Take 5: Charter proposals, PARCC for college placement, higher-ed hustle

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Last April, charter school proponents head to Springfield rally for pro-charter legislation.

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Last April, charter school proponents head to Springfield rally for pro-charter legislation.

As they posted charter school proposals for fall 2016  openings, CPS officials made the point that they had no choice but to ask for them and vet them for quality only.

Originally, this year, district officials had said they were especially interested in schools offering what they called “underrepresented programmatic designs,” such as those that integrate arts, dual language and focus on the humanities. In the past, they have targeted charter schools for areas with failing or overcrowded schools. But during a press call on Friday, Chief of Incubation and Innovation Jack Elsey noted the Illinois State Commission on Charter Schools only looks at quality and can override CPS decisions, making it futile for the district to consider factors such as need and type of program.

“I don’t think we want to get into whether we want the laws changed or not,” he said. “We want to run a process to get high quality schools. We will consider all proposals.”

 At a Saturday forum on charter schools, Chicago Teachers Union Political Activities Director Stacey Davis-Gates noted that a bill is currently pending in the Illinois senate that would dissolve the commission, but that CPS does not support that bill.

2. What’s being proposed… CPS received 10 charter proposals that, if approved, would result in 20 campuses, including three more Noble Streets and three more KIPP schools. Two of the proposals are for seven schools for dropouts.

It is typical for CPS to receive a lot of applications, but for board members to only approve a few. This year, the board did not approve any charters. It is slated to vote on these proposals in October.

Among the proposals from the new operators are an engineering-focused high school in Little Village and an expeditionary, project-based elementary school in Roseland.

CPS also received three proposals for 12 schools that would operate under the Alternative Learning Opportunities Program. Two of those proposals come from companies that offer half-day, mostly computer-based learning that help dropouts get their diplomas quickly. These schools have rapidly expanded in recent years. A Catalyst/WBEZ investigation found that they offer diplomas that say the student graduated from a traditional high school, though there are many questions about the quality of their instruction. None of the current operators proposed expansion.

Parents and the CTU are already questioning whether CPS needs more charter schools, considering so many schools in Chicago are underutilized. In fact, Ald. Joe Moore on the North Side has already held a meeting where residents opposed to a proposed Noble Street Charter spoke out.

CPS officials are encouraging concerned residents to participate in the Neighborhood Advisory Council process that will vet the proposals.Some councils have rejected proposals that board members ultimately approved.

3. Transgender students … The Chicago Tribune takes an in-depth look at how Chicago-area schools respond to the needs of students who are transgender. It tells the story of how an eighth-grader from Evanston became his school’s first openly transgender student, prompting the school to launch staff-wide diversity training, arrange special meetings with the school psychologist and set aside a private space for him to change clothes for gym class.

Across the country, districts are grappling with how to address the needs “of students who don’t fit typical gender norms,” as the story puts it. Just last week in Virginia, Republicans criticized a Fairfax County proposal to include transgender students and staff in the school system’s non-discrimination policy, citing state rights over defining protected classes. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, some lawmakers are trying to restrict transgender students’ access to school locker rooms and bathrooms, while students in Los Angeles are petitioning that all schools designate at least one “gender-neutral” restroom.

Meanwhile in Chicago, district officials first adopted guidelines for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students last fall. “It includes affirming the right of students to wear clothing, attend classes and use names and pronouns that reflect the gender they identify with; restroom and locker room use are determined on a case-by-case basis.” A CPS spokeswoman tells the Tribune that all schools will be trained on the guidelines.

4. PARCC for college  … As early as next fall, some Illinois community colleges will start using the controversial PARCC assessment results to determine student readiness for college courses.  The decision was apparently made back in January, when the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents approved a policy to accept performance levels of 4 or 5 in math and English language arts in order to place students directly into credit-bearing classes.

“Illinois community colleges can also develop policies to accept a PARCC assessment score of 3 for placement into a college-level general education math or English course when the student has demonstrated other indicators of readiness as determined by that institution,” according to a press release issued last week by the Illinois State Board of Education. (A spokeswoman for City Colleges of Chicago said administrators there have not yet determined whether it will begin using the PARCC this fall or sometime later.)

Community colleges in New Jersey made a similar decision last month.

Schools in Illinois finished administering the PARCC’s first part, called the performance-based assessment,  earlier this month. The second part, called the end-of-year assessment, will be administered starting in late April and May. Meanwhile, a parent-led opt-out movement against the PARCC has continued to gather steam across the state, while a related bill continues to make its way through the Illinois House of Representatives.

5. Higher ed hustle …. That’s the name of a fascinating, yearlong investigation into for-profit colleges published over the weekend by the Miami Herald. The stories explain how some of these companies do whatever it takes to fill classrooms, including hiring strippers as recruiters and lying to students about their job prospects. And the companies are basically unregulated in Florida because they themselves make up the regulatory agency. In addition, they funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of lawmakers, who over the years have made it easier for them to operate in the state.

Similar problems have been reported across the country through lawsuits and criminal investigations. Last summer federal authorities, for example, ordered the massive, 72,000-student chain, Corinthian Colleges, to shut down after allegations of falsifying records. The Miami Herald notes:  “The typical complaint is that students — generally ‘adult learners’ — get manipulated by schools that market aggressively and offer the illusory promise of a well-paying new career. Everything about the sign-up process is quick and easy: The school fills out all the financial paperwork, then collects the loan proceeds directly. For-profit colleges offer convenient schedules and instant admission.”

As part of the project, the Herald also offers a useful list of questions prospective students of for-profit colleges should ask themselves before signing up and piling up debt. While the list was written with Florida residents in mind, the overall points are relevant to Illinois residents too. An important question to ask: Does my community college have this same program? “Many times, programs at expensive for-profit schools are offered at the community college for much less money…. An added benefit: Community college credits transfer to other schools.”

By the way… The Sun Times reiterates what was fairly clear last week when it was announced that CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett would be taking a leave of absence pending a federal investigation: taxpayers are on the hook for paying her another year. The board missed the March 1st deadline to inform her they wanted to cancel her contract.  The funny thing is that Catalyst had been asking CPS since mid-March whether the board would automatically renew Byrd-Bennett’s contract. Of course there are termination clauses that are included in the contract, which are fairly broad. CPS officials say they had no inkling about the federal investigation before letting the deadline pass.