Take 5: Arts education report, costly closed schools, PARCC concessions

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CPS did a better job last year of providing arts education when compared with a year earlier, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel first unveiled an ambitious arts plan for schools. Still, fewer than half of the city’s public elementary schools provided students with the recommended 120 minutes of weekly arts education last year, and teachers and other resources remain inequitably distributed.

The data point is one of many in a comprehensive “State of the Arts in Chicago Public Schools” progress report released today by the non-profit arts advocacy group, Ingenuity Inc. Executive Director Paul Sznewajs says the report shows “encouraging progress” both in terms of the number of schools participating in the voluntary Creative Schools Initiative — which tracks schools’ arts programing and resources — and in improvements at 371 schools that participated in both years. “We like what we see but we recognize that there’s still a lot to do and we want to keep at it,” Sznewajs says.

The Creative Schools Initiative allows Ingenuity to rate schools based on self-reported resources dedicated to arts education — including teachers, minutes of instruction and whether the school collaborates with outside arts organizations. Although elementary schools in every part of the city got the highest rating, the data show an unequal distribution in programming. More than 40 percent of schools in the center, North Side and Far North Side of Chicago obtained the highest rating, while less than 20 percent of schools on the Southwest Side were highly rated.

Nearly nine out of 10 schools participated in the Initiative; a year earlier, just 57 percent of schools did so. Most schools that didn’t participate in the survey were charter schools. Ingenuity also announced the 100 schools that will receive a total of $1 million to improve arts programs.

2. Costly closed schools … After waging a battle for the information, NBC-5’s investigative reporters found that CPS spent $2.7 million to keep the gas and electricity on at closed schools—almost as much as CPS spent when the schools were in operation. District officials explained the money was to maintain the buildings, which makes sense considering buildings need to stay warm over the winter to prevent burst pipes and other expensive repairs.

But the costs show that CPS has already spent a good deal more money than the projected $1.8 million it expected to pay to maintain closed buildings. Perhaps more interestingly, the NBC-5 story also reveals Washington Park’s Ross Elementary was so badly damaged by vandals that an internal report shows repairs would cost $10 million more than estimated. All in all, the report calls into question the district’s assertions that it would save $43 million annually by closing the 50 schools. Despite repeated requests from reporters, district officials have never provided an itemized accounting of the estimate.

3. Flexibility on the PARCC … In a concession to principals and parents worried about scheduling test burnout in high schools, the state is giving districts options to choose from other tests besides the new PARCC. Superintendents were told about the option last week via a newsletter and have to make a decision by tomorrow.

Unlike previous tests that were administered by grade level, the PARCC is given by subject. The state chose English Language Arts III and Algebra II or Integrated Math 3 — courses usually taken during the junior year– as the set of PARCC tests to be given at high schools. Yet many juniors also take Advanced Placement tests, in addition to the ACT or SAT. Also, principals of large high schools say that, because students of different grade levels take these classes at different times, getting everyone into a computer lab at the same time is a scheduling nightmare.

However, in his weekly message, state Superintendent Christopher Koch announced he will let superintendents choose math and language arts courses typically offered in freshman and sophomore years. In related news, Koch wrote to the U.S. Department of Education last week asking for affirmation on how the state has interpreted federal requirements for giving the PARCC.

The letter is in response to parent groups that have been urging the state to delay the test, although ISBE says that’s impossible without risking federal funding.

4. Money for after-school programs … Dozens of extended learning programs for low-income students across Illinois were awarded nearly $34 million this week by ISBE. Programs in Chicago schools — including some administered by CPS, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, and Enlace Chicago, among others — got a total of $17 million. The money comes from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school, summer and other kinds of educational enrichment programs. The funding is expected to be renewed annually over the next five years.

Leaders of many organizations had complained to Catalyst back in May about how long it was taking ISBE to issue a request-for-proposals for the funding and, as a result of the uncertainty, said they were scaling back or cutting their offerings. One of the reasons for the delay, ISBE officials said, was because the state had additional flexibility this year on how to use the money. For the first time, programs had the option of using funds for student activities during the school day.

5. Better options for juvenile justice … Everyone basically agrees that locking up teenagers is not a good way to get them to straighten up, according to a new study released by Roosevelt University’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation and the Adler School of Professional Psychology’s Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice. These organizations interviewed 200 “stakeholders” and found that virtually no one thinks it is a good idea to remove young people from their communities.

The study points out that 90 percent of young people from Cook County who go to youth prisons end up going back. The study suggests that sentencing teenagers to alternative programs are much more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

On a related note, youth activists hoping for action on a bill that requires school districts to report suspensions and expulsions, as well as to develop action plans of they have high rates of punitive discipline, might be out of luck, at least for now. Today is the last day of the veto session and it does not look like Senate Bill 3004 will move forward.

Voices of Youth in Chicago Education held a press conference this week to urge Illinois legislature to act.

In the wake of the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., having the appropriate disciplinary measures in schools is important to everyone in the community, said Brandon Johnson of the Chicago Teachers Union.

“As a teacher, as a father, it’s an offense that this system here in Chicago, and school districts across the country, are sending a clear signal to black boys that their lives do not matter,” Johnson said.