Take 5: Charter approvals, Byrd-Bennett’s Detroit tenure, shrinking high schools

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As expected, the Chicago Board of Education voted on Wednesday in favor of opening a new Noble charter high school in Brighton Park. The votes came after dozens of parents, students and activists spoke emotionally both for and against the Noble proposal.

Parents cried when they talked about the distance their children currently have to trek to get to a Noble campus across town, while others voiced fears that their neighborhood high schools — Kelly in particular — will lose out when the new Noble school opens a few blocks away.

(A recent WBEZ story about the philosophical differences in how charters are viewed helps put the Noble controversy into context, as does this recent article by a graduate student at Northwestern University.)

The Board also approved the opening of a new KIPP elementary school — tentatively planned to co-locate with Orr High in Humboldt Park — and adding grades to an existing KIPP campus that’s already operating out of Nash Elementary in Austin. Following recommendations from district officials, the board denied all the other proposals to open charter schools.

Board President Frank Clark, a Noble supporter who has a school named after him, abstained from voting, but the six other board members approved the Noble proposal. Board members Dominique Jordan Turner and Mahalia Hines both abstained from voting on the KIPP proposals.

The Noble school will be built with private funds on what’s now an abandoned lot on the corner of West 47th Street and South California Avenue. While under construction, the new school will be co-located with a Noble campus that has the space to take in a freshman class next fall. The temporary site has not yet been chosen.

2. While we’re on high schools … Even though the number of high school students in Chicago has remained relatively stagnant, the Board has added more than 50 high schools to its inventory over the past decade. As a result, some high schools, particularly in low-income, black neighborhoods, are withering away.

An analysis by WBEZ found that a dozen high schools have 50 students or fewer in their freshmen class, which usually is the largest grade, and 38 high schools have under 400 students. CPS even paid to prop up some schools with fewer than 270 students this year, so they’d have enough money to offer a basic set of courses.

It’s not just neighborhood schools that are struggling — so too are charter schools that serve mostly black students on the city’s South and West sides. And though the district usually cites declining populations in black communities as the reason for low enrollment, that’s not always the case. In some instances, WBEZ found, a majority of students in an attendance area decided not to attend their neighborhood school, while some citywide schools in black communities failed to attract students.

The WBEZ report asks whether such schools can ever recover.

The report also raises issues about school choice for black families. Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University, and her researchers extensively interviewed 77 African-American parents and guardians in the summer of 2007, just before their children entered high school, and found “their stories convey limited and weak empowerment, limited individual agency, and no control.” Even when parents participated in the school-choice system “quite heartily,” they were faced with “opacity, uncertainty, and burden of choice.” Her report was published back in March.

Pattillo told WBEZ that schools that fail to market themselves and attract students and their families will “just die. But while those schools are dying, there are students… dying with those schools.”

3. Continued SUPES fallout … The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the FBI had looked into former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s involvement in another questionable contract in Detroit before she came to Chicago. The investigation involved a $40 million textbook and online training contract awarded to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2009 while she was a school official in  Detroit. Circumstances around that case are remarkably similar to the SUPES Academy scandal that led to Byrd-Bennett pleading guilty in a massive corruption case here in Chicago two weeks ago.

Byrd-Bennett had worked for the publishing company before becoming chief academic and accountability officer for Detroit Public Schools. Records show that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt submitted a detailed bid just days after a request for proposals went out, and multiple pages of that document were suspiciously signed the same day the official notice was issued — raising questions of whether the company had gotten early information from someone on the inside. Also, a district procurement officer was fired soon after raising concerns about the deal.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt got into trouble in Chicago back in 2013 for “vendor misconduct.” In his annual report that year, the district’s inspector general wrote about a vendor that had given a high-ranking educational administrator a $10,000 scholarship and other gifts. In exchange, the CPS administrator “improperly shared CPS information with the vendor and effectively became the vendor’s inside sales representative,” steering nearly $300,000 in business to the company. Last year the company agreed to pay a $250,000 fine and to fund an independent monitor to oversee these issues, in addition to training its employees to comply with board ethics policies.

4. Special ed cuts …. Principals have until next Monday to appeal cuts to special education positions in their schools. Last month CPS officials agreed to delay the cuts, which were tied to enrollment falling short of projections, following an onslaught of criticism from principals, parents and teachers who were floored by the threat of mid-year cuts.

During Wednesday’s Board meeting, CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said that 90 percent of the appeals had already been “reviewed and satisfactory to principals because we’re in constant communications with them.” Principals at some schools, such as Ravenswood Elementary, have already been told they won’t be losing additional special education positions, DNAinfo reports. Even so, advocates say the district should brace for lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Markay Winston, head of special education for CPS, resigned. One advocate told WBEZ that Winston “took the fall” for top budget officials who are just focused on the bottom line.

5. School ratings … Slightly more schools earned higher ratings this year, and fewer landed  in the bottom rungs of CPS’s new five-level rating system, according to data the district released earlier this week.  Most top-rated schools kept their ratings.

School level data are now available on both the district’s data page — click under “Accountability Reports” — and an updated School Info page.

Several pieces of the new rating system have been modified since its launch last year, adding to the challenge for parents to understanding what the levels mean. So many factors are taken into account that an elementary school can earn a top rating while fewer than a quarter of its students are meeting national averages in reading.

Still, Clarice Berry of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association says that ratings should be taken seriously, as a bad rating can open the door to district intervention, and principals’ own ratings are based in part on school rating ratings.

The ratings also matter to local elected officials and the real estate market, she notes. “The more Level 1 schools you have, the more robust your real estate and the more desirable your neighborhood.”

In a related issue, the Board approved an updated accountability process for charter schools and placed 10 charters on an academic watch list. Principals at some charters that wound up on the watch list told Catalyst they support the new policy and are confident they’ll pull out of the list next year.

But Garland Thomas-McDavid, the new CEO of Civitas Education Partners, which oversees CICS ChicagoQuest, questioned the validity of the data. She says CPS records on the school’s freshman-on-track and dropout rates didn’t match the group’s internal data. “We believe it is a significant difference,” Thomas-McDavid says, adding that the group is working with the district to “clear that up.”

A few last notes … After a Crain’s Chicago Business report questioned some of the means used to boost the graduation rate at City Colleges of Chicago, Chancellor Cheryl Hyman issued a lengthy statement in which she defended the system’s practices, saying every degree “counted legitimately under federal guidelines” and that any claims City Colleges had “inflated” its graduation rate were “quite simply false, baseless and deceitful.”

Two of the practices Crain’s called into question — retroactive degrees given to students after they’ve left the system and “reverse transfer” credits that let students complete two-year degrees when they’re at a four-year school — are among the “emerging national best practices on student completion,” Hyman said.

“These efforts here and nationally are to ensure credit is given where credit is due are not designed to boost our numbers — which do not need boosting and would have still been at record levels without retroactive degrees,” she said in the statement.

Also, check out this new website on the CPS budget crisis. The project was produced by an education reporter and a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Knight Lab. Some of the data are a little outdated — from the 2014 report card and preliminary school budgets in July — but it gives a good picture of how school budgets have changed over the last three years, and how schools that are socio-economically similar to one another compare.