Work, study, dream — and stay poor

(Linda Lutton\/WBEZ)

Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Photo: Linda Lutton/WBEZ

“School is what makes the American Dream possible,” writes WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton in The View From Room 205. That’s what desperately poor kids are told. But is it true?

On the first day of school, September 2014, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then head of Chicago Public Schools, told Penn Elementary students they could achieve anything. “No matter where you’re from, what neighborhood you call home, and no matter what your dreams are in life, it is right here at Penn that our children are going to get their start — so that they can have that dream, chase that dream, capture that dream and live it,” Byrd-Bennett tells the kids and their teachers.

After following a veteran fourth-grade teacher’s class, Lutton begins to doubt that schools can overcome poverty, neighborhood violence and family instability.

To her dismay, Lutton witnesses Penn teachers looking at the standardized test a week early, planning to give it as a practice test and letting students use notebooks with reference information on the test. Cheating doesn’t help: Penn kids still do poorly.

Chicago’s empty high schools

Although Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is “essentially bankrupt,” the district is operating dozens of half-empty schools, reports Chicago City Wire.

Forty-two of 59 high schools (71 percent) were less than half full, according to City Wire.  Twelve “had enrollments that are less than 10 percent of what they once served.”

Team Englewood is in a building that once housed more than 5,100 students. Only 161 are enrolled now. On an average day 122 students show up for class.

Harper, which once had 4,400 students, now has 172.

Fenger is down from 5,300 to 223.

Hirsch enrolls 147 students; the building has space for 3,280.

In 1966, CPS enrollment was 607,550 and growing. The district had 53 high schools.

In the 2016-17 school year, it will be 60 percent lower– just 381,449– and falling. Yet CPS will operate 95 high schools this year, according to its web site.

A Chicago high school fudged its graduation rate for seven years, the district’s inspector general reports. A former administrator tells WBEZ that dropouts were listed as transfers or homeschooled to boost the graduation rate.

After a WBEZ investigation, district officials recalculated graduation rates: The numbers fell at nearly all high schools.

Memphis closed three low-performing elementary schools and sent the students to a new school, reports Chalkbeat.

From ‘no excuses’ to college success

Chicago’s Noble Street College Prep, a no-excuses charter high school, raises the test scores of students who win its admissions lottery, conclude researchers Matthew Davis and Blake Heller in Education Next.

The benefits don’t end there: Noble Street College Prep students are more likely to enroll in college, stay in college and get into a competitive four-year school.

Nearly all students in the Noble network of schools are Hispanic or black and 89 percent are eligible for subsidized school meals.

Schools in the network feature “frequent teacher feedback, data-driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations,” Davis and Heller write.

The school day and year are longer, giving Noble students 18 percent more learning time than students in district schools.

Students are taught at their level in smaller groups organized by performance.

During morning and afternoon meetings, teachers track individual academic progress, mark behavioral infractions, and hold students accountable as a group for maintaining academic and behavioral standards. Each afternoon, teachers maintain office hours for optional academic support, which becomes mandatory if a student’s performance falls below a certain threshold. Most campuses also feature some form of after-school tutoring provided by outside organizations.

Noble aggressively recruits teachers with a demonstrated track record of success and rewards teachers whose students demonstrate above-average academic growth with performance bonuses.

Ninth graders, who often come from low-performing schools, score below the average for Chicago Public School students, Davis and Heller write. In only a few years, these students “are prepared to enroll and succeed in college”

Undocumented use Chicago’s free college plan

Cleon Gargantiel and Dannel Owen Gargantiel register for the Star Scholarship at Wells Community Academy High School with the help of Michael Jones of City Colleges of Chicago at a December 2014 information session as their father, Serafin Gargantiel Jr. (right), looks on.Cleon and Dannel Gargantiel register for the Star Scholarship at their Chicago high school as their father looks on. Photo: Michelle Kanaar

Undocumented students are the biggest beneficiaries of Chicago’s “free college” program, the Chicago Reporter has found. The Star Scholarship, which pays for two years of tuition, fees and books at City Colleges of Chicago, is open to academically qualified (B average) students with financial need.

In the first year, a majority of Star Scholars didn’t receive a free ride because their costs were covered by federal and state financial aid. Of those who did get a free ride, 56 percent were undocumented immigrants, who often skip college because they’re not eligible for aid. The rest came from families who earned too much for federal aid, but not enough to afford college costs.

This has given so many of our students the opportunity to go to college when they wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” said Alan Mather, chief of college and career success for Chicago Public Schools.

The Star Scholarship “has definitely become a big conversation and option for our kids,” said Karen Devine, lead counselor at Taft High School, which had 61 Star Scholars. More than a third did not qualify for financial aid because of family income.

Also from my hometown: Enrollment has fallen sharply at Chicago State University; there are only 86 students in the freshman class. No doubt that’s because the “college dropout factory” has a graduation rate of only 11 percent.

Surely, it’s time to close Chicago State. The City College system, now focused on “structured pathways” to a career or a four-year degree, serves similarly underprepared students more effectively.

From Englewood to college and back

In All the Difference, which will air tonight on PBS, Robert Henderson and Krishaun Branch make it from a tough Chicago neighborhood, Englewood, to college, thanks to family and church support, and mentors and teachers at the Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men.

Robert was just 17 months old when his mother was killed by his father. He and his six siblings were taken in and raised by their grandmother.

Krishaun, like many of his family members, joined a gang.

Krishaun enrolled at historically black Fisk University in Nashville, while Robert went to predominantly white Lake Forest College, north of Chicago.

Both earned college degrees and took teaching jobs. Krishaun will work at Urban Prep. “When I go back to Englewood, I feel like LeBron when he goes back to Cleveland!” he says.

This week, PBS’ Spotlight Education features documentaries and school-themed episodes of some of its top shows, reports Ed Week.

Cultural learning for would-be teachers

In Chicago, nearly 90 percent of public school students are black or Hispanic while most teachers are middle-class whites. Education Week’s Lisa Stark followed aspiring teachers through the summer STEP-UP program, which tries to bridge the cultural divide by placing trainees with black and Hispanic families while they work in inner-city schools.

One host warns against “the savior mentality.”

‘Fitz’ starts his 50th year of teaching

James Fitzgerald began teaching social studies at Chicago’s Hubbard High School in 1966. Going on 50 years later, “Fitz” is still on the job teaching law and coaching the mock trial team, reports WGN-TV.

I can’t get WGN’s video to embed properly, so here’s a Chicago Public Schools “teacher feature.”

It includes a former student, who had a baby in her senior year. Fitz, who left home after his father’s death in eighth grade and relied on a coach’s help, said he’d always be there for her. She now teaches social studies at Hubbard. When Fitz can’t teach any more, he plans to turn over his law program to her.

Can Austin High be saved? Should it be saved?

Austin High School on Chicago’s West Side is fighting to survive, writes Kate N. Grossman in The Atlantic. Like dozens of low-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods, Austin has lost students to charters, magnets — and district schools in safer neighborhoods. Loyalists want to turn Austin back into a neighborhood school. Can Austin High be saved? Should it be saved?

“With 391 students, including just 57 freshmen across three academies in a building meant for nearly 1,700, Austin is one of 35 Chicago public high schools that are well under half full,” Grossman writes.  “Ten schools aren’t even a quarter full.” Most are in low-income black neighborhoods that are losing population.

Three-fourths of Chicago’s high schoolers chose not to attend their neighborhood school this year. That leaves the city’s “most challenging and low-achieving students” in half-empty schools. With funding tied to enrollment, there’s no money to maintain programs and staff.

Austin was closed in 2004 for “weak performance and chaos,” and reopened in 2006 as three small academies. Achievement remained low. Enrollment fell steeply. A recruitment drive has fizzled.

At Austin, only four families came to a well-planned open house in March, despite sending 430 invitations . . .

. . . just 8 percent of 712 eighth graders in Austin’s attendance boundary chose Austin in 2014.

Citywide, 31 percent of high school students who rejected their neighborhood school chose charters; the rest picked a district-run school.

Detroit parents will do almost anything to send their children to better schools, reports Detroit Chalkboard. Parents can choose a charter, magnet or suburban schools, but they must provide their own transportation.

Monique Johnson leaves home just after 6 a.m. with her son Shownn, 13, an eighth-grader. They “catch a ride to a bus stop eight blocks from their home, avoiding closer stops that are too dangerous. Their first bus comes at 6:20.

Shownn is exhausted at that hour and sometimes sleeps on his mother’s shoulder during the 25- to 40-minute ride along Schoolcraft Road toward Woodward Avenue. The bus drops the pair at the corner of Woodward and Manchester in Highland Park. Mother and son typically wait 20 minutes for their next bus, the No. 53, while peering warily through the dim light cast by the Walgreens across the street.

. . . Mother and son typically arrive at University Prep Science & Math Middle School, a well regarded charter school in the Michigan Science Center, around 7:30 a.m. and Johnson waits with her son until his classes begin at 7:50.

She gets at home about 9:30. “That’s about three and a half hours before she has to leave again on another four buses to return to Shownn’s school and bring him home.”

I guess she doesn’t think it’s safe for her 13-year-old son to make the journey by himself.

Big districts hire more cops than counselors

School security officers outnumber counselors in some of the nation’s largest school districts, including New York City, Chicago, Miami-Dade County and Houston, reports Matt Barnum for The 74.

Some cities, such as New York City, hire high numbers of both security staff and counselors, the analysis found.

Others, such as  Houston and Los Angeles, don’t have many guards or counselors. Both school districts have their own police force.

Most school security officers have little training in dealing with troubled and special-needs students, reports The 74.

College readiness includes coping, character

I am for peace
Perspectives Charter students organized a peace march in Chicago last year to urge young people to reject violence.

First-generation, low-income college students need more than academic skills to succeed in college, many educators now believe. College readiness includes social and emotional skills, writes Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton in The Atlantic.

“Plenty of kids” are eligible for college, but not really ready, says Laura Jimenez of the American Institutes for Research. “If your class is at eight in the morning, are you going to be able to get up and get to class? Are you going to seek help when you need it?”

At five Perspectives Charter schools, which serve low-income Chicago students in grades six through 12, every student takes a daily class called A Disciplined Life that stresses what might be called character education. Only 8 percent of Perspectives students passed Common Core-aligned tests last year, writes Felton. However, 93 percent of graduates attend college and 44 percent graduate in six years, a high success rate for disadvantaged students.

Ronald Brown, a senior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, says Perspectives’s focus on social-emotional skills set him up to tackle the demands of the selective, mostly white and affluent liberal-arts college.

“Perspectives prepared me,” said Brown. “Be open-minded, try new things, challenge each other and yourself intellectually, time management, all of that came easy. And when I hit academic barriers, I persisted and kept moving forward. I took advantage of tutoring, the counseling center, the math center, the writing center, anything that could help.”

At KIPP and YES Prep, predominantly low-income black and Latino students do well on state reading and math tests, but struggle in college. Both charter networks have turned to social and emotional learning to boost their college success rates.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) “identifies five essential aptitudes: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness,” writes Felton. “But none of these skills are straightforward to measure—and how educators stress and relay them to kids looks very different from school to school.”

51gaLpYzZ4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Educators hope teaching non-cognitive skills “will help students develop the inner fortitude and confidence to push through personal and learning challenges,” writes Katrina Schwartz on Mind/Shift.

Character development programs have become more popular,” but it’s not clear which character strengths improve student success.

In Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Towards Success, Scott Seider, a Boston University education professor, discusses how three high-performing Boston charter schools, all primarily enrolled black and Latino students, try to develop character.

The strongest predictors of good grades were perseverance and school-connectedness, he found.