turnabout

Signaling waning enthusiasm for charters, Chicago officials move to deny all new applications

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
The operators behind Moving Everest, a charter school in Austin, wanted to open a second campus in 2019, but Chicago leaders are moving to deny that proposal.

Chicago Public Schools is recommending that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide that is making the city appear less hospitable to the independently operated public schools.

CEO Janice Jackson recommended in a news release Monday closing two underperforming charter schools, Kwame Nkrumah Charter School in West Roseland and Urban Prep West in University Village, both for poor academic and financial performance.

“The recommendations made today follow comprehensive reviews of school performance, applicant quality and need,” Jackson wrote in the statement, “and we believe it is in the best interest of our students to deny all new school applications this year and close the two poor performing charters who have failed to provide students the quality education they deserve.”

The surprising recommendation comes just weeks after the state elected a new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, who said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters. The issue has also surfaced in Chicago’s mayoral race, with candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declaring last month in a union-sponsored forum that she did not support opening new charters. Other candidates who attended the event did not say where they stand.

Eight charter operators had originally submitted proposals to open next school year, but five later withdrew. The three proposals left on the table included a charter middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood called Kemet Leadership Academy; a citywide high school operated by the established management group Intrinsic; and an elementary campus in Austin run by a small operator called Moving Everest. Moving Everest currently operates one other school in Austin.

At least two of the groups, the nonprofit organizers behind the Kemet proposal and the executive director of Moving Everest, said they plan to appeal the district’s decision to the state charter commission, which has the authority to reverse school board decisions in charter cases but rarely does so.

Political momentum has gathered to curb the authority of the commission, but legislators have not been able to gather enough votes.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” said Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director of Moving Everest, who said he was not surprised by the decision. “I know CPS well through the whole process at this school, and I think they look at what they are doing with an objective eye. But I also think there are other forces that come into play. Politics plays such a huge role in this, that it becomes the easy route, or the safe route, to deny.”

District staff recommended denying the Moving Everest proposal because district officials visiting the operator’s current campus found results “insufficient” and doubted the program’s ability to serve English language learners. That campus, which serves 444 students, is rated a Level 2-plus. The highest rating in Chicago schools is a 1-plus.

Donnie Brown, a project manager with Kemet Academy’s operator, Project Simeon 2000, said that Chicago has opened up new schools, including charters, in recent years, but they “have not impacted black boys and their grad rates and made any significant differences.”

The school district’s release said the Kemet proposal should be denied because the proposed curriculum “is incomplete and unproven” and the applicant had not “developed a clear instructional approach.” The recommendation also raised concerns about leadership capacity and finances. Project Simeon 2000 leaders appeared at board meetings earlier this year to make passionate pleas for their project.

Brown told Chalkbeat that parts of Kemet’s curriculum come from area colleges and universities: an accelerated literacy program developed with the University of Illinois and a math program from professors at Chicago State University. The model also stresses the value of male teachers and mentoring for improving outcomes for at-risk Chicago boys.

“Our model is to keep kids engaged and change the paradigm for success,” said Brown, who said he believes the model apparently challenged district thinking, since it was not something you can “pick up off the shelf and put in place.”

“We feel like all the pieces are in place, and we are ready to go,” he added. 

In a release, the district said location problems and an inability to to meet a need for high-quality education contributed to the recommendation against Intrinsic.

Enrollment has plunged in Chicago schools in recent years, and the district started the school year with 10,000 fewer students than the previous year.

In more frank language than usual, the district’s release Monday said that concerns about finances led to its recommendation to close Urban Prep West and Kwame Nkrumah.

The district cited Kwame Nkrumah’s Level 3 status — that’s the lowest rating in the district — for two years, financial and operational concerns and the school’s failure to follow a mandatory improvement plan.

“Additionally, the district’s site visits suggest that the school lacks the capacity to provide students a high quality education, and higher quality school options exist for students in the community.”

The district cited “financial concerns” as the reason why it was recommending the revocation of Urban Prep West’s charter. The school, which serves 213 students and is rated a Level 2, had not been able to get off its academic warning list, the release also said.

Its operator, Urban Prep, has garnered attention for its approach to education for young black men and runs two other campuses in the city that are also rated Level 2. But during a site visit to the University Village campus, the release said, “the school did not demonstrate a capacity to deliver a high quality education to students.”

This school year, the Chicago district oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools.

In October, Chicago issued warnings to five other charter schools and one contract school tagged as underperforming. The district announced Monday it will keep the contract school, Plato Learning Academy in South Austin, open next school year and will review it again next fall. This year, Plato merged two campuses in an effort to centralize operations.

The district believes it is appropriate to provide the school an opportunity to demonstrate significant progress under its new structure before it is considered for potential closure,” the release said.     

The Board of Education is set to vote on the recommendations Wednesday.

Yana Kunichoff contributed reporting to this story.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.