods.

Parents from two schools in particular—John Hope High School in Englewood and Smith Elementary School in Roseland—want a new school, according to INCs.

Pastor Gregory Livingston from the Mission of Faith Baptist Church said, besides the selective enrollment Brooks high school, not one school in the area performs well. Standing amid signs that said “Our students can’t wait,” he said “Get in the game and get on the ball. Prepare our students to compete in a global market.”

New application

Sicat also announced that his department is working on a single application to all CPS magnet and selective enrollment schools. Currently, CPS parents and students must fill out an application for each type of school they are interested in and separate applications for charter schools.

Several previous administrations have talked about creating a unified application process and several cities including Boston and New York already use one. Such an application would be easier for parents to navigate and curtail the enrollment uncertainty experienced by schools.

But it is unclear whether charter schools, whose admissions process is currently done completely outside of traditional CPS schools, would buy into a centralized application. If they didn’t, it would mitigate some of the benefits.

Longer day

As has been the case for the past several months, extending the school day was another key issue at the October meeting.

Proponents were on hand to point out the benefit of having extra time for art and recess. But several parents questioned whether an additional 90 minutes was too long and whether CPS had the money to incorporate a quality curriculum into a longer day.

Under a pilot program, nine schools have already implemented the longer day after teachers voted in favor of waivers. But the future of the pilot program remains uncertain. After the Chicago Teachers Union filed a grievance claiming the waivers were an orchestrated way to circumvent their power, the Illinois Educational Relations Board decided to ask a judge to issue a temporary injunction.  

On Wednesday, board members voted to offer the pilot program to charter schools that don’t already have a seven-and-a half hour school day. Most charter school teachers are not unionized.