Take 5: Preschool enrollment falls, union election spending, asbestos concerns

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Preschool enrollment in CPS is down again this year. The district’s 20th day enrollment data show a drop of about 800 children, with 4-year-olds accounting for the entire decline.The downward trend continues  even as Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to expand access to high-quality preschool for all low-income 4-year-olds in the city. Early childhood education advocates and parents have blamed the drop on his administration’s decision to centralize the application process for preschool enrollment last year. (Enrollment fell by about 950 among 4-year-olds last year.) Parents say the new process is harder to navigate, and that their children often get placed at schools that are too far away.

The centralization process — which was one component of the mayor’s Ready to Learn! initiative — was meant  to ensure the neediest children got priority. In a statement, CPS officials acknowledged the drop but noted that enrollment is down across the district. And while that’s true, no grade level saw as big an enrollment drop as 4-year-olds in preschool, which is voluntary. (See Catalyst’s analysis of CPS data here.)

In a statement, CPS officials said that this year “we have already received more applications for school-based programming compared with last year, and expect to receive further applications as enrollment remains open throughout the year.” The district also said that more than 86 percent of families that applied this year were offered seats in their first- or second-choice programs.

2. Union rethinks Chicago election spending  … The American Federation of Teacher’s commitment to contribute $1 million to CTU president Karen Lewis’ mayoral bid bolstered her chance of being a viable candidate. But now that she isn’t running, will the AFT — a staunch critic of Emanuel’s education agenda —  be involved in the mayoral election at all? That has yet to be decided. On Tuesday, the AFT’s Randi Weingarten issued a statement saying the initial commitment was to Lewis as a “union sister.” “As Karen has decided not to run, we will have to re-evaluate based on many factors – as we do across the nation — starting with conversations with our local affiliates in Chicago,” she says.

The AFT money could be a big factor in the viability of any mayoral candidate — including Cook County Commission Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a progressive who threw his hat into the race this week but has less than $20,000 in his campaign account, the Chicago Tribune reports. Emanuel has already raised some $8.7 million for the election. 

3. Asbestos concerns… A week after parents complained about damaged lead paint at Gale School in Rogers Park, Little Village parents and teachers are raising concerns about asbestos and other problems at Saucedo, according to DNAinfo. The cancer deaths of at least two teachers have heightened concerns, but teachers and parents are not saying the condition of the school is responsible for the deaths. Also, CPS inspectors found that though asbestos is in the school, which was built in 1912, the levels are acceptable in all places where children are at.

According to DNAinfo, parents were told the school had conducted an asbestos test through a private investigator and that the school had passed. However, CPS would not provide parents full results.  Gale’s parents, along with activists, had to file a Freedom of Information Act and go to the Illinois Attorney General to force CPS to comply. The communications problems are mystifying, given that parents need to feel secure that their children at the very least are safe in school.

4. Closings and mergers … The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced this week it will shutter seven elementary schools and consolidate six more by next year, a move that will affect more than 1,200 students and 200 employees. Church officials assured that “unlike past shutdowns in which some schools got reprieves, all decisions this time are final,” according to a Tribune report.

Low enrollment due to a declining population of school-aged children is being blamed for the closings across Lake and Cook counties. This year, there are 82,000 children enrolled in the system’s 240 schools; at its peak in 1965, some 366,000 students were enrolled in 524 schools. As schools emptied and parish funds dried up, many schools relied on big subsides from the Archdiocese.

5. About that study … Remember that report that came out two weeks ago that concluded that charter schools in Chicago perform worse, on average, than traditional schools? Most of the local media covered its findings, although later pointed out that the CTU had helped pay for the study by the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota. In an opinion piece published in Crain’s Chicago Business this week, the reports’ authors defended their findings against criticism of their work by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

INCS’ Andrew Broy had taken issue with the data quality, data sources and omission of “high-quality research” that has found positive outcomes at charter schools. In their Crain’s piece, authors Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce dismiss Broy’s criticism and say they used statistical controls to compare student performance in charter schools versus those in nonselective traditional schools.

In this highly charged debate, it’s important to remember that studies on charter schools across the country have fallen in both camps, with the general consensus being that they perform about as well — sometimes slightly better, sometimes slightly worse — than traditional neighborhood schools.

One last note … Waukegan school district officials and teachers reached a tentative agreement late Wednesday night, ending a month-long strike. Classes are set to resume on Monday.

I’m going to add one little line to the end of the Take 5 that says: One last note, Waukegan school district officials and teachers reached a tentative agreement late Wednesday night, ending a month-long strike. Classes are set to resume on Monday.