long live p.e.

DPS approves new graduation requirements that continue to mandate P.E. and art

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
A McGlone Elementary student testifies in favor of expanding the school.

The class of 2021 will be the first to abide by new high school graduation requirements approved Thursday night by the Denver school board that mandate students demonstrate proficiency in English and math in addition to earning a certain number of credits.

The board also passed several other measures at Thursday’s well-attended meeting, including the expansion of a rising turnaround school in far northeast Denver and the termination of more than 40 teachers who fell short of performance expectations.

Denver Public Schools will continue to require high school students take a year of physical education and a year of arts-based or career and technical education classes after public outcry caused the district to scrap a recommendation to eliminate those requirements.

Board members said they never meant to diminish physical education. In proposing to make electives optional, they said their intent was to allow students to choose what interests them.

“Even though this got a little messy, sometimes when things get messy, that’s when we can do a great job,” said board president Anne Rowe. “And I think we can.”

The new graduation criteria will require students take four years each of English and math, three years each of science and social studies, one year each of physical education and art or career and technical education, and eight electives. That’s similar to the current criteria.

What’s new is that students will also have to demonstrate “college and career readiness” in English and math to graduate. There are 11 different ways they can do that, from earning a C or better in a concurrent enrollment college-level class to completing a project.

Students will also be required to make Individual Career and Academic Plans, or ICAPs. The plans are partly meant to help them map out the courses they will take.

DPS is one of many districts revising its graduation requirements to match Colorado’s first uniform set of expectations for earning a diploma. The shift toward homogeneity grew out of a 2008 education reform law called the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, or CAP4K, although districts still have considerable leeway in determining the specifics of their requirements.

School expansion

McGlone Elementary in far northeast Denver is set to begin serving sixth graders next year as part of a three-year expansion unanimously approved by the board.

The school, which currently houses preschool through fifth grade, will eventually add seventh and eighth grade, too. That will fulfill a district need for up to 270 more middle school seats in that region of the city, where a growing population has led to crowded schools.

Dozens of McGlone teachers, students, their parents and a few of their baby siblings packed the board meeting, filling the chairs and standing around the edges of the gymnasium. They wore red T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s new name — McGlone Academy — and its de facto mantra: “#HappyKidsLearnMore with the #McGloneFamily.”

Several students testified in favor of the expansion. A first-grade girl wearing bows in her pigtails, bobby socks and shiny black shoes stood on a chair so she could reach the microphone, reading a statement full of words like “narrative” and “growth” without a hiccup.

“We are Montbello,” she said. “We are the McGlone family.”

Added fifth-grader Janneyla Martinez, “McGlone should have a middle school because the longer we’re here, the stronger we will become.”

Board members were enthusiastic about the plan.

“You are why I’m here,” said new member Rachele Espiritu, who represents northeast Denver. “I’m proud to be wearing a red shirt with you.”

While the school will squeeze the 60 additional sixth graders into its current building next year, it will need additional space to serve seventh and eighth graders. The board committed to providing that space, which the district estimated could cost $6.5 million to build.

Teacher terminations

The board also voted unanimously to terminate the contracts of 141 probationary teachers who work at district-run schools. Probationary teachers have fewer than three years of being rated effective — essentially, they don’t have tenure.

Chief Human Resources Officer Debbie Hearty told the board about two-thirds of the 141 teachers were being terminated because of factors such as declining student enrollment at their schools, which can result in the schools needing fewer teachers next year.

Even though those teachers’ contracts must be formally non-renewed, Hearty said the district is “actively supporting them to find new positions in DPS.” She noted she expects many will.

However, she said 43 of the teachers were terminated because they did not meet performance expectations, despite what she described as “significant support.”

Two teachers whose contracts were not renewed addressed the board, expressing concern with the way they were rated and questioning the terminations in light of DPS’s teacher turnover rate, which was 22 percent this school year, according to state statistics. When they finished speaking, several union members in the audience clapped loudly.

The board approved the terminations without comment.

Hearty noted that the number of non-renewals was lower than last year and the year before, when there were 156 and 161, respectively.

She also said the district “confirmed that there was not disproportionality with respect to the representation of racial and ethnic subgroups in the non-renewal process,” though she did not specify how many non-renewed teachers are members of those groups.

Districtwide, 74 percent of teachers this year are white. Seventeen percent are Latino, 4 percent are black, 3 percent are categorized as “multiple ethnicity” and 2 percent are Asian.

Other approvals

— The board unanimously approved a $929 million district budget for the 2016-17 school year that includes the elimination of 157 central office jobs.

— The board unanimously approved co-locating the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design high school at Morey Middle School starting in fall 2017.

— The board voted unanimously to increase the price of school lunches by 10 cents next year. The increase does not apply to students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

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