A new approach

Denver’s school board is taking a break from its school closure policy

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post
A teacher returns test scores to her class at Lake International School in Denver in 2012.

The Denver school board will hit pause this year on a controversial policy that calls for closing low-performing schools, as board members embark on a citywide listening tour that has the potential to change how the district defines school success.

The pause would be in effect for the 2018-19 school year. It would impact schools with chronically low test scores. The district has sought to replace such schools with new ones deemed more likely to get kids reading and doing math on grade-level – a policy that has generated significant pushback and even shouts of “shame!” at board meetings.

Instead of facing closure or replacement, low-performing schools this year would be required to give the board “written and verbal reports regarding their ongoing or proposed improvement strategies,” according to a memo written by board member Lisa Flores and district official Jennifer Holladay, who oversees the department that makes school closure recommendations.

The district would provide the board with information about the school’s academics, culture, and operations, and the board would use it “to exercise oversight of struggling schools’ improvement plans and understand the needed supports, and make decisions to move forward with those plans or choose an alternate path,” according to a written presentation.

School closure isn’t entirely off the table. That “alternate path” could be closure – or, more likely, consolidation with another school – if a low-performing school also has dwindling student enrollment, Flores said.

At a school board work session Monday night, Flores pitched the new approach as a “third way” – a middle ground between the strict school closure policy in place for the past two years and the inconsistent way the district previously dealt with struggling schools.

The board would use the “third way” approach as it gathers community feedback on its planned listening tour about what student success looks like, how the district should define a “quality school,” and how it should respond when schools miss the mark.

Board members did not take a formal vote on it, but they informally agreed to move forward. The board’s policy of intervening when schools continue to struggle despite extra help and district funding would remain in place, but the consequences would be softened.

“I see this as a real opportunity for DPS to take a good intent here, which is really about serving kids, and take it to the next iteration, where we can do better for our communities,” board president Anne Rowe said. She said that while the strict policy was well meaning, it had unintended consequences that “can be really, really painful.”

Critics of the district’s policy have said closing a school is disruptive and communicates to students and teachers that they’re not good enough. Those critics are gaining political power. Last year, Denver voters elected one new school board member, Carrie Olson, who opposed the policy and two who questioned how it was being carried out.

Other board members have defended the policy by saying the district can’t let students languish in schools that aren’t working. The district is falling short of ambitious goals it set to improve academic achievement by 2020. It’s notable that Flores, the board member who proposed the new approach, has been a supporter of the district’s accountability policy.

Van Schoales, CEO of the education advocacy organization A Plus Colorado, which has supported the district’s school improvement efforts, is wary of the new approach.

“This sounds as if they’re going to say that kids can sit for another year in schools … not supporting them to read or write, which I think is unfortunate,” Schoales said. “I’m very concerned that they’re just kicking the can down the road.”

Denver Public Schools is seen as a national leader when it comes to holding schools accountable, a key part of what’s known as the “portfolio strategy” of managing both district-run and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed. Before formalizing the current policy, the district closed or replaced struggling schools of both types, but without consistent criteria for when to do so. That led to complaints it was playing favorites.

In an effort to be more fair, the school board in 2015 adopted a policy called the “school performance compact.” It says the district should “promptly intervene” when struggling schools met certain criteria. The criteria were developed in a set of guidelines separate from the policy, and they have changed over the past two years.

Last year’s criteria were:

  • If a school was rated “red,” the lowest of the district’s ratings, two years in a row; or
  • If a school was rated “red” in the most recent year and either “red” or “orange,” the second-lowest rating, in the two preceding years; and
  • If a school’s students did not show enough academic progress on the most recent state tests, the school would be subject to closure or “restart,” meaning the school could get a new operator or a new academic model.

Only one school met those criteria last year: Cesar Chavez Academy, a K-8 charter school in northwest Denver. In a move that avoided a public battle, Cesar Chavez struck a deal with a more successful charter school, Rocky Mountain Prep, to take over its building and give enrollment preference to its students. Cesar Chavez shut its doors at the end of last month.

Three district-run elementary schools met the criteria the first year the policy was in effect in 2016: John Amesse, Greenlee, and Gilpin Montessori. Because of Gilpin’s declining enrollment, the school board voted to close it at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

The board decided to “restart” John Amesse and Greenlee, which both had healthy enrollments despite years of poor test scores. With input from the community, the school board chose new academic programs for both schools. Those programs will start this fall.

But the 2016 decisions were fraught with controversy. Parents at Gilpin accused the district of meddling with the school’s scores to seal its fate, a claim the district denied. A community process to pick new programs at John Amesse and Greenlee didn’t go as planned.

Flores and Holladay cited those and other issues in their memo. The memo says that while having strict criteria for when to close schools is helpful because the decisions can no longer come as a surprise to parents and teachers, such “bright-line rules” also have downsides.

“School staff and community members often did not feel heard about positive aspects of their schools,” the memo says, “and some board members, including Ms. Flores, felt restrained – unable to exercise judgment within these difficult decisions.”

The memo also says the policy put “significant additional pressure” on the district’s color-coded school rating system, which came under fire from the community this year on multiple fronts. The ratings – called the “school performance framework,” or SPF, ratings – are largely based on state test scores. The district typically releases school ratings each fall.

Nine low-rated schools are listed in the memo as potentially eligible for closure or restart in 2018-19 under the criteria the board is now set to disregard this year. Depending on their ratings this year, the nine schools could go through the new process outlined in the memo.

They are:

A tenth school, Venture Prep High School, was also potentially eligible, according to the memo. But Venture Prep, a charter school, decided on its own to close at the end of this school year after not attracting enough students for next year.

At its work session Monday night, the school board discussed picking two of its seven members to work with district staff to develop a “data dashboard” for every “red” school.

Board members would help determine which data – about a school’s academic progress, for example, or its culture – would be included in the dashboard. The board would then use that data to make decisions about the school’s future and its proposed improvement plan.

The idea, Flores said, is that “we would have our ‘red’ schools … come and present to the board on their path forward.” Those presentations, along with the data from the dashboard, would allow the board to “engage with each of those schools about what comes next,” she said.

As for how the policy would be carried out beyond next year, Flores told her fellow board members she expects the feedback they hear on their listening tour “is going to be important in informing what the ‘school performance compact’ looks like in the future.”

By the numbers

5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

PHOTO: (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
With wife Amy Rule by his side, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 he will not seek a third term in office at a press conference on the 5th floor at City Hall in Chicago.

Faced with an alarming report that lays bare shrinking enrollment and racial inequity, Chicago Public Schools must wrestle with some tough decisions. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek re-election means he won’t be the one addressing those issues for much longer.

Here are five questions raised by the report that Emanuel’s successor faces:

What about all those empty seats?

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools
Historical enrollment and projections at Chicago Public Schools.

The Annual Regional Analysis, compiled by the school district and Kids First Chicago, projects plummeting enrollment to worsen in coming years. The district has more than 145,000 unfilled seats. By 2021 that gap could be more than 156,000 seats.

The next mayor will have to wrestle with that dismal trend just as Emanuel did in his first term, when he pushed the unpopular decision to shutter 50 schools. That move, research shows, exacted a heavy psychological toll on communities and hurt students’ academic achievement, especially in math. Yet, five years after the closings, the district still faces a massive surplus of classroom space, and is closing high schools in Englewood.

Some have argued that the district should change how it calculates space utilization at schools. They say the formula assumes an average class size of 30, and doesn’t adequately account for needs such as special education.

Community members have also called for an end to school closings, and said the city should consider creative solutions such as sharing space with social service agencies, redrawing attendance boundaries, and investing in academic programs to attract more students.

What can the city do to make neighborhood schools more attractive?

The analysis indicates that many families are skipping their neighborhood schools, including top-rated ones, for schools outside their area. Many schools suffer from low enrollment, and reside in communities where residents have cried out for more investments in neighborhood schools.

Kids First CEO Daniel Anello said the remedy should be to “improve quality and tell the community over and over again once you have.”

“There’s disparities terms of access and disparities in quality that need to be addressed,” he said. “The benefit of having a regional analysis is that people can see where those disparities are, and think about how we should invest in specific places to ensure the families there have access to high-quality options.”

Austin resident Ronald Lawless, who works as a community organizer and education consultant, was baffled to see that the West Side region, which includes Austin, has nearly 30,000 unfilled seats, about one in three of them at top-rated schools. Yet less than 40 percent of kids in the community attend their zoned neighborhood school. He said the district must combat stigma and misinformation that keeps people from neighborhood schools.

How can Chicago dig beyond school ratings to evaluate schools?

The analysis leans heavily on the annual school ratings policy.  But no rating system can tell the whole story about school quality — and Chicago’s ratings rely primarily on standardized test scores and attendance, metrics that often reflect the socioeconomic makeup of the areas from which schools draw their students.

If the new mayor’s administration continues current practice, it will undoubtedly run into opposition from community groups that have been vocal about what they see as shortcomings.

Alexios Rosario-Moore, research and policy associate at the community group Generation All, said, “What we need is a qualitative assessment that involves universities, researchers, non-profit organizations and communities to determine what kind of programming that community needs.”

Anello of Kids First said no measure is perfect, but that Chicago’s school rating approach stacks up favorably against other districts. Yet, he conceded that the ratings don’t fully flesh out what it’s like in classrooms, and that “we can always be working to make it a better measure.”

 

 

How does school choice intersect with transportation?

For better or for worse, the analysis showed that more and more students are attending choice schools, meaning buildings outside their assigned attendance area.

Some students have to travel far for the academic programs and high-quality schools they want, especially those coming from high-poverty neighborhoods and communities of color.

Elementary students travel 1.5 miles on average, but the average distance to school for elementary students is highest (2.6 miles) in the Greater Stony Island region, which includes far South Side neighborhoods like Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore.

High school students travel 3.6 miles on average, but high schoolers in the Greater Stony Island area commute and average of 5 miles, tied for the longest community with the Far Southwest Side region that includes the Beverly and Morgan Park community areas.

Raise Your Hand spokeswoman Jennie Biggs said, “a choice-based system in a large, urban district that lacks universal, free transportation isn’t even providing the same set of choices to all kids.”

And Rosario-Moore of Generation All said he finds it surprising “that in a city so oriented around a school choice model that public transportation is not free to all students.”

How can Chicago better engage its rich arts community through public schools?

Chicago doesn’t offer its highly-desirable fine arts programs equitably across the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown. Ingenuity Executive Director Paul Sznewajs praised Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson for investments in the arts and partnerships with cultural institutions and agencies, but said Chicago’s next mayor should do a better job of tapping into the city’s rich arts community.

He said that the Annual Regional Analysis focuses more narrowly on “a small sliver of arts in schools,” because it identifies available seats in what amounts to fine arts-focused magnet schools, of which he said there are probably 50-60 in the city.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available to elementary school students in each “planning area.”

But even if the school district were to double the number of arts magnet schools, Sznewajs said it must address equity, “so that when students walk into school, whether in Englewood or Ravenswood, that child can expect to the get the same things when it comes to the arts.”

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The Kids First Chicago website

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years to about 350,000. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively 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.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

Secret Report
The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Kenwood, Hyde Park, Washington Park and Bronzeville. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale, in the Far Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park, and in the Northwest Side area, home to neighborhoods like West Ridge and Albany Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white and affluent Greater Lincoln Park area, which includes the Near North Side, Lakeview, and Lincoln Park. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards, and in the mostly black and Latino community of Ashburn. All of those communities are in the South Side planning region.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island region, which includes far South Side neighborhoods like Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Shore. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.