Take 5: Charter closure missteps, pregnancy settlement, not enough librarians

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File photo from the November school board meeting, when Amandla Charter School students and staff protested plans to shutter the school.

Photo by Kalyn Belsha

File photo from the November school board meeting, when Amandla Charter School students and staff protested plans to shutter the school.

About a half-dozen parents and activists accused the Board of Education of making a major misstep in how it handled the decision to close three under-performing charter schools last month and another one this week.

At least one member agreed. “One of the things that I would like to do from now on is make very sure that we get to visit charter schools before they close,” Board member Mahalia Hines said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

When more than 100 neighborhood schools were on the list to close, board members visited each school and whittled the number down to 50, Hines said. “We need to afford the charter community the same thing we afforded the neighborhood schools,” she said.

Meanwhile, parents at Amandla and Bronzeville Lighthouse, two of the three charter schools the Board voted to close at last month’s meeting, complained of difficulties transferring their children elsewhere and said most of their new options are rated lower than their current schools.

District officials say not all of the affected charters have allowed CPS into the schools to talk with parents. The district did not respond to a request for comment on school and transportation options for these students.

The Board voted unanimously to close the fourth school, Chicago International Charter School’s Larry Hawkins campus in Altgeld Gardens. CPS is encouraging students to attend CICS’ Longwood campus; Bowen; Carver Military Academy; or one of the Noble Network of Charter Schools’ South Side campuses. CPS says it will provide bus transportation if 10 or more students attend one of those schools.

Also at the meeting, the board approved an additional $120 million in long-term bonds, which district officials say will be used for improvements to the new Dyett High School and for mechanical repairs and other projects. The board also approved taking out another $130 million in short-term debt.

According to the Tribune, this new borrowing will come at a high cost, as bond interest rates are likely to rise, and CPS’ junk status means it can no longer “take advantage of a generous market and investor confidence that the state would rush to the rescue of CPS.”

2. Pregnancy settlement … The Chicago Sun-Times reports that eight teachers will split a $280,000 settlement payment from CPS after a federal lawsuit claimed they were fired for becoming pregnant. The lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Department of Education, alleged that Scammon Elementary Principal Mary Weaver gave lower evaluation ratings to several pregnant teachers in 2009 and 2010 and fired them before letting go teachers with worse ratings who were not pregnant.

The district is not admitting fault in the settlement but says it will change its discrimination policies and complaint-filing systems. The federal government must then review the revisions.

A district spokeswoman says that CPS is “fully committed to promoting inclusive work environments free of discrimination or mistreatment.” To do this, CPS is planning to hold training sessions for principals, assistant principals, network chiefs, employees and other district managers who are involved in employee discipline.

3. Charter fraud investigation … The Sun-Times follows up on its earlier reports of an ongoing federal investigation into Concept Schools, the Des Plaines-based charter school network with four campuses in Chicago. Reporter Dan Mihalopoulos writes that the network is suspected of funneling more than $5 million in federal grants to insiders and “away from the charter schools.”

According to court records, federal investigators believe Concept Schools violated federal competitive bidding rules dating back to 2007 by misusing dollars earmarked for increased Internet access for low-income students. For example, a computer consultant in Ohio told investigators he was subcontracted to do work for Concept Schools without having to submit a bid. Meanwhile, a network executive gave contracts to businesses with which he was affiliated.

Many of these insiders are apparently tied to the so-called “Gulen Movement,” which is built around an influential Muslim cleric “who is wanted in his native Turkey after falling out with that country’s leader.” One former Concept official told federal investigators that it was routine to funnel money to contractors tied to the movement. “That’s how they work,” the former official said. “They want to open their own companies so they make money out of it.”

4. Not enough high school librarians … Less than a third of district-run high schools have a dedicated certified teacher staffed as a librarian, down from more than two-thirds of high schools in 2012, according to a Chicago Teachers Union report released this week. Just two of the 28 schools that enroll mostly black students have a staffed librarian — Chicago Vocational Career Academy and Morgan Park — down from 19 schools three years ago.

The report was released on the heels of a student sit-in last week to save the librarian at the DuSable High School campus, who works with some 700 students from Bronzeville Scholastic Institute and Daniel Hale Williams Prep high schools. The position is supposed to be cut over winter break, the Sun-Times reports.

Last year, WBEZ drew attention to the shrinking number of librarians across CPS: the count dropped from 454 in 2012 to 254 last year. At the time, district officials said there was a shortage of librarians, but critics said many librarians — who must be certified teachers under state law — had been reassigned to the classroom. “When the district stopped funding positions and let principals and school councils decide how to spend their money, many had a hard time making the numbers add up,” WBEZ reported. The CTU says 58 librarians were moved into non-librarian positions in 2013, the year student-based budgeting began.

(Friday afternoon we will post a Then, Now, Next Almanac entry on the history of library closings in CPS.)

5. NYC school closures … Earlier this week school officials in New York City announced plans to close three low-performing schools with dwindling enrollment, including one high school, the New York Times reports. The decision comes as a bit of a surprise in that Mayor Bill DeBlasio has been reluctant to close low-performers, preferring instead to give them extra funding to make improvements.

Officials outlined the enrollment troubles at the three schools, two of which share a building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Together, the three schools enroll just 217 students. “Officials said the schools struggled to attract and keep students, which led to such severe funding shortfalls that the city had to supplement their budgets just so they could provide basic courses like math and English,” according to a story in New York Chalkbeat.

Many schools in Chicago are facing similar enrollment challenges, although CPS officials promised in the wake of the historic school closures of 2013 that no more district-run schools would be shuttered until at least 2018. However, at two schools, the district has taken actions that, in effect, closed them.

One difference is that Chicago school officials have tried not to close high schools, so as to avoid violence if students have to cross gang lines. However, officials have been encouraging a community-led effort in Austin to merge three high schools with low enrollment.

A few last notes … After the results of the PARCC test were released last week, the Sun-Times took the time to highlight a bright spot in Little Village, where students at Cardenas Elementary “blew away” district and state averages in math. How did they do it? The principal credits teachers working together to plan and develop a curriculum that treats math like literacy, with a focus on small-group instruction to practice skills.

On the heels of the PARCC scores release, a teachers group says the district needs to do a better job communicating opt-out policies, technical troubleshooting and helping teachers interpret the test data. Teach Plus, which helps bring teachers’ voices into the policy arena, released a report today based on focus group research about the PARCC.

Chicago magazine had an interesting Q&A this week with CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, in which he reflects on his place in the union and why he sees himself returning to the classroom one day.

CPS students are planning a citywide boycott of school lunches today, inspired by Roosevelt High School’s petition drive, launched last month, to improve food provided by the district’s vendor, Aramark. Earlier this month, nearly half of Roosevelt students participated in a school lunch boycott that led to a sit-down with CPS and Aramark officials.

And finally, we recommend NPR’s Q&A with education professor Pedro Noguera, who explains why he’s skeptical that the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, will help poor and disadvantaged students catch up with their peers. In case you missed it, we interviewed Noguera earlier this year, when he told us he thought education policies implemented during the Obama administration had been “very much a lost opportunity.”

  • Jzzyj

    Those fake walk throughs, trust me the charters would have faced additional criticisms from not having enough posters on wall, bad bulletin boards, too much “stuff”, poor seating arrangements etc. At least the charters are closing with some dignity intact by not being bothered by folks who haven’t been in a real classroom for years!