Accountability & paperwork

Rural paperwork relief bill advances; teacher incentive bill does not

A measure to give some small rural districts a bit of a break on state education paperwork won 12-0 approval Monday from the House Education Committee.

The committee also approved a bill that would make cyber bullying of young people a separate crime in the state law books. And the panel rejected a proposed $4 million pilot program that would have provided extra pay to highly qualified teachers who worked in low-performing schools.

The rural flexibility measure, House Bill 14-1204, was considerably more modest than rural districts would have liked, and the bill was trimmed down from the version originally introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a retired rural superintendent.

Rural superintendents, who often are the only administrators in their districts, “are focused more on reporting than on student achievement,” said Paula Stephenson, representing the Colorado Rural Caucus and the Colorado BOCES Association. She claimed there are 500-550 reports a year that districts must submit to the Colorado Department of Education.

The amended version of Wilson’s bill would provide two main benefits to districts with fewer than 1,000 students and defined as rural by CDE, based on remoteness from population centers.

First, districts rated as accredited or accredited with distinction would have to submit performance plans only every two years, instead of the annual plans required now. Just over 100 districts meet the small-and-rural definition. About 70 of those districts would be eligible, according to a Chalkbeat Colorado review of accreditation status.

Second, the bill would allow such districts to work with BOCES to obtain the services of literacy specialists for implementation of the READ Act, the state’s early-literacy law.

The paperwork requirements of state accountability law and READ Act mandates have been a sore point for small districts. Superintendent Paul McCarty of the 250-student Hanover district east of Colorado Springs testified that he has only four or five students who need the special services required by the literacy and gets only $4,300 in state reimbursement. He has no reading intervention specialists on his staff of fewer than 20 teachers.

Hopes by Wilson and the rural caucus to ease other paperwork requirements and even give rural districts access to the kinds of waivers enjoyed by charters schools fell by the wayside before Monday’s meeting because they conflict with federal requirements or faced opposition.

Strong support for cyber bulling bill

Consideration of House Bill 14-1131 consumed nearly 2 ½ hours of the committee’s four-hour session Monday.

The measure is fairly simple – it would establish cyber bullying of a minor as a specific misdemeanor in state law. The measure brought sometimes-emotional testimony from a long list of witnesses.

“Some kids — you’ve heard the terrible stories — even commit suicide” because of cyber bullying,” said sponsor Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. “Now is the time for state of Colorado to add cyber bullying to the criminal code.”

Ashley Berry, a Littleton student who’s become an anti-bullying activist, said, “I went into complete depression” at one point because of cyber bullying.

It’s possible but not particularly easy to prosecute cyber bullying under current harassment and stalking laws, legal experts indicated, saying a specific new law will be more useful for prosecutors.

“It give me an extra tool, and a tool that I don’t have right now,” said Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler. He said a cyber bullying law also would give prosecutors leverage to put juvenile offenders into diversion programs.

The bill passed 12-0

Teacher incentives bill fails the test

The one measure that didn’t make it out of House Education Monday was House Bill 14-1262.

The proposed pilot program would have provided stipends of between $3,000 and $12,000 a year to highly effective teachers who worked in low-performing schools. The $4 million program would have provided grants to about 100 teachers over four years.

The measure had bipartisan sponsorship (one Democrat and 10 Republicans) but was the brainchild of Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton. The bill was backed by Colorado Succeeds, the business-oriented advocacy group, and the Colorado Children’s Campaign. It was partly inspired by a 2013 study by Mathematica Policy Research (more details on that report here).

Lobbyists for the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Education Association opposed the bill, saying the money could be better spent on basic school support and that the bill is premature because the state’s teacher evaluation system isn’t fully rolled out.

Some committee Democrats went out of their way to compliment Priola’s effort. “While I support what you’re trying to do … I just haven’t heard the compelling evidence that this is the right strategy,” said Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, committee chair.

Majority Democrats killed the bill on a 7-6 vote.

Big speeches

Emanuel tries to shore up education legacy in final budget address

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel choked up twice during his final budget address to Chicago’s City Council Wednesday morning: once when he talked about his wife, Amy Rule, and the other when he read aloud a letter from a John Marshall High School senior who lives on Chicago’s West Side.

The address highlighted millions he wants to spend to expand after-school programming, middle school mentoring, and a summer jobs initiative for Chicago teens. It also signaled loud and clear how Emanuel views his legacy: as the mayor who took the reins when the city faced a $600 million deficit and then righted Chicago’s fiscal ship, while pushing for the expansion of programs that serve public schools and children.

In the speech, he ticked off such accomplishments as expanding kindergarten citywide from a half- to a full-day, extending the city’s school day, increasing the graduation rate to a record 78.2 percent up from 57 percent when he took office in 2011, and paving the path for universal pre-kindergarten, though that initiative is still in the early stages.

“When you step back and look at the arc of what we’ve done in the past seven years, and take a wide lens view, from free pre-K to free community college, from Safe Passage to mentors to more tutors in our neighborhood libraries … at end of day, it is really no different than what Amy and I, or you and your partner, would do for your own children,” he said.

Emanuel, the former congressman and chief of staff for President Barack Obama who announced on the first day of school in September that he won’t be running for re-election, acknowledged that shoring up civic finances isn’t glitzy work — not like, say, plopping a major park in the middle of downtown, as his predecessor Richard M. Daley did by opening Millennium Park.

But, said Emanuel, “one thing I’ve learned in the past 24 years in politics is that they don’t build statues for people who restore fiscal stability.”

Outside of the longer school day and school year, the mayor stressed his work expanding programming for children — particularly teenagers — after school and in summers as an antidote to the city’s troubling violence that did not abate in his term. Amid a $10.7 billion budget plan that includes a chunk of new tax-increment finance dollars that will go toward schools, the new budget lays out $500,000 more funding for his signature Summer Jobs program, bringing projected total spending on that up to $18 million in 2019.

He also set aside $1 million for his wife’s Working on Womanhood mentoring program that currently serves 500 women and girls, $1 million more for the after-school program After School Matters, and more money for free dental services at Chicago Public Schools and trauma-informed therapy programs.

The mayor’s address had barely ended when the Chicago Teachers Union sent an email with the subject line “No victory lap for this failed mayor.” It pointed to blemishes on Emanuel’s education record, from closing 50 schools in 2013 to systemic failings in the city’s special education program — an issue that now has Chicago Public Schools under the watchful eye of a state monitor.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey called on the city’s next mayor to restore money to mental health clinics and social services, fund smaller class sizes, broaden a “sustainable schools” program that partners community agencies with languishing neighborhood schools, and invest in more social workers, psychologists, nurses, librarians, and teachers’ assistants.

In his address, Emanuel did not talk about some of the tough decisions the school district had to make during tough budget years, such as the school closings or widespread teacher layoffs that topped 2,000 that same year. 

He did, however, stress his philosophy that investments in children must extend beyond the typical school day. In the letter from the Marshall High School senior, the teen wrote that, until his freshman year of high school, “I never saw or met any males like me who lead successful lives.” The letter went on to praise the nonprofit Becoming A Man, a male mentoring program that has expanded among Chicago schools during Emanuel’s tenure.

The teen intends to attend Mississippi Valley State University next fall, the mayor said. When Emanuel pointed out the young man and his Becoming A Man program mentor in the City Council chambers, many in attendance gave them a standing ovation.



public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School