Take 5: Discipline reporting push, CPS schools in football semi-finals and Senate Bill 16

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Young advocates will go to Springfield this week to press lawmakers to pass a bill that would make it mandatory for school districts to release information on punitive discipline practices. Jose Sanchez, coordinator for the student group VOYCE, says the group would like to see the legislation passed in the veto session. The bill calls for the reporting of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and student retention. It also requires school districts to report law enforcement involvement, including arrests–something already required by the federal government. And it prohibits schools from charging students fees for misbehavior, a controversial practice that the Noble charter schools once used but abandoned last year under political pressure.

The bill also calls for school districts to report when students are removed to alternative settings. In revising its Code of Conduct this past Spring, CPS officials created a loophole that allows schools to transfer students to what is called a Safe School–a special school historically reserved for expelled and dangerous students awaiting expulsion–as an alternative to expulsion, without any due process, Catalyst reported this summer. Without this bill, it will be near impossible to find out how many students were given this “disciplinary reassignment.”

Under the bill, schools with the highest rates of exclusionary discipline would need to submit improvement plans to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Sanchez says that some school superintendents are pushing against the bill. But he thinks the stories of students who have been suspended for small things or things that they couldn’t help, like being near a fight but not in it, have helped to convince lawmakers that some light needs to be shined on the issue.

After years of having advocates fight for the information, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett released school-level suspension and expulsion data. However, that data, which cover the first semester of last year, have not been updated. Byrd-Bennett also announced a revision of the Student Code of Conduct that made suspension and expulsion the punishment of last resort. However, Sanchez says he still hears stories of students being suspended for what seems like insignificant reasons. For example, one boy, who is struggling since his father passed away, was suspended for missing school.

2. Three cheers… The football teams of Simeon and Phillips made it to the state semi-finals–the first time two public league teams have been in the final four, reports DNA info. The last public league team that made it this far was Hubbard’s 2005 team,  and the last state championship won by the public league was Robeson in 1982. Simeon’s coach Dante Culbreath says that the achievements show the “growth in the public league.”

Phillips seems to be beating the odds in other ways. It is a turnaround school, managed by the Academy of Urban School Leadership. Though ratings aren’t out for this year, it earned the district’s top rating last year. Yet like other public high schools in Chicago, it still is losing students. This year only 614 enrolled, which makes fielding a strong football team even more impressive. Simeon, the career and technical education school attended by the Bulls’ Derrick Rose, has a middle rating and has been able to maintain a healthy student body of 1,400 students, though it also has lost students.

The importance of a strong sports program was underscored in a 2009 Catalyst story on the achievement gap between black male students and other racial/gender groups. Researchers say organized athletics can provide a sense of structure and discipline for youngsters. “There’s a point when you realize that stability is really the beginning point of academic achievement,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sports in Society, a Boston-based sports research and advocacy group.

3. Bring them back… WBEZ’s Curious City returned to the question of whether CPS should bring back truancy officers, a position the district eliminated more than 20 years ago to help balance its budget. Curious City had previously looked into the history of truancy officers, but in this update to that story, the reporter actually interviews someone who used to have the job.

Patrick Nelson, who was a full-time truancy officer in the 1990s, offers an interesting and timely perspective. He says he tried to be “as positive and uplifting with children as possible, to show them that someone cared — and noticed — they were missing.”

This summer, a state-appointed task force suggested CPS create a position similar to truancy officer. These “attendance coordinators” would go out to find absent students fortified with a background in psychology or social work and training in data analysis and counseling.   The task force was convened in response to a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation into the “empty desk epidemic.” Catalyst reported earlier this year that chronic absenteeism and truancy increased in 2013, despite all the additional attention, though the numbers fell slightly last school year. Nelson told Curious City he thought the state was asking for too much in the catch-all “attendance coordinator” position: “You put too much plumbing in the works, you’re gonna get clogs.”

4. Senate Bill 16’s future… Lawmakers are set to take up Senate Bill 16 — the proposed legislation to revamp how schools are funded — on Tuesday at the start of the Legislature’s fall veto session. But as an Associated Press article points out, it’s unlikely to get very far before the January inauguration of Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

Republicans in the Illinois House criticized their Democratic colleagues for excluding the GOP from summer meetings about SB 16. “Sadly, the way in which the majority party presented it and went into hiding was a terrible disservice to taxpayers and families whose children are part of the public education system,” said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

Meanwhile the parent group Raise Your Hand came out against the bill over the weekend, noting it brings no additional revenue to schools. “Our schools are severely underfunded and merely shifting inadequate dollars won’t change that,” Wendy Katten posted on the group’s Facebook page.  Raise Your Hand is asking legislators to pledge to support a funding reform bill only if it “includes a fair weighted formula, significant new funding for education and adequate resources for students with disabilities.”

5. Four more years … The U.S. Department of Education last week extended waivers for states to avoid compliance with the tough 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Forty-one states, including Illinois, had gotten waivers — which were set to expire next year but can now be extended for up to four years, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Politico says the long extension “would carry the Obama administration’s policies well into the next presidential administration and possibly buy time for a congressional fix to the law,” which requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

To get the waivers, states must do more to show how they plan to intervene in low-performing schools, but, as Education Week reports, “they won’t have to provide any data to show their new systems are actually improving student achievement.”

Anne Hyslop, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit consulting organization in Washington, told EdWeek it doesn’t seem like the federal government is “really making significant changes […] They are not necessarily doing anything new or ambitious, they are not collecting any new outcome data. It’s kind of just the same old, same old.”