Here at Catalyst we pored over a year’s worth of coverage to bring you our picks for the 15 most important education stories of 2015. Some of the stories made headlines while others had a quiet impact, like our deep dives into privately run alternative schools and efforts to get more teachers certified to teach preschool.
This was also a special year for Catalyst, as we celebrated our 25th year of in-depth reporting on education in Chicago.
See any stories we missed? Let us know in the comments.
1. SUPES The year’s biggest story was, hands down, the federal investigation into CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s role in a $20 million no-bid contract to the SUPES Academy. Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to corruption charges in October — sentencing has been postponed while her defendants’ cases play out.
Catalyst’s former deputy editor, Sarah Karp, first reported on the shady deal in 2013. At the time, the story went largely unacknowledged but has since received national accolades. In October, Catalyst and the Better Government Association, where Karp now works, identified a half-dozen school district leaders elsewhere who moonlighted for SUPES at the same time their districts had contracts with the company.
2. NEW TOP BRASS Byrd-Bennett’s departure from CPS in advance of the indictment in May sparked a series of shakeups at the top, starting with a brief stint as interim CEO by Board member Jesse Ruiz, who was then replaced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s chief of staff, Forrest Claypool.
Catalyst reported on how the decision to bring in a non-educator to head CPS was reminiscent of the Daley way. Other leadership changes included the swapping out of six of the seven CPS board members, including the only two Hispanics. Emanuel has not yet named a replacement for Ruiz, whom he moved to the head the Parks board.
3. STRIKE PREP Repeated demonstrations by the Chicago Teachers Union kept the spotlight on a year-long story: Will they, or won’t they go on strike? Contract negotiations had been crawling along for months when, upon Claypool’s arrival this summer, the district abruptly backed away from what looked like a one-year deal.
Teachers, who have been working without a contract since July, voted in December to authorize a strike, but it’s unlikely one could take place until May at the earliest. The district extended a serious offer immediately after the strike authorization vote, and Claypool promised no second-semester layoffs if a multi-year deal is reached in January.
4. FINANCIAL MESS The reason for the sudden urgency leads us to our next major news item: the CPS financial mess. After years of budget gimmicks and massive borrowing, the School Board approved an operating budget this summer that depended on a half-billion dollars’ worth of money from Springfield, which has yet to materialize. CPS is now looking at the specter of thousands of layoffs.
Meanwhile, neighborhood high schools continued to be hit hard by declining enrollment, including even those on the Northwest Side. Teachers there said they finally experienced what had been happening on the South and West sides for years. Overall, enrollment dropped by around 4,400 students to its lowest point in at least 50 years. School-level budget cuts prompted protests across the city, including many led by students on the Northwest Side and at selective-enrollment schools, which typically had escaped that pain.
5. SPECIAL ED CUTS The roller coaster of cuts to special education was a low point for many schools and parents of special-needs children this year. It all began in July, when CPS announced it had done an 18-month review of special education staffing that showed the district had too many positions and needed to trim more than $42 million in spending. When the official budget was released, specialty schools that serve high numbers of students with special needs were hit hard, with hundreds of special education positions to be eliminated.
Then came the protests, and the backtracking. CPS agreed to restore positions at 30 schools and eventually delayed planned cuts to give principals time to appeal. In the end, CPS restored dozens of positions, admitting officials had used a “flawed formula” to determine cuts. The head of the department that runs special education, Markay Winston, stepped down.
6. SCHOOL CLOSING IN DISGUISE During the painful process of shutting down 50 schools back in 2013, CPS officials promised not to close any more schools for at least five years. But they didn’t keep that promise. Catalyst reported this summer how the district, in effect, closed the Montefiore specialty school by enrolling students elsewhere and laying off teachers. Then the district allowed a privately run alternative school to move in. Similarly, the district shut down the Marine Leadership Academy last year but refused to call it a closure. Finally in November, the district acknowledged it wanted to close studentless schools and in December put Montefiore and Marine Leadership Academy on the school actions list.
7. CHARTER CLOSINGS Shortly after approving a new, tougher accountability policy for charter schools, the School Board voted to shutter four underperforming charter schools, all of which are on the South Side. The schools contested the decision, saying it was unfair that they were being closed under a policy they had known little about, especially since they were making strides to improve. After protests from parents and school officials, at least one School Board member said the board should have visited the schools before taking a vote, as they had when considering closure of district-run schools two years ago. Three of four charter schools have filed appeals with the state’s charter school commission, hoping to get a reversal.
8. NOBLE HITS NERVE For the first time in its 16-year history, the Noble Network of Charter Schools faced intense criticism this year from some parents and activists who see the network’s planned expansion as a direct threat to the survival of their neighborhood schools.
After protests, Noble pulled a proposal to open a school in Rogers Park, and CPS tabled a vote on letting the Noble Academy set up shop in Uptown. There were similar protests over a planned 17th campus in Brighton Park, with counter protests from parents who wanted a Noble campus in the neighborhood. Ultimately, the School Board approved the new campus. Meanwhile, Noble won a federal grant to keep expanding, raising alarms from opponents who question the need for more schools in a time of declining enrollment.
9. DYETT GETS RESOLVED The fight to reopen Dyett High School as a neighborhood high school in Bronzeville captured the nation’s attention this summer. Activists went on a hunger strike for more than a month, to protest how CPS had handled proposals to reopen the school. Activists wanted Dyett to focus on leadership and green technology, but district officials eventually decided the school would have an arts and technology theme. Activists claimed a partial victory: In enrolling students, the school would give first preference to neighborhood students. But they questioned why CPS shut them out from the team planning the school’s curriculum.
10. PARCC Another major story was growing opposition to the new state-mandated test known as the PARCC, which had become a symbol for over-testing. One of every 10 CPS students wound up skipping the assessment last school year, with higher numbers at selective enrollment schools, some Hispanic high schools and affluent elementary schools. Early in the year CPS officials took a defiant stance with the state, saying they wouldn’t test all students because they already were taking another series of tests. The district backed down when the state threatened financial penalties.
11. DATA DO OVERS CPS crunches an enormous amount of data for accountability purposes. This year officials had to admit to some major screwups. Perhaps the most embarrassing admission was about inflated graduation rates, which resulted from a BGA / WBEZ investigation into how thousands of students who had dropped out of school were being wrongly coded as transfers.
Then there were the 434 students from closed schools who CPS leaders were forced to admit were nowhere to be found. This admission came after district leaders repeatedly assured that just 7 students had slipped through the cracks of the 2013 school closings, which a Catalyst investigation disproved. In another arena, the district erroneously calculated scores on thousands of teacher evaluations.
12. DIPLOMA FAST TRACK The inflated graduation rate story came after Catalyst and WBEZ investigated the proliferation in recent years of privately run alternative schools. The stories raised questions about the quality of the schools, which serve disproportionate numbers of black boys and students with special needs. Much of the coursework in the schools is done online, and students can zip through classes in a single week. Meanwhile, the privately run operators make substantial profits. In October the district quietly announced it would not open any new alternative schools.
13. ELL AUDIT During his stint as interim CEO, Jesse Ruiz ordered a district-wide audit of services for English-language learners to ensure students are receiving what they’re entitled to under state and federal law. The audit is tackling a long-standing issue that has plagued the district for decades. Ruiz also called for an audit of the UNO Network of Charter Schools, which showed the network was slow to hire or train teachers certified to work with English-learners, while other charters took immediate steps to meet requirements outlined in a new state law.
14. PRESCHOOL TEACHERS Community colleges and universities across the state are teaming up to address a need in the arena of early childhood education: dismantling barriers that prevent preschool teachers from getting the training and degrees they need to improve their skills and advance their careers. And with the help of federal funds, some early education programs are now offering more specialized coursework in high-need areas such as bilingual education, special education and early math.
15. CATALYST RETROSPECTIVE To mark our 25th anniversary, founder and publisher Linda Lenz took a long look back at CPS to answer the complicated question of whether Chicago’s public schools have gotten any better after decades of reform. It’s not a simple “yes” or “no,” she writes, but rather more like “two steps forward, one step back.” She points to bright spots, like a move toward restorative justice, as well as academic disparities that continue to reflect racial and economic inequality. And if you haven’t checked out our Then, Now, Next Almanac, now’s a perfect time. The year-long series has traced the roots and lingering effects of everything from school library cuts to charter school teachers unions.