Background checks

Chicago schools start Tuesday, but 511 employees don’t have clearance yet

PHOTO: Getty Images

With back to school right around the corner, the majority of Chicago schools’ 43,000 employees have cleared background re-checks, the district said Sunday. Still, 266 employees have not been cleared, and 57 of those employees are teachers.

As of Sunday, 98 percent of staff had been cleared to return to school. The employees who were not cleared were flagged because of something on their record suggesting a charge related to sexual misconduct, violence, or dangerous criminal activity. 

“[Chicago Public Schools] will be conducting thorough investigations in all of these instances to better understand the circumstances of each unique case,” district spokesman Michael Passman said in a statement.

An additional 245 employees have not submitted their fingerprints to the district. They also are not permitted to teach.

Earlier this week, the district’s background checks temporarily snagged hundreds of employees. A Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman said on Friday that the union had received dozens of calls from alarmed teachers who were not yet cleared to return to school, including teachers who had been arrested for a 2016 downtown protest of pension cuts. On Sunday, the district said teachers who had been flagged for charges related to protest or political activity were cleared.

In June, the Chicago Tribune released a series of stories revealing big gaps in how the district handled complaints of sexual misconduct against students by teachers, coaches, and other adults who work in schools. Scrambling to address systemic lapses, the district moved quickly to implement a series of new policies, including requiring all employees, vendors, and volunteers to complete background re-checks before the beginning of the new school year.

Chicago schools’ Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said in an e-mailed letter to parents Sunday that the overwhelming majority of adults in schools are committed to keeping children safe, but “it’s the small minority of employees whose records require deeper inquiry (who) will receive the thorough review they deserve.”

The district also required all employees to re-submit fingerprints before the start of the school year. The district said that if employees go to work without having submitted their fingerprints, they will be disqualified from future employment with the district.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Illinois Executive Inspector General Maggie Hickey has been hired by the district to review how it handles sexual misconduct cases. CPS released her preliminary findings in early August. “By conducting the background check refresh,” she wrote, “CPS has made significant progress toward ensuring that all adults working in schools have been background checked under uniform, rigorous standards.”

Student safety

‘Inappropriate behavior with alumni’ led to Noble founder’s resignation, charter leaders tell staff

PHOTO: YouTube

A pattern of “inappropriate behavior with alumni,” which included hand-holding and “an instance of slow-dancing,” ultimately led to founder Michael Milkie’s resignation, according to a letter sent by a Noble administrator to staff on Tuesday night.

Constance Jones, the president of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, said in the letter that she and Head of Schools Ellen Metz became aware of the inappropriate behavior in October and “immediately voiced a lack of confidence” in Milkie’s leadership. “When confronted with this information and our lack of confidence in Mike, he chose to retire. I want to emphasize that at no point did Noble leadership have knowledge of allegations that required mandated reporting, or that were criminal in nature.”

Asked for comment, Noble administrators referred back to Jones’ statement.

The charter network’s board of directors, led by Allan Muchin, has hired an outside law firm to conduct a full investigation of Milkie’s conduct and review internal procedures for handling complaints. Muchin announced last week that Milkie would retire at the end of the calendar year for “personal reasons” but didn’t describe the exact circumstances behind the sudden departure. 

Jones said in Tuesday’s letter that the board still was reviewing the matter, but the administration decided to communicate with staff because “some circumstances” surrounding the departure would be reported in the news. WBEZ reported that a former Noble principal said that female students told a teacher that Milkie made them feel uncomfortable.

Noble Network is the district’s largest charter operator, with 12,000 students, 17 high schools, and one middle school.

In the conclusion of her letter, Jones asked that staff “continue to come to work with the passion, dedication, and commitment to families that define what it means to be Noble.”

Milkie and his wife, Tonya, were former Chicago Public Schools teachers who opened their first charter campus in 1999 in the city’s West Town neighborhood. They began expanding in 2006 and were buoyed by the Renaissance 2010 plan spearheaded by Mayor Richard M. Daley and his schools chief Arne Duncan that seeded many new charters.

Educators at Noble have been trying to unionize since 2017, a move publicly opposed by Milkie.

Milkie’s resignation comes nearly six months after a Chicago Tribune series revealed systemic lapses in Chicago Public Schools to properly address complaints of student sexual abuse. In response, the district implemented several measures including conducting new background checks for school staff, removing the principals of two schools, and creating a new Title IX office.

This story was updated to say that Noble administrators referred to a statement when asked for comment. 

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.