Take 5: Karen Lewis questions, UNO and the IRS, Kennedy-King honor

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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis still hasn’t made up her mind — at least not publicly — about whether she’ll run for mayor against incumbent Rahm Emanuel. But she’s been hitting the pavement, talking with residents and asking followers to help circulate a petition to get her name on the ballot.

But all the quasi-campaigning has some teachers a little worried. During a teacher roundtable organized by Catalyst last month, some CTU members in the room expressed concern about what a campaign run would mean for leadership, especially with contract negotiations approaching. “If she runs, is she going to quit her job at the CTU? Who is going to take over?” one teacher asked. “And what will that mean for contract negotiations?” asked another.

Lewis told Catalyst she’s been asking herself the same questions but said that it’s important to remember that “union negotiations are done by a very large group of people. It’s not just me at the table.” At the moment, she says, she has no intention of resigning from her CTU gig. That’s a matter she first needs to discuss with both her executive board and the House of Delegates. “This issue is kind of like putting the horse before the cart,” she says.

2. First day turnaround… Gresham Elementary School students learned Tuesday what it means to sweat the small stuff, reported the Chicago Sun-Times. As a newly-minted school turnaround, it’s now run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. AUSL, which has been overhauling schools since 2004, has a detailed checklist for operating its schools. The list includes things like standing in line leaving a square floor tile between students and waiting to use the bathroom at Level Zero (perfectly quiet).

The staff and parents at Gresham waged a major battle against the turnaround. At one point, some of the parent activists thought they had won over CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. The latest NWEA test scores show that about two-thirds of the 24 elementary schools run by AUSL are among the lowest 25 percent in reading. However, 10 of the 24 are among the highest 25 percent in test-score growth.

3. More UNO trouble…  The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that UNO charter schools is now being audited by the IRS. UNO’s (United Neighborhood Organization) troubles first boiled up when the newspaper reported apparent conflicts of interest in spending a $95 million state construction grant. Because the charter network did not reveal these conflicts, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission accused them of defrauding investors. According to the Sun-Times, the IRS investigation has to do with the bonds issued through the Illinois Finance Authority, a state agency that provides non-profits with low interest loans. Over the years, the agency has provided bonds for Learn, Namaste and Noble charter school networks.

This year, CPS allocated $84.5 million for UNO to run 15 schools serving a projected 7,909 students. The board gave UNO permission to open two new schools this fall, but UNO decided to hold off. UNO is currently the third largest charter network in CPS.

4. Kennedy-King honored… The South Side community college is one of 10 finalists in the Aspen Prize for Community Colleges, which carries with it a $1 million award. The award judges how community colleges are doing in getting their students to graduate and get a job, especially focusing on equitable outcomes for poor black and Latino students. Staff from the Aspen Institute will spend the next three months visiting the 10 campuses. The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy organization based in Washington D.C.

Since 2011, the City Colleges have been undergoing a process leaders call “reinvention.” In a Catalyst interview with Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, she said the goal of the initiative was to increase the number of students earning college credentials, transferring to bachelor degree programs and to improve the outcomes for those students who need remediation. The fourth is to increase the number of adult education students who succeed at college-level courses.

This summer, PBS interviewed Hyman as part of their series Rethinking College and reported that the number of graduates has doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 since “reinvention” was put in place.

5. Massive pre-K expansion in NYC… One thing Chicago’s city and teacher union leaders seem to agree on is that expanded early learning opportunities would be a good thing. Chicago Teachers Union issued a call for universal preschool last week, not too long after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shared his own plan to expand pre-K enrollment to an additional 1,500 low-income 4-year-olds.

With all this extra attention on preschool, it might be worthwhile to see what happens when a major U.S. city actually attempts to unroll universal preschool. More than 50,000 4-year-olds in New York City have been enrolled in free full-day prekindergarten as part of one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most ambitious initiatives since he took office. The expansion has involved getting an additional $300 million in state funds, training thousands of teachers and hiring nearly 200 inspectors, teaching coaches and enrollment specialists.

But as Chalkbeat New York reports, “some skepticism of the pace of the plan has persisted, especially around basic concerns over child safety and more challenging concerns about curriculum standards and teacher quality.” Just last week the city’s comptroller complained that his office has received less than half of the center contracts he needs to review — to ensure vendors have proper documentation such as insurance and background checks on staff.