Take 5: More charter news, inflated grad rates, faster Internet in schools

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Dueling protests went on outside CPS Central Office Wednesday night as public hearings took place on new charter school proposals.

Photo by Melissa Sanchez

Dueling protests went on outside CPS Central Office Wednesday night as public hearings took place on new charter school proposals.

There’s less than a week to go before the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education votes on whether to approve 13 new privately run schools — and so far district officials won’t release enrollment data on existing charter and contract schools. Officials say the data on 20th day enrollment at all schools are still being validated but will be made public before the Board vote.

Still, the lack of current enrollment data on charter schools is troubling to activists who say the district doesn’t need more schools at a time of overall declining enrollment. The parent organization, Raise Your Hand, says that after making phone calls to various schools in the Noble network — which has a controversial proposal to open a new high school in Brighton Park, just a few blocks from Kelly High School — it found that five campuses still have available seats.

Earlier this week, parents of charter school students protested outside 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer’s office because of his proposed moratorium on new charter schools. Carlos Perez, executive director of Charter Parents United, says the 42 aldermen who called for the charter freeze are making decisions based on politics rather than what families want. “What they’re failing to see is the … great things happening in schools,” he told Catalyst.

Many of the proposed charter schools up for a vote next week are co-locations, a subject that has drawn some criticism from teachers and parents in the buildings where charter operators are proposing to move in. It’s worth noting that even if new co-locations are approved next week, the decision wouldn’t be final. Under state law, co-locations must go through an additional process on so-called “school actions.” CPS has said it is considering co-locations this year, and has been collecting public comment on draft guidelines since earlier this month.

A half-dozen legal aid organizations that worked together to create a joint response on the CPS draft guidelines recently shared their submission with Catalyst. The organizations want CPS to not propose any new co-locations of neighborhood schools with charter schools. They’re also asking the district to “demonstrate” that any proposed co-locations won’t “destabilize student enrollment for either of the co-located schools.”

The public has until today to weigh in on CPS draft guidelines for school actions.

2. While we’re on charters … WBEZ had a great piece earlier this week that went into depth to explain the $8.4 million federal grant the Noble charter network received to open eight new city high schools — including the controversial Brighton Park school — within the next five years.

According to its application for the federal money, Noble wants to add two campuses per year. In addition to the Brighton Park site, the network says it wants another school near Midway Airport. Plans for a third site in the Rogers Park were withdrawn this summer due to neighborhood opposition. Noble hasn’t named specific locations for the other five campuses, although budget documents predict that they would be housed in leased and CPS facilities.

The Noble network currently operates 16 schools. If the Board of Education approves the construction of eight new schools, Noble expects to educate 6,000 students — about 15 percent of all CPS high school students, according to WBEZ.

On a related note, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools released an interesting data visualization this week highlighting the percentage of CPS students who opt out of neighborhood high schools. The project, called “The Great Escape: Chicago Families are Searching for a Better Education,” is meant to show that it’s not just charter schools that draw students away from their neighborhood high schools — but other high schools as well. Only 30 percent of CPS high school students attend their zoned school.

The roll-out of the data, which INCS obtained from CPS, was timed with next week’s Board vote in mind, and particularly the vote on the Noble proposal.

“Even Kelly High School, which opposes a proposed Noble campus on the southwest side, enrolls hundreds of students zoned to neighboring schools, including Tilden, Richards, and Gage Park,” INCS wrote in a statement. “This does not mean that Kelly is doing something wrong, rather parents are doing something right for their children. Anytime Chicago Public Schools empowers parents in this way is a massive victory to be celebrated. Going forward, let’s keep that mission in focus and crystal clear.”

3. Inflated grad rates at City Colleges … City Colleges of Chicago have touted significant graduation-rate gains under Chancellor Cheryl Hyman since the launch of a plan to reinvent the system five years ago.

But a new report from Crain’s Chicago Business raises questions about some of the practices City Colleges is using to award more degrees, which include retroactive degrees for dropouts and “reverse transfer” credits that can lead to two-year degrees for non-graduates who went on to attend a four-year school. A two-year-old policy even grants “posthumous degrees” to deceased students if they completed three-quarters of their graduation requirements.

Over the last two school years, City Colleges awarded 1,410 retroactive degrees — more than twice as many as in the previous four years. In addition it’s doled out three posthumous degrees and 53 reverse-transfer degrees. Together they make up about 16 percent of the total 9,262 degrees awarded during that period of time.

Crain’s also found that at least one former trustee of the City Colleges board questioned how commonly the practices were used elsewhere; she was told it doesn’t happen often and that City Colleges had “taken the lead.” City Colleges says it’s sticking behind the “automatically awarded degrees, which account for less than 0.3 (of a) percentage point in our official graduation rate for the 2014-15 school year.” Last year the full-time student graduation rate was 14 percent.

Meanwhile, the Better Government Association found that under Hyman’s leadership spending on administrators climbed at the same time that student enrollment decreased and tuition prices went up. The number of district office employees rose by 25 percent over the last four years, while the number of full- and part-time faculty dropped by 3 percent. Spending on administrators increased from $40 million in 2010 to $47.5 million last year, with projected spending for next year at $53 million. Leadership says the salaries are needed to continue improvements in student performance — such as graduation rates.

4. CPS speeds up technology … CPS officials announced earlier this week that all CPS students will have access to high-speed Internet and Wi-Fi next year thanks to a federal grant worth nearly $38 million. Work has already begun in 50 schools and is expected to be completed by next fall.

With high-speed Internet in all schools, computer science will become a high school graduation requirement by 2016 — a year earlier than the mayor’s original goal. (Catalyst wrote about the plans to make computer science a staple in CPS high schools earlier this year.) The initiative also looks to incorporate computer science in a quarter of elementary schools by 2019.

The grant is a result of the federal E-rate program, also known as the Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries, which makes it more affordable for schools and libraries to connect to the Internet.

Shawn Jackson, CPS’ deputy chief of teaching and learning, told DNAinfo that although many students already have wireless Internet access at home, the new grant will allow the technology to enter the classroom and expand education options.

“I think that’s what’s great,” Jackson says. “It can go beyond what’s going on at a student’s individual school.”

5. Cushy severance deals … When former state superintendent Christopher Koch was ousted earlier this year, he walked out with more than $200,000 in severance pay and unused vacation days, the Chicago Tribune reports. The newspaper found dozens of other departing employees cashed out as the Illinois State Board of Education transitioned into new leadership — an issue that one state representative called troublesome in a time of bleak finances.

“These are public dollars, and we’re in a tight situation. As a matter of policy, these things ought to be looked at and have some rationality,” says Rep. David Harris, a Republican who represents Arlington Heights. “I am of the use-it-or-lose-it group.”

Now some state lawmakers are also trying to get ISBE to remove an annual stipend of about $11,000 for current Superintendent Tony Smith. The stipend is meant to bring his pension in line with a more generous plan that hasn’t been available to new state hires since 2011, according to the NPR station in Springfield. Members of a House committee on government administration had hoped to grill Smith on the extra perks he gets — on top of a $225,000 salary — but that “the invitation was declined by Board Chair James Meeks.”

A few last notes … The BGA is expanding a lawsuit against CPS, saying the district has blown off five more records requests in violation of state law. Read the lawsuit here.

WBEZ followed up on the special taco lunch that a group of star chefs were supposed to cook up for CPS students and asked why some schools say they never got the food.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that district officials in that city — where former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was once superintendent — are in no hurry to remove her name from a district training center, despite public outcry. Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty last week to federal corruption charges connected to the $20 million no-bid contract to the SUPES Academy.

And our longread suggestion for the weekend comes from Malcolm Gladwell at the New Yorker, who looks at the history of school shootings since 1996. Though the uptick in violence is usually attributed to “copycat” behavior, Gladwell writes that the epidemic could be rooted in something more akin to “a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before.”