Charters to undergo yearly reviews, “warning” list

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Even as CPS decided to ramp up its get-tough stance on charter schools and phase out two campuses for poor performance, a vote on the fate of the DuSable Campus of Betty Shabazz Charter School drew the rare opposition of board members Andrea Zopp and Mahalia Hines.

Every fall, the district will name poor performers to a “warning list.” In contracts with charters going forward, it will stipulate that being on the warning list would result in closure the following Spring. Currently, charters only face closure at the end of their contract. Contracts are typically five years, though recently some shaky performers have been given three-year contracts.

The first batch of those put on the warning list, announced Wednesday, will get slightly longer to improve – until spring 2014, if they are still on the list come September.

“We are putting schools that are not making progress to our standards on notice,” schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

In addition to the schools that are being closed for poor performance this year, six more are on the list to start – ACE Tech Charter High School, which had its charter renewed for 3 years today; ASPIRA Early College High School; Catalyst-Howland; CICS-Basil; Galapagos Charter Campus; and North Lawndale Charter High School – Collins.

The new ASPIRA Business and Finance High School, put on the agenda even as one campus faced closure for poor performance and another was put on the warning list, was pulled from the agenda in a move CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said was procedural.  The board will consider the new campus separately in a future meeting.

In spring 2012, the most recent year for which data was available, there were at least 12 elementary charter campuses and six high school campuses rated as Level 3 schools, among the worst in the district. All new charter contracts will allow CPS to close campuses that are at the lowest level for three years in a five-year period to be closed; and to review them annually for closure starting in September 2017.

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said those rules, along with the “warning list,” will allow the district to “act immediately if a charter is not performing, rather than waiting for the renewal process.” But those aren’t necessarily the schools targeted by the new policy. CICS-Basil and ACE Tech, for instance, are Level 2 schools.

Schools will be added to the list any time that they miss performance standards in their contracts for two years in a 3-year period, and don’t score at least 10 percent higher on the CPS performance policy point system than comparison schools.

CPS is also getting tough on schools with financial problems. Certain infractions will lead to shortened renewal periods, and schools that are more than 15 days delinquent on Chicago Teachers Pension Fund contributions will have 15 more days to pay up, or CPS will withhold the amount due.

The new rules will phase in as charter schools receive new contracts. Some board members seemed impatient; board Vice President Jesse Ruiz asked if current charters could be renegotiated to allow CPS more power.

Warning list “a bit of a blindside”

Phyllis Lockett, president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, says she is glad CPS is holding charters accountable but wishes charter schools had gotten a seat at the table.

“Schools got less than 24 hours’ notice they were even being put on this list,” she said. “When you have schools like CICS-Basil and they have done an amazing job this last year, it is a bit of a blindside to the parents, the students and the teachers.”

Lockett is also unhappy that CPS uses the ISAT, PSAE and ACT scores (though combined with other measures like AP enrollment and dropout and graduation rates in high school) as well as, for elementary schools, the ISAT value-added student growth scores. She would prefer to see the performance policy include the NWEA MAP assessment, which CPS has also adopted district-wide.

“Those are much better indicators, and so I think they have got to develop a more consistent and comprehensive approach to evaluating schools before putting them on lists like this,” Lockett says. “I think a much better measure is nationally normed student growth.”

Galapagos Charter School issued a news release complaining it was not told of the decision until 8:45 p.m. Tuesday. “Furthermore, Galapagos was not provided any opportunity to participate in a dialogue surrounding this issue. In fact, all of the CPS Board of Education speaker reservation slots had been filled at least three days earlier,” the release said.

The school slammed the lack of warning as a “failure of professional responsibility” on the part of CPS and a symptom of “the capricious and covert nature of CPS’ closure process.”

“The question should be: Which Chicago schools are providing the best quality education to the students of Chicago? If that were the question, Galapagos would not be on any ‘watchlist,’” the release said.

DuSable supporters seek another chance

Amid discussion of the DuSable Leadership Academy phase-out, it became clear the discussion of getting tough on the politically connected Betty Shabazz International Charter School operator touched a nerve. In addition to DuSable Leadership Academy, Shabazz has two other campuses.

Board member Andrea Zopp, who later voted against the phase-out, along with board member Mahalia Hines, questioned why DuSable was being closed when its graduation and college enrollment rates are better than those of nearby schools. But Elsey said test score data shows students may not be prepared for college.

“Admission to college is not a subjective process,” argued Carol Lee, the school’s founder, during the public participation section of the meeting. “We have indicators in what we are seeing now, in the test preparation work, that we will see significant improvement in the spring scores.”

David Ireland, CEO of the charter operator, said that the school’s students were more likely “to actually attend school,” to graduate, and to enroll in college. “Aren’t these indicators of a school’s quality?” he asked.

After public participation ended, Zopp asked Elsey for a response to the plans the school proposed to improve DuSable.

Elsey said the plans were “certainly research based” but “late in the process; they came up in the year when they were up in renewal.”

Problems at Shabazz, ASPIRA campuses detailed

Officials also offered more details on the problems plaguing ASPIRA and Shabazz charter operators, both of which are having schools phased out.

Site visits to Shabazz campuses found that “strategies and structures designed to improve academic performance were absent or only newly instituted” and that “school and classroom management were inconsistent… Some parents and students had significant issues with the schools, including a lack of academic rigor, lack of engagement in student outcomes, and verbal or physical altercations with other students and parents.”

The Shabazz Academy campus requires $1 million in Americans with Disabilities Act recommendations in the first year of its contract. “Fixing these issues was a condition of their previous contract and was not met,” noted Chief of Innovation and Incubation Jack Elsey’s presentation. “The five-year budget allocates no money for facility improvements associated with documented ADA issues.”

By July 2, the operator will be required to have a new budget approved by CPS, as well as a facilities improvement plan and a financial “corrective action plan” with details on how the school will pay for the estimated $1.5 million in improvements.

At ASPIRA, also being granted a 5-year renewal, site visitors found that “data was rarely used to inform decision-making” and that “teachers at Ramirez had not received any professional development support or observations.”

Elsey’s presentation noted that “the ASPIRA network’s governance and operations provide poor oversight; the network reports that a strategic plan does not exist.”