Take 5: Freshmen on track, City Colleges tuition, pension perk

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Tuition fees

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City Colleges of Chicago will raise tuition and eliminate course fees for the coming school year.

The Sun-Times’ Kate Grossman writes in The Atlantic that since Chicago Public Schools pioneered its freshman on track metric in 2007, the district has seen improvements “that would seem to prove its worth, even after accounting for inflation by principals possibly gaming the system.” Grossman says real progress was achieved not through a “shiny new program” but by stepping up basic interventions for freshmen, such as watching grades and attendance, offering additional mentors and tutoring, carefully picking 9th-grade teachers and offering freshmen seminars. Over the last seven years, freshman pass rates have gone up from 57 percent to 84 percent, she writes, with big gains for black and Latino boys.

But as CPS started pushing for better freshman pass rates, “teachers started to complain that school administrators were cheating by doctoring attendance records and inflating grades — particularly at the schools that had switched to new grading strategies, which many consider too lenient,” Grossman writes. Some staff report principals who put pressure on teachers to pass all students, including those who cut more classes than they attend. That can lead to students beginning 10th grade without basic skills — and moving up through high school with deficits.

Grossman points to a recent investigation by WBEZ and the BGA that showed at least 2,000 students from 25 CPS high schools were counted as having transferred out of the district from 2011 to 2014, when in reality they had dropped out. Grossman says while the impact isn’t enough to undercut the larger narrative that CPS graduation rates have improved, “the revelations bolster anecdotal evidence that some number rigging is going on.”

Grossman appeared on WBEZ’s Morning Shift yesterday to discuss why freshman on track is a better predictor that a student will graduate high school than a student’s race, family income or previous test scores, and why the transition to high school can be so difficult.

2. City Colleges to raise tuition … The Board of Trustees for the City Colleges of Chicago unanimously approved a tuition hike today — the first in four years — that most affects part-time students. Tuition will increase $250 for students taking one course and $225 for part-time students, who usually take two to four classes. Full-time students, about four in 10 City Colleges students, will see a $200 increase.

As part of the change, City Colleges plans to eliminate course fees, which are higher for students in career programs, such as advanced manufacturing, surgery technicians and IT. But, the BGA reports that even with the fee removal, most students will still pay more in the upcoming school year than they did this past year. The hike is expected to raise $12 million in revenue, money the college system says it needs to offset shrinking state aid and enrollment drops. WBEZ notes that while City Colleges’ tuition is still competitive compared to four-year universities, the increase means the system is no longer a good deal in the Chicago area.

City Colleges says the new tuition structure creates an incentive for students to graduate more quickly. In a statement to Catalyst Chicago, Chancellor Cheryl Hyman said: “The new flat-price tuition structure is designed to encourage full-time status and faster completion for students.” But some faculty are worried about that focus on degree completion when many students can’t go full-time due to work or child commitments, the BGA reports. A professor says students could fail if they’re pushed to take too many classes, or teachers may feel pressure to lower standards. In a statement, the Civic Federation, a financial watchdog, praised City Colleges for not raising taxes, but expressed concern that the new pricing structure wasn’t communicated to students before registration for fall classes began and cautioned that the hike could cause enrollment to decline further.

The Tribune notes that the tuition hike comes less than a year after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the Chicago Star Scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition, books and school fees at City Colleges for high-achieving CPS students. (Though attending City Colleges could do more harm than good for these students, as Catalyst reported earlier this year.)

3. More fallout from CPS cuts … Though it’s still unclear which positions make up the 1,400 cuts announced by CPS, some prominent layoffs have come to light, including a handful of officials who were close to former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who resigned in the wake of a federal investigation into a $20 million no-bid contract awarded to SUPES Academy, where she worked before coming to CPS.

The Sun-Times reports that four women who worked with Byrd-Bennett in Detroit or Cleveland, or both, before coming to Chicago were laid off, while two resigned. Rosemary Herpel, who helped run the SUPES initiative, was laid off, while Tracy Martin, chief of strategic school supports, and Sherry Ulery, Byrd-Bennett’s chief of staff, both resigned. All three women were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury as part of the federal investigation.

Citing “unprecedented budget challenges,” a CPS official also sent letters to charter schools last week announcing that quarterly payments due this month would be only 15 percent of the projected amount, the Sun-Times reports. The official said CPS “will try to complete the expected payment as quickly as possible,” but didn’t provide a timeline. The leader of the advocacy group Illinois Network of Charter Schools, Andrew Broy, says the deferred payment is forcing schools with early start dates to reconsider them and could potentially lead charter schools to shorten their academic years.

A CPS spokesman tells Catalyst that a proposed “transformation” of the district’s special education staffing and services expected to save $42.3 million will take place in the upcoming school year. The goal of the overhaul, CPS says, is to return more students with special needs to their neighborhood schools. (CPS has yet to answer several of Catalyst’s questions about the change and has not made the head of the department that oversees special education available for an interview.) Already at least one Chicago Teachers Union leader is worried the change could mean getting rid of some special education cluster programs, the Sun-Times reports, where students have access to extra supports. An SEIU Local 73 official also told the paper that 310 of its special education classrooms aides will be laid off under the CPS cuts.

4. Firms reap benefits from CPS debt… Legal and financial firms have raked in $18.1 million in fees from CPS borrowing and debt refinancing over the last four years, the Sun-Times reports. Nearly half of that went to underwriting companies, such as J.P Morgan Securities and Goldman Sachs. Bond deal fees usually total less than 1 percent of what’s borrowed, but the size of these deals can amount to seven-figure fees. Twenty-one companies took in $4.4 million in fees from CPS bond sales this spring, including a law firm where Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is a partner and a law firm where former Mayor Richard M. Daley is “of counsel.”

5. Pension perk for state superintendent …  State Board of Education Superintendent Tony Smith is getting a perk to help make up for the fact that he was hired into a less generous retirement plan than his predecessor had: a no-strings-attached stipend that makes up the difference. The Tribune reports that the stipend is expected to be worth thousands of dollars a year to make up for a reduced pension, according to Smith’s contract. Though the exact amount has yet to be calculated, it could be $11,000 or higher. Smith gets the money toward the end of each contract year and doesn’t have to put it toward his retirement plan. Catalyst interviewed Smith back in May, shortly after the State Board voted him in.

And one last feel-good story … About 100 CPS students at five high schools are participating in paid internships this summer at top technology corporations as part of the Early College Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program, WTTW’s Chicago Tonight reports. The program, which lets students earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, began in 2012 to prepare students for STEM careers. City Colleges, DePaul University and corporate partners such as Microsoft, IBM and Verizon work with the high schools to help develop curriculum and provide mentors and internships.

Photo: Tuition fees/Shutterstock.com

  • Concerned Parent

    Add to the high school improvement data mix that schools went on a 10 point grading scale. That also increased pass rates.
    Is not Markay Winston, the uncertified in Il head of special ed-is she not a bbb holdout? ‘Transformation’ will be more like termination for special ed services.

  • Concerned Parent

    Interesting that CPS is now cancelling the professional development that principals were required to go due to the budget being release. The presenters still have to be paid right? Or was the workshops not worth sending principals too.

  • lesson22

    Wait. Wasn’t there an investigation and an analysis that showed that the actually graduation rate for CPS students in high schools wasn’t what CPS reported and may have been manipulated so as to fit their narrative? So, that part of the story that Kate Grossman cites isn’t quite accurate. The second thing I find kinda interesting is the story on how city colleges announcing for the first time in a number of years, tuition will increase. So, how will free tuition be given to new students who decide to attend one of the city colleges? I don’t have a problem with giving help to young people who need this type of assistance, but when CPS is cutting teaching positions, eliminating programs for children who attend CPS schools, how is this generosity able to take place? I guess this type of stuff happens in the, “City that Works.” Right.