Take 5: First-day attendance, Dyett concessions and school funding bill

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Continuing a kind of dubious tradition started by former CEO Arne Duncan, officials announced Wednesday that first-day attendance was better than ever this year. Accountability Chief John Barker  told board members at their monthly meeting that 93.7 percent of enrolled students showed up on the first day of class — which is ever so slightly higher than last year’s 93.5 percent rate. In addition, he said the attendance rates were higher on each day of the first week of school.

Forget the fact that in 2009 Duncan announced first-day attendance was a record 94.1 percent. The method used to calculate first-day attendance has always been questionable. The first-day attendance rate is calculated by taking the number of enrolled or projected students, then dividing by the number who show up. The many thousands of inactive students or those who are not officially enrolled or projected are not counted in first-day attendance figures at all. In many schools, especially high schools, the number of students who eventually enroll is significantly more than those who are in attendance on the first day. Also, the first-day attendance figures do not include the 55,000-some students who attend charter schools. 

Duncan started reporting first-day attendance because he said it affected state funding. Later it was pointed out and he conceded that the first day doesn’t count any more than any other day. Funding is based on the average number of students in attendance over the three months with the best results. Yet Duncan insisted that first-day attendance was important as it set the stage for the rest of the school year.

 2. Outlawed… Wednesday’s board meeting was a rather civil affair, with some people complaining about the privatization of custodial services and others asking district offficials for help with overcrowding. Missing were some of the fiery speakers who regularly attend. DNAinfo reports that four of them had been banned, including Rosemary Vega and her husband Jesus Ramos. Vega and Ramos became incensed at the July board meeting when board member Jesse Ruiz left the meeting before they had a chance to speak.

The letter sent to Vega and others who were banned quoted public participation guidelines, which call for participants to be “courteous, respectful and civil.” CPS rules give Board President David Vitale the unilateral power to establish and publish guidelines.

The enforcing of such a rule is not the only way the board meetings have changed under this administration. The sign-up to speak at a board meeting starts a week and half before the actual meeting, and ends the Friday before. However, the board agenda does not get posted until the Monday before the meeting–effectively preventing anyone from speaking on the items on the agenda–something board members say they want.

 3. Small wins for Dyett… Police arrested 11 people who refused to leave City Hall Tuesday night after staging a sit-in to protest the pending closure of the Washington Park high school. The school is scheduled to close after this school year with its final class of seniors, although in the week before school began, CPS officials called them to encourage students to consider attending a different school.

Activists say Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staff made several concessions to the students, including a commitment to hire a physical education teacher so students wouldn’t have to take an online gym class. They will also get to use the gym again, which had been closed soon after the school won a full overhaul of its facilities in an ESPN contest, DNAinfo reports. The mayor’s staff also agreed to provide ACT test prep and tutoring services to the students, in addition to allowing the school to hold prom.

4. Work in progress … Lawmakers and educational leaders continue to debate the merits Senate Bill 16, legislation aimed at transforming the way the state funds schools. But don’t expect it to get resolved anytime soon, according to comments in a recent Chicago Tribune article. “We’re going to have hearings on Senate Bill 16 and continue discussions throughout the next year,” said Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia during a recent meeting with suburban school district leaders. “We can’t unravel 20 years of education inequity in just one year. That’s highly unlikely.”

The state Senate passed SB16 last May, and House Democrats have been meeting regularly with Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) staff since June to discuss the new, simplified formula. SB16 would give more money to poorer districts, while including weights for need based on the number of students enrolled who are special education, gifted or English Language Learners.

The school funding bill has become a campaign issue in at least one House race, according  to a recent Daily Herald article. A Democrat running to represent Downers Grove says that while she opposes the bill as it’s written because suburban districts stand to lose millions, it’s a good “conversation starter.” Her opponent, an incumbent Republican, says the problem with the bill is that it tries to adjust how education funding is distributed without adding more money to the pot. Check out a model developed by ISBE on how the legislation would impact local school districts based on 2013 data here (the model will be updated this fall using more recent data).

5. And the winners are…. Of 40 school staffs that spent the summer dreaming up projects that could help their schools, 23 will share a total of $100,000 to implement a pilot version of their programs, The Chicago Public Education Fund announced Tuesday. The Summer Design Program projects range from teacher professional development to parent engagement to buying technology to help teach STEM. The schools, which include charters and traditional schools, also are eligible to win an additional $30,000 for ongoing support.

The highest award per school for the Summer Design Program is $7,500. Budlong Elementary in Lincoln Square was one of the top winners and will use its winnings to make its third- through fifth-grade classes more interdisciplinary. “The program we designed was to pair teachers who are strong in humanities with teachers who are strong in math and science,” says Budlong Principal Naomi Nakayama. “Typically, when teachers are working together, they are working with other people in the same grade level, or the same content area in the upper grades. This is a different model for us.”

Nakayama says the school plans to use the money toward giving the teachers planning time and buying equipment so students can have hands-on experiences.