Take 5: Neighborhood school push, measles vaccines and more Quazzo dealings

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A funny thing is happening: In a district with more school choice, the desire for good neighborhood high schools is bubbling up. A meeting on Saturday convened by Tom Tunney (44th), Ameya Pawar (47th) and Pat O’Connor (40th)  to talk about the importance of neighborhood schools got coverage in the Chicago Sun-Times. More than 100 people showed up.

The two high schools in the area, Amundsen and Lake View, are among those experiencing a renaissance. Last year, the schools attracted only about a third of students in the community. This year, they both have more freshmen than a year ago, a significant feat given that many neighborhood high schools are struggling with dwindling enrollment and attracted less than a quarter of neighborhood students.

Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a firm supporter of choice, is realizing that families are clamoring for good local schools. In his speech on his second-term education agenda, he said he intended to put a specialty open-enrollment high school within three miles of every student. Amundsen has an International Baccalaureate program and Lake View has a STEM school.

2. Still struggling… Even with these promises, most voters are not yet won over by Emanuel’s education performance. A new Chicago Tribune poll shows that 58 percent of those surveyed still disapprove of the mayor’s handling of the schools. That’s not much better than the 65 percent rating he received over the summer, especially considering the onslaught of commercials touting his achievements.

The Tribune’s article points out that none of the candidates offer much in the way of how to get the district back on solid financial footing. It also notes that Emanuel is softening his rhetoric about teachers, who he took on in his first term and set off the first strike in 25 years.

While the article acknowledges that school closings continue to haunt Emanuel, it doesn’t much mention charter expansion and choice, another sticking point with some activists. As a Catalyst Chicago article pointed out, under Emanuel, students from black communities are increasingly criss-crossing the city to school, often to schools that are no better than the one down their street. Parents across the city, white and black, are clamoring for good schools close to their homes.

 3. Measles shots… About 97 percent of students in CPS have their measles vaccine, with 29 schools having about 10 percent of students not vaccinated, according to the state’s 2013-2014 immunization survey. The issue came to the forefront this week with the revelation that a day care center in Palatine has had an outbreak. Illinois requires students to be vaccinated, but allows for waivers for medical or religious reasons. The state average among public school districts is about 98 percent.

Of the 10,000 students in Chicago that were  not vaccinated last year, 56 percent were in non-compliance, with another 17 percent having a scheduled appointment to get vaccinated. Most of the other students weren’t immunized against the measles for medical reasons, according to the state survey.

One Chicago principal said that while her staff repeatedly informs parents of the date by which their children must be vaccinated, it is difficult to keep students out of school until they comply. If students are out of school, then the absence counts against the school’s rating. What’s more, school nurses charged with following up on vaccinations must work with several schools. According to the CPS employee roster from December 2014, there are 320 nurses for the district’s 538 district-run schools. Only three schools, Peck Elementary, Kelly High School and Hubbard High School, each with more than 1,600 students, have a nurse dedicated to them.

4. ISBE nixes science tests… ISBE will defy federal law by dropping mandatory science tests for three grades, the Tribune reported. National law requires the tests to be given at least once during grades 3 through 5, 6 through 9, and 10 through 12, and the state could potentially lose federal funding for axing the tests from fourth, seventh and 11th graders’ spring lineups.

State officials say they’re cutting the tests because their current tests include outdated material. Last year, Illinois became one of 12 states to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, which modernize the benchmarks of what students are taught and tested on. State School Superintendent Chris Koch told the Tribune that the state will field test new science questions this spring to match the new standards, and that the new tests will be ready for students in 2016.

The move puts state leaders in hot water with the federal government shortly after they threatened to rescind CPS funding for the district’s refusal to give the PARCC exam to all its students this year. The tables now turned, Illinois’ defiance on science tests may put the state in the same boat as Chicago. Still, Koch said, “We haven’t been told that what we’re proposing would be illegal and that we’d be sanctioned. We’re still in discussions about it.”

5. Lucrative business..Turns out CPS board member Deborah Quazzo’s ed tech companies have gotten even more money from Chicago schools than originally thought. The Sun-Times found that five companies in which she has an interest received more than $1.3 million from contracts with charter schools — that’s in addition to about $4 million her companies have gotten directly from CPS.

Quazzo declined to talk about the contracts, citing an open investigation by the Inspector General after the first stories came out in December. The Sun-Times notes that Quazzo has not abstained from voting on measures that benefit some of the same charter schools that have contracts  with her companies. However, some of the operators, including Urban Prep and Noble Network, said they were unaware of her interest in the companies, However, officials at KIPP — on whose board she’s served — said they “regularly discussed developments in the field of emerging education technology products and services,” including the educational software businesses  she invested in.