CN June 4, 2015

In a week that saw the Mayor summarily dismiss four of his CPS Board members and replace them with different people from similar backgrounds, and, oh, yes, the resignation of his hand-picked Schools CEO, there wasn’t a lot of good news. Except maybe the steadily falling dropout rates a and rising graduation numbers. But now that’s being called into question, too.

WBEZ’s Becky Vevea has been studying the numbers for weeks now, and has discovered that both the dropout and graduation rates have been favorably distorted by a collection of new “alternative” schools that have come into the picture recently. In some cases, these are small, often storefront operations that use on-line approaches to quickly get students who would otherwise be considered dropouts a high-school diploma. Further, when that student “graduates”, it’s counted with the people who really did graduate from the original home school. So large numbers of what would have been counted as dropouts now count as graduates of the very school from which they dropped out.

“They’ve been counting those graduates since about 2007,” Vevea tells us. “And with the Mayor’s expansion of alternative schools, of course, you’re going to get more graduates out of those alternative schools, you’re going to get more graduates over all, and they’re gonna count in the same  number.”

There’s also another factor distorting the dropout/graduation equation.

“The Inspector General report from earlier this year isolated a high school that was coding dropouts who were going to a GED program as ‘moved to Mexico'”, Vevea says. And her new reporting shows that the practice is more pervasive than originally thought.

“We have found that is not a single high-school problem, but that it is a wide-spread problem, and that there are high schools across the city that are, for whatever reason, miscoding dropouts. And those kids are simply disappearing from the calculation,” she tells us.

“Statistical gerrymandering”. That’s what Community Media Workshop’s (and host of Live from the Heartland’s) Thom Clark calls it.  “It’s similar to the homicide rate, where, if you reclassify an apparent murder to something else, then your murder rate drops,” he says.

But, Vevea says, despite all the manipulation of the statistics, the fact is that graduation rates for CPS high school actually are going up.

“We said, OK, let’s put the kids back in that should be in, and remove the kids that went to GED or whatnot, and it still ticks upward. It’s just not this crazy exponential growth you’ve seen in the last three years. You see smaller, incremental progress. There is improvement happening, and there are high schools all across the city that aren’t doing this, but there are a lot that are. I think it’s driven, frankly, by a lot of the pressure that’s placed on schools to make these numbers better.”

Mayor Emanuel swapped out four of his Board members this week, and the new members are remarkable for their similarity to the members they replaced. A banker replaces a banker, one former principal replaces another. Even two retired University chiefs switch places.

“They were kind of interchangeable parts,” explains Clark, “And I think they were picked to be “yes” votes. That’s who the Mayor wants on his Board. At least one of the people who was dismissed was not a guaranteed yes vote – a respected educator, Carlos Azcoitia…he was a studied educator who tended to look at issues presented to the board, and didn’t always vote lock-step with the rest of the board.”

“The bigger issue is the wide-spread support for an elected school board,” he continues, “and this kind of decision this week I think drives that. I’m actually neutral about whether the elected board is the right way to go. I’m in the camp that thinks a hybrid system might be better, because these are wonderful folks who got picked but I think we could do better. If it were a little bit more open process – that I know some folks are afraid of becoming too political – well, it’s awfully political now. There’s one guy on the fifth floor making decisions. Given what the education system faces in this city, we need to open that up a little bit more. ”

And Vevea injects a harsh dose of reality for this new Board.

“What’s interesting is that the July meeting is typically when the budget gets approved,” she says. “Unless they move that back to the August meeting, which would be a week before schools open. This new board – that could be their first vote.”

And Clark tells us about  the “Say No to Noble” movement that’s part of several push-backs happening against charter expansion on Chicago’s north side. Eight Local School Councils have voted against a charter school expansion there.

“There is in Rogers Park an effort on the part of community leaders and parents to say to CPS – because it’s not clear how these decisions get made any more – that we think, for a system that’s so strapped for money and closed fifty school two years ago because of over-capacity, we don’t have a capacity issue in Rogers Park,” he explains. “A fourth high school will take away from the other high schools that are there, and we’re very afraid of  Sullivan, the neighborhood public school, losing significant enrollment such that it could get closed.”

There isn’t any question that Noble Street will open a new high  school, Vevea points out. The Board has already acted.

“That campus has already been approved,” she reports. “And all we’re debating now is where we’re going to put it. And there are valid arguments. Location is a valuable marketing tool. You walk by and think, what’s going on in that school? A parent might be interested in it and be more interested in that new school than in Sullivan that’s trying to keep up its reputation…but they will draw students from somewhere.”

Clark argues that there’s a financial disparity between “classic” schools and charter schools.

“Now that the Board budgets on a per-pupil basis,” he claims, “If you have competing schools to give parents choice, someone’s gonna pay. Typically, the neighborhood school is the one that suffers enrollment issues, and therefore budget issues when the new guy in town comes in. It typically has a fixed-up building, some additional corporate support, independent fundraising – a lot more things at least on the front end to attract parents.”

But in a way, the charters are creating a kind of marketplace competition.

“On the north side principals are speaking out and saying, look, we’re trying to attract families,” Vevea says. “We have tons of room in our buildings. we want families to stay in the city and use those buildings. Use what’s sitting in the neighborhood. And the City isn’t helping the charter schools they’ve already approved figure out, OK, maybe there’s another location in an area where there is more demand, or some overcrowding. And there’s not really any conversation.”

So the new Board has to assemble, in a couple of weeks, a budget that right now is said to be about a billion dollars away from balance (as it so often is about this time of year). By law, they’ll cobble something together, and nobody knows what that budget document will contain. But Vevea assures us that there’s one thing we already know.

“All schools will see their funding depreciated this year.”




About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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