CPS touts minute improvements for students from closed schools

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Minor improvements in attendance, on-track rates and grade-point averages among students from closed schools were touted Wednesday and proved enough to please CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and board members.

In her first update on what has happened to the roughly 12,000 students whose schools were closed at the end of last school year, Byrd-Bennett told board members that dire predictions of chaos did not come true.

 “We’re stronger today than we were before and better positioned than we were before,” she said. “Students impacted by the consolidations are making academic gains.”

But the CEO’s preliminary report does not show substantial gains.

In every area, students from closed schools lag way behind and have made less progress than other students throughout the city. The on-track rate for students who did not experience any school actions last year was nearly 60 percent in Quarter 2 of this school year, up 2 percentage points from last year. Those numbers were nearly parallel for students from the welcoming schools, whose graduation on-track rates grew from 57 percent to 59 percent.

But students from closed schools have seen an increase of only 0.3 percent, to 48 percent.

Board members, who didn’t ask any questions about the report, lauded the CEO.

 “Congrats to you and the team,” said Board President David Vitale. “Frankly, it’s an incredible success to date.”

CPS has spent more than $225 million on capital and academic programs at the 50 welcoming schools, to smooth students’ transition from the closed schools.

Byrd-Bennett said that the placement of additional monitors along routes used by students from closing schools led to no “major” incidents, and that attendance was up. During the first two quarters of the 2012-2013 school year, the average attendance of students from closed schools was 92.7 percent. During the same period this year, the average attendance was 93 percent.

The CEO also noted that just over half of students from closed schools improved their attendance. It’s unclear whether the other half fared worse off, or if their attendance did not change. CPS officials did not provide more detailed data.

Context missing from report

The 9-page midyear report does not take into account some factors that could have impacted data on student performance during the first two quarters of last school year – when a parsed list of potential closures was first made public.

A 2009 Consortium on Chicago School Research study on school closings found that the most precarious time for students of closed schools are the months around the announcement. The research indicates that the drama caused by knowing a school may close can affect attendance and conduct.

Also, some of the students in closed schools did not actually change buildings. In those cases, the staff and students from welcoming schools moved into their space. The children who did not change buildings would not have had to travel longer distances, something that many worried would affect attendance.

During her comments to the board on Wednesday, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the CEO’s report doesn’t tell the entire story about the consequences of closing schools.

“There are still 800 students unaccounted for from the entire move last year,” Lewis said. “These are things that are never discussed publicly that need to be discussed publicly.”

The CEO said she would return to the board at the end of the school year with a more comprehensive analysis, and promised to provide annual updates during the next three years.

ISAT investigation “winding down”

Byrd-Bennett also briefly addressed the controversy surrounding an ongoing CPS investigation into teachers at Drummond Montessori School and Saucedo Scholastic Academy who refused to give the ISAT standardized test earlier this month.

CPS legal investigators interviewed Drummond students last week, infuriating their parents, who had not given their consent for the interviews. Investigators later talked with Saucedo teachers but said they did not interview students there.

“We are obliged to investigate the allegations of staff misconduct,” Byrd-Bennett said. “Our interviews are winding down and concluding, and after consultation with legal, I will bring back findings and recommendations for this board to consider.”

Many parents in the audience who spoke during the public comments section of the meeting criticized the district for the ISAT investigation. Parents said it was their decision – and not the teachers’ – to opt their children out of taking the ISAT.

“Who the heck thought it was a good idea to send an investigator in to question our kids?” asked Mary Zerkel, a Drummond parent. “Did our mayor approve this?”

School board silent on school turnarounds

Before the meeting, dozens of parents, teachers and community supporters rallied against a CPS proposal last Friday to “turn around” three elementary schools:  Dvorak in North Lawndale, McNair in Austin and Gresham in Auburn-Gresham. The board will vote on the proposal next month.

One Dvorak parent, Lisa Russell, asked the board to give the schools more resources to turn themselves around instead of turning over the management to an outside organization.

“I know we’re not moving as fast as you want us to, but we take every child from everywhere,” she said. “We take the children nobody wants.”

Russell also suggested that the board vote against a proposal to nearly double its budget for new furniture for CPS headquarters, which are changing locations later this year. Still, the board voted unanimously for the proposal, bringing the total furniture budget for the new office space to $9.5 million.

No more background checks for some volunteers

In other action, the board agreed unanimously to scale back CPS requirements on background checks for volunteers. The new tiered system makes it easier for parents and community members to get involved in schools, said Phil Hampton, who heads the district’s family and community engagement programs.

“We feel that the current policy and practice is somewhat restrictive and that’s why we’re here today,” he said. “We want to increase access to interested volunteers, in particular to parents and non-parents, while also providing the necessary safeguards for students and staff.”

Criminal background checks will now only be required for parent volunteers who spend more than 10 hours per week at the school their child attends, and non-parent volunteers who work five hours per week. Chaperones on overnight school-sponsored trips, coaches, one-on-one tutors and others with direct, regular contact with students will still have to undergo background checks.