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Week in Review: Where are the children?

PHOTO: Francesca Berardi

In a city that desperately needs quality schools, there are few things more confounding than knowing there are great programs in Detroit that can’t fill their seats. A story from our partner, the Teacher Project, this week highlights some of the reasons that low-income families struggle to find Head Start programs, even as the programs struggle to find enough kids.

“Where are the children? … I am becoming a walking billboard. I carry flyers everywhere.”

Laura Lefever, director, Children’s Center Head Start

That story builds on a Chalkbeat report from last spring about hundreds of Head Start vacancies caused by teacher shortages and the challenge of bringing classroom space up to code after years of deterioration and neglect.

Also this week, the debate around the Detroit charter school that critics say is using a “sneaky” enrollment method to create diversity went national when the Atlantic picked up our story on the school, generating heated comments from readers. Please take a look — and read on for the rest of the week’s headlines.

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District in transition

Bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes is leaving his Transition Manager role with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at the end of the month. He says he’s leaving the new school board with a balanced budget — but many challenges. Here’s what Rhodes and Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told the state legislature this week:

  • They’re holding twice-weekly training sessions for the new board members who were elected last month.
  • Detroiters could see more school corruption cases as the district’s Inspector General pursues “several matters … that may result in further criminal investigations and charges,” Rhodes said.
  • Rhodes is urging the new board to give Meriweather a permanent post: “She has done an extraordinary job,” he said. “Her insight into the educational process and what it takes to achieve success in an urban district is amazing.”
  • Rhodes called on the legislature to “continue to insist on prudence” in the district’s financial affairs but said: “I also urge it to consider that educating children who live in poverty … is more challenging and therefore more expensive.”
  • Meriweather says the $617 million the state spent this summer to create a new debt-free district has helped educators focus on improving education but warned that improvements will take time. “It will take us eight to 10 years to get there,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.” (That comment prompted a pro-charter school website to assert that charters are a better option.)

Division on DeVos

The impact of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, on Michigan schools got a closer look this week. Here’s what analysts here and across the country said:

  • The Free Press editorial page editor blames DeVos and her advocacy for the poor state of charter schools in Detroit and Michigan. “I’m certain she’ll try to make the nation’s charter landscape look more like the chaos we face here in Detroit, and less like it does in (higher performing) states like Tennessee or Massachusetts,” he wrote in a column that the Washington Post reprinted.
  • Bridge Magazine wrote that “DeVos’s dogged commitment to policies that have yielded, at best, mixed results in Michigan raises questions about what lessons she would take to Washington, as well as about her willingness to listen to viewpoints outside her free-market ideology.”
  • Education Week offered this timeline of DeVos’ influence on state education policy, and Politico called Michigan’s charter school results “so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”
  • But a DeVos supporter said criticism misstates Michigan’s charter record. And Crain’s says DeVos will “shake up the status quo,” though it added: “if choice expands with federal dollars, DeVos should heed some lessons from Michigan.”
  • NPR visited the successful DeVos-founded charter school that trains students to become pilots or pursue careers in aviation or engineering fields. “I think the word choice says it all,” the school’s principal said. “The philosophy of our school from Dick and Betsy, obviously, is to provide opportunities for all kids. So the word opportunity and choice to me go hand in hand.”

In other Detroit news:

  • The main Detroit school district is still hiring teachers, especially those certified in math, science, and languages.
  • A columnist praises the schools in the state-run recovery district but says signs of progress have come too late to save the district.
  • Michigan State University is expanding its educational offerings in Detroit with music classes and a training program that prepares educators to teach in an urban setting.
  • After a brief delay, the bribery trial of a former DPS principal began with testimony from an FBI agent who said the principal admitted to taking $40,000. The principal planned to tell jurors she used the money on her school, but a judge scratched that defense.
  • The heads of two major foundations appeared on TV to explain why they’re investing heavily in early childhood education in Detroit.
  • Students at a dozen local schools are participating in the national “Hour of Code” today.
  • Members of two Detroit high school football teams are learning the importance of “digital etiquette” to protect their reputations online.
  • Detroit’s main district threw a parade to celebrate the two city football teams that won state championships.
  • This Detroit high school won $20,000 worth of sports equipment.

Across the state:

  • Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday abruptly ended a push to pull $430 million out of the School Aid Fund to pay income tax refunds but said he might revive it later. “It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not the right time to do it,” his spokesman said. School advocates said the plan would cost schools nearly $300 per student (and a Free Press columnist called it “sketchy.”) Snyder’s office said his next budget will increase school funding.
  • New Michigan teachers and municipal workers will continue to get pensions after legislation to change the retirement system failed (for now) in Lansing. One columnist says lawmakers have declared “war on teachers,” while an advocate says the pension changes would have benefitted teachers.
  • The state teachers union has continued to lose members since right-to-work legislation made membership optional.
  • A statewide coalition of business, civil rights, and community groups is calling on state education officials to prioritize excellence, equity and transparency as they adapt state policies to conform with new federal education laws.
  • The state lieutenant governor called for schools to stop using restraint and seclusion to control children with special needs in non-emergency situations — a practice he called inhumane and barbaric. His call was supported by a columnist who described what happened to an 8-year-old boy with autism with who was locked in a padded room for hours.
  • A school counseling advocate urged parents and business leaders to call their legislators to back a bill that aims to improve college counseling for high schoolers.
  • Graduation rates in Michigan and across the country are expected to drop in coming years.
  • Parents at a suburban middle school dogged by racial incidents gathered for a “peace forum” to promote unity.
  • Calls from residents in a suburban community for a school board member to step down following offensive social media posts is getting national attention.
  • An elite suburban school has landed a $1 million donation.

More from Chalkbeat

  • New York City’s improvement goals for its most struggling schools are in many cases completely marginal.
  • Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has a message for principals: “It’s not all up to you.”
  • Donald Trump’s apparent backtracking on young adults who came to the country illegally as children is adding even more uncertainty for teachers in that category.
  • Indiana’s aggressive efforts to recruit more teachers aren’t paying off.
  • Meet Michael Johnston, the Colorado education policy architect who is eyeing the governor’s office.

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.”

behind the scenes

How Newark’s former schools chief used a ‘victory lap’ and privately paid consultants to cement his legacy

PHOTO: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Former Newark Superintendent Christopher Cerf's administration made use of private funds to help burnish their legacy and manage the transition back to local control.

By last fall, time was running out for Newark’s state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, and his allies.

Newark schools would soon return to local governance, likely ending an unprecedented era of change in the district fueled by $200 million from wealthy donors. So as the clock counted down, Cerf’s team once again turned to those deep-pocketed benefactors.

In October 2017, district officials wrote up a wish list that included $250,000 for help telling a “comprehensive narrative of success” about the policy changes Cerf had helped engineer, $200,000 to “solidify partnerships/alliances,” and $100,000 for Cerf to continue advising district leaders after he stepped down in February, according to an outline of potential requests to a major donor obtained by Chalkbeat.

Earlier that year, district staffers planned to the ask the donor to “sustain and build upon” the policy changes by helping grow the city’s charter-school sector, according to the agenda for a May 2017 phone call. The agenda set a goal for 45 percent of the city’s students to attend charter schools — up from about one-third of students last school year.

It’s unclear exactly how much of the requested funding was eventually granted. But in the months leading up to Newark’s return to local control, private dollars were used to pay consultants to help with the transition and to fund a campaign touting the success of the policy changes.

The wish list and other district documents detailing that spending, which Chalkbeat obtained, shed new light on the degree to which the Cerf administration relied on private money to support its efforts until the day the district reverted to local control on Feb. 1 — and how donors helped extend the reformers’ influence even after they left.

It’s common for outgoing administrations to highlight their accomplishments. But the district’s close coordination with donors, whose contributions often evade public scrutiny, raises ongoing questions about transparency and private influence over public schools, said Domingo Morel, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Newark who has written about state takeovers of urban school districts.

“It’s actors behind the scenes trying to shape public education without any role for the public,” he said.

The main donor that district officials targeted in the October 2017 wish list and the May 2017 call was the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy created by the billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan. Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark schools in 2010 attracted a matching amount from other donors and jump-started the district overhaul, which included a redesigned teachers contract, new charter schools, and the shuttering of low-performing schools.

Most of the money flowed through the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a nonprofit that manages charitable funds and has overseen the Zuckerberg money since 2016. District officials determined how the foundation money was spent, but donors still had to sign off, people familiar with the foundation said. The arrangement allowed consultants to do work for the district without being publicly vetted.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Cerf insisted that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, often called CZI, did not shape district policy; instead, district officials sought funding for projects they had developed. (Chalkbeat receives some funding from CZI.)

He said he had never seen the May or October 2017 documents, which he said were produced by “lower-level” staffers without his input. In particular, he said he had not seen or endorsed the charter-school enrollment goal, and pointed out that he has advocated for the closure of low-performing charter schools.

He said the funding wish list was only a draft, adding that proposals are often tailored to appeal to donors’ interests but do not always match how grants are actually spent. For instance, he said some of the $200,000 requested for “partnerships/alliances” were used for internships for high school students and events to celebrate student and faculty achievements.

It’s unclear which of the potential requests CZI ultimately received and approved. A CZI spokesman said the group provided funding to support “a smooth transition back to local control,” but added that the requests it granted differed from those on the October 2017 wish list.

Cerf said he did receive some philanthropic money to continue supporting the district after he resigned as superintendent on Feb. 1, though he declined to say how much. A spokeswoman for the Prudential Foundation, which the October 2017 document said had agreed to fund a $100,000 matching grant for Cerf’s services, said it did not actually provide that grant.

Cerf said his services included advising district officials who asked for his input, particularly on budget matters, and fundraising for education projects. He did not receive any public dollars for that work, he added. (He also volunteered to help craft the education portion of the city’s bid for Amazon to build a new headquarters in Newark, he said.)

Cerf also defended the use of private funds for district projects, which is common in large urban districts like Newark, which advocates say gets too little public money. He said the private investments helped with the “magnificently complicated” task of transferring power from the state, which seized control of the district in 1995, back to Newark’s school board.

“The number one job during my tenure was to effect a smooth and efficient transition from state to local control,” Cerf said. “I’m very proud that we were able to do that.”

By the time Cerf was appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2015 to take over as Newark schools chief, the district had become a case study in ambitious reform gone awry.

Parents, students, and the Newark Teachers Union had joined forces against the school closures and staff layoffs, and the superintendent who had pushed the changes, Cami Anderson, had resigned. The troubled reform efforts were detailed in a critically acclaimed book by journalist Dale Russakoff, published just as Cerf became superintendent.

Cerf, a former state education commissioner who had been an architect of Newark’s overhaul, was determined to reverse this “narrative of failure,” as he told the journal Education Next in 2016. He was motivated by signs of progress, such as the district’s rising graduation rate and falling suspension rate. But he also understood that when the district reverted to local control, his successor could dismantle policies he had pushed for, such as a single enrollment system for district and charter schools.

So, in the final months of state control, Cerf’s team planned a public campaign to promote the reforms — an effort that one district memo dubbed a “victory lap.” The campaign would help justify the huge sum spent on the changes, and make it harder for the next administration to defend scraping them.

Leftover funds from the $200 million that Zuckerberg and other donors had provided for the reforms were used to hire a public-relations firm and to pay a consultant to review a study by independent researchers of the district’s reforms.

The consultant, Jesse Margolis, was paid to review “multiple drafts” of a study by Harvard University researchers on the impact of the Newark overhaul on student performance and “suggest improvements,” according to a work description that said Margolis would be paid $1,000 per day for his services. (He also conducted his own analysis of student progress.)

The final Harvard report, which found mixed results, disclosed that CZI had paid for the study and that Margolis and a district official had reviewed drafts of the report.

Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist and education professor who led the study, said in an email that it is standard practice for his team to show districts drafts so they can catch any errors in the reports’ policy descriptions, make sure student privacy is not violated, and comment on his team’s methods and findings. He added that his team retains “the right to present the final results as we choose.”

Last year, another $130,000 from the remaining Zuckerberg funds was used to pay for an analysis of the district’s universal enrollment system — one of the most controversial policy changes, which some board members have said they want to eliminate. The analysis was conducted by Margolis and researchers from Columbia University’s Center for Public Research and Leadership with funds from the Community Foundation of New Jersey.

The enrollment study was published in April, just as some school board members — now back in charge of the district — were reviewing the system, called Newark Enrolls. The study was mostly positive. A Columbia press release said the report found that Newark Enrolls “increased choice while respecting the importance of community,” and quoted Margolis calling the system a model for other districts looking to better integrate their students.

Margolis told Chalkbeat that the district had asked for the enrollment study — a common practice for districts seeking external analyses of their policies. But he insisted that he and the Columbia researchers maintained “total editorial control” over the report.

“We conducted this as objectively and rigorously as one possibly could,” he said. (He added that the $1,000 per day he was paid to review the Harvard study is lower than his normal consulting rate.)

Other consultants — some with longstanding ties to Cerf — were paid with Zuckerberg money to help the district with work related to the return to local control.

The October 2017 wish list sought $168,000 for De’Shawn Wright, an advisor to former-Mayor Cory Booker who co-founded the Newark Charter School Fund, to provide “interim transition support” from February to July. Wright had served as Cerf’s chief of staff, but because he was paid with private money, the amount and source of his salary were not publicly disclosed — even to members of the school board, according to reporting by journalist Bob Braun. According to a district document tracking private grants, Wright’s consulting firm, Keystone Consulting, was paid $336,000 for his services from February 2017 to January 2018.

Former state education commissioner David Hespe, through his consulting firm Effective Education Solutions, was set to receive $52,000 in private money from December 2016 to January 2018 for providing “critical transition-related activities” to the district, according to district documents. (Braun has also previously reported on Hespe’s consulting work for the district.)

As a consultant, Hespe last year helped Cerf administration officials craft the state guidelines that Newark’s school board must now adhere to in order to keep control of the schools, other documents show.

In addition, an education consulting firm called Kitamba, Inc. received $25,000 per month for nine months beginning in May 2017 to help with the transition to local control and other “strategic support,” according to district documents. The $225,000 in services included producing an “operating manual” for incoming district leaders that would describe their main responsibilities and big issues they would face, such as teacher shortages in particular areas. The documents said the manual would fit in with the district’s “legacy planning.”

Kitamba’s CEO is Rajeev Bajaj. Bajaj was involved with Cerf in the founding of a consultancy, Global Education Advisors, that the city hired in 2010 using private funds, the Star-Ledger has reported. The firm created a controversial plan calling for school closures and new charter schools.

Wright, Hespe, and Bajaj did not respond to requests for comment.

Dakarai Aarons, a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative spokesman, said the operating manual was one of the transition-related projects that the foundation funded.

“As part of our commitment to Newark’s students and educators, we provided funding to meet emerging community needs identified by the district to ensure a smooth transition to local control,” Aarons said in a statement, adding that the goal was to sustain academic gains made over the past eight years.

Aarons would not say whether the district proposals it funded included a $250,000 contract for a communications firm to help develop the “comprehensive narrative of success” about the Newark reforms referenced in the district’s October 2017 wish list. A spokeswoman for the communications firm, GMMB, said she could not confirm whether the firm did work for the district.

If CZI did fund such a campaign, it would be in line with a Zuckerberg-funded report from 2015 that sought to draw lessons from the first years of the Newark overhaul.

“Leaders need to approach engagement like a campaign, with sophisticated public relations strategies designed to increase support for change, neutralize opponents, and capitalize on early wins to build momentum for what’s next,” the report advised. “Funders of reform efforts may sometimes shrink from bankrolling such a campaign, but they do so at the risk of weakening the prospects for success.”