Keeping students safe

Could Chicago schools do a better job protecting students? Some city officials think so

Much-anticipated City Council hearings Wednesday over the sexual abuse crisis in Chicago Public Schools produced few solutions — but did make one point quite clear: Chicago officials’ response to the crisis has meandered without firm leadership and direction.

Aldermen peppered district officials with angry, and sometimes incredulous questions during the more than three-hour hearing.

Six months after the student sexual abuse scandal broke, the school district hasn’t hired anyone to head the office formed to protect students. Instead, a top school district lawyer — whose office was implicated in failing to protect students — and three mid-level directors helm the new office, known as the Office of Student Protections and Title IX.

School district spokesman Michael Passman told Chalkbeat Chicago that the district is working hard on finding a candidate. But he could not provide a target date for the hire, who will report directly to schools CEO Janice Jackson.

Jackson did not appear before the council on Wednesday.

“I’m a little disappointed that Janice isn’t here. This is a really important issue,” said Ald. Susan Garza, who demanded to know how so many cases of child abuse could be mishandled and underreported. “Who dropped the ball?”

Garza also questioned why the district is spending $3 million on its office of student protections. Instead, she said, the funds might be better spent on counselors at every school to support students, to get to know families and to provide a safe space to field reports of abuse and mistreatment.

Schools, Garza said, “should be the office of student protections. Your school should protect you!”

Ald. James Cappleman grilled the district representatives about the district allowing non-clinical professionals to interview students about sexual assault allegations.

Ald. Robert Maldonado railed about the office’s limited language capability.

Similarly, Ald. Raymond Lopez asked incredulously, “One person out of five [investigators] speaks Spanish, for a school district that is 50 percent Latino?” He concluded, “You’re not equipped to deal with your population you’re being asked to serve as much as you should be.”

Aldermen and child advocates brought up concerns that a hotline used to report abuse isn’t staffed 24 hours, the need for more social workers to address issues on the ground, and fears that stringent background check policies, while a reasonable precaution to keep students safe, are unfairly erecting barriers to some parents volunteering at schools, especially immigrant parents.

The tough questions underscored Chicago aldermen’s first public hearing about the sexual abuse scandal — six months after the Chicago Tribune revealed the school district’s mishandling of student sexual abuse investigations over the past decade, which unfolded amid a revolving door of school chiefs.

The district has assigned the investigation into what went wrong over to its inspector general, Nicholas Schuler. The school district earlier hired former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey to review its handling of complaints and make recommendations. In August, Hickey released a preliminary report that blamed instability in leadership at the district — both in chief executives and network chiefs — for a gap in oversight that failed to protect student victims of sexual abuse.

The report also found “systemic deficiencies … at all levels: in the schools, the networks, the central office, and the Chicago Board of Education,” and concluded that “CPS did not collect overall data to see trends in certain schools or across geographies or demographics. Thus, CPS failed to recognize the extent of the problem.”  

Hickey is also serving as an adviser to the student protections office.

The district has assigned five people to the office responding to complaints of sexual harassment and abuse against students, and has five investigators to examine the most serious cases of student-on-student sexual abuse and violence. The office also has a training and compliance coordinator.

Since Sept, 4, the office has fielded 624 reports, including 491 allegations of student-on-student offenses and 133 allegations of offenses by adults, including adults outside of schools, according to the district.

At City Hall Wednesday, North Side Ald. Harry Osterman said City Council members should meet again in March to gauge progress made at the school district to keep Chicago students safe.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.