getting to graduation

How one high-poverty Jefferson County school saw a huge leap in its high school graduation rates

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

The teenagers that made up the Class of 2016 at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School weren’t much different than students who had come before them.

A lot of them qualified for government-subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. For many, English was a second language. Some had switched schools multiple times.

This group, however, distinguished itself by one important measure — graduating on time.

Eighty percent of Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School seniors last school year graduated in four years — a much higher percentage of students than in past years. The Class of 2015 had a 64 percent on-time graduation rate, making for a stunning turnaround.

The Colorado Department of Education released graduation rates last week showing the state reaching a six-year high while local districts in the metro area saw increases and two posted some drops. The Jefferson County school district had a graduation rate of 82.8 percent in 2016, virtually unchanged from the 82.9 percent rate in 2015.

At Jefferson, school officials credit their jump to changes made during the Class of 2016’s sophomore year, when new school leaders arrived to try new ideas for improving the school.

The changes included adding dual language classes, increasing teacher training and adding more advanced coursework.

“This particular class was with us for three years,” said principal Michael James. “The consistency (enables) kids to feel connected to the programming, to the teachers, to the staff, to our expectations. To a point where it becomes a part of them and they’re able to buy into what we are doing. If you don’t start those practices and start those expectations early, you’re already behind for graduation.”

Last year the school was transformed from a high school to a school serving grades seven through 12. That means staff at Jefferson can start working with students even earlier — up to six years before graduation.

School staff also say the work to change school culture helped bump up graduation rates. At Jefferson that meant adding rules to keep students from roaming the hallways during the day and changing the back-to-school nights to engage more parents, among other efforts.

 

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Michael James, principal of Jefferson Jr. Sr. High School, far right, with four of the school’s assistant principals.

Back-to-school night at Jefferson now resembles a carnival with bouncy castles, drummers, mariachi band and a barbecue.

“It’s just non-traditional,” said Amy Alvarez, an assistant principal at Jefferson. “We think of what’s the goal, and for our community it’s getting them into the building so they feel safe. It’s not so much about getting the school supply list for chemistry. It’s a very different goal.”

At the time the changes started, Jefferson High was one of Jeffco Public School’s lowest performing schools. Even with the graduation increases of this year, the school remains one of the district’s lower performing among traditional district-run schools.

Limited state test results are available for the school. For privacy reasons, the state obscures some data when fewer than four students fall into an achievement category — which happened frequently in Jefferson’s case. But from 2016 results that are available, only 3.2 percent of eighth-graders taking the English tests, and 3.2 percent of seventh graders taking the math test scored proficient or advanced.

School officials say district-level testing data show students are making significant growth since August 2015, especially in reading.

Test scores from juniors in Jeffco taking the ACT in 2015 averaged 15.6, slightly lower than the average of 16.1 for the juniors who took the test in 2014. The juniors who took the test in 2016 — the class that would be graduating this spring — had an average score of 16.

Rhiannon Wenning, who has been teaching juniors and seniors at Jefferson High for 15 years, said teachers have not changed how they pass students and said they are strict about making sure students only graduate if they are ready.

“I think most definitely they are prepared,” Wenning said. “It’s been a systematic growth.”

Wenning credited new teacher training and planning efforts, more consistency in working with English language learners and better parent engagement.

In addition to the more popular back-to-school nights, Jefferson High officials created a “Parent University,” where parents are invited to a discussion once a month about topics related to parenting and family well-being. Jefferson and other schools in the area are also working with the Edgewater Collective, a community nonprofit that is helping connect families to outside resources and bringing more volunteers into schools.

Grants have also helped the school add after-school activities and support staff. James used grant money to hire a teacher for a class at Jefferson called “community living.” One recent morning, students in the class were discussing words they live by, trusting their gut and making good decisions.

Students at Jefferson are being taught to become more responsible for their learning, James said, leading their own parent-teacher conferences because they are expected to know how they’re doing and any credits they’re missing.

James’ team also changed summer opportunities. Students who are missing credits are required to take classes over the summer, but the school also started offering summer classes to students who just want to get ahead so they can enroll in advanced courses during the school year.

JoAnn Euler, an assistant principal at Jefferson, said the number of students participating in Advanced Placement courses increased substantially starting with the Class of 2016.

Even if some students don’t score high enough to earn college credit, the class raises expectations for students, school officials say.

Other measures such as attendance rates and teacher retention rates are also increasing at Jefferson, making officials cautiously optimistic that the new higher graduation rates will hold or continue to climb.

“We’re so excited,” James said. “To increase 16 percentage points in one year is unreal. It gives us great hope.”

Fixing Special Education

Advocates’ survey of parents and teachers alleges Chicago special education reform has been slow, underresourced

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, speaks at a press conference about the survey.

Despite the state taking over Chicago schools’ troubled program for special-needs students, both education services and communication with parents remain woefully lacking, advocates for families alleged Monday.

The groups, including Equip for Equality, Parents 4 Teachers, Access Living and Raise Your Hand, released a survey of 800 parents and teachers that indicated that the Illinois State Board of Education’s reforms have fallen far short of its promises, six months after a state probe found Chicago schools violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services, such as  speech and occupational therapy, busing, classroom aides,.

There continues to be no remediation plan for the thousands of students who were illegally denied services,” said attorney Olga Pribyl, who heads Equip for Equality’s special education clinic.

Representatives of the state board and Chicago Public Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Advocates called on Illinois governor-elect J.B. Pritzker to commit more resources to monitor assigned to oversee Chicago special-education reforms. The office has three staff members, half the number advocates had requested. “We are asking Pritzker and his transition team to recognize the critical need to reform special education at CPS,” said Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • Three out of four respondents reported knowing of one or more students not receiving services because a service provider was unavailable due to staffing shortages. Special education teachers were the most unavailable service provider, followed by paraprofessionals and nurses.
  • Many parents don’t know what changes the monitor has initiated. About three-fourths of respondents had not heard about the school district’s monthly parent trainings about the rights of special education students. While about 60 percent knew of changes tied to the state’s investigation in special education in Chicago, but fewer than 10 percent had seen the  new policy guidelines.
  • About two in three parents who have attended meetings designed to map out their child’s school services — known as an Individualized Education Program —  this year reported they weren’t given a draft of the plan five days in advance of the meetings as required.
  • About 80 percent of teachers and staff reported that IEP meetings neglected to mention compensatory services for students whose services were delayed or denied.

Natasha Carlson, a K-4 teacher who co-chairs the special education committee at the Chicago Teachers Union, said the survey results represent a broader failure by the school district and monitor to ensure students with disabilities are protected.

“This is most likely the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

You can read the full survey report below.

Annual Regional Analysis

Where Chicago students travel the farthest to school, questions about why residents dodge neighborhood campuses

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and other district leaders hosted a community meeting on Thursday about the Annual Regional Analysis.

At a forum designed to explore solutions to putting top-rated schools and programs within reach of all Chicago students, residents of Greater Grand Crossing pushed Chicago Public Schools to help dispel stigmas they say makes their campuses a tough pitch to prospective families.

Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Thursday at Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School to review a district report on enrollment trends, school quality options, parent choice and program variety.

Known as the Annual Regional Analysis, it has spurred conversations about school quality, barriers to education equity — and fears of painful decisions to come amid an ongoing enrollment crisis. The school district presented hard numbers behind the problematic trend of shrinking neighborhood schools.

In a part of the city where students have one of the city’s longest commutes to school, district officials reviewed evidence of a troubling dynamic: students skipping over their neighborhood school and traveling long distances for other options.

The district’s chief school development officer, Hal Woods, drew from the report’s data about school quality, enrollment trends, choice patterns and programs, and reviewed data on the Greater Stony Island region, one of 16 planning areas defined by the city.

The region includes 10 communities in addition to Greater Grand Crossing, including South Shore, South Chicago, Chatham, Avalon Park, and Roseland. While clusters of middle class and affluent residents live in the area, most neighborhoods in the region have lower median household incomes.

As of last school year, when the analysis was compiled, the Greater Stony Island Region had about 24,000 students, most of them black, at nearly 50 schools.

Like in other parts of the city, many of the schools with neighborhood attendance boundaries suffer from underenrollment, bad reputations, a lack of of high-demand programs and low school quality ratings. But plenty of families are also skipping over top-rated schools.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

Attendees Thursday representing neighborhood schools said they don’t have shiny new buildings, or the finances or resources to wage a robust marketing campaign as many charter schools do. They sought district support to combat bad reputations and to inform other parents  – beyond school ratings – about the good things happening on their campuses.

“Are students choosing schools in their region? I think this is a really critical slide to look at for folks in this room,” Woods said, lingering on a chart showing average commute times for students across the city.

Local elementary school students commute an average of 2.6 miles, the farthest of  any region in the city. At the high school level, Greater Stony Island is tied with the Far Southwest Side region for the longest student commutes, an average of 5 miles compared with the citywide average of 3.6 miles.

In the past four years, the region has lost at least 2,600 district students – or 10 percent of its student population compared with a 6 percent drop citywide. The region had more than 4,200 unfilled, top-rated elementary school seats, but there are only about 450 unfilled Level 1 high school seats.

Of the four high schools in the area with neighborhood attendance boundaries, only Chicago Vocational is in good standing, according to the district’s school rating system. The other three neighborhood schools, including Harlan Community Academy High School and Hirsch Metropolitan High School, all suffer from low ratings and dwindling enrollment.

Meanwhile, the only schools in good standing or building enrollment are charter schools like Gary Comer College Prep with the Noble Network, or South Shore High School, a district-run selective enrollment school, and all draw attendance from across the city. Some attendees accused the schools of siphoning students from neighborhood schools with attendance boundaries.

But nearly two in three high school students leave the region altogether, “which is the high for all ARA regions,” Woods said.

In small discussion groups, attendees questioned how well school ratings actually convey quality, emphasizing that economic development, safety of the school neighborhood and the climate inside also factor into parents’ decisions.

Many said that the district should help schools suffering from stigma communicate their accomplishments and benefits, whether via social media, websites or billboards.

“We have wonderful things to offer — how are we going to market that at CPS?” said Wenda Royal, community school resource coordinator at South Shore Fine Arts Academy, speaking for a group of participants.

“There’s perceptions of schools that go back 10, 15, 25 or more years, that are no longer accurate,” Woods agreed.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chicago schools parent Sherretha Richardson.

Sherretha Richardson, a parent of three district students at Carnegie, Kenwood and Bouchett who lives in the East Side community, said marketing is especially important for schools whose ratings might not reflect a school’s successes.

“You look at Chicago Vocational, and you see a Level 2-plus. But you have Level 1-plus administration and teachers as far as their effort, their energy,” she said.

She said the district has to do a better job of engaging parents with technology.

“This meeting here, for the parents that couldn’t come out, there should have been a webinar, they should have had it on the internet, where the parents could have chimed in and actually heard what was going on,” she said.

District CEO Janice Jackson was paying attention.

“One of my commitments is really to restore the credibility and the integrity of our school system, and it starts with sharing more information, and that’s what this event is about tonight,” Jackson said in opening remarks.

She’s begun an initiative that allows schools to request programs like the International Baccalaureate on their campuses. The alternative, she said,  “is what has occurred for too long, which is the people in charge, me, my team, sit around a conference table, look at a map, look at data, and make decisions about who should get what.”

“What I say to some of the people who have a problem with this is that you can demand community engagement, but you cannot tell me how to engage the community,” she said. “And I think this is the right approach, I think this is what we need to do to make sure everybody feels like they have a fair shot.”