Take 5: Preschool deal gets OK, principal training, middle school success

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The City Council voted on Wednesday to approve Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to borrow $17 million from investors to pay for a temporary expansion of a high-quality preschool program. Under the so-called “social impact bond,” the city and CPS will only repay the money if fewer children need expensive special education services and have high academic achievement. But as we reported earlier this week, banks face little risk in the complex financial agreement.

That’s due largely to the fact that the chosen program — child-parent centers, which enroll children through third grade — are backed by decades of research proving their long-term savings. If the program is very successful, Goldman Sachs and other investors stand to double their money. Only five aldermen voted against the proposal, including Northwest Side Ald. John Arena, who said that if he “was at Goldman Sachs, I would be doing this, too,” according to a Sun-Times story. Critics from the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare Illinois, meanwhile, called it “another parking meter deal.”

During a finance committee meeting on Monday, Lois Scott, the city’s chief financial officer, threw a lot of numbers at aldermen to convince them it was a good idea. At one point, she even said the city could save up to $300 million over the duration of the students’ K-12 education if all of them avoided special ed. The Chicago Tribune parroted this claim without questioning why Scott would ever suggest that 100 percent of any preschool class would need special ed services to begin with, whether they attended preschool or not, since district data show that about 12.6 percent of CPS students need the services. In addition, children with severe disabilities, who are part of that total, won’t be included in the program.

2. Expected endorsement… The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted Wednesday to endorse Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for mayor. CTU President Karen Lewis had already said she backed him and he was the keynote speaker at the union’s legislative dinner on Friday.

The fact that union leadership had seemingly already thrown their support behind Garcia, before the vote, frustrated some delegates. But delegates said that inside the meeting, they were told the endorsement shouldn’t wait. An activist teacher questioned on Facebook who Garcia was and why he had seemingly come out of nowhere. Lewis, who has a brain tumor and had to bow out of the mayoral race, responded: “Point of personal privilege: I endorsed Chuy because many of my non-CTU supporters wanted to know what to do once it became clear I could not continue my mayoral bid. Chuy was an invaluable advisor to me in terms of building coalitions throughout the city.”

As the Tribune article pointed out, the other main mayoral challenger Bob Fioretti was not happy with the union for so quickly running to Garcia’s camp. “Bob has been in the trenches fighting with parents and educators from the start and will continue that fight as mayor,” campaign spokesman Michael Kolenc said. “He has been there for educators over the years, and we know a lot of them are with us now.”

3. More principal training… This week the district quietly announced a three-year partnership with Northwestern University to provide professional development, executive coaching and other leadership opportunities to at least 20 principals each year. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett called it an “unparalleled opportunity” for principals.

Sound familiar? You may recall that CPS awarded a $20 million no-bid contract last year for another principal training program, the for-profit SUPES Academy, run by a private operator. A Catalyst investigation revealed questionable ties between Byrd-Bennett and the founders of the business, while many principals still complain about the quality of the training. The CPS Inspector General is investigating the contract.

The 21 fellows chosen under this program won’t have to attend SUPES trainings. Under the new Chicago Public Schools Principal Fellowship program, Northwestern faculty will provide participating principals six days of academic training, a 360-degree assessment — which involves feedback from coworkers, not just superiors — and group and individual coaching from Northwestern experts.

“We recognize that principals may need different types of support or different experiences to grow professionally, depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses,” said a spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Education Fund, which has committed $500,000 to fund the new training program and had previously funded SUPES Academy before it became a district program. Catalyst has written about Chicago’s efforts to better prepare and retain principals.

4. Getting poorer… WBEZ offers up a rather academic discussion on what it means for the state to have more than half of its students identified as low-income. Michael Rebell, the head of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, says that the trend has “tremendous” implications because poor students need more services, such as before-and-after school programs.

But the president of the Fordham Institute notes that the numbers may be inflated and points out that the number of students identified by schools as low-income has grown more than the official numbers of children in poverty. He says that not many low-income students make it through college and that the nation might need to rethink the idea that college is the path to the middle class.

In Illinois, the child poverty rate went from 15 percent in 2000 to about 21 percent in 2012, according to Voices for Illinois Children. For schools, the definition of low-income includes students whose families have incomes just above the poverty line as well as those below it. WBEZ’s Linda Lutton points out that two-thirds of low-income children live outside of Chicago and all of the increase occurred in the suburbs or downstate.

A Catalyst analysis of state data shows that 24 school districts had increases of more than 20 percent. On average, 64 percent of the students in these school districts are white, 15 percent are Latino and 11 percent are black.

Karen Triezenberg, principal of Willow Spring School District 108, says her low-income numbers jumped by more than 30 percent as student population in the one-school district went up. The mobile home park in the area offers specials to families, she says, and some of the houses vacated during the housing crisis are now being rented to low-income families.

5. Middle-school intervention… Thirty-four CPS schools will get extra help to make sure sixth- through eighth-grade students are on track to graduate.The new initiative, called The Success Project, will also use a program called 6to16, designed at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute to help middle-schoolers set and reach goals for high school and beyond. The Lefkofsky Family Foundation is funding the project.

John Gasko of the Urban Education Institute called the initiative a “compelling answer to what research says matters.” A new study released today by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that middle-grades performance is strongly connected with both high school and college success.

Ten neighborhood schools will gain a full-time “success coordinator” and 23 Academy for Urban School Leadership  turnaround schools will receive training and professional development. A final school, Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center, which already has a strong focus on high school preparation, will also use the curriculum.

“We feel there’s inconsistency across the country, especially here in Chicago, in terms of trying to get students to pay more attention to the choices they make in high school,” Gasko said.