Here’s a closer look at Kids First Chicago, the group behind a report sparking debate

In January 2017, Daniel Anello, the CEO of a school choice group backed by the business community, flew to Denver with Janice Jackson, who was then No. 2 at Chicago Public Schools.

The two leaders were there for a two-day trip to learn about Denver Public Schools’ universal enrollment application, something Chicago hoped to develop with help from Anello’s group. They toured schools, met with the head of the district, and had conversations with officials across departments. One element that kept coming up was a comprehensive report featuring where schools are, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

Related: Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The report “was indoctrinated into everything they did out there, whether you’re talking to teachers or community members of the finance department, they were all using the same sort of data,” Anello said. His group was already helping with enrollment, so it made sense they’d assist with analysis.

The trip spurred conversations about making similar information available to parents in Chicago schools, but it highlighted something else: the collaboration between Chicago schools leadership and Anello’s high-powered group, formerly known as New Schools for Chicago and now called Kids First Chicago. The more than decade-old partnership has both propelled a parent-choice agenda, spurred school openings and closings — and sparked bitter reaction.

These conversations are not just happening in Chicago. The Kids First philosophy — that the district should offer a menu of different schools, with families encouraged to choose among them — is consistent with the portfolio model approach, which has gained traction across the country and garnered backing from national funders.

By last fall, Kids First had a research agreement with the district to work with CPS’ demographics and planning department and compile a report, and, by January, Jackson had been named the district’s CEO. The report, which Kids First began previewing earlier this year to select community groups, shows the district has more than 150,000 empty seats, nearly 40 percent of them at top-rated schools. The report also indicates that black and Latino students are the most likely to attend the district’s lowest-rated schools, and shows broad swaths of the city lack some of CPS’ most in-demand academic programs.

The school district says the Kids First analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs. Some community members agree, saying it offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods. But critics suggest it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

At Wednesday’s board of education meeting, Martin Ritter, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, blasted Kids First for its “corporate interests” and backers, including many who don’t live in Chicago or don’t send their kids to Chicago public schools.

While the district did not release the report, Jackson said it’s not secret. And both district leadership and Anello said the report is not meant as justification for school closings.

“We did work in collaboration with Kids First. Our demographics team also played a role in compiling this report,” she said. She added that the district has shared it in dozens of meetings with over 105 organizations, including the Chicago Teachers Union and Raise Your Hand.

However, both the teachers union and Raise Your Hand have criticized the report and denied getting to preview it.

Kids First, meanwhile, is seeking to shed its reputation as a primarily pro-charter, politically connected group. Anello said the report is intended to provide parents data to make informed decisions around programs and schools. It’s a testament, he said, to how Kids First is trying to work differently.

Who is Kids First?

Kids First is one of at least five groups affiliated with an organization that has had a hand in shaping economic development and planning in Chicago since the early 20th century. The Commercial Club of Chicago’s clout-heavy membership includes 350 business and civic leaders, from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to corporate CEOs to the owners of the city’s major sports teams.

Commercial Club President Kelly Welsh, a Chicago attorney who served as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said in an email statement that his group works with an array of public officials, not-for-profits, and other civic organizations. The goal, he wrote, is the “social and economic well-being of our region, including work on local and state education issues.” He did not elaborate.

Welsh sits on Kids First’s board along with former school board chief David Vitale, the head of Namaste Charter School Natalle Nerls, and others who have donated thousands of dollars to the mayor’s campaign coffers, including KPMG Managing Partner Patrick Canning and Exelon Chairman Emeritus John Rowe.

Kids First’s roots are with the Renaissance Schools Fund, a private group that helped fund and orchestrate Renaissance 2010. That plan hatched in 2004 under former Mayor Richard Daley and Chicago Schools then-CEO Arne Duncan with the mission of creating 100 new schools by the end of the decade.

The fund pumped tens of millions of dollars into new schools, the vast majority out of district control. However, by 2009, a report from the Consortium at the University of Chicago found little difference in the achievement of students at Renaissance schools compared with the schools they had come from, and media reports had characterized the effort as a wash.

In 2011, when Rahm Emanuel became mayor, the organization had changed its name to New Schools for Chicago. From 2004 to 2013, it helped fund 81 new schools, 68 of them charters, according to Anello.

“But then, the climate changed pretty dramatically,” he said. “During that period, the enrollment was declining, and we got to the place where there are far too many seats for the number of kids we have in the district.”

The organization went dormant in 2013, but was revived two years later under Anello. He is a former Unilever brand manager who, after training at the Broad Residency in Urban Education, signed on as chief strategist and marketer for the Chicago International Charter School network. He relaunched New Schools with a focus on helping parents. Universal high school enrollment seemed a great place to start.

“We’re really a different kind of organization now,” said Anello. “We’re pro-quality first and foremost — that includes high-quality charter schools like it includes high-quality traditional schools.”

Kids First’s funding sources, however, remain similar to before: a mix of foundations, private donors, board members, and businesses, including Northern Trust, BMO Harris, and ITW. The organization had an operating budget of about $4 million in 2016, according to the latest tax filing publicly available.

Why is the report up for debate?

The analysis in the Kids First report is mainly based off of public information, but it pulls from disparate datasets. The idea, Anello said, was to put together “a universal fact base” for the city around education and schools. “It’s actually something that is prototyped off of what we’ve also seen in other cities like Cleveland and Oakland.”

He characterized arguments about whether schools are run by the district, charter networks, or other entities, as “just a political fight.” He said the report is not intended to foreshadow any major district decisions like school closings.

But the reaction to the Kids First report serves as a reminder that the organization’s past could prove hard to shed.

Community groups like Blocks Together, Generation All, and Raise Your Hand have all expressed concerns about how CPS will use the data. Christine Geovanis, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, calls it a “powerful, politically connected proponent of charter expansion and school ‘choice.’”

“We can expect Rahm and his ‘choice’ cronies to try to spin these numbers,” she said, warning of charters, cuts, closures, and “more educational divestment in neighborhood public schools, which are sometimes the only civic anchors standing in chronically disinvested neighborhoods.”

Despite apprehension and criticism of the Kids First report, dubbed the Annual Regional Analysis, some community members say the numbers provide valuable insight for residents of the same South and West Side neighborhoods Geovanis referenced.

Austin resident Ronald Lawless, an education consultant and community organizer, saw a preview of the Annual Regional Analysis in the spring at a meeting at Michele Clark High School.

He found the information valuable, “because there’s a lot of misinformation about how well our schools are doing versus what people have heard.” The Kids First report divides the city into 16 planning regions, with detailed information about each area. The West Side region, which includes Austin, has about 29,000 unfilled seats, 10,000 of them at top-rated elementary schools. Only 39 percent of elementary students attend their zoned neighborhood school, according to the report.

Lawson was shocked to see how many unfilled top-rated schools were underenrolled, and how many West Side families were sending their kids to school in other areas despite the quality schools in their own community.

“We have some damn good schools,” Lawless said. “But there needs to be better marketing to ensure everyone in the community knows. There are empty seats because of the misconception and stigma that these schools are bad.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”