Take 5: Court sides with charters, lead in water, fewer kids in summer school, segregation in NYC, homeless students

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A Cook County judge decided that three charter schools can stay open while Chicago Public Schools fights a battle in court to close them. Students from Amandla Charter School, in Englewood, protested in November to keep their school open.

Photo by Max Herman

A Cook County judge decided that three charter schools can stay open while Chicago Public Schools fights a battle in court to close them. Students from Amandla Charter School, in Englewood, protested in November to keep their school open.

Court sides with charters. A Cook County judge has decided that the three charters Chicago Public Schools moved to close can remain open while the district fights a legal battle in court. The state’s charter school commission stepped in after a board vote earlier this year to close the schools, deciding to keep the schools open under the commission’s authority. Commissioners said the district couldn’t close the schools under a new accountability policy without giving schools enough notice of it.

“The main thing [the judge] said is that process matters,” said Hosanna Jones, the commission’s executive director. “You cannot tell someone one thing and then just arbitrarily change it.”

The judge’s order doesn’t bode well for the district, which is suing the three charter schools and the state charter commission to block the schools from staying open under the state’s control. In court documents, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is defending the commission, argued that the schools should be allowed to stay open during the ongoing litigation because “there is almost no likelihood of success on the merits of [CPS’s] administrative review challenge to the Commission’s decision.”

Two of the schools are trying to get the case thrown out of court. The next court date is in July. All three charters are working to meet the commission’s conditions to stay open, which included finding new locations and getting commitments from students who will enroll. Officials from Amandla and Bronzeville Lighthouse both said they’d found locations but still need to recruit enough students by July 1. An official from Betty Shabazz International Charter School did not respond to a request for comment.

Lead in water. Potentially unsafe levels of lead have now been found in the drinking water of more than a quarter of schools tested so far. And this week aldermen on Chicago’s progressive caucus called for City Council hearings on the matter.

“In 2016 it is unacceptable that we’ve reached the risk of putting our children in harm’s way just by sending them to school,” Caucus leader Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said, according to the Sun-Times. “Lead shouldn’t be in our vocabulary in this day and age.”

One of the schools with unsafe lead levels is Blair Early Childhood Center, which serves special needs students in preschool through second grade. This is particularly troubling because lead exposure is linked to cognitive delays in young children.

District officials say all schools will be tested, but are prioritizing those with preschools and in buildings built prior to 1986. CPS is not testing the water at charter schools located in non-district buildings, but says these schools can “piggyback on CPS’ contracts and pay for their own testing at the same rate as the District.”

Track lead testing on this user-friendly page from WBEZ.

Fewer kids in summer school. CPS officials say scores on the NWEA test improved significantly this year, triggering a 23 percent drop in the number of elementary students who will need to attend summer school to avoid being held back. As a result, the district stands to save millions of dollars.

The Sun-Times reports that 7,200 students in grades three, six and eight need summer school, down from 9,300 last year. Students must attend summer school if they score below the 24th percentile on the NWEA and earn Ds and Fs; or if they score below the 12th percentile, regardless of grades.

“When I saw the email with the numbers, I literally screamed out loud,” CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson told the Sun-Times. Jackson said the district has paid more attention to improving reading in the early grades over the past several years.

Last year, district officials under then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett were working on a proposal to potentially phase out retention, which research has shown is harmful to students. The plans were shelved after CEO Forrest Claypool took over following Byrd-Bennett’s resignation and prosecution.

Segregated schools in New York. In a sensitive, deeply reported piece for the New York Times Magazine, education reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones tackles the saga of two Brooklyn schools slated for rezoning: one attended mostly by white and more affluent students, the other attended mostly by low-income children of color who live in public housing—the school she chose to enroll her own daughter. (The issue bears similarity to a proposal to merge two Chicago schools, one of which has historically served children from public or subsidized housing.)

Under the New York plan, one school will likely become whiter and more exclusive, Hannah-Jones writes, while the other may become temporarily integrated—but “without seats guaranteed for low-income children, and with an increasing white population in the zone, the school may flip and become mostly white and overcrowded.”

The rezoning plan helps tell the larger story of New York City schools and why officials are doing so little to integrate them. A 2014 report detailing the district’s extreme segregation compelled city council members to pass legislation that required New York City’s Department of Education to release school segregation figures.

But Hannah-Jones points out that the district doesn’t have to do anything to integrate schools and Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t supported redrawing attendance boundaries to do so, because it would undermine families’ “massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

Helping homeless students. While the number of homeless students across the country—and in Illinois—is rising, school liaisons who work with them say resources aren’t keeping up, which can lead to fewer students being identified and getting the assistance they need. Some 20,200 CPS students were homeless last school year, most of whom were African-American and Latino.

A new report, released this week by America’s Promise Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, found that 89 percent of school liaisons spent half or less of their time helping homeless students, often because they had another role to fulfill. They cited a lack of funding, time and staff as their top challenges. Hundreds of liaisons and homeless or formerly homeless students across the country were interviewed and surveyed over the past school year to create the report, which was authored by Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm, and Hart Research Associates, a polling firm.

There’s hope that the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, will bring some needed change by raising funding for homeless students by 21 percent to $85 million a year. Also, the law now allows federal poverty dollars to pay the salaries of school liaisons and for transportation for homeless students. And for the first time, districts and states this fall will be required to begin reporting data specifically on graduation rates and academic achievement of homeless students.

Only five states—Colorado, Kansas, Virginia, Washington and Kentucky—collect these graduation rates now. Those states have found homeless students are less likely to graduate than their peers, even other poor students.

  • Concerned Parent

    The MIRACLE of a 23 percent drop in the number of elementary students
    who need to attend summer school! CPS MUST share how they did this with the nation.
    Student grades went up in the elementary school since its easier to get an A on the ‘forced’ 10 point grade scale. Also, a number-grade of 50 must be given rather than a 0 to a student in the CPS MONITORED Gradebook system, which is being used as part of teacher evaluation process.