Take 5: Computer science requirement, privatized nursing, new job for LaRaviere?

Print More
In this 2015 file photo, Lindblom computer science teacher Jesus Duran helps Malik Rayfield build a web page.

Photo by Marc Monaghan

In this 2015 file photo, Lindblom computer science teacher Jesus Duran helps Malik Rayfield build a web page.

In a move to advance Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s quest to make Chicago a leading technology hub and prepare its youth for modern-day jobs, the School Board voted Wednesday to require high school students to take one computer science class in order to graduate. The requirement will begin with the Class of 2020. (Catalyst examined the issue last year.)

Chicago Public Schools officials say that fewer than half the district’s high schools have a computer science curriculum, meaning there’s a lot of work to be done to prepare schools for the new requirement, including hiring qualified staff and getting the right technology in place.

Officials are seeking private dollars to help pay for the initiative and proposed to nearly double spending on computer science courses next year to $864,000.

In other actions, the Board also approved:

  • Spending $900,000 so juniors can take the ACT college-entrance exam for free this spring, while the state offers the SAT. (The SAT beat out the ACT for a statewide contract after it received higher scores and offered a lower cost of evaluation, the Tribune has reported.) District officials decided to offer the ACT instead, so students wouldn’t have to take a test they hadn’t studied for already. CPS got a significant discount on the cost of the ACT as part of a settlement over compromised tests in the ACT’s EPAS suite, which forced the district to throw out test scores and rejigger several rating policies last year.
  • The sale of another school building that was shuttered in the 2013 closing of 49 schools. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 will buy the former Drake Elementary building in the Douglas neighborhood for $1.5 million. CPS officials said this is the 12th vacated school property to be sold after the 2013 closures.
  • Completion of several school actions that have been in the works for months. These include closing Montefiore Specialty School and Marine Leadership Academy, two schools that CPS had already emptied of students but previously refused to call closures. The Board also voted to allow the KIPP charter network to open a campus inside Orr High School next fall; consolidate Morton and Dodge elementary schools, which are already housed in the same building; and merge three struggling Austin schools.

2. Nursing woes … The Chicago Teachers Union is calling on the School Board to end its four-year, $30 million contract with RCM Technologies for supplemental nursing services, professional development and scheduling. In a new report, the CTU says the company’s nursing staff members don’t always show up at schools and lack the proper training to serve children. The union says problems with the private contractor are forcing already overstretched school nurses employed by the district to pull extra weight, putting both students and CPS nursing staff at risk.

Edith Vargas Hernandez, the mother of a junior at Kennedy High School, said that on several occasions she has had to respond to her daughter’s emergency calls related to her allergies because there wasn’t a nurse in the building. “We need nurses there. It is their job,” she said.

The union, which also worries about the dwindling  number of nurses in its membership ranks, raised many of these concerns last June, when the School Board approved the contract.

CTU researchers now say that RCM staff aren’t filing paperwork required to get Medicaid reimbursements, either. Citing the 2015 CPS audit, the union report says Medicaid funding was $5 million under budget due to “slower claiming.” The union contends that Medicaid reimbursements have declined over the years despite an increase in the number of students with special needs.

During Wednesday’s School Board meeting, CPS officials said RCM is meeting all key performance indicators.

3. LaRaviere may head principals group … Outspoken Blaine Elementary Principal Troy LaRaviere could become the next head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association after long-time President Clarice Berry steps down in June. She’s been in the role for 12 years.

According to DNAinfo, LaRaviere told parents earlier this week that he is the top pick of the association’s nomination committee. But he must still stand for election in May. The association is considering hiring an executive director to oversee day-to-day operations, which would permit LaRaviere to keep his principal job.

A vocal critic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, LaRaviere was formally reprimanded by the School Board last year after he spoke out against the PARCC exam and supported parents who opted their children out of standardized testing. Two years ago, he helped found a committee of the principals association, known as AAPPLE, that has worked to raise principal’s voices in policy development.

4. Inflated grad rates … Prompted by a WBEZ and Better Government Association investigation, CPS has revised school graduation rates. Analyzing the new data, WBEZ reports that from 2011 to 2015 CPS undercounted the number of dropouts by 4,500 students.

In 2014, three of the city’s largest district-run high schools — Curie, Kennedy and Foreman — saw the most significant drops in their graduation rates: about 10 percentage points

“It is the equivalent of taking away the three-point shot after the season is done and then going back and changing the win-loss record for the entire season,” said Foreman Principal Dan Zimmerman.

At the same time, however, nearly 30 high schools saw their graduation rates jump double digits. And some selective-enrollment high schools, such as Jones, Northside and Westinghouse, experienced no change.

Last year, Emanuel claimed CPS achieved a record graduation rate of 69 percent. But WBEZ and the BGA found that number to be inflated, since many schools were mislabeling dropouts as students who transferred out of the district.

5. More spats with state … Gov. Bruce Rauner and CPS officials continue to spar over the district’s financial situation, with the Illinois State Board of Education launching an investigation into the district’s finances. There also were rumblings the state could block future CPS borrowing.

Rauner’s office says if the state board determines CPS isn’t on sound financial footing, it can prevent CPS from taking on more bond debt and force it to develop a financial plan. CPS says the state lacks that authority. According to the Sun-Times, the argument rests on an old provision in the school code that exempted CPS from state oversight when the Chicago School Finance Authority was formed in the early 1980s to bail out the virtually bankrupt school system. The governor’s office says that the law no longer applies because the authority was dissolved in 2010.

The ISBE investigation, which began last week, requires CPS to turn over information by March 4 about its cash flow, major contracts, borrowing and payroll, the Sun-Times reports. (Though CPS contends much of that information is already publicly available.) The state board says its authority to investigate stemmed from the district’s placement on a state financial watch list last year.

Thirty-eight of the state’s 860 districts are on the watch list, according to an ISBE report. The investigation could lead to a “certification of financial difficulty,” which would be needed before any kind of state takeover of CPS. Rauner has said the state is looking into five other struggling school districts, besides CPS.

One last note… The Sun-Times Watchdogs took a look at how the CTU spends its money. Among the biggest expenses in 2013-14 were employee salaries and legal services for bargaining and employment law matters — including contracts with the law firm of Robin Potter, who is the mother of the union’s staff coordinator, Jackson Potter. The story follows another report from the Sun-Times on how the union’s charitable foundation gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to community groups with which it is politically allied.