Roxbury Principal Fires Security Guards, Hires Art Teachers

By Susie Madrak

May 2, 2013
ROXBURY, Mass. —

The community of Roxbury had high hopes for its newest public school back in 2003. There were art studios, a dance room, even a theater equipped with cushy seating.

A pilot school for grades K-8, Orchard Gardens was built on grand expectations.

But the dream of a school founded in the arts, a school that would give back to the community as it bettered its children, never materialized.

Instead, the dance studio was used for storage and the orchestra’s instruments were locked up and barely touched.

The school was plagued by violence and disorder from the start, and by 2010 it was rank in the bottom five of all public schools in the state of Massachusetts.

That was when Andrew Bott — the sixth principal in seven years — showed up, and everything started to change.

“We got rid of the security guards,” said Bott, who reinvested all the money used for security infrastructure into the arts.

In a school notorious for its lack of discipline, where backpacks were prohibited for fear the students would use them to carry weapons, Bott’s bold decision to replace the security guards with art teachers was met with skepticism by those who also questioned why he would choose to lead the troubled school.

“A lot of my colleagues really questioned the decision,” he said. “A lot of people actually would say to me, ‘You realize that Orchard Gardens is a career killer? You know, you don’t want to go to Orchard Gardens.’”

But now, three years later, the school is almost unrecognizable. Brightly colored paintings, essays of achievement, and motivational posters line the halls. The dance studio has been resurrected, along with the band room, and an artists’ studio.

The end result? Orchard Gardens has one of the fastest student improvement rates statewide. And the students — once described as loud and unruly, have found their focus.

“We have our occasional, typical adolescent … problems,” Bott said. “But nothing that is out of the normal for any school.”

The school is far from perfect. Test scores are better, but still below average in many areas. Bott says they’re “far from done, but definitely on the right path.”

The students, he says, are evidence of that.

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[Chicago] CPS: Expulsion rate higher at charter schools

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Alex Richards,
Chicago Tribune reporters
7:23 a.m. CST, February 26, 2014

As it continues to modify strict disciplinary policies in an effort to keep students in the classroom, Chicago Public Schools on Tuesday released data showing privately run charter schools expel students at a vastly higher rate than the rest of the district.

The data reveal that during the last school year, 307 students were kicked out of charter schools, which have a total enrollment of about 50,000. In district-run schools, there were 182 kids expelled out of a student body of more than 353,000.

That means charters expelled 61 of every 10,000 students while the district-run schools expelled just 5 of every 10,000 students.

It’s the first time the district has released student suspension data for every school and also the first time it has released data on expulsions for charters. For charter critics, the numbers will buttress long-standing complaints that the privately run operations push out troubled students, allowing their schools to record stronger academic performances.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett acknowledged the figures will become additional fuel in the ongoing debate over charters in the city.

“I think there’s been a lot of supposition and conversation about what and how the charter success is measured, whether they throw kids out or they keep kids in,” Byrd-Bennett said. “I think having the data is going to now lead to productive conversations.”

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, noted that the data show several charter schools do not have high expulsion rates, and discounted the argument that charters use discipline to improve their academic record.

“There’s some above and some below the district average,” Broy said. “You can’t make the argument that expulsions themselves are causing the overall school performance to increase because the (small percentage of) expelled students will not meaningfully change how well students did overall.”

Still, expulsion rates at some of the most touted charter schools were striking. At three campuses in the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has faced backlash over its disciplinary approach, anywhere from 2 percent to nearly 5 percent of students were expelled in the last school year.

At Urban Prep Academies, which annually boasts a nearly perfect college acceptance rate, more than 3 percent of the student body was expelled during the last school year at three campuses. At district-run schools, just over 0.05 percent of the student body was expelled last year.

So far this year, charter schools already have expelled 151 students, nearly three times the number at district-run schools.

The data released Tuesday also showed that African-American students face a higher rate of disciplinary action in the district. Last school year, approximately 75 percent of all suspensions were handed to African-Americans, a group that makes up about 41 percent of CPS’ student body. (Suspended students are allowed to return to school, as opposed to students who are expelled.)

“Until we called out the numbers, until we had deep conversations with people in schools about the racial disparity, I don’t think people understood it as such,” Byrd-Bennett said of the high rate of suspensions for black students. “There’s something going on here, and we need to address it.”

Byrd-Bennett on Tuesday said she inherited “a really punitive zero-tolerance code of conduct” and that the district will continue to seek to reduce the number of students who are suspended and expelled.

“This is a major goal this year that will not drop off the screen,” Byrd-Bennett said.

Broy said charters will work with CPS to bring down expulsion rates in the privately run schools, and he in turn hopes to share some behavioral programs that have been successful at charter schools with the district.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. attorney general’s office released national guidelines on student discipline codes, acknowledging many urban school districts’ zero-tolerance policies have created school-to-prison pipelines.

“There’s documented research out there that shows these policies increased the chance of students going to prison, worsened the school climate, predicted a high rate of misbehavior in the future and increased dropout rates,” said Jason Sinocruz, an attorney with the Washington-based Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that has focused on disparities in school discipline.

“With Chicago, it’s always been a challenge getting data, and in the past the data that was available showed Chicago is among the worst in terms of its discipline code and certainly among the worst for large cities,” Sinocruz said.

In 2012, CPS revised its discipline policy, eliminating out-of-school suspensions for all but the most serious infractions. The district also did away with mandatory 10-day suspensions.

Officials plan to further cut the types of infractions that can lead to suspensions along with reducing the subjectivity in the discipline code and better defining vague terms such as “defying authority.” They also hope to expand restorative justice programs, which despite CPS efforts only exist in about 60 schools.

Sinocruz said some of Chicago’s charter schools are known nationally for having rigorous discipline policies, but until now there were no data to back up the qualitative accounts.

Mariame Kaba, the founding director of Project NIA, a local group that focuses on reducing youth incarceration, that worked with a coalition of community and student groups to change the district’s discipline code, praised CPS for “being transparent around school discipline data.”

“CPS has taken a big step,” she said.

But Kaba agreed that more needs to be done and that the district needs to push for charter schools to follow district student codes.

“There’s tons of informal ways students are being expelled; either they’re being counseled out or it’s strongly suggested they leave without putting them through a formal process,” Kaba said. “The same thing is happening in traditional schools, but not to the same degree as in charters.”

nahmed@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

Chicago: As school closings vote nears, questions remain on money, academics, safety

By: Sarah Karp / May 20, 2013

A rally in Daley Plaza protests against school closings. Picture by Lucio Villa.

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.

Budgets given to principals, Chicago Public Schools tap ‘reserves’

By: Sarah Karp / June 05, 2013

Last summer in the midst of teacher contract negotiations and as they prepared to undertake massive school closings, CPS leaders said they were using one-time reserves to fill a budget deficit and were completely out of money.

But on Wednesday, district officials said they will once again use one-time reserves to fill a budget deficit projected to be close to $1 billion. District officials made this announcement as they were releasing school budgets to principals.

CPS is facing a substantial budget deficit because it must contribute $612 million to pension funds, a $400 million increase from last year. Officials were hoping to spread those payments over a longer period of time, but last week state legislators didn’t approve a bill that would have given the district a pension holiday.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that the new reserves will be created by the county making property tax payments on time again this year. Carroll said the district also might garner some savings from the state keeping current with payments.

However, identifying the county payments as extra money is a direct contradiction to earlier statements. The annual audit, released in January, showed a fund balance of $329 million—a fact critics immediately jumped on accusing CPS of being dishonest by crying poverty and then ending up with money in the bank.

At the time, CPS officials said last year’s one-time county property tax payment was not extra money, but had just been received earlier than expected and was already allocated. Carroll said the reason this year’s on time payments are considered reserves has to do with timing.

“We now expect to get the next round of county dollars by the end of FY13 – since we did not plan for those dollars in our FY13 budget as passed by the Board, they will be counted as reserves. Next year, they will actually be counted in that budget,” she said.

These new reserves are unlikely to make up the entire shortfall faced by the district. This predicament had principals nervous about their school budgets as they waited an unusually long time to receive them. School budgets are usually released in April or May so that principals can get a handle on how many teachers they can hire or how many they must lay off.

In announcing that principals were finally getting their budgets, CPS officials said they were doing their best to prevent students from feeling the impact of budget problems.

“The District is continuing to identify reductions in central office, operations and administrative spending in order to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” according to a press release.

But getting a handle on whether schools will feel the impact of the district’s deficit in their budgets is difficult. For the first time this year, CPS moved to per-student funding, rather than giving schools money for positions, which was done historically.

CPS officials say they are doing this to give principals more autonomy over their budgets. However, some worry that it is a way to cut school budgets without having to explicitly reduce the number of teachers and raise class sizes. Also, it could incentivize laying off veteran, more expensive teachers and replacing them with less expensive ones.

Principals were summoned to late afternoon meetings Wednesday to receive their budgets so they have yet to report whether they will be getting more or less this year than last year. Carroll said she does not yet have any overall information on how many schools saw increase and decreases in their overall budget.

Carroll said schools are getting $4,429 for every kindergarten through third grader and $4,140 for every four every fourth through eighth grader. High schools are getting $5,029 for each student. Schools will still get the additional money for low-income, special education and bilingual students based on the complicated formula that has always been used.

Up until last year, CPS ran a per pupil budgeting pilot program. At the time, the per-pupil rate was based on the student population of the school. Schools with less than 300 students got $6,969 per pupil, whereas those with between 451 and 900 students got $5,077. The per student rates this year are similar to the old rates for larger schools.

How Illinois’ Flawed Funding System Shortchanges Chicago’s Students

From ThinkProgress.org
By Pat Garofalo, posted on Sep 12, 2012

Chicago’s public school teachers remained on strike for a third day today. But as ThinkProgress reported yesterday, even when Chicago schools are in session, students have to deal with a host of should-be-embarrassing problems, including crumbling buildings, lack of art and physical education classes, and an abysmally short school day. (Chicago’s elementary school day is so short that some students are given just 10 minutes for lunch in order to cram in all the necessary instruction.)

These problems stem in large part from Illinois’ education funding system, which is one of, if not the most, inequitable in the nation. Illinois schools rely even more heavily on property taxes than the standard U.S. school district, which, as the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability noted, “ties the quality of the public education a school can give a child to the wealth of the community in which that child lives.”

Huge proportions of Chicago students come from low-income households, so the property tax base from which the schools are funded is not high. The Chicago Reporter outlined some of the practical consequences of this system:

– Due to the primary reliance on local property tax revenue for school funding, there are massive cumulative gaps in per-pupil spending, particularly in poor or minority communities. The 6,413 students who started elementary school in Evanston [a suburb north of Chicago] in 1994 and graduated from high school in 2007 had about $290 million more spent on their education than the same number of Chicago Public Schools students.

– Many of the school districts that spent the most per-student received at least 90 percent of their money from local property taxes. Yet, these districts tended to tax themselves at far lower rates than their poorer counterparts.

– The percentage of state contribution to school funding has decreased four of the last five years and is one of the lowest in the nation.

Illinois is also generally terrible at funding education, ranking 40th in per-capital education spending, despite being 15th in per-capita income. And the disproportionate lack of funding for low-income areas, particularly within cities, manifests itself in several ways. Besides the obvious lack of resources for students, wealthier districts can attract better teachers and pay for better safety measures.

As one Chicago school teacher wrote, “How can the discrepancy be so wide in school funding? The answer is simple; Gage Park [where she taught] is a violent, gang-­‐ridden neighborhood where the houses are very cheap. The worth of the properties will never rise due to the extreme violence in the neighborhood. Also, most of the living spaces are rented – there just aren’t that many people that own homes. Therefore, property taxes are low, virtually non-­‐existent.” By some estimates, it would take about $1.9 billion to bring Chicago’s students up to level at which they were meeting state standards.