Take 5: Safe Passage expands, test score analysis, a new blog

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It was a morning of anxiety and excitement for hundreds of thousands of CPS students who headed back to school today. And for their parents, too. “I’m happy for her but nervous, too. It’s her last year of elementary school,” said Jenny Santos, whose eyes welled up as she watched her eighth-grade daughter walk into Monroe Elementary School near Logan Square.

Many parents told Catalyst Chicago they were relieved to know more adults will be watching their children on their way to school this year, after a $10 million state investment in the CPS Safe Passage program. The program, which works to reduce incidents of crime and boost attendance, will now encompass 133 elementary and high schools.

“There needs to be more control, more security at these schools,” said Ernesto Ramirez, after ensuring his 14-year-old daughter walked through the doors at Kelvyn Park High School. The expansion was announced last week by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn, both Democrats running for reelection.

On the city politics front, one parent said she doesn’t care whether Emanuel is reelected — or is beat by his potential challenger, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. “I just hope they’re both doing it because that’s what’s best for our kids,” said Lilia Mendez, as she waited for her a bus to pick up her children, students at Sabin Magnet Dual Language School. “What I do worry about is whether the mayor can take on a more conciliatory tone with the teachers this year, to avoid any future conflicts or strikes.”

2. Graduation next… Though they are serving ever fewer students, neighborhood high schools showed the biggest jump in five-year cohort graduation rates, shows a Catalyst analysis of school-level data. Mayor Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced last week that graduation rates jumped by 4 percent in one year. Neighborhood high schools rose from 64 percent to about 69 percent, though at 12 schools, half or less than half the students graduated. The worst rate was at Orr High School–a turnaround school run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership — where only 42.5 percent got their diploma within five years. The best was Lake View High School, at nearly 86 percent.

Charter schools, with 76 percent of their students graduating within five years, continue to have a markedly higher graduation rate than neighborhood schools, though lower than selective and magnet schools.

What is not known is how of the many of the students counted as graduates actually got their diploma from an alternative school. The five-year cohort rate counts students as graduates of the school where they started as freshmen, regardless of where they actually earned thier diploma. Over the last five years, the number of alternative schools in CPS has doubled. The expansion continues this year with nine more slated to open.

3. Another test-score analysis… The Chicago Sun Times reported this weekend that charter elementary schools showed less growth on the NWEA than did district run schools. It is a solid analysis that is sure to reinvigorate the debate about why CPS is investing in charter schools. The article quotes activist Dwayne Truss, who says a lot of marketing paints neighborhood schools as “horrible places and that charter schools are better.” This analysis seems to say that this image is not true, he says. Blaine Principal Troy LaRaviere, who alerted the Sun-Times to the disparity, notes in a follow-up editorial that it is unfortunate that CPS is funneling poor black and Latino students to charter schools and turnaround schools, schools that are improving more slowly, while an increasing number of Caucasian and Asian students go to neighborhood schools that show the most growth.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy points out that some of the higher-performing charter schools, such as the LEARN network and Namaste, did not provide scores on the NWEA, a test that allows for national comparisons. CPS leaders have said that as part of contract renewals, they will require to charters to agree to provide NWEA scores, but currently, most of their contracts say the district will judge them based on the ISAT.

There are other reasons to be a bit cautious when drawing conclusions from the data. All the growth in CPS-run schools is a comparison between spring 2013 and spring 2014. But of the 58 charter schools that provided scores, 35 did not provide information for spring 2013. A number of the charter schools did not even exist or were adding grades at the time, so it’s unclear what time period the growth is measuring.

4. Speaking of the charter school debate…. Some familiar names—former CPS communications head Peter Cunningham, along with former deputy Michael Vaughn, former Chicago Tribune education reporter Tracey Dell’Angela and a network of others–launched a website Monday called educationpost.com. The three issues they intend to tackle are: high standards for all children; taking responsibility, which is about accountability and testing; and high-quality charter schools. Cunningham and the others left CPS with Arnie Duncan and went to Washington. Now they are back in Chicago.

In his opening blog, Cunningham states upfront that the organization is being supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation–all strong backers of charter schools. Cunningham is being transparent by admitting this and surely he and the others involved know that these funders are political hot buttons, and their support will elicit assumptions about the blog’s point of view and true intent.  

Still, Cunningham’s blog insists the organization wants to engage in a conversation with diverse voices. The website will feature columns written by parents, teachers and students, he writes. “At Education Post, we want to foster a new education conversation–based on more hard facts and fewer unsupported opinions, more fair-mindedness and less name-calling, more concrete solutions and fewer impassioned excuses for why nothing can be done.”

The webpage also features an impassioned argument in support of the Common Core by Dell’Angela and a nifty little first day of school video at Montessori School of Englewood.

5. Later start time? Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics urged schools to push back the starting times for middle- and high-school students to 8:30 a.m. or later, noting that the average teenager is sleep-deprived.

Judith Owens, lead author of the academy’s policy statement and director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, called teen insomnia “a national public health crisis” and told the Chicago Tribune that “delaying school start times is one of the most effective interventions to reduce the negative consequences of chronic sleep loss.”

But don’t expect any changes any time soon at CPS. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he’s not about to use “preliminary research” to reconsider start times in Chicago.