BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK, Education Reporter
April 23, 2014 10:02PM
Less than half of students at Benito Juarez Community Academy High School graduated in 2008 when Juan Carlos Ocon took over as principal, but by 2013, he said, the rate rose to about 69 percent.
The secret of Juarez’s success — and the success of 19 other neighborhood high schools in Chicago in getting more students to graduation day — started with the school’s ninth-graders and keeping them “on track,” according to new research to be released Thursday by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School research.
Shepherding ninth-graders through their first year of high school — focusing on helping them to show up to class and complete their work so they pass their courses — leads to jumps in graduation rates, even at high schools once thought of as “dropout factories,” according to the study.
“Attention to those very small things has a big payoff,” said Elaine Allensworth, who directs the Consortium, adding that schools need to intervene as soon as freshmen show a dip in attendance or decline in effort.
The interventions that have worked so far are less expensive and dramatic than a schoolwide turnaround or conversion to a charter school, she said. The gains spanned gender and race but were highest for African-American males.
And outside factors beyond a school’s control — gangs, family, academic weakness of incoming freshmen — affect graduation in a common way by preventing students from showing up and doing their work, she said.
“Schools don’t have to change everything in kids lives — what they have to do is make sure all those other factors don’t interfere with kids coming to class and getting their work done,” Allensworth said.
The authors tracked efforts across 20 Chicago Public Schools that boosted “on-track” rates for ninth-graders over three years by poring over real-time data on a regular basis and then looked at who graduated. According to their findings, those “on track” increases — to 82 percent in 2013 from 57 percent in 2007 — translated into big jumps in graduation rates, up to 20 percentage points.
“On track” means a student has enough credits at the end of the year to go on to the next grade and has earned no more than one semester F in a core class.
The 20 schools adopted a variety of practices, including block scheduling to minimize the effects of tardiness; hiring an “on-track coordinator” to reach out with solutions when students started to fall off; and running a summer program for incoming freshmen.
How the schools specifically chose to keep tabs on their ninth-graders mattered less than how well they kept them on track, said Thomas Kelley-Kemple, a Consortium author.
Juarez, with 96 percent low-income students, leaned on its lead teachers and changed its curriculum to one that focuses on standards instead of specific content.
“It automatically made what was being taught in the classroom more relevant to the students,” Ocon said. That pushed attendance up, too, he said.
“What’s in the classroom now is much more relevant and that’s bringing them back every day,” he said. “Because the curriculum has shifted, it’s not what teachers are interested in, it’s what students need.”
Juarez also opened a “benchmark achievement center” in the library, where students can bolster skills after school, Ocon said.
Juarez still has work to do, with ACT scores barely above a 16 average — below the CPS average of 17.6 and far below 21, considered to be “college ready.” The school also is in its last year of a $6 million state improvement grant that Ocon said bolstered its efforts.
By: Sarah Karp / May 20, 2013
When Margarita Miranda moved to Old Town in 2000, the area looked much different. The Cabrini Green public housing projects cast a long shadow, and neighborhood elementary schools were located on every few blocks.
Today, the high-rise public housing has been wiped away, leaving the area with a smattering of row houses, townhouses and some stretches of still-empty lots.
Over the past decade, three of the schools that served the area’s children have been closed and reopened—one as a charter school, one as a selective enrollment school and the third as a lease by a private Catholic school that costs about $8,000 a year.
Miranda and other parents are now fighting furiously to save one of two neighborhood schools left. A parent volunteer who calls all the students at Manierre Elementary “her children,” she is emphatic that she won’t give up. The School Board is scheduled to vote on the closings on Wednesday.
“My son is upset,” she says. Miranda’s son has a disability that includes learning and speech difficulties and she’s afraid that he will simply “shut down” if he has to transfer to a new school.
But there’s something more that is eating at her. Even though Manierre is surrounded by high-performing schools, the school that her children are now supposed to attend is a Level 3 school with almost identical test scores.
Like Manierre, the receiving school, Jenner, has mostly black, low-income students. The other area schools are more diverse with far fewer poor children.
“I don’t want my children to go from a Level 3 school to a Level 3 school,” Miranda says. “I don’t want that for my children. They are good kids. They don’t bother nobody. They respect their elders.”
In some ways, Manierre is unique compared to the vast majority of schools slated to close on the South Side and West Side. Manierre is on the Near North Side, nestled next to some of the wealthiest areas in the city.
But in other ways, it is not different. Two months ago, CPS leaders announced their intention to close 54 schools, co-locate 11 and hand over six to the Academy of Urban School Leadership to be turned around. The end result of the school actions is that traditional, district-run neighborhood schools will become scarcer. Schools to which students have to apply and those run by private organizations will continue to take over, casting an ever-bigger shadow over the district.
The mayor and CPS officials have cast the move much differently, repeatedly saying that closings and consolidations will allow the district to redirect resources to fewer schools. And with the district facing a $1 billion budget shortfall, officials say closings will save $43 million a year in operating costs (starting in two years) and another $437 million in capital costs over the next decade.
“What we must do is to ensure that the resources some kids get, all kids get,” said Byrd-Bennett in a videotaped message on the CPS website. “With our consolidations, children are guaranteed to get what they need.”
Yet many of the district’s claims have drawn intense scrutiny and raised questions that undercut the rationale for closings as either a cost-savings or school improvement strategy.
Going to “better” schools
The first claim to face scrutiny is that students at closing schools will end up in higher- performing ones. According to state law, Byrd-Bennett has the authority to define “higher-performing,” and she determined that even when a school has the same performance rating, it can be considered higher- performing if it does better on a majority of the metrics, such as attendance and test scores.
Yet researchers note an important point: A move to a school that is only slightly better, at most, likely won’t mean much to students. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that, in previous rounds of closings, displaced students only reaped an academic benefit if they were sent to markedly better schools, defined as those in the top quartile.
In this case, just six receiving schools out of 55 are in the top quartile of all CPS schools. And in only three cases—3 out of 53 closings—are kids being sent from a school in the lowest quartile to a school in the highest, according to an analysis by WBEZ. Two-thirds of the closing schools are among the lowest rated in CPS, but in 18 cases students will be sent to schools that are equally low-rated.
Even among the 12 receiving schools that have the highest CPS rating, there is a broad range in terms of performance. Chopin, on the Near North Side, has nearly 96 percent of students meeting standards on the ISAT and nearly 70 percent exceeding standards, while Faraday, on the West Side, has 73 percent meeting standards and about 13 percent exceeding them. Research has shown that students need to exceed standards to perform well in high school.
Furthermore, no one knows exactly how many students will end up at the designated “receiving school”—the one that by some measure is higher performing. Last year, less than half of students went to the designated receiving school with many parents choosing closer or more convenient schools that performed no better than the school they left, shows a Catalyst analysis.
CPS officials counter that the money invested into the receiving schools will improve technology and other resources. The schools will be air-conditioned, with iPads, playgrounds and libraries. The district is also designating 19 schools as specialty schools, with International Baccalaureate, STEM and fine arts programs. This year, the new specialty schools will receive $250,000 to $360,000 in extra money to pay for positions and training.
While leaders may have meant for this to sweeten the deal, parents and activists have been incredulous that their schools must close in order to get resources that are common place in other schools.
Parents also aren’t convinced that the new turnaround schools will be better for their children. CPS plans to hand over six schools to the Academy for Urban School Leadership for turnaround, which entails firing all or most of the staff, including the principal and the lunch ladies. For each turnaround, AUSL gets $300,000 in upfront costs, plus $420 per student for each student for at least five years.
Contracts with AUSL are for five years, but for several turnarounds they have been extended.
In her letter to parents, Byrd-Bennett said that turnaround schools have improved twice as fast as the CPS district-average.
“We want to provide your child with access to the same opportunities to boost their chance of academic success, which they will receive next school year if this proposal is approved,” she wrote.
Yet parents point out that many of the schools run by AUSL are not high-performers. Only one turnaround school, Morton, is a Level 1 school. And one of the closing schools, Bethune, is a turnaround.
Mathew Johnson, a parent at Dewey Elementary, says 98 percent of parents signed a petition saying they did not want their school given to AUSL. He says the school’s new administration seems to be on the right track and is doing a turnaround of its own.
“We are not afraid to hold the administration accountable,” says Johnson, who serves on the local school council.
Costs and savings
Because so many of the so-called “welcoming,” turnaround and co-locating schools lack resources, CPS officials will spend big money to get them up to par. In April, the Board of Education approved a supplemental capital budget that the district plans to finance with a $329 million bond.
About $155 million of that will go toward improvements at the receiving schools and another $60 million will fix up schools that are slated to be turned around or co- located with another school.
For the next 30 years, CPS will have to pay $25 million in interest and principal on the bond. This expense was not factored into the $43 million that CPS officials say they will save by undertaking these school actions.
CPS leaders have repeatedly cited budget problems as a rationale for closings–yet one reason CPS is facing perpetual large deficits is its already-existing debt. In the upcoming fiscal year, the district’s payment on principal and interest is scheduled to rise by about $100 million to $475 million.
Capital cost savings are also not likely to be higher than estimated. CPS officials lowered their original capital savings estimate and say the district will save $437 million over the next decade by not having to repair or maintain the 50-some buildings they are shuttering.
But only six of the closing schools have had recent assessments to determine their capital needs. In all of these cases, the updated assessments caused CPS to lower its savings estimate.
In order for the district to save real money from closing schools, it would have sell off shuttered schools and lay off a lot of teachers, said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate for the Philadelphia Research Institute, which is part of the Pew Charitable Trust.
CPS officials say they are going to work with city department heads to figure out what to do with vacant buildings, but there is no specific plan in place.
CPS has sought to steer the discussion away from teacher layoffs, though the closing schools have about 1,100 teachers.
“Many of these teachers will follow their students to welcoming schools per the joint CTU-CPS agreement included in last year’s teachers’ contract, which allows tenured teachers with Superior or Excellent ratings to follow students if their position is open at the welcoming school,” according to a CPS fact sheet.
But school closings will likely mean that class sizes will be bigger in the welcoming schools than in the closing ones, meaning that fewer teachers will be needed for the same number of students. A quarter of class sizes at closing and welcoming schools have fewer than 20 students—way below recommended sizes of 28 for primary grades and 31 for intermediate grades.
Not including these affected schools, only 9 percent of schools have such small class sizes.
Changing demographics, changing landscape
CPS officials have stressed that the main reason schools need to close is that 145,000 fewer school-age children live in the city than in 2000. But, as many have pointed out, enrollment in CPS has declined by much less: In September of 2013, CPS had 32,000 fewer students than in September of 2000.
Neighborhood schools have been hit hard by the district’s opening of new “schools of choice,” whether magnet schools, charter schools or selective enrollment schools. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data found that in 14 predominantly black South Side and West Side communities that CPS defines as “underutilized,”an average of 54 percent of elementary students attend their neighborhood school. In other communities, two-thirds of elementary students attend their neighborhood school.
If all of the school actions are approved on Wednesday, the landscape of public education will continue to change–especially for students in particular neighborhoods,
Next fall, CPS will run about 84 percent of public elementary schools in Chicago, down from 86 percent this year. The rest will be run by private entities, most by charter operators or AUSL.
The shifting landscape will result in fewer neighborhood schools—schools where students are guaranteed a spot if they live within the attendance boundaries. In 2000, nearly 98 percent of elementary school students attended neighborhood schools.
Also next fall, the percentage of elementary schools with attendance boundaries will drop to 70 percent, down from 75 percent this year (should all closings be approved and with the planned opening of 10 more elementary charter schools).
CPS officials say this might be the wave of the future as they try to increase choices, without increasing the number of buildings in the district’s portfolio.
For parents like Miranda, the shift means one of two things: taking their children further from home to get to the new neighborhood school, or filling out several applications to a ‘school of choice,’ then hoping and praying that they win a spot.
Like so many parents in the past few months, Miranda says going further away from home poses increased danger. Miranda is worried about a busy street that her children would have to cross to get to Jenner. Other parents in her school say that there’s an entrenched rivalry between Jenner and Manierre students, so much so that teams from the two schools aren’t even allowed to play each other in sports. They worry about fights and point to nasty posts on Facebook by Jenner students threatening those at Manierre.
Miranda says she doesn’t think this would be a problem at Newberry, LaSalle, Skinner North or Franklin—all of which are closer to Manierre than Jenner.
But these are all magnet or selective schools and assigning children to them is not the way CPS works these days.
Exposure to violence is a national crisis that affects approximately two out of every
three of our children. Of the 76 million children currently residing in the United States,
an estimated 46 million can expect to have their lives touched by violence, crime,
abuse, and psychological trauma this year. In 1979, U.S. Surgeon General Julius
B. Richmond declared violence a public health crisis of the highest priority, and yet
33 years later that crisis remains. Whether the violence occurs in children’s homes,
neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds or playing fields, locker rooms, places of
worship, shelters, streets, or in juvenile detention centers, the exposure of children
to violence is a uniquely traumatic experience that has the potential to profoundly
derail the child’s security, health, happiness, and ability to grow and learn — with
effects lasting well into adulthood.
Exposure to violence in any form harms children, and different forms of
violence have different negative impacts.
Sexual abuse places children at high risk for serious and chronic health problems,
including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicidality, eating disorders, sleep disorders, substance abuse, and deviant sexual behavior. Sexually
abused children often become hypervigilant about the possibility of future sexual
violation, experience feelings of betrayal by the adults who failed to care for and
Physical abuse puts children at high risk for lifelong problems with medical illness,
PTSD, suicidality, eating disorders, substance abuse, and deviant sexual behavior.
Physically abused children are at heightened risk for cognitive and developmental
impairments, which can lead to violent behavior as a form of self-protection and control.
These children often feel powerless when faced with physical intimidation, threats, or
conflict and may compensate by becoming isolated (through truancy or hiding) or
aggressive (by bullying or joining gangs for protection). Physically abused children are
at risk for significant impairment in memory processing and problem solving and for
developing defensive behaviors that lead to consistent avoidance of intimacy.
Intimate partner violence within families puts children at high risk for severe and
potentially lifelong problems with physical health, mental health, and school and peer
relationships as well as for disruptive behavior. Witnessing or living with domestic or
intimate partner violence often burdens children with a sense of loss or profound guilt
and shame because of their mistaken assumption that they should have intervened
or prevented the violence or, tragically, that they caused the violence. They frequently
castigate themselves for having failed in what they assume to be their duty to protect
a parent or sibling(s) from being harmed, for not having taken the place of their
horribly injured or killed family member, or for having caused the offender to be
violent. Children exposed to intimate partner violence often experience a sense of
terror and dread that they will lose an essential caregiver through permanent injury
or death. They also fear losing their relationship with the offending parent, who may
be removed from the home, incarcerated, or even executed. Children will mistakenly
blame themselves for having caused the batterer to be violent. If no one identifies
these children and helps them heal and recover, they may bring this uncertainty, fear,
grief, anger, shame, and sense of betrayal into all of their important relationships for
the rest of their lives.
Community violence in neighborhoods can result in children witnessing assaults
and even killings of family members, peers, trusted adults, innocent bystanders, and
perpetrators of violence. Violence in the community can prevent children from feeling
safe in their own schools and neighborhoods. Violence and ensuing psychological
trauma can lead children to adopt an attitude of hypervigilance, to become experts at
detecting threat or perceived threat — never able to let down their guard in order to
be ready for the next outbreak of violence. They may come to believe that violence is
“normal,” that violence is “here to stay,” and that relationships are too fragile to trust
because one never knows when violence will take the life of a friend or loved one.
They may turn to gangs or criminal activities to prevent others from viewing them
as weak and to counteract feelings of despair and powerlessness, perpetuating the
cycle of violence and increasing their risk of incarceration. They are also at risk for
becoming victims of intimate partner violence in adolescence and in adulthood.
The picture becomes even more complex when children are “polyvictims” (exposed
to multiple types of violence). As many as 1 in 10 children in this country are
polyvictims, according to the Department of Justice and Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention’s groundbreaking National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence
(NatSCEV). The toxic combination of exposure to intimate partner violence, physical
abuse, sexual abuse, and/or exposure to community violence increases the risk and
severity of posttraumatic injuries and mental health disorders by at least twofold and
up to as much as tenfold. Polyvictimized children are at very high risk for losing the
fundamental capacities necessary for normal development, successful learning, and
a productive adulthood.
The financial costs of children’s exposure to violence are astronomical. The
financial burden on other public systems, including child welfare, social services,
law enforcement, juvenile justice, and, in particular, education, is staggering when
combined with the loss of productivity over children’s lifetimes.
It is time to ensure that our nation’s past inadequate response to children’s exposure
to violence does not negatively affect children’s lives any further. We must not allow
violence to deny any children their right to physical and mental health services or
to the pathways necessary for maturation into successful students, productive
workers, responsible family members, and parents and citizens.
We can stem this epidemic if we commit to a strong national response. The longterm negative outcomes of exposure to violence can be prevented, and children
exposed to violence can be helped to recover. Children exposed to violence can
heal if we identify them early and give them specialized services, evidence-based
treatment, and proper care and support. We have the power to end the damage to
children from violence and abuse in our country; it does not need to be inevitable.
We, as a country, have the creativity, knowledge, leadership, economic resources,
and talent to effectively intervene on behalf of children exposed to violence. We can
provide these children with the opportunity to recover and, with hard work, to claim
their birthright … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We invest in the future of
our nation when we commit ourselves as citizens, service providers, and community
members to helping our children recover from exposure to violence and ending all
forms of violence in their lives.
To prepare this report, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder commissioned a task
force of diverse leaders dedicated to protecting children from exposure to violence
and to healing those who were exposed. The report calls for action by the federal
government, states, tribes, communities, and the private sector across the country
to marshal the best available knowledge and all of the resources needed to defend
all of our children against exposure to violence. The Attorney General’s task force
asks all readers of this report to imagine a safe country for our children’s creative,
healthy development and to join together in developing a national plan to foster that
The findings and recommendations of the task force are organized into six chapters.
The first chapter provides an overview of the problem and sets forth 10 foundational
recommendations. The next two chapters offer a series of recommendations to
ensure that we reliably identify, screen, and assess all children exposed to violence
and thereafter give them support, treatment, and other services designed to address
their needs. In the fourth and fifth chapters, the task force focuses on prevention and
emphasizes the importance of effectively integrating prevention, intervention, and
resilience across systems by nurturing children through warm, supportive, loving,
and nonviolent relationships in our homes and communities. In the sixth and final
chapter of this report, the task force calls for a new approach to juvenile justice, one
that acknowledges that the vast majority of the children involved in that system have
been exposed to violence, necessitating the prioritization of services that promote
The challenge of children’s exposure to violence and ensuing psychological trauma
is not one that government alone can solve. The problem requires a truly national
response that draws on the strengths of all Americans. Our children’s futures are
at stake. Every child we are able to help recover from the impact of violence is
an investment in our nation’s future. Therefore, this report calls for a collective
investment nationwide in defending our children from exposure to violence and
psychological trauma, in healing families and communities, and in enabling all of
our children to imagine and claim their safe and creative development and their
productive futures. The time for action is now. Together, we must take this next step
and build a nation whose communities are dedicated to ending children’s exposure
to violence and psychological trauma. To that end, the task force offers the following recommendations.
For full text, use this link: http://www.justice.gov/defendingchildhood/cev-rpt-full.pdf
How many Chicago juvenile arrests happen at school? African American students were arrested at a rate nearly four times that of whites or Latinos
By Linda Paul
From The Black Star Project, February 4, 2013
Arrests on CPS property by age:
Source: Chicago Police Department. Final column indicates total juvenile arrests on CPS property.
Tens of thousands of young people get arrested each year in Chicago, and a lot of those arrests happen on the grounds of Chicago Public Schools. Of course, arrests at school happen all across the country.
The connection even has a name: some people say schools are a worrisome ‘pipeline’ to the criminal justice system for many young people. In fact, last December, Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin held the first ever congressional hearings on the topic. One big worry for people who work with kids is the lingering records kids can get from those arrests.
I’m visiting the home of Chicago Public School teacher Valerie Collins, and her son, daughter and I are crowded around a laptop on their dining room table. Valerie’s kids are both public school graduates. I’d heard about a YouTube video that showed a really nasty fight at Sullivan High School in Chicago, and asked them to watch it with me.
“It’s got a million hits!,” Collins is exclaiming. “A million five hits. A million six!” They’re listening to a television announcers account: “We have video of this and first of all the video is graphic. Okay, it’s literally two girls, 17 and 18 beating up a 14 year old. The 14 year old suffered a concussion.”
I’m here to talk to Collins about arrests at school. She’s a math teacher at Simeon Career Academy, and before that she taught at both Lakeview and Phillips. I wanted to know if fights like the one we’re watching are once-in-a-blue moon events.
Collins says serious fights like this happen at some, but not all, public schools maybe a couple times a year. Her daughter says it “sucks,” but while she was in school she became sort of desensitized to such fights, “I wanna say it starts out as a joke because usually the way these, like fights, start off is off of something so ridiculous, so that it gets around the school and then everyone’s just like, ‘Oh, you know, there’s gonna be a fight this period, you know. Let’s all go out and see.”
“It’s worse with cell phones now,” Collins adds, “because with cell phones they text people that there’s going to be a fight. That’s what they do. They text that there’s going to be a fight and then unless we find out about it, everybody knows except for the administration. That’s what happens.”
There were about 4,600 arrests on public school grounds in 2011. That’s about a fifth of the 25,000 arrests of kids 17 and under that year in Chicago.
But of those 4,600 arrests, only 14 percent were for the really serious stuff, the felonies, like robbery, burglary and fights with serious injuries — like that one on the YouTube video.
Most arrests at school are for the still troubling, but less serious stuff — the misdemeanors.
“So you’ve got some smart-mouthed 15-year-old girl, who the teacher says to her, you know, Miss Thang, sit down.”
Here’s Herschella Conyers, clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago.
“And she says to the teacher, ‘You ain’t talkin’ to me.’ And off they go! And the teacher says, ‘I’ll put you outta my room.’ And the student says, you know, ‘I’ll whip your ass.’ Uh –here come the police ! It’s an ag assault. Now. Is the student absolutely wrong? Absolutely. Is there a better way to handle it? Yes.”
Conyers says there was a time when conduct wasn’t governed by the threat that the police would arrest. “It was, you know, here comes the principal, or God forbid – they’re about to call my mother. In those days it would be, could you just call the police and not my mother, you know?”
There were over 3,500 misdemeanor arrests at Chicago public schools in 2011. The biggest category was for simple battery. That could be a punch, a shove, or a fight –seemingly minor confrontations that these days are taken seriously because they can lead to retaliations.
Next was disorderly conduct. Basically? Kids creating a ruckus. No serious injuries.
And the third biggest category? Drug abuse violations. These are usually arrests for small quantities of marijuana, because if it was a large quantity, or drugs like cocaine or heroin-that would be a felony.
That last category, in particular, bothers Conyers’ colleague down the hall, Craig Futterman – also a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago. National studies, he says, show that white kids use and sell drugs at a rate higher than black kids do. And, says Futterman, that’s true in Chicago too.
“Where the vast majority of kids who use and sell drugs in high school are white. The vast majority of kids who are arrested for drugs, and or, worse, go to juvenile jail or go to juvenile prison for drugs, are African-American,” says Futterman.
Here’s what the numbers say about arrests at Chicago Public Schools in 2011. Almost 75 percent — three quarters — of all arrests were of African-American students. At the same time, in that same year, African-American students comprised about 42 percent of the student body. In fact in 2011, African American students were arrested at a rate nearly four times that of whites or Latinos.
This kind of imbalance is causing a lot of consternation and was a big topic of conversation at Senator Durbin’s national hearings last month.
Craig Futterman and Herschella Conyers think that lower level offenses, the misdemeanors basically, are better handled within the school. By counselors, social workers and restorative justice practices like peer juries and peace circles.
Kristina Menzel is an attorney who represents kids in juvenile court. She says that when principals request arrest, unfortunately it’s sometimes a way for the school to pass a problem kid on to another system.
“Now part of the problem is schools don’t have money for these services, ” Menzel says. “There’s not money out there for education like there should be. So the schools use the courts to get services for these kids that are problematic.”
There has to be a better way to deal with this, she says, “Since once they’re brought in here, they’re more likely to re-offend. And if they go to the Department of Juvenile Justice, their probability of re-offending goes up even higher.”
As serious as getting arrested in school can be, what happens later can be even more serious. Follow our story of how a juvenile arrest record can mess up a young person’s prospects for finding a job.
July 09, 2009
by Gordon MacInnes
Secretary Arne Duncan used his speech before the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to spotlight the “bottom 5%” of America’s public schools. Numbering about 5,000, Duncan urged the charter school community to consider taking on some of these schools and turn them around. He was clear that not every charter school operator is up to this challenge, naming a few multiple-site groups like KIPP and Green Dot as possible candidates.
Wrong audience. Bad idea.
If my analysis of New Jersey’s worst-performing schools is any guide, then Secretary Duncan’s plea should be ignored. Expecting charter schools to suddenly operate as turn-around specialists in the nation’s toughest schools is akin to asking the school nurse to perform a liver transplant.
To define the “bottom 5%,” I used the mean scale scores from the 2008 state assessment of 3rd grade language arts. The mean scale score provides a precise number for each of 781 NJ schools in which the 3rd grade test was given. I selected the 39 schools with lowest scale scores for review. Not surprisingly, most of them were near the bottom on the same test in 2004. The 3rd grade literacy test is the threshold test, since kids who do not read at grade level by then have only a 14% chance of ever reading at level. An elementary school that does not teach its students to read and write well is not meeting its primary responsibility.
Here are the findings that prompt my conclusion that little in the experience of charter school innovators prepares them for operating a public school, even if in the same neighborhood.
1. The 5% schools are expected to educate kids who are different from those enrolled in charter schools. By definition, charter students have parents that sought a better education for their children. There is no way to quantify this trait, but it is a powerful advantage for charters.
2. The 5% schools must accept every child, even if they speak no English or have been classified “disabled.” Charter schools in NJ’s five big cities (Elizabeth, the fourth largest, has no charter schools) have a 8.1% special education rate compared to a state average of 16% and a city average of 17.0%. Just as importantly, charter schools are likely to have only mildly disabled students as evidenced by the fact that only five of 34 urban charter schools provide separate special education classes. Just about every 5% school does. The charter schools like KIPP, North Star, and Robert Treat Academy that have the financial, organizational, leadership, and educational talent to be considered for turn-around roles, have classification rates of 8.9%, 7.0%, and 3.2% respectively.
3. NJ charter schools have been largely immune from the wave of Latinization that has swept over their district colleagues. Latinos are now the largest minority, but not in charter schools where 71% of their students are African-American. Only eight of thirty four urban charters report any English Learners (and none more than 7.8%), while the 5% schools show English Learners making up as much as 37% of school enrollment. The average for the district schools is 6.6% versus a charter average of .5 of 1%.
4. The high-performing charter schools—the ones that Secretary Duncan would favor to take over struggling district schools—enjoy a stable student population. The 5% schools do not. When student mobility rates are averaged over three years, the charter schools with the highest test results and the longest waiting lists, have practically no student turnover. The mobility rates for Robert Treat (2.5%), North Star (9.3%), TEAM (3.6%), Gray (9.3%), and the Learning Community (3.3%) are noticeably below the state average of 11.5. However, the mobility rate in Newark’s eight 5% schools averages 25.8%, in Paterson’s four 26.5%, and 20.8% in Trenton’s five.
5. There is no clean slate. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that charter schools are start-ups, not turn-arounds. The difference is profound. There are no tenured teachers and, usually, no union in a charter school. There is no downtown headquarters to issue endless memos and demand reports. Even with these advantages, most charter schools do not perform better than district schools serving like populations.
The one shared characteristic of district and charter school students is their poverty. In fact, charter school students in the five largest NJ cities are slightly more likely to be eligible for free or reduced lunch (73.8% to 66.8%) than district students.
Secretary Duncan’s appeal ignores the central role that is frequently played by the district central office in the performance of individual schools. Of the 39 5% NJ schools, 31 are in Camden (10), Newark (8), Trenton (5), Paterson and Jersey City (4 each). Four are charter schools. Equally poverty-stricken districts like Elizabeth and Union City, not only have no charter schools, but their students regularly perform close to the state average on literacy assessments. These successful districts rely, not on searching out the hero principals Secretary Duncan invokes, but by working closely with teachers and principals to improve classroom pedagogy. And, they emphasize the connection between high-quality preschool and the primary grades with an intensive focus on early literacy.
The persistence and spirit of enterprise required to open and operate a high-performing charter school are to be admired and replicated as often as possible. Secretary Duncan is right to hail the achievements of effective charter schools. However, the experience of attracting students from families seeking better educational opportunities, whose children are free of serious impairments, and who command the English language is entirely different from turning around a failing school in the poorest neighborhoods in the nation. Secretary Duncan did not under-estimate the difficulty of the objective, only the experience and capacity of charter schools to meet the test.
Gordon MacInnes served as Assistant Commissioner in the NJ Department of Education from 2002 to 2007, directing efforts to improve performance in hign needs urban districts utilizing the remedies ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. He now lectures at Princeton University and does research and writing for the Century Foundation in New York.
June 27, 2012 | Who can afford to set aside enlisting their schoolchildren to hawk gift wrap for school fundraisers so parents can bring in over a $1 million through school PTAs? Parents at tony public schools on New York City’s Upper West Side, is who. That set of schools and their powerful parent fundraising arms became the subject of some debate earlier this month when the New York Times detailed the fundraising activities, and major cash hauls, of several public schools in New York City which have been able to supplement standard public school offerings with computers, chefs and fitness coaches, field trips, desks and projectors.
The conversation reignited a decades old debate about persistent educational inequities and the role parents play in their children’s schools. With public school budgets facing continual cuts, individual communities face even more pressure to help sustain their neighborhood schools. Parents in wealthy neighborhoods can afford to backfill those shortfalls but parents in poorer neighborhoods, some of whom are just scraping by themselves, can’t always dip into their own pockets to help furnish their schools with extra amenities or even the bare basics. In today’s public school economy, it’s still the case that the quality of the education students get depends on what their parents can pay for.
“It’s very disheartening that there are parents out there doing their very best to keep food on the table and lights and heat on in the house and are therefore unable to provide additional financial support to their schools, and because of that, their students don’t get what they need to get a fair opportunity to learn,” said Tina Dove, the director of the Opportunity to Learn Campaign, a progressive school reform campaign run by the Schott Foundation.
Parents’ fundraising power falls along bright class and race lines, and some worry that power fundraising can further institutionalize the already gnawing gap between the haves and the have nots, especially as schools look to their parent groups and independent school foundations to fund the sorts of school programs that are seen as extraneous in a testing-driven public school system. School districts across the country have long been locked in discussions about how to share the wealth that wealthy parents can bring in—some school districts mandate that a portion of the money parents raise at individual schools be shared among students across the district. Earlier this year New York City schools chief Dennis Walcott defended power parent fundraising, and said he had no interest in discouraging parent giving, the New York Times reported.
“We will have groups that are extremely adept in raising money and those that may not have the existing type of connections or the local businesses that may not be able to do that,” Walcott said. “I don’t want to penalize those that have the ability to raise money to support their schools.”
“If anything, I want to support schools that may not have that capacity for a host of different reasons,” Walcott said. Walcott supports New York City’s schools foundation, designed in part to help meet the needs of low-income schools. Yet even their many and generous $10,000 and $20,000 grants for upgrading library and arts spaces can’t match what wealthy schools can bring in. It’s a reflection not just of fundraising ability, but also parents’ social and political capital.
The fact remains that as states slash their annual school budgets, schools depend more and more on private giving, and parents are responding in kind. According to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Institutions, between 1997 and 2007 the number of nonprofit groups dedicated to supporting public education doubled to more than 19,000. As of 2007, those groups had raised $4.3 billion, Education Week reported. And while the $1.5 million annual fundraising from some wealthy New York City schools is outsized against other, more typical school fundraising.
The solution won’t come in cracking down on or trying to reign in powerful parent fundraisers, say even those who advocate for students in poorer communities.
“It brings the equity conversation to the forefront,” said Zakiyah Ansari, a parent and education activist with Alliance for Quality Education, a progressive community-based education organizing group in New York. “The fact that some communities don’t have to worry about their schools because they can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for two art teachers, I don’t have a problem with that.”
“But meanwhile there’s kids in the South Bronx or East New York and other areas of the city where there’s not even one art teacher and fundraising for that is not even an option—that’s where we need to be focusing.”
In the neighborhoods where need is the greatest, AQE can’t look to parents to open their wallets as a way to give their kids the best education they can, Ansari said. Organizers have to focus on leveraging parent power in different ways, and toward different ends. Ansari said that AQE has organized parents to address educational inequities, and that a big part of their work was to pressure Albany to look at funding schools adequately.
“One of the things I want people of color and parents to know is: you don’t have to accept this,” she said. “I’ve been guilty of this myself. When you see budget cuts happening, we know which community is going to cut first. You innately know it’s going to be a District 9, 23, 19 that’s going to get hit the hardest.”
“Part of the thing to address inequity is educating parents to know that there are parts of the city raising $1 million for their schools. And it’s not about saying that’s not fair. It’s about saying: why isn’t the city, why isn’t the state funding our schools.”