Murky future

Facing an uncertain future, a principal and his staff have one year to prove their school should survive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy Principal Nir Saar greets students on the first day of school in 2016.

It was the first day of school at the Mumford Academy high school and principal Nir Saar was working the hallways, shaking hands, introducing himself to new students.

“There’s the football star!” he said as he greeted a returning 10th-grader. “How you doing, Mr. Varsity?”

He high-fived a girl as she walked by.

“I missed you, Zakiya!” he exclaimed. “How you been?”

“I missed you too,” she answered.

It was a scene similar to ones that played out in schools across Detroit and the nation in the last few weeks as students returned for the start of classes. But for Saar and his students, these routine exchanges came charged with new poignancy: This year could be the school’s last.

The Mumford Academy — a so-called “small learning community” housed within the storied Mumford High School on Detroit’s northwest side — is part of the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run recovery district that took over 15 struggling schools in 2012. After a tumultuous tenure, the district is expected to dissolve next summer and return its schools to Detroit’s main school district.

The Academy’s fate will be decided by a new Detroit school board that will be elected this fall and by the state School Reform Office, which has threatened to close low-performing schools across the state.

The uncertainty rankles, Saar said.

“I’m so emotionally attached to these kids. And these kids are attached to me and to us,” he said. “The idea that this could be torn apart and that that could affect them negatively and their families negatively is the scariest part of it all.”

Principal Nir Saar hopes the Mumford Academy can prove itself before schools in the Education Achievement Authority revert back to the city district next summer
Principal Nir Saar hopes the Mumford Academy can prove itself before schools in the Education Achievement Authority revert back to the city district next summer

The Education Achievement Authority has drawn criticism since its creation five years ago when the state abruptly seized the schools and put them under new control without much planning or community discussion. Subsequent financial scandals, enrollment declines, questionable policies and disappointing test scores led to the decision this year to pull the plug on the district.

“I have referred to [the EAA] as a public policy train wreck,” said Michigan State University education professor David Arsen, who has studied the district. “It’s rare that you see something so badly designed that it implodes the way the EAA did.”

Limited funds, a confusing legal status, and strong public opposition have all worked against the EAA. But supporters of the current chancellor, Veronica Conforme, say many of the major missteps were made under the district’s first chancellor, John Covington.

They say Conforme has started turning things around, ushering in key reforms like better teacher training and a stronger focus on academics in the two years since she arrived.

The district continues to post some of the lowest test scores in the state, but most EAA schools showed small improvements on last year’s M-STEP exam.

It’s not likely enough to save the district but Conforme and her supporters are focused on trying to shore up their best programs in hopes that whoever is in charge next year will keep them going.

One of those programs is the Mumford Academy.

The academy is a small, self-contained “learning community” within the larger Mumford High School. Though the state officially only recognizes one Mumford, the EAA treats the academy as a separate school with its own principal.

The academy had just 100 9th graders last year and hopes to add about 100 10th graders this year. The school is small enough, Saar said, that teachers can get to know their students and can help address challenges in their lives that may go unnoticed in a larger school.

Saar keeps class sizes low — about 20-24 students per class last year, he said. And he tries to keep the school focused on instruction by extending the school day by 45 minutes and making sure teachers are supported and well trained.

The effort has shown enough promise that the EAA this year created similar programs in nine other schools in the district, separating out one or two grades from the larger school population. The main Mumford High School now has a new 9th grade “community school.” That means that 9th graders who enroll at Mumford are now randomly assigned to either the Mumford Academy or to the Mumford High School freshman academy. The building now has three principals — Saar, plus one school leader overseeing 10-12th graders and another overseeing another group of 9th graders.

“We’re starting new programs because this is what works for kids,” Conforme said when she stopped by the Mumford Academy Tuesday while making her rounds on the first day of school. “My hope is that we get to preserve this work … because this is what’s working. [The Mumford Academy] is a substantially different place than it was two years ago.”

Education Achievement Authority Chancellor Veronica Conforme stopped by the Mumford Academy while making her rounds on the first day of school
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Education Achievement Authority Chancellor Veronica Conforme stopped by the Mumford Academy while making her rounds on the first day of school

The Academy doesn’t have much of a public record since it only enrolled ninth-graders last year. That means there are no SAT scores or graduation rates to point to. But Saar says his first year produced impressive results on an exam that measures student progress throughout the year.

“Our growth scores in both reading and math … far exceeded any scores I’ve seen from any of the other schools I’ve worked with,” Saar said. “What we were able to accomplish last year and what I hope we accomplish this year, I hope it makes a statement … And I hope that statement is strong enough to say, ‘No, don’t touch what we’ve got going on over here because it’s working really well.’”

Saar, who is 34, grew up in the Detroit suburbs. He started out as a scientist, earning degrees in biopsychology, molecular biology and history from the University of Michigan. But when he grew tired of working with just a handful of people in a lab after graduation, he joined Teach For America and spent seven years teaching students with disabilities in Philadelphia.

He helped start a non-profit organization called Stay True that matched Philadelphia middle schoolers with service projects until returning to the Detroit area a few years ago to be closer to family.

He worked in various roles for a charter school management company until applying for a principal position in the EAA — a job he says he wouldn’t have considered in the early years of the district.

“I knew about the beginning of the EAA,” said Saar, who joined the district last year. “I had lots of friends and people I knew that were involved in it and it was an utter disaster. It was horrible. But since I’ve been here and since Veronica took charge, this is a really high-functioning district. I’m not sure anybody realizes the caliber of talent and the thoughtfulness of the choices they’re making.”

It’s upsetting to think the new school board could decide to change or close the academy, Saar said, but he’s determined to prove to the board — and to critics who will forever view the EAA as a colossal failure — that there’s good teaching going on in the district.

When the first bell rang on the first day of school this week, Saar, exuded enthusiasm. As he and his staff cheerfully tended to the business of printing out student schedules, re-directing students who were in the wrong place and doling out uniforms on the first day of school, teachers and parents expressed hope that the community they’re building will find a way to survive.

“I like that it’s a small setting and everybody gets to learn,” said Lawanda Richardson, whose son, Raymond Johnson, is starting in the school’s ninth grade this year.

She had anxiously read a news report the day before classes began that cast doubt on school’s future but says she has faith that the good work there will continue. “We’re hoping that it will be saved,” she said.

Matthew Guyton, a 32-year-old geometry teacher who joined the staff of the Mumford Academy this year after four years at the main Mumford High School, says there’s something special going on at the school.

“Even going to our professional development last week, it felt different,” he said. “It felt like a team.”

Mumford Academy chemistry teacher Matthew Guyton says the school feels like a family.
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Mumford Academy chemistry teacher Matthew Guyton says the school feels like a family.

The small, family-like school reminds him of a teaching job he had in the Upper Peninsula, he said. “This is what normal feels like. The kids are actually polite. They’re eager. That’s the culture that they’ve built here.”

Exactly what will happen to EAA teachers when the schools return to main Detroit school district next year isn’t clear. The teachers, who are not represented by the teachers union, earn salaries that don’t align with those prescribed by Detroit’s contract with its teachers union.

Novice EAA teachers make $45,000, compared to first-year Detroit public school teachers who start as low as $36,000, though Detroit district teachers can eventually earn salaries that exceed top EAA pay.

Saar says his school faces many challenges. Chronic absenteeism is an issue, and many of his students arrive significantly behind grade level.

But, now, he said, his biggest challenge is politics.

“This will be an existential year,” he said. “It’s an existential moment for us …  We’ve got to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt so that anybody that cares about kids will look at what we have going on here and say, you know, this can’t go anywhere. We can’t touch this. “


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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