enrollment challenges

South Side parents: ‘We’re struggling with high schools’

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Nov. 19, 2018, at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago to discuss their school needs.

Cristina Hernandez is a big proponent of public education: She graduated from Jose Orozco Clemente Community Academy in Pilsen. Now she has three children in Chicago Public Schools, the oldest a seventh grader.

But she isn’t planning to send them to neighboring Kelly High School, rated a Level 2, the second-lowest on Chicago schools’ five-tier rankings.

“We’re struggling with high schools. Unless you score into a selective-enrollment school or you are lucky enough to get in a charter school,” students end up at their neighborhood high school, said Hernandez, who is chair of the Local School Council at James Ward Elementary School.

That’s why some South Side parents have been pushing the district to open a new high school in the South Loop. But that has created its own controversy: The site would displace more than 700 students at the top-rated National Teachers Academy, and likely pull students from neighborhood schools like Kelly.

The question of enrollment in neighborhood schools — and the forces pushing South Side students to attend schools elsewhere — dominated a forum Monday exploring ways to put top-rated schools and programs within reach of all Chicago students.

Parents and other speakers called for more resources for neighborhood schools to stem the tide of students fleeing South Side elementary and high schools.

Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Monday at Thomas Kelly High School to raise questions and discuss findings of a districtwide report on enrollment trends, school quality, parent choice and program offerings.

Students in the area, which after the Greater Stony Island Region has the city’s second-highest number of students attending high schools elsewhere, soon will have the option to attend a new South Loop high school, which could further shrink the local high school’s attendance boundaries and enrollment.

Discussing the report, known as the Annual Regional Analysis, offers communities a chance to comment on academic changes they’d like to see in their region. Meetings around town have spurred conversations about school quality, barriers to education equity — and fears of painful decisions to come amid rapidly shrinking enrollment. The school district presented hard numbers behind the problematic trend of shrinking neighborhood schools.

Parents and community members spoke to the difficulty of finding desirable high school options.

Why does the region have no Level 1 or Level 1-plus high schools, parents asked, noting the dearth prompts families to seek schools elsewhere.

The region includes the Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, and Armour Square neighborhoods.

Last year, when the data was collected, the area had 21,741 students at 33 schools. Three-quarters of the students were Latino, while 14 percent were Asian.

According to the report, 87 percent of elementary students in the area attend school in the region, compared with 60 percent at the district level.

But those proportions change dramatically in high school. Only 41 percent of high school students stay in the region, compared with 55 percent districtwide. Almost 1,000 students from what the report labels the Greater Stockyards region go to selective enrollment schools outside the area.

A new high school for the South Loop, slated to open next school year, would also draw from the South Side, possibly exacerbating the drain of students to newer, better equipped schools outside the area. It would also shrink the attendance boundary of the area’s Tilden High School.

The report’s Greater Stockyards designation encompasses Back of the Yards High School, a Level 1-plus school; Kelly High School, which is Level 2; and Tilden, which is Level 2. The area also has one charter and one options high school. 

“Right now, we have more schools in our district than we did when we had almost 100,000 more students,” said Chief Education Officer LaTanya D. McDade at the hearing. “How do we deal with the decrease in enrollment?”

She also said the meetings were not connected to any plans for school closings, which have been one way Chicago has dealt with under-enrolled schools in minority neighborhoods. “We want to make sure that your voice is heard within your community.”

Hernandez would like to see investments that would boost the rating of schools in the area.

“Be more equitable. I don’t understand why we have so many Level 1 elementary schools but we have to look outside for a good high school for our kids. I don’t see that as fair,” Hernandez said.

Many Chinese-American parents in the area, meanwhile, opt to place their children in private schools because they offer more Chinese language options, community member Debbie Liu said.

Liu, who works with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, attended Healy Elementary on the South Side for her first few years of school, until her parents moved her to a private school that offered better language instruction.

“A lot of new immigrants are finding comfort in going to a school where they know there is bilingual staff and teachers,” Liu said, which many schools in the area don’t offer for Cantonese or Mandarin speakers. “I think CPS is moving in the right direction to solve this disparity issue, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

The region’s struggle with gun violence also means that academic issues sometimes come secondary to dealing with trauma, said Cheryl Flores, director of community schools for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

“In our community students are suffering from trauma so we can’t begin to think about addressing academic issues until we can figure out how to best support them,” she said.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had fewer guidance counselors per student than many other big cities — 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students.

Flores and other attendees Monday asked the school district to hire counselors who can deal with violence-related trauma, teachers who speak Chinese, and buildings that offer the latest in technology and facilities.

“If we were to invest in our schools and the facilities, I think CPS knows what works. We need supports for our diverse learners, high quality teachers for [English learners] and diverse learners, and we haven’t been doing that,” Flores said.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.