Future of Schools

Low-performing Memphis charter schools get second chance

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Chancellor R. Lemoyne Robinson stands outside the charter school he founded in 2004. The school will remain open next school year.

The same month they were slated to close their doors forever due to low academic performance, three Memphis charter operators received notice from Shelby County Schools that their schools will remain open for the upcoming school year.

City University School Boys Preparatory, Southern Avenue Middle School, and Omni Prep Academy Lower and Middle Schools are on the priority list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools, making their closure mandatory this summer under a 2014 state law. However, a new law passed this year by the legislature gave districts discretion in deciding whether the schools should remain open for now.

“In light of the recent change in legislation that amended [the 2014 law], this letter is to notify you that district will not be pursuing the closure of your schools this year,” said Bradley Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation, in a May 7 letter to school administrators.

The news was cause for jubilation for the Memphis schools, which lost students and faculty following the district’s confirmation in December that it would comply with the 2014 law.

“Regardless of the prior [loss] of faculty, staff and scholars due to the district’s announcement of closure earlier this year, I am excited that we will be afforded an opportunity to continue to move the academic needle amongst our scholars at City University School Boys Preparatory,” said founder and Chancellor R. Lemoyne Robinson.

Under the new law, district-authorized charter schools now have until 2017 to get off the state’s priority list before state-ordered shutdown. However, local school boards still have authority to close a charter for poor performance before 2017.

Omni founder Cary Booker, who lobbied for the revised legislation, said the policy change should be seen as a necessary clarification, not a second chance for the beleaguered schools. “I see it as the law is now aligned with its original legislative intent,” Booker told Chalkbeat.

The reversal does not please everyone, however.

“Our perspective is that schools that are not performing don’t need to continue operating, but this decision is ultimately the decision of the authorizer.” said Emily Lilley, director of policy at the Tennessee Charter School Center, an advocacy group based in Nashville.

On TCAP tests in 2013-14, less than 15 percent of students earned proficient reading language scores at City University; under 27 percent at Omni Middle; 11 percent at Omni Lower; and about 23 percent at Southern Avenue Middle.

The schools now have opportunity to improve their performance before the state releases its next priority list in 2017.

“This will give you additional time to address identified weaknesses and make any necessary revisions to your academic programs,” Leon said in his letter.

Administrators say they are responding proactively.

At City University, students have all been assigned summer reading and homework, and the school will remain open during break for students needing assistance. Parents also have become more involved in their children’s education after learning the school was scheduled for closure. “The effects were grave, so it did not go unnoticed,” Robinson said.

Leon said the district will monitor the schools’ performance and is developing new tools to evaluate and hold charters accountable in the future. “Having these standard performance metrics will both highlight our top-performing charter schools and inform accountability measures when charters are not meeting expectations,” he told Chalkbeat.

Administrators from Southern Avenue Middle School did not immediately respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment.

You can read a copy of Leon’s letter in full here.

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.”