Take 5: Academic tracking and choice, selective enrollment, Concept Schools

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WBEZ releases a big package this morning that proves what many have long charged: The opening of new charter high schools and selective enrollment schools–becoming a district focused on school choice or a “portfolio” district–has resulted in pronounced academic tracking between schools. Nearly all the high performers are in a select few schools, while charters attract average achievers and neighborhood schools now almost exclusively serve low-performers. Very few schools serve students with a wide range of academic abilities.

Education Reporter Linda Lutton looked at more than 26,000 incoming test scores for freshmen from the fall of 2012. That year and only that year, the district mandated that every high school give students an “EXPLORE” exam about a month into the school year. Check out the cool interactive graphic that allows you to check out what type of student each school attracted.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she was troubled by the findings, but did not think they made the argument that choice should be abandoned. Instead, the emphasis needs to be on improving neighborhood schools so they can attract a wider range of students, she said.

But is Byrd-Bennett’s vision realistic? One consequence of this academic sorting is that neighborhood schools have little reason to offer honors classes. Not only does the lack of accelerated classes make the school less attractive, but it also means that students have little to aspire to and might not be challenged in particular subjects they do well in. A 2011 Catalyst In Depth looked at Marshall High School on the West Side, which faced this challenge as the school had a difficult time offering honors classes, a big disappointment for the few students who qualified for them. 

Not to mention the budget… The parent advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, this week put out an analysis that they say shows CPS is spreading itself too thin by opening charter schools, while taking money from CPS-run schools. The biggest losers: Those very neighborhood high schools that are only attracting the lowest performers.

The dichotomy between charter schools and neighborhood schools was one of the many issues brought up by speakers at three budget hearings held Wednesday night. The Chicago Sun Times reported from the hearing at Malcolm X where the closings of 50 neighborhood schools hung over the discussion.  Catalyst went to the one at the South Side’s Kennedy-King College

Race is also an issue… This week, Ald. Latasha Harris, chairwoman of the City Council’s Education Committee, held a hearing on the dwindling number of black students at selective enrollment high schools, the Sun-Times reports. After the announcement of the planned Obama Prep on the Near North Side, attention was called to the increasing white enrollment at the top North Side selective schools and the dwindling black enrollment. CPS officials told the aldermen that when looking at all 10 selective enrollment high schools, including those on the South and West sides, the number of black students is actually rising. CPS officials also said they were having lawyers look at whether the district can legally insert race back into the admissions’ process. 

A little-known fact is that CPS does give extra help to some black and Latino students from the worst-performing elementary schools. CEO Ron Huberman used a provision of No Child Left Behind to open up 100 seats in the top performing schools to students from the worst performing elementary schools. As far as we know, this provision is still being used and Catalyst reported on the students who got into top schools under this program, many of whom struggled at first but eventually did well. 

WBEZ’s freshman test score analysis adds a wrinkle to this discussion. Of the 40 most academically narrow schools in Chicago, 34 of them are predominantly black.

And a pink slip goes to … the computer teacher at Benito Juarez High School who alleged that attendance records and grades were altered in order to boost the school’s ratings. DNAinfo Chicago reported that veteran teacher Manuel Bermudez got the boot, and that he believes it was done in retaliation.

CPS officials say the layoff was connected to budget cuts. Juarez is projected to get 100 fewer students next year and its budget is down by about $1 million. The principal is laying off 11 teachers, according to CPS’ proposed budget. Across the district, 550 teachers are being laid off. Meanwhile, CPS’s inspector general,is investigating the allegations into that high school administrators were cooking the books.

Troubles continue at Concept … This week, Ohio’s State Board of Education ordered an investigation into the Des Plaines-based charter school chain in response to allegations that range from attendance tampering and cheating on tests to a failure to tell parents about sexual acts performed by students in front of their classmates at a Dayton school.

Federal authorities, are conducting their own white-collar investigation into the chain of 30 schools in the Midwest, including three in Chicago. In addition, one recent news report recently detailed how the charter school chain obtained hundreds of visas for Turkish citizens to teach, while also providing trips to Turkey to state, local and federal lawmakers. The Sun-Times wrote about the chain’s political connections in December.