Take 5: Graduation rate scrutiny, questions on an UNO firing, union rally turnout

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CPS' rising graduation rate may be inflated because of errors in counting students, according to a report. CPS and the Consortium on Chicago School Research defend the district's improvement.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

CPS' rising graduation rate may be inflated because of errors in counting students, according to a report. CPS and the Consortium on Chicago School Research defend the district's improvement.

Earlier this spring, Sarah Karp (then with Catalyst) and WBEZ’s Becky Vevea produced a series of stories on the growth of for-profit alternative schools — and how their existence has helped CPS boost its graduation rate. On Wednesday, Karp and Vevea follow up with a provocative story for the Better Government Association (where Karp is now an investigative reporter) and WBEZ that shows how the district’s misclassification of dropouts as transfers is inflating the graduation rate, “perhaps grossly so.” Students who transfer out of the district aren’t factored into CPS graduation rates, while dropouts are.

Here’s what they found, based on CPS data: “The 69.4 percent rate cited by [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel …is inaccurate …If the students were counted correctly, the graduation rate – the percentage of high school freshmen matriculating within five years – would drop to about 67 percent. However, even that revised figure is conservative because it’s based on just a 25-school sampling of CPS’ 140 charter and non-charter high schools, which collectively have about 112,000 students.”

There were other anomalies, including claims from Curie Metro High School that 460 students transferred out for homeschooling between 2011 and 2014. Curie’s principal wouldn’t talk with reporters, but teachers and students scoffed at the idea that so many students from the low-income neighborhood were getting homeschooled.

CPS officials said the data wasn’t deliberately skewed to make the graduation rates look better, and that there will now be an audit. But the district won’t go back to adjust the rates because of the “billion dollar deficit.”

The district did not dispute the reporters’ findings. But the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research came out on Wednesday afternoon with a statement that the counting errors don’t change the larger fact that graduation rates have been consistently on the rise.The Consortium has been researching graduation rates in Chicago for years. “In fact, UChicago CCSR research finds double-digit improvements in graduation rates over the last several years, even using a very conservative method of calculation that counts all transfer students—verified or not—as dropouts and all students who transfer to an alternative school as a dropout.”

2. Small but mighty … When 17-year-old Kenneth Brown stood on stage this week to deliver Dyett High School’s valedictorian speech, just 12 other students sat watching in caps and gowns. They were the school’s final graduating class — a “small but mighty group,” as the network chief put it — who remained after the Board of Education voted to phase out the school in 2012.

Brown thought about transferring out and was accepted into a nearby selective enrollment high school, but ultimately chose to stay at Dyett because he didn’t want to start over and make all new friends. He says he had a good experience at Dyett, but no student should have to watch as his school loses teachers, students and activities.

The tight-knit senior class often talked about the challenges of attending Dyett until the end. Low enrollment meant fewer courses and activities could be offered, though the school tried to make up for that by offering numerous college visits, field trips and extracurricular programming. In some ways, according to network chief Janice Jackson, the students had a better experience because they made personal connections and got extra attention from teachers. All 13 students will be heading to college in the fall, including Brown, who will attend the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“This was something that not a lot of people could have persevered through,” Jackson told the graduates in her keynote speech. “Thank you for showing us that everything doesn’t have to be done the same way.”

3. While we’re on Dyett … CPS finally made public three proposals for remaking Dyett into a new high school — including an unexpected plan from its current principal, Charles Campbell, who was hired in 2012 to phase out the school. His proposed open-enrollment Washington Park Athletic Career Academy would serve 800 to 900 students from seventh to 12th grades. The idea came from his time watching teachers struggle to come up with “hooks” to engage students. “I thought what better unifying connector than sports?” he said. The school would aim to prepare students for sports-related careers, which Campbell says extends far beyond being an athlete to working in journalism, sports medicine, business or technology.

A CPS spokesman said Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz decided to accept Campbell’s proposal even though it came a few minutes past the 5 p.m. deadline on April 6 to give the community more options for a school. His office will oversee the evaluation process and is scheduled to make a recommendation to the board in August. (A community meeting on the proposals will be next Wednesday.)

The other two proposals had been expected, including the pitch from Little Black Pearl to open a contract school for up to 650 students. Already, the nonprofit arts center runs a school for 200 students who have dropped out, or are at-risk of dropping out. The school would follow a college prep curriculum with tracks in multimedia, dance, theater, music and visual and industrial arts. Students would need to apply to gain entrance. Zakeya Cartman, Little Black Pearl’s director of development, says the school will include science and technology — not just the arts. “There are a number of students out here who are looking for this form of education,” she said.

Finally, the Coalition to Revitalize Walter H. Dyett High School wants to open a district-run high school focused on leadership development and green technology. The school would serve up to 600, mostly for Bronzeville-area students. “There’s only one proposal that’s an expression of community and struggle over the last 16 years,” said Rico Gutstein, a member of the coalition who helped write the proposal. But Gutstein worries the process is a “done deal,” and that the coalition’s proposal won’t be chosen because of its relationship with Jitu Brown and the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, which had advocated to keep Dyett open.

4. Protests over UNO firing … One of the top leaders of the city’s charter school unionization movement was abruptly fired last week from his job at UNO’s Garcia High School, prompting student protests at the school. Rob Heise, who is also treasurer of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), declined to speak with Catalyst. But other union leaders say they suspect the firing is connected to his union activity and have already filed an unfair labor charge in the case.

They say administrators had previously questioned Heise about his involvement in a teacher-led protest outside the school earlier this school year and prevented him from having proper union representation during a meeting over an earlier grievance he’d filed after being placed on a professional improvement plan. School administrators told Heise the firing was due to his unsatisfactory performance, although no other teachers appeared to have been dismissed before the school year ended. “Usually charter schools, when they say your performance is bad, they say ‘We don’t want you to come back next year,’ ” says ChiACTS President Brian Harris. “They told him, ‘Don’t come in tomorrow.’”

Catalyst was unable to obtain a clear answer from administrators about the issue because of an internal rift between the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) and its parent United Neighborhood Organization that’s developed in the wake of investigations over insider dealing and defrauding investors. A spokeswoman for UNO declined to comment on the firing, saying that’s the responsibility of UCSN. A spokeswoman for UCSN said that UNO is responsible for labor relations and HR functions under its management contract, which the Network plans to take over after its June 30th expiration. UNO is now fighting with UCSN over an unpaid $3 million in management fees.

UCSN spokeswoman Mary Erangey referred to the firing as a personnel matter “and out of respect for the privacy of those involved, we cannot comment on the details.”

5. Sea of red … A few thousand Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters rallied in downtown Chicago on Tuesday in order to drum up energy around contract negotiations, which are unlikely to get resolved before the current contract expires on June 30. Speakers included CTU President Karen Lewis, who told an adoring crowd that “you have to remember that what you’re fighting for is not just a fair contract, it is the history of fair contracts. And if we have a chance, this is it.” The union is asking for a 3-percent raise in addition to proposing smaller classrooms, more counselors in schools and a moratorium on new charter schools.

CTU organizers placed the number of rally-goers at around 4,500, and city officials did not have an estimate. Catalyst estimated somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000. Whatever the figure, it was far fewer than the 5,000 to 10,000 who attended a similar rally in May of 2012, when failed contract talks eventually led to a strike. The lower turnout indicates that teachers’ energy around the contract negotiations is far lower this year; many teachers have told Catalyst that it’s due to a number of reasons, including exhaustion after a long testing season and the union’s earlier focus on citywide elections.

See photos of the rally taken by Max Herman here.

One last note … If you didn’t already know, our longtime reporter, Sarah Karp, recently left Catalyst to join the BGA. She will continue investigating CPS, in addition to looking at broader education issues across the state, social services and other areas affecting children and families. We wish her well.

This week we welcome a new reporter: Kalyn Belsha, who previously covered education for the Aurora Beacon-News and had a brief stint in the CPS press office.

  • Concerned Parent

    The UofC consortium knows who butters their bread. There are other ways to cheat on the CPS drop-out rate. Does the consortium check on that?

  • Concerned Parent

    Proof network CHIEFs should get an inservice, sign a trust document on student drop-out ‘inflation’ too. Guess who was a principal at Farragut?

  • Fed Up

    Look at Washington HS on the far southeast side; the principal, a master at falsifying data, who uses “School Function” for tardies and cuts to boost his attendance data. He holds tardy students in the student cafeteria, denying them tens of thousands of instructional minutes! Read the IG report.
    When will he be held accountable for denying students an education?