Take 5: Catching up on the news

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CPS leaders are open to handing over the education of the district’s most troubled, vulnerable students to private entities, putting out a Request for Proposals last week that asked for vendors to apply to serve students considered at risk of dropping out who are as young as 6th grade.

“We have been struggling with this population and we are looking for experienced providers to help us,” said Jack Esley, chief of the Office of Incubation and Innovation, in a press call last week.

That the district is looking to open what are essentially alternative schools for middle-grades students is likely to raise some eyebrows. Esley says district leaders have no idea if there is a private company that has been successful with this age group. “That is what the RFP is for,” he said.

But as many as 9,000 middle grades students are in such academic trouble that CPS officials think they need early dropout prevention. About 900 of them—and this might be first time CPS has identified middle school dropouts–are labeled “transfer within district” or “unable to locate” and they never reenroll. The rest are basically failing with less than a 1.0 GPA and attendance of less than 80 percent.

The district also wants to explore creating some new third-party programs for the 2,000-some students forced to enter high school without graduating from eighth grade. Ever since the district established a strict promotion policy in the late 1990s, it has been confronted with the problem of students who didn’t meet the criteria to graduate eighth grade but are over 15 and therefore must leave elementary school.

At first, CPS had small schools for these students, then a special program within high schools. Both had mixed results. For the past few years, there has been no program and the students were just sent to high school.

Esley said district officials had a lot of discussion about lessons they can learn from failed attempts at serving these students.

2. Expanding private operators… CPS also is asking for proposals for new charter/contract schools, Dyett High School and for current providers to expand. This year, the general new school RFP is for schools to fill what CPS calls “under represented programmatic designs.” These are identified as dual language, arts integration, humanities focused and something called Next Generation models, which incorporate “personalized, blended learning.”

CPS also would like more schools to serve the 27,000 students who are either short of credits needed to graduate on time–what are called young and far or old and far–or have dropped out, but only need a few credits to get a diploma. Under CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, there has been a major expansion of these schools, but CPS still only has 11,584 seats for available. These schools could either be charter schools, contract schools or run as Alternative Opportunities Programs.

Existing charter and contract schools only have to submit business plans and not full proposals.As has happened in the past, Neighborhood Advisory Councils will be formed to recommend new schools, though board members have final say and have in the past ignored the direction of community councils.

Public hearings will be held in August and the board will vote on recommended proposals at their October 2015 meeting. Approved new schools will open in the Fall of 2016. CPS leaders had already announced that no new schools would be approved this year for Fall 2015.

3. Pricey school for rich kids?… Disputed cost overruns with a politically connected contractor could drive the final price tag for  Jones College Prep to $127 million — that is, $13 million more than expected. The Sun-Times reports that the city is bracing for a court fight with Walsh Construction, which submitted the extra bills related to the steel structure and accelerated construction over the summer. The Public Building Commission of Chicago rejected the claims and set aside money for legal fees in preparation for a possible lawsuit.

Jones College Prep — a selective enrollment school in the South Loop — is already the most expensive public high school ever built in the city, the Sun-Times notes. Construction for the new school was financed with the always-controversial tax-increment financing.

Also, last week, cpsobsessed.org published data showing that 44 percent of the students admitted to Jones this year were from the highest income of the four tiers that make up the framework of the selective admissions process. Students from the highest income tier can claim more seats by claiming a large number of the 30 percent awarded solely through rank order of test scores (which remain strongly tied to income).

The selective enrollment high schools on the South and West sides of the city–Brooks, King, Westinghouse and Lindblom–tend to have a disproportionate number of students from the second to the highest income tier or tier 3.

4. Quazzo investigation… Right before Christmas, the Chicago Sun-Times published an investigation that showed that in the mere year and a half since Deborah Quazzo was appointed to the School Board, companies in which she is a major investor have tripled their business with CPS, raking in an additional $2.9 million. Some of the companies, the Sun-Times notes, are selling programs to schools for just $1 under the $25,000 threshold that would require board approval. Soon after the revelation, the Sun Times called for her resignation and the inspector general has opened an investigation.

Quazzo is big investor in what are called EdTech firms, which provide individual schools with ACT prep or online instruction in reading writing or math. The EdTech industry is reportedly exploding.

While it is not clear whether Quazzo has done anything wrong (and she insists she hasn’t), Morrill Principal Michael Beyer writes in an opinion piece in the Huffington Post that it is the type of company she promotes that is problematic. “I have yet to find independent scientific research proving any software is equal to or better than other non-digital teaching strategies,” writes Beyer. What’s more, many of these companies promise “personalized learning” with one even telling a group of educators that the software is “Montessori on steriods.” “I thought at the time, `Why not just do Montessori? Why do we need steroids?’” Beyer writes.

5. Recouping money… Not letting up on its earlier investigation into CPS’s risky bond deals, the Chicago Tribune reported on other bodies that have succeeded in “clawing back losses, with banks repaying millions of dollars to governments that issued the same kind of problematic auction-rate debt Chicago’s school system did.” The story notes that many governments’ claims are still in progress, including cities ranging from Houston and Reno, Nev., to a Florida school district. “If we had not pursued it, we would have never gotten anything,” RoseMarie Reno, the outgoing treasurer of a California hospital district, told the Tribune. That hospital district secured a $4.5 million settlement to help cover its losses on auction-rate securities last year.

CPS told the Tribune it’s reviewing the litigation in other parts of the country “to determine if other options are available,” while noting that it had previously reviewed the transaction “and determined there is no avenue for arbitration.”

In another story, the Trib also wrote about a new federally mandated test for advisors who guide government borrowers — and whether it’ll actually be enough to tests advisors’ ability to evaluate “the burdensome derivative deals that helped Congress to set the standards in the first place.”