turnabout

Signaling waning enthusiasm for charters, Chicago officials move to deny all new applications

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
The operators behind Moving Everest, a charter school in Austin, wanted to open a second campus in 2019, but Chicago leaders are moving to deny that proposal.

Chicago Public Schools is recommending that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide that is making the city appear less hospitable to the independently operated public schools.

CEO Janice Jackson recommended in a news release Monday closing two underperforming charter schools, Kwame Nkrumah Charter School in West Roseland and Urban Prep West in University Village, both for poor academic and financial performance.

“The recommendations made today follow comprehensive reviews of school performance, applicant quality and need,” Jackson wrote in the statement, “and we believe it is in the best interest of our students to deny all new school applications this year and close the two poor performing charters who have failed to provide students the quality education they deserve.”

The surprising recommendation comes just weeks after the state elected a new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, who said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters. The issue has also surfaced in Chicago’s mayoral race, with candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declaring last month in a union-sponsored forum that she did not support opening new charters. Other candidates who attended the event did not say where they stand.

Eight charter operators had originally submitted proposals to open next school year, but five later withdrew. The three proposals left on the table included a charter middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood called Kemet Leadership Academy; a citywide high school operated by the established management group Intrinsic; and an elementary campus in Austin run by a small operator called Moving Everest. Moving Everest currently operates one other school in Austin.

At least two of the groups, the nonprofit organizers behind the Kemet proposal and the executive director of Moving Everest, said they plan to appeal the district’s decision to the state charter commission, which has the authority to reverse school board decisions in charter cases but rarely does so.

Political momentum has gathered to curb the authority of the commission, but legislators have not been able to gather enough votes.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” said Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director of Moving Everest, who said he was not surprised by the decision. “I know CPS well through the whole process at this school, and I think they look at what they are doing with an objective eye. But I also think there are other forces that come into play. Politics plays such a huge role in this, that it becomes the easy route, or the safe route, to deny.”

District staff recommended denying the Moving Everest proposal because district officials visiting the operator’s current campus found results “insufficient” and doubted the program’s ability to serve English language learners. That campus, which serves 444 students, is rated a Level 2-plus. The highest rating in Chicago schools is a 1-plus.

Donnie Brown, a project manager with Kemet Academy’s operator, Project Simeon 2000, said that Chicago has opened up new schools, including charters, in recent years, but they “have not impacted black boys and their grad rates and made any significant differences.”

The school district’s release said the Kemet proposal should be denied because the proposed curriculum “is incomplete and unproven” and the applicant had not “developed a clear instructional approach.” The recommendation also raised concerns about leadership capacity and finances. Project Simeon 2000 leaders appeared at board meetings earlier this year to make passionate pleas for their project.

Brown told Chalkbeat that parts of Kemet’s curriculum come from area colleges and universities: an accelerated literacy program developed with the University of Illinois and a math program from professors at Chicago State University. The model also stresses the value of male teachers and mentoring for improving outcomes for at-risk Chicago boys.

“Our model is to keep kids engaged and change the paradigm for success,” said Brown, who said he believes the model apparently challenged district thinking, since it was not something you can “pick up off the shelf and put in place.”

“We feel like all the pieces are in place, and we are ready to go,” he added. 

In a release, the district said location problems and an inability to to meet a need for high-quality education contributed to the recommendation against Intrinsic.

Enrollment has plunged in Chicago schools in recent years, and the district started the school year with 10,000 fewer students than the previous year.

In more frank language than usual, the district’s release Monday said that concerns about finances led to its recommendation to close Urban Prep West and Kwame Nkrumah.

The district cited Kwame Nkrumah’s Level 3 status — that’s the lowest rating in the district — for two years, financial and operational concerns and the school’s failure to follow a mandatory improvement plan.

“Additionally, the district’s site visits suggest that the school lacks the capacity to provide students a high quality education, and higher quality school options exist for students in the community.”

The district cited “financial concerns” as the reason why it was recommending the revocation of Urban Prep West’s charter. The school, which serves 213 students and is rated a Level 2, had not been able to get off its academic warning list, the release also said.

Its operator, Urban Prep, has garnered attention for its approach to education for young black men and runs two other campuses in the city that are also rated Level 2. But during a site visit to the University Village campus, the release said, “the school did not demonstrate a capacity to deliver a high quality education to students.”

This school year, the Chicago district oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools.

In October, Chicago issued warnings to five other charter schools and one contract school tagged as underperforming. The district announced Monday it will keep the contract school, Plato Learning Academy in South Austin, open next school year and will review it again next fall. This year, Plato merged two campuses in an effort to centralize operations.

The district believes it is appropriate to provide the school an opportunity to demonstrate significant progress under its new structure before it is considered for potential closure,” the release said.     

The Board of Education is set to vote on the recommendations Wednesday.

Yana Kunichoff contributed reporting to this story.

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”