universal pre-k

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is on a high-speed timeline for his universal pre-K rollout

PHOTO: Getty Images
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to provide universal pre-K across Chicago by 2021

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has clearly articulated his vision for a free, universal prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds in Chicago, staging events throughout the summer to spread the word. On Thursday the mayor stood at a playground to announce the expansion of an early childhood program at Passages Charter School in Edgewater.

The announcement coincided with a data release today by Chicago Public Schools that shows promising early results from its preschool programming. Third-graders who attended CPS-run prekindergarten in 2012-2013 showed slightly higher GPAs (of 0.09), better attendance (by approximately 1.6 days), and a 3 percentile point increase in math and reading scores on the national NWEA exam compared with children with no known pre-K education.

“As an educator, I know that nothing is more important than getting kids into school earlier,” said Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson, referencing the results today.

Passages Charter, which is operated by Asian Human Services, will more than double capacity in its early-childhood program by September, going from two preschool classrooms that each serve 20 students to five that serve up to 100. The center will also include a family room where parents — many of whom are refugees — can learn English and help each other navigate life in a new country. Passages already runs a similar program in the West Ridge neighborhood, near the intersection of Peterson and California, said Cindy La, director of education for Asian Human Services.

“We’re teaching them English, but we’re also talking about what it means to go to the doctor, or go to the post office. Even things like over-the-counter medications can be unfamiliar,” said La. Having the parents in the same building as the children helps provide support for the whole family and reinforce education in multiple generations.

Her boss, Asian Human Services CEO Craig Maki, made a similar point. “We want to make the building a community building where we take care of families.”

The announcement tour highlights what makes the mayor’s pre-K plan so intriguing — and complicated: the constellation of providers the city must lean on to offer universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds regardless of their family income, a goal Emanuel aims to reach by 2021. All in, the program will cost $175 million. Walls are being knocked down to build capacity at neighborhood schools like Lazaro Cardenas Elementary in Little Village and Dore Elementary in Clearing as well as charters such as Passages.

The city also is doling out grants to expand capacity at community-run centers such as Gads Hill Center in Brighton Park and small businesses, such as Little Angels Learning Center in Englewood. Some of the spending for pre-K construction and expansion projects will be funded by the new $1 billion capital budget that the Board of Education passed in July.  

Phase one of the pre-K rollout starts this fall, with the city promising spots for 3,700 additional children from families that make less than $46,000 through a menu of programs housed at traditional CPS schools, charters, and community centers. Ultimately, parents who apply for the spots can fill out one application and find a menu of options depending on where they live. The common application is open on a City of Chicago-run early learning portal, but it is several pages long and can be confusing in parts. There’s more work to be done to streamline it and make it easier for families, said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the mayor’s chief of early learning.

La, of Passages, said some families were not comfortable using the online portal yet, so they had received 45 paper applications for their expansion spots this fall. Currently, their program serves 3- and 4-year-olds: some spots are free and funded by Head Start, others are funded by a matching state grant and on a sliding fee scale. The most any family pays is $350 per month.

The timeline to be ready by the time classes resume in September is so tight that, at Passages, the construction workers were already at work before the morning press conference started. They paused in the parking lot to wave attendees to a tiny playlot behind the school and started up their drills and saws again as soon as the crowd began to disperse. A fixture in the neighborhood, the stately brick building at the corner of Bryn Mawr and Ashland avenues once housed the city’s first coed Catholic high school, St. Gregory the Great High School, before the Archdiocese of Chicago closed it in 2013.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year