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.

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.