Expanded summer school, neighborhood clusters of magnet programs and revisions in both student promotion and school probation policies are in the works, Chief Executive Office Paul Vallas discloses in an interview with CATALYST as he completes four years in office. The following is an edited transcript of that interview, conducted May 7 by Editor and Publisher Linda Lenz and Managing Editor Veronica Anderson.
Q Where did you fall short of where you thought you would be?
A I’m not disappointed in anything so far. I actually think we’re further along than I might have anticipated. Within the first three weeks, I was confident we could do the financing stuff, and within the first year, I was confident that we could do the infrastructure stuff. But I think we’ve moved faster on the educational side than I thought we could.
I think we’ve been able to move faster on the academic side.
SCHOOL CLOSING Albert Einstein Elementary in Oakland will close at the end of this school year due to declining enrollment. The drop in student population is the result of a shift in nearby public housing stock from high-rise to low-rise structures, which caused many residents to relocate, says Principal Solomon Humphries. Future Commons High School, a charter school, is slated to move into the school. Future Commons Principal Constance Montgomery says both parents and teachers have expressed concern about the move because of the gang activity in the area. The move is pending a June meeting with CEO Paul Vallas.
DOUBLE-WHAMMY Chicago stands to gain about $40 million under a change to existing laws that currently cost Chicago (and other districts under tax caps) both local and state revenues: Under one whammy, property tax caps impose a 5-percent ceiling on increases to a school district’s tax collections, cutting off some access to new revenue from a growing tax base. Under the other whammy, state officials calculate general state aid as if the district could access all the revenue from its tax base, which makes the district look “richer” than it is and eligible for less state aid.
Under Senate Bill 652, Chicago principals could appeal a local school council’s decision not to renew their four-year contract. The appeals would be heard by a hearing officer appointed by the American Arbitration Association, and the School Board would pay all of the council’s “reasonable costs,” including lawyers’ fees
Here are some of the variations:
To help raise reading scores, Austin High has incorporated a “Drop Everything and Read” program into advisory lesson plans. Academic Resource Teacher Katherine Haney says advisory helps the schools “satisfy many goals.”
At Tesla Alternative, a school for pregnant teens, advisory is used to give students health and medical information, as well as to discuss abstinence.
At both Bowen and Hyde Park, a news channel is piped into the classrooms to expose students to current events and issues.
Most schools have rejected the board’s model and requested waivers so they can go with locally developed schedules. Their concerns about the board’s schedule are twofold: It trims time on academics and could be in violation of the state’s requirements for daily teaching time. Under the board’s model, a class period would last 45 minutes instead of the current 50. Further, three days a week, the official school day would amount to only 284 minutes, 16 minutes short of the state requirement for 300 minutes.
In calls to 43 high schools, Catalyst identified 28 that are offering credit recovery for the first time this year, as well as seven that previously started credit recovery on their own. (The School Board reported that 25 were offering the special classes.) Most schools have offered tutoring since 1996, using a portion of separate high school reorganization grants.
Guerrero is part of the School Board’s Truancy Outreach Program (TOP), which provides a total of $1.3 million to high schools to hire parents part time to call absent students, set up parent conferences and track down truants. The program was launched in 1996, four years after a previous School Board eliminated full-time truant officers to save $4 million and help close a $156 million budget gap. (See Catalyst, December 1992.) TOP parents are paid $8 an hour.
Within a year, the attendance rate at the Northwest Side school rose by five percentage points, and daily tardies dropped to 60. Today, its 90 percent attendance rate ranks in the top 10 citywide. Meanwhile, the percentage of students scoring at or above the national norms in reading doubled from 20.8 in 1996 to 40.6 in 1998, putting it 10 points above the citywide average.
As a freshman, Andre West used to hop over the tall, wrought-iron fence that separates his home from Crane High School. But over the next 18 months, Andre himself proved to be the biggest obstacle to his getting an education. After three semesters and chronic absences, Andre was dropped from the school.
“The dropout rates prior to 96 were probably much higher than the 16 percent a year reported,” Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas told the City Council Education Committee in April, explaining that schools kept no-show kids on the rolls to keep from losing teaching positions. “We are in the process of establishing a legitimate baseline,” he explained.
In 1985, Hess, then executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Finance, published a study showing that as many as 50 percent of the students who had been coded as having transferred to a school outside CPS actually dropped out. The tipoff was that the destinations listed for them either did not exist or were not accredited high schools.
In a school system first, Vallas also has launched detailed audits of school’s attendance and dropout records. “We are in the process of a massive, five-year, school-by-school audit that we have equated to Sherman’s march in terms of its thoroughness,” Vallas told the City Council Education Committee in April. Because dropouts are notoriously under-reported, he added, “we are in the process of establishing a legitimate baseline.” School audits thus far reveal hundreds of chronic truants kept on enrollment long after board policy says they should have been dropped.
The number of dropouts from the Chicago Public Schools increased by almost 1,500 students between the last two school years even though high school enrollment dropped by almost 3,000, due to the School Reform Board’s policy of retaining low-scoring students.
In 1996-97, 15,873 of the system’s 101,590 high school students dropped out, for a rate of 15.6 percent, according to calculations by the Illinois State Board of Education.
As salutary as these developments are, though, they won’t go very far toward providing all children with the education they deserve—and the city needs—without an overhaul of high schools themselves. Most high schools are too big and impersonal to hook and hang onto teenagers for the tough work of learning. Class cutting is rampant, and fully half of all freshmen fail at least one course, according to the most recent data available. “In high schools,” says Vallas, “no matter how good the principal, there are so many institutional problems that the schools need a radical change.”