Future of Schools

Could this charter network’s ‘College Bot’ help more Chicago students complete college?

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Sarah MacCallum, director of college counseling at Noble Academy on Chicago's Near North Side checks on students using the College Bot.

Can a robot help Chicago students graduate from college?

Perhaps not in the obvious sense — the College Bot deployed by the Noble charter network doesn’t write papers or help cram for exams. But the Bot — actually an algorithm developed by the network’s chief college officer — aims to steer students toward college success by helping them find colleges they’re more likely to complete.

Noble introduced its College Bot during the 2012-13 school year, and in its five years of operation it has spurred Noble students to select colleges whose graduation rates are 10 percentage points higher than they were selecting previously — 52 percent compared with 42 percent.

Getting kids into college is the mantra of dozens of programs up-and-running in Chicago schools — and the district credits such groups as the college readiness outfits OneGoal and Thrive for helping boost college enrollment figures, like these released last week. But Chicago, like many cities with high percentages of poor students, struggles to keep students in two- and four-year colleges.

Noble Network is 98 percent African-American and Latino, and in 2016, the most recent year for which four-year college data is available, 80 percent of Noble graduates matriculated directly to four-year colleges, compared with 42 percent for Chicago schools’ students overall.

The College Bot’s premise is simple: By comparing a list of college admissions and performance data with a student’s grades, standardized test scores, and ethnicity, the Bot spits out a list of top-ranked schools where the student is likely to be admitted and to receive an attractive financial aid package, and also rates the schools based on their track record of graduating students.

The computerized lists “are incredibly predictive,” said Matt Niksch, the College Bot’s creator, and thus effective in helping students zero in on schools that are likely to admit them and offer financial aid. But the College Bot’s real magic is in suggesting a broader pool of colleges than Noble’s students would otherwise consider, and in encouraging students to strongly consider college graduation rates in their decision-making.

The broader pool matters because Noble’s students often default either to local colleges with poor graduation rates or to state schools with big-name sports teams.

Using the Bot, “students are accessing schools that they may never have considered before, such as small liberal arts colleges,” said Sarah MacCallum, director of college counseling at Noble Academy, a Noble high school in Lincoln Park.

Dakota DeVore, a senior at Noble Academy, said that before using the Bot, she had heard of only a handful of colleges — certainly not Lafayette College, a liberal arts school of about 2,500 students that sits on the Delaware River in a small town near Allentown, Pennsylvania. But the Bot suggested it, and after talking it over with a college counselor at Noble, DeVore has the school atop the list of those she’s considering.

The College Bot “really helped me to figure out what I wanted in a college, and also just what’s out there,” DeVore said.

It can seem like a jolt for city kids such as DeVore to consider small, rural colleges, but often those schools make for good fits.

“Small liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere frequently are schools that have tons of support and are actually going to work really hard to help students deal with challenges,” Niksch said.

That, in turn, points to Noble’s emphasis on a college’s track record of graduating students — especially minority students. That focus is well-founded, according to research conducted by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.

“If you take relatively similar colleges, and one has a higher institutional graduation rate, that has an impact on your likelihood of graduating that is on par with your own academic qualifications going into college,” said Jenny Nagaoka, the consortium’s deputy director.

Noble doesn’t yet have data on how that affects its students’ likelihood of college success, but is beginning to study that, too, now that the tool has been in use long enough to track a graduating class through four years on campus.

Noble has deployed the College Bot throughout its network of 17 high schools, whose 12,000 students account for about 11 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ high-school students. But Niksch doesn’t see it as a proprietary advantage, and shares it freely with other schools; about a dozen charter networks nationwide use it.

Niksch also stresses that the College Bot is meant to complement, not replace, each counselor’s insight and each student’s decision-making.

“Kids aren’t bots; they have hopes and dreams and preferences,” Niksch said. “We try to guide them where they’re likely to be successful, while still giving them plenty of freedom and plenty of choice.”

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.”