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.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. Here’s the word from Denver Public Schools spokesperson Will Jones: “This was one of the items negotiated (Wednesday) night and early into the morning (Thursday). The result of that discussion was that teachers will not receive back pay.”

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”