Keeping students safe

Chicago Schools’ background checks send many teachers into limbo just as school sets to open

PHOTO: Getty Images
Many teachers have not been cleared by CPS' renewed background checks and may not be able to teach next Tuesday.

Chicago Public Schools’ well-intentioned background checks appear to have snagged hundreds of employees — including some for minor offenses or dismissed charges — and delayed clearing their names, barring some from the first day of school next Tuesday.

The Chicago Teachers Union announced Friday that it has received dozens of phone calls this week from anxious teachers who were notified that they have not cleared background checks and are not yet allowed to teach. Union spokeswoman Christine Geovanis said the union estimates that hundreds of teachers have been effectively barred from teaching.

Chicago schools did not comment on that allegation. However, spokesman Michael Passman wrote in a statement, “CPS is doing everything in its power to create safer schools this fall, and the district’s unprecedented background re-check process will help ensure that all adults who serve our schools will contribute to safe educational environments.” He added that the background review is nearly complete.

The district said that if teachers who are not cleared arrive at work, they will be sent home until they are cleared.

In early June, the district announced that all adults working in Chicago schools — teachers, coaches, volunteers, and vendors — would go through renewed fingerprinting and background checks. The district imposed these re-checks as a response to a Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed years of district mishandling of student sexual misconduct cases.

Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s examination of the background re-checks here.

In mid-June, the district opened fingerprinting stations around the city and set a deadline of Aug. 3 for employees to get fingerprinted. But that deadline, for thousands of employees, left only a small window for clearing up any mistaken findings from backgrounds checks.

The screening is intended to block those who could pose a danger to children. It appears the district’s net is also catching employees with minor, cleared, and even non-existent offenses.

One teacher at a school on the Northeast Side said that she completed her fingerprinting on time but on Monday received a district email demanding further documentation about a 2-year-old arrest for trespassing. The teacher said that in response to the email, she submitted court documents showing that she was not charged in the Feb. 4, 2016, incident — stemming from a Chicago Teachers Union protest of pension cuts. Geovanis said several teachers were also flagged in background checks from this protest.

The district asked for the original arrest record as well, something that was going to take up to seven days to obtain from the Chicago Police Department.

On Friday, the teacher’s principal received a sudden notice that the teacher was cleared — before she had even gotten and turned in a copy of her arrest record. The Monday email had demanded a “certified disposition, police report, and letter of explanation” of the incident be hand-delivered within five calendar days. It threatened that “failure to deliver this information to CPS may impede your ability to be at work when students return to school on September 4, 2018.”

The teacher asked not to be publicly identified because she does not want to alarm parents. She said she has heard of other teachers who were arrested in the protest and have been cleared by submitting just the court documents that she did.

Four other employees in her building had not been cleared as of earlier this week, the teacher said, adding that her principal is requesting substitute teachers for next week.

The first day of school “is a day where children have heightened nervousness, and the best people to take care of this situation is the classroom teacher with the knowledge of the community,” the teacher said. “Substitute teachers have an incredibly difficult time on the first day of school.”

The school district’s emails did not state the consequences of teachers not getting cleared in time. Geovanis said the union does not know what the repercussions might be.

The renewed background checks come amid a host of new stringent protocols for teachers and school volunteers. In August, the Board of Education adopted new policies that bar teachers from communicating with students via personal phones and personal social media accounts. Some teachers say that these rules inhibit critical communications that allow teachers to develop personal relationships with students.

The board also adopted a new policy that requires all volunteers to be vetted by the district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement in Education. Previously, volunteers only needed to be approved by the principal.

Editor’s note, Aug. 31: The article has been updated to include a statement from Chicago Public Schools and to include the interviewed teacher’s sudden clearance.

Editor’s note, Sep. 2: The article has been updated to reflect the fact that Chicago Public Schools set up fingerprinting stations in mid-June, not mid-July.

Career-technical education

How Chicago schools are using cool classes like aviation and game design to repopulate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Students in a pre-law class at Chicago's Mather High fill out college applications on Sept. 19, 2018. The class is one of the school's career technical education offerings that it hopes will attract more students to enroll in the school.

Vocational education used to mean machine shops and sewing classes, programs aimed at students who weren’t headed for college. But career education has changed to fit the tastes of today’s students and the needs of the 21st-century job market, and now encompasses courses ranging from game design and aviation to architecture and digital media.

And Chicago schools are expanding their array of career-prep courses in hopes of enticing students back to languishing neighborhood high schools.

A tour of Mather High on Wednesday demonstrated how Chicago schools are viewing career education differently. It’s a means of both attracting students with training in popular subjects and using those practical classes to teach fundamental concepts — all very much aimed at sending some career-track students to college.

For example, Mather’s pre-law curriculum includes a criminology course where students learn about psychology, as well as a mock-trial element where they learn classical principles of rhetoric and argument. The pre-law program also dedicates time to helping its students submit college applications — hardly the focus of traditional trade-school curricula.

At Mather in West Ridge, second-year Principal Peter Auffant reversed a five-year slide in enrollment after expanding career-related classes. About a third of Mather’s 1,500 students are enrolled in one of its four career-education tracks, including a brand-new pre-engineering curriculum. A digital media track is slated to begin next fall. Besides more than three dozen classes, career-related offerings also include internships, such as stint working in city council members’ offices or at downtown law firms.  

“CTE allows us to provide very unique programming that students can’t get anywhere else,” Auffant said, referring to the commonly used shorthand for career technical education. “We leverage that to create stable enrollments.”

Mather senior William Doan is a case study. Three years ago, the West Ridge resident was looking at high schools outside his neighborhood — selective-enrollment schools as well as those offering the rigorous, college-preparatory International Baccalaureate curriculum, but ultimate chose to stay close to home because Mather’s pre-law program aligned with his interest in law enforcement.

“It kind of just drew me in,” Doan said. “You get a taste for the law and how it really is in the real world.”

Doan’s experience reflects a trend that’s shaping curricular decisions in Chicago and around the country. Congress this summer approved $1.1 billion to expand career education. Such offerings are among Chicago Public Schools’ most popular, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  

Some of those programs focus on traditional vocational education, such as the building trades program at Prosser High in Belmont Cragin that Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced this month would be funded with a $12 million investment. Others like those at Mather include non-traditional offerings, described as “21st century CTE” by Jarrod Nagurka. He is advocacy and public affairs manager for the Alexandria, Virginia-based Association for Career & Technical Education, which sponsored Wednesday’s school tour.

Nearly every Chicago high school has at least one career offering, though access to the most popular programs varies across the city, as does the breadth of the programming at each school. One factor among mid-sized schools such as Mather is the administrative burden of supporting extensive career programming alongside other elective programs such as International Baccalaureate.

“To do both (IB and career education) really well you have to be larger,” Auffant said.

So Mather is pursuing a hybrid strategy that uses career-education classes to teach college-prep concepts. Teachers use real-world vocational settings to explore the academic concepts that undergird them.

“The foundation of curriculum design is backward design,” said Sarah Rudofsky, the school district’s manager of curriculum and instruction for CTE. That means consulting with industry partners about the skills graduates need, then building curricula to suit. In a pre-law course, for example, those core skills are destined to overlap with traditional college-prep coursework, but geared to a practical application.

“It’s important to us to change the conversation from ‘CTE is for students who don’t want to go to college’ to ‘This program is for any young person who wants to have some employability skills before they graduate from high school’ — applied math, applied science and applied literacy,” Rudofsky said.  

 

 

it's official

Brooklyn middle schools eliminate ‘screening’ as New York City expands integration efforts

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a Thursday press conference at M.S. 51 in Park Slope, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza approved an integration plan for District 15 middle schools.

New York’s Department of Education on Thursday approved sweeping changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools across an entire Brooklyn district, marking one of the most far-reaching integration efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

Along with the admissions overhaul, the city launched $2 million in new grants for other districts that want to develop their own integration plans, signaling that officials want local communities to continue to take the lead in addressing a systemic problem.

Officials also announced that an existing citywide school diversity task force will continue to advise city leaders on school diversity issues even after the group issues its recommendations this winter.  

Together, the moves dramatically ramp up the city’s efforts to integrate one of the country’s most segregated school systems — something de Blasio has only reluctantly taken on. While the mayor has been criticized for steadfastly avoiding even saying the word “segregation,” the issue has become impossible to ignore with the arrival of schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has captured national attention for his frank calls for action, coupled with relentless activism from some parents, educators, and elected officials.

“Momentum for change is growing,” de Blasio said at a press conference at M.S. 51 in Park Slope, a sought-after middle school that the mayor’s own children attended. “What’s so powerful is that it is coming from the grassroots.”

The middle school admissions changes are the culmination of years of advocacy from critics who blamed a complicated and competitive admissions process for exacerbating segregation in District 15, which encompasses brownstone neighborhoods such as Carroll Gardens and Park Slope and immigrant enclaves including Red Hook and Sunset Park.

Under the new system, District 15 middle schools will no longer “screen” their students based on factors such as report card grades, test scores, or auditions for performing arts programs — eliminating selective admissions criteria altogether. Instead, the district will use a lottery that gives extra weight to students who come from low-income families, are learning English as a new language, or are homeless.

The aim is to enroll a similar share of needy students across each of the district’s 11 middle schools. And since class is often tied to race and ethnicity, the lottery priority could also spur student diversity on a range of different measures.

“The current District 15 middle school admissions process presents itself as a system of choice and meritocracy, but it functions as a system of hoarding privilege,” said Councilman Brad Lander, who has been supportive of the diversity push.

Advocates hope that District 15 will be a template for integration efforts elsewhere in the city. The process has been hailed for being far more inclusive — and less contentious — then the path that helped lead to the creation of two other districtwide integration plans. District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, recently approved middle school admissions changes that give priority to students from low income families and those with low test scores. It came on the heels of a similar plan for elementary schools in District 1, which includes the Lower East Side, East Village, and part of Chinatown.

The new grants are expected to support similar work in about 10 districts, with about $150,000 dedicated to each. In District 15, the city spent about $120,000 for a planning firm that essentially served as a mediator throughout a year-long community engagement process to develop the changes that were ultimately approved . City officials expect the money to go towards districts that have already received a state grant to tackle diversity issues. Those communities span the city from Staten Island, to the Bronx, to Coney Island.

“We’re signaling we want communities to do this work and we’re going to pay for it. We’re going to invest in this work,” Carranza said.

 

Critics have called on the city to take a more aggressive role in leading citywide efforts to integrate schools, rather than leaving it up to local communities that may actively resist change. De Blasio, who grew up in Cambridge when Boston was roiled by protests against busing students to integrate schools, said diversity plans should reflect the unique reality of each community. But he also said he hopes that successful integration efforts will serve as an example to nudge other school districts forward.

 

“I think we have to maximize parent involvement, community involvement, and believe that, that will get us to a good place,” de Blasio said. “And if we find where there’s something that can be done and parents are not yet there, we’re obviously going to work hard to get them there.”

In District 15, the admissions changes are just the first step towards integrating schools in a district where students are starkly segregated by race and class. Families will still be free to apply to the schools of their choice, so overhauling enrollment policies will have little effect unless parents are willing to consider a wide range of options.

Winning over parents presents a formidable challenge since middle class and white families in District 15 clamor to get into just a few vaunted schools, and parents of color may feel unsure about venturing beyond their neighborhood. To grapple with parents’ apprehension, advocates fought to couple the admissions changes with efforts to make schools more inclusive and appealing to families.

“Our work is only starting,” said Carrie McLaren, the mom of a fifth grader in Boerum Hill, who was involved in drafting the district’s integration plan.

The city announced it would dedicate $500,000 towards new resources, training, and other supports for parents and educators to help make the plan work. A new coordinator will be responsible for helping families navigate the admissions process, and an outreach team is tasked with contacting every parent with information about how to apply to middle schools. Additionally, it will be up to a new “diversity, equity, and integration coordinator” to oversee the district’s work, which will include providing teachers with anti-bias training, social-emotional learning, and alternative discipline practices.

Advocates pushed for those measures to try to make schools more fair and inclusive of students from different backgrounds. They called for the training for teachers and support in creating classroom materials that reflect diverse cultural histories and viewpoints, as well as the overhaul of discipline practices — which often treat black and Hispanic students, and those with disabilities, more harshly than their peers.

“If we’re simply moving bodies, and not changing pedagogically or culturally, then we’re ultimately setting up students of color to be in environments where they’re not welcome,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate with the nonprofit New York Appleseed.

For Laura Espinoza, a mother in Sunset Park who helped draft the District 15 integration plan, the real work lies in making sure her community schools are equipped with the same resources as those in more affluent neighborhoods. Admissions changes alone don’t solve that underlying problem.

“The solution comes through focusing on the resources schools have,” she said. “Why are they called public schools if they are given more in some areas, and less in others?”

Advocates have called on the city to focus on the distribution of resources within schools as part of its integration effort, including an analysis of arts programming and even parent fundraising — moves that Espinoza hopes become a reality and not “only words.” The city announced “targeted funding” for technology and other resources will be part of the District 15 plan.

Messaging will also be an important piece of the work ahead. McLaren said families will be responsible for reshaping narratives around what makes schools desirable, and also taking a hard look at their own school’s practices and working across communities to problem-solve when barriers to integration arise.

“As a parent, and a white parent specifically, I see my role as having to talk to other white parents… and think about how our structural inequities have fed stereotypes and bias,” McLaren said. “It all takes a lot of work, and I don’t think there are easy answers, but at least this is changing the conversation.”