Take 5: Simeon electrician program, Lewis campaign, middle school dropouts

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Late Wednesday afternoon CPS announced that Simeon High School’s electricity program will be “reinstated” for the coming school year. In addition, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will offer jobs to students who complete the three-year program.

Teacher Latisa Kindred led the fight for the program, the only one in the district. Ald. Howard Brookins and activist Shoneice Reynolds, along with her son of CNN “Chicagoland” fame, Asean Johnson, joined in the fight. CPS officials said budget cuts and lack of interest were behind the shut-down, though Simeon kept its barber and cosmetology programs.

The cut shed light on the fact that, with student-based budgeting, CPS now allows principals to open and close Career and Technical Education Programs based on how they want to use their budgets and whether they think students are interested. The issue arose at the July board meeting and several members seemed surprised by it, saying they wanted more information about how Career and Technical Education offerings are decided.

2. Getting interesting… It is looking increasingly like CTU President Karen Lewis will jump into the mayoral race. More than 400 of her followers — mostly teachers in tell-tale red union shirts — packed the Beverly Woods Banquet Hall on Tuesday to hear her speak about what she’d do if she won. While Lewis hasn’t said whether she’d resign from her CTU post, she indicated that she’d ask union members what they think first. In the meantime, she’s created a committee to collect campaign contributions, according to the Sun-Times. And the American Federation of Teachers has pledged $1 million to a potential bid.

Lewis didn’t have clear answers to some questions during Tuesday’s event, but said she’d surround herself with competent people who could help her figure it out. She said she’d like to put more cops on the street but didn’t know how she’d pay for them. When asked about the controversial red-light cameras, Lewis said she thinks a serious audit of the program is a good place to start. On schools, Lewis said she’d scrap the “CEO” title and replace it with “superintendent,” and would avoid closing charter schools but look into folding them back in with the rest of CPS schools.

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators, which lifted Lewis to power, has always had grander ideas than just working on the teachers’ contract. “One of our primary objectives is to start making proposals for school reform,” said CORE’s Jackson Potter in January of 2010. But Lewis will not be running for mayor of schools. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if she and the activists who back her can develop a solid plan for reforming the city.

3. Small improvement …Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that attendance was up from the 2012-2013 school year, but movement was less than 1 percent, from 92.5 percent to 93.2 percent. Though used by many school district, the attendance rate, which measures the average percent of days students attend school, has been criticized as misleading. A school could look like it has high attendance, but have cohorts of students who miss weeks, even months of school. The school-level data can be found here

Catalyst reported that chronic absenteeism, which is the percent of students who miss 5 percent or more of the school year, spiked in 2012-2013. While officials say they don’t know why the jump occurred, during that year the district officials announced after a labored process that they were going to close 50-some schools. The biggest jump was at elementary schools. The chronic absenteeism rate went down a bit during the last school year, but is still higher than in 2010-2011, according to Catalyst’s findings. Further, schools that took in students from closed schools didn’t see a decrease in chronic absenteeism in the 2013-2014 school year.

4. Even smaller improvement… Another CPS press release came out this week touting that city students scored the highest on record on the ACT. But it was only a 0.1 scale score increase from 2013. The current CPS ACT average composite score is 18, according to the press release. To be fair, making gains on the ACT is difficult and scores tend to inch up slowly. CPS’ composite ACT scores have gone up every year, except for 2006 and 2009, for the past decade. In 2003, the average composite score was 16.4.

This is the last year in which all high school students in Illinois will take the series of tests, called the PSAE, which culminated in juniors taking the ACT. Next year, Illinois will administer the PARCC, an exam that is supposed to be aligned with the new Common Core standards. However, at the moment, CPS’ accountability rating system for high schools is tied to the PSAE so the district will likely keep giving it.

5. Middle school dropouts… California state education data shows that more than 6,400 students dropped out of middle school in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the Hechinger Report, which is a not-for-profit education news service. The story points out that most of the focus is on high school dropouts and many time statistics don’t even include students who leave 7th or 8th grade and don’t come back. In addition, students often start exhibiting the behavior that leads to dropping out in middle school, though they don’t formally do it until high school.

A 2001 Catalyst article looked at the issue of middle school dropouts. The article found that there were 5,600 middle school students who were unverified transfers. Had they been in high school, they would have been counted as dropouts. Students who exit in middle school are still absent from the main dropout number CPS uses. These days, CPS uses a five-year cohort dropout rate that looks at how many students who start in ninth grade make it to graduation within five years. The figure, however, says nothing about those who never make it to ninth grade.

Oh, and one more thing … CPS rolled out a new website last night, complete with a new logo designed by students. The content looks to be pretty similar to what was up previously, including some out-of-date information on programs that no longer exist. Still, district officials say it’s a more user-friendly site and easier to view on a mobile device.