opportunity cost

Strong iZone scores viewed as chance to grow Shelby County’s turnaround initiative

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Rodney Rowan works with reading teachers on instructional strategies they will use during the upcoming school year at Cherokee Elementary School, an iZone school in Memphis that posted big gains in its 2015 student test scores.

Test score trends at the state-run Achievement School District grabbed headlines last week, but even larger gains were logged by several other low-performing Memphis schools in the process of being overhauled.

Most schools in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a group of 14 schools that also started in the bottom 5 percent statewide, saw their students’ math scores rise since last year. The initiative even had a number of schools buck the statewide trend and raise the proportion of students meeting the state’s standards in reading.

Now, Shelby County leaders are using the scores to renew calls for increased funding for the iZone, which has run down its infusion of federal funds and now is cobbling together scarce dollars. They also are raising questions about why the state is letting its own district take over Shelby County schools when a local improvement strategy appears to be paying off.

“The state should invest wisely, and part of the equation should be what programs are working,” board member Chris Caldwell said last week at a meeting of the Shelby County Board of Education. “Clearly the iZone is.”

*School joined the iZone in 2012-13, **School joined the iZone in 2013-14,***School joined the iZone in 2014-15
State data is not available for Grandview Heights Middle for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.

When federal officials turned up the pressure on states to raise performance at their lowest-scoring schools, Tennessee took a multi-pronged approach. It established the ASD to remove some schools from their districts, either to run on its own or to hand over to nonprofit charter operators. It also allocated a pot of federal funds — School Improvement Grants created through the 2009 stimulus — to districts that agreed to overhaul “persistently low-achieving” schools in specific ways.

To clear the way for districts to qualify for the funds, legislators signed off on allowing districts to free their weakest schools from many mandates while holding on to their students — and the associated state funding.

The funding and flexibility together led to Shelby County’s Innovation Zone. The zone’s 16 schools received autonomy to hire and fire staff, overhaul their curriculums, give their teachers bonuses, and add time to the school day — changes that are common in privately run charter schools but rarer in traditional public schools. In exchange, making the right changes would bring a temporary but sorely needed influx of new dollars.

“We’ve got a very, very aggressive but simple formula that our team executes to a tee,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in an interview earlier this month.

Cherokee Elementary School, which has emerged as a sort of trophy for the district, ran with the new autonomy, even though it was one of the only iZone schools not to receive the federal funds. There, 65 percent of students met the state’s standards in math — four times as many students as in 2013, after one year in the district —  and twice as many students met the state’s reading standards. That growth came at a time when test scores statewide rose by a much smaller margin, and just 40 percent of students in elementary and middle school across Shelby County met the state’s math standards.

District and school officials attributed the outsized gains to an unrelenting focus on ensuring that students have the skills they need to succeed on the state tests, known collectively as TCAP.

Principal Rodney Rowan personally rewrote the curriculum after studying the state’s tests, an undertaking that Heidi Ramirez, Shelby County’s chief academic officer, said she found impressive.

The school also rallied students around success on the tests and introduced data analysis to teachers’ practice, asking them to scrutinize assignments over the course of the year to determine the skills not yet mastered by students.

Then, “instead of teaching what they already know, I’m able to boost them up,” Rowan said.

Other iZone schools’ test score gains were less dramatic but still far outpaced state and local trends. After a change in leadership, 29 percent of students at Treadwell Elementary School met state literacy standards, up from 18 percent last year. And almost half of the students at Douglass School, which serves students from kindergarten through 8th grade, met science standards, up from just 30 percent the year before.

Not every iZone school saw gains on every test. At Sherwood Middle, for example, science scores dropped from 49 percent to 26 percent.

*School joined the iZone in 2012-13, **School joined the iZone in 2013-14,***School joined the iZone in 2014-15
State data is not available for Grandview Heights Middle for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. English I scores from 2011-14 were not available for Trezevant High, Melrose High or Hamilton High so they were not included in this chart. The 2013-14 English I scores for Trezvant, Melrose and Hamilton were 23, 33.1 and 26.2 respectively.

Still, the district is so confident in the iZone’s trajectory that it is expanding it by two more schools and 1,400 students this fall, even though money is tight to add new programs and pay staff for additional hours. It also is allocating $7 million of its own scarce funds, partly drawing from the district’s $41 million settlement with the city earlier this year over a funding dispute. In addition, the state is providing almost $5 million to support turnaround efforts at five of the district’s iZone schools.

However, any future expansion is unclear, since the state is spending down its federal funds and the district is strapped for cash. The uncertainty appears poised to exacerbate budget tension between the ASD, which has been successful in attracting philanthropic support from across Tennessee and beyond, and Shelby County Schools, which has ceded enrollment and associated funding to the state-run initiative.

Speaking recently about the ASD, Hopson said he thought it had pushed the district’s leaders to improve their schools more quickly than they might have otherwise. But he also said he thinks the iZone’s approach is more appropriate for Memphis.

“I also think there’s a lot of value in having a lot of homegrown leaders,” Hopson said, alluding to the fact that many of the people hired to run ASD schools had worked elsewhere before coming to Memphis. “It takes charter schools awhile to get adjusted to the culture. Most of our leaders have strong ties here. They’re able to jump in and assess the needs, get buy-in, and get results.”

State education officials touted the state-run ASD’s scores in their press release last week. But Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also told reporters that she is “proud of the iZone work that is happening in the state.”

She indicated, though, that the state considers its long-term strategy for improving low-performing schools an open question.

“It’s important that we not only continue to look at the work that they’re doing and how it is impacting results but also to work together in terms of learning, from the state perspective, what the iZone is doing well, what the ASD is doing well, and … other models across the state of turning around priority schools that might not [fall into] either of those two structures,” she said.

A future without additional funding for the iZone won’t be good for the thousands of students who attend low-performing schools in Memphis, Hopson said.

“Because these schools have been underinvested in for such a long time, we owe it to the community to do more,” Hopson said. “When you have something that’s working and working in a meaningful way, we have to continue to fund it.”

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”

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.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.