Take 5: Finding dropouts, missing the point on Obama Prep, charter unions

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WBEZ’s Becky Vevea looks at the challenges of re-engaging dropouts in Chicago. One of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first goals in office was getting more of Chicago’s 60,000 school-aged dropouts back into class. Vevea reports that the district’s new Student Outreach and Re-Engagement (SOAR) has helped bring 1,700 students back into CPS since it started last year; 130 of these have since gotten their high school diplomas.

Vevea rides along with staff from Prologue, a long-time alternative school operator, as they try to bring young people back into school. Not-for-profit operators, like Prologue and the 20-some Youth Connection Charter School campuses, are under pressure to get students. CPS has beefed up its recruitment of dropouts at the same time as it has embarked on a major expansion of for-profit alternative schools. Seven of these schools are slated to open this year. These schools, like all CPS schools, receive funding on a per-student basis.

Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that the district’s graduation rate has increased under their administration and is now nearly 70 percent. All ethnic and gender groups have seen increases, but Black male student graduation rates, already the lowest, did not go up as much and remain the lowest, with only 51 percent of Black male freshmen graduating in five years.

2. More subs… A Chicago Tribune analysis shows that students are increasingly coming to class to find that they have a substitute for the day. The analysis only included suburban and downstate schools, not Chicago. While students might be happy, experts say learning suffers when they are not with their regular teachers. School district officials say that some of the teacher absences can be attributed to participation in professional development to learn how to implement new standards, called the Common Core. Another reason is that, as a generation of teachers retire, districts are hiring a crop of young teachers, who often go on maternity leave.

In Chicago, the lack of substitutes is often a problem. Principals complain that the substitute center often doesn’t send substitutes, even when they ask for them several days in advance, according to a February 2013 Catalyst story. When substitutes don’t show up, city principals often pull assistant principals, special education teachers and art teachers to cover classes. Catalyst has heard that the problem has not improved over the last two years.

3. What’s in a name… Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday that he wouldn’t pursue his plan to name a new North Side selective enrollment high school after President Barack Obama. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell writes that, even as he backs down from using the Obama name,  Emanuel misses the larger point. She says he should reconsider building a new selective enrollment school on the North Side altogether. “These voters aren’t worried about what name hangs on a school. These voters are still seething because they couldn’t even control the pitiful, failing schools in their own neighborhoods,” she writes.

The building of a new selective enrollment high school, which Emanuel still wants to do, brings up another point. As required by state law, CPS had to develop a 10-year master facilities plan. The plan, which was completed last year, should have outlined what the district has and what the district needs. Hearings on the plan should have been about the specific types of new construction that the district would undertake over the coming years. But the plan is thin on specifics and is more a description of current conditions than anything else. Decisions about what new schools will be built, which ones will get annexes and which ones will get improvements seem to be made in a vacuum, without any justification or public input.

4. Charter unions … Why have we not seen more of them? The answer, according to Dara Zeehandelaar, research manager at the Fordham Institute in Washington in an Education Week article, is in part because teachers at charter schools “believe in the importance of autonomy .. They’re young, and young teachers believe in [unionizing] less.”

Zeehandelaar says the national unions — the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) — began moving in on charter schools after recognizing that it’s better to be “on the table” than not be there at all. Quite simply, “the greater percentage of those schools that are charters, the fewer percentage of schools are district schools, and the fewer teachers that are unionized.”

In Chicago, teachers are organized at about a quarter of all charter schools. The most recent school to unionize is Chicago International Charter School (CICS) ChicagoQuest, where teachers voted to unionize in May and are negotiating a contract. Meanwhile, teachers at Latino Youth Alternative School are nearing a vote on their own contract.

Read more about charter school unionization in these EdWeek stories, as well as a Catalyst story from earlier this year when teachers at the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) network voted on what some say is one of the largest labor contracts for a charter network in the country.

5. Benefits of a full-day of Pre-K … With all this recent talk of universal preschool, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s commitment to expanding slots for low-income children and a recent call by progressive unions for full-day preschool, it’s worth taking a look at a program here in Chicago that’s been providing comprehensive educational intervention to young, low-income children and their families for nearly three decades.

Last week, the Hechinger Report posted a Q&A with Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, who has been following a class of 1,539 children from Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers for nearly 30 years. (This longitudinal study has tracked all sorts of long-term benefits of preschool, from academic achievement to a reduction in remedial education and juvenile arrests.)

Child-Parent Centers in Chicago and elsewhere got a funding boost from the federal government a few years ago, which is why they’ve been able to expand. And at more than two-dozen schools, principals are putting in additional funds to make the programs full day. At those schools, Reynolds says, “We found [significantly better] learning gains compared to kids in the half-day preschool. … That also reduced chronic absence rates by 40 percent. This fall, the program has over 30 full-day pre-K classes in the city of Chicago. This has been a tremendous expansion.”